Books: Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin (Part 1)

Since life is both complex and difficult, we all need a method to search for life’s meaning. Lesslie Newbigin provides a fascinating survey of how that task has been carried out in Europe and America. Newbigin (1909–1998) was a British missionary and pastor whose liberal theology expressed a high view of Christ but a flawed commitment to the reliability of the Bible.

Newbigin’s book Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995) does two things really well. First, he presents a convincing history of how people in the West perceive reality and develop a worldview. Reading the first three chapters reminded me of how excited I felt reading Francis Schaeffer’s cultural analysis for the first time. The second thing Newbigin does well is to summarize the idea of “personal knowledge” developed by the Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi.

Newbigin sees two streams of thought as combining in Europe and America: (1) the philosophy of classical antiquity (Greece, Rome, Plato and Aristotle), and (2) the history of the people of God mediated through Israel, the Bible and the Christian church. Classical philosophy followed Plato in seeking an ultimate reality of ideas through asking questions (Plato) and analyzing causes (Aristotle). God’s people claim that ultimate reality is knowable through Jesus Christ, God personally with us.

Newbigin makes the interesting point that classical philosophy sought answers by asking questions of (impersonal) nature and our experience; in this approach, questions flow one way. But the Christian viewpoint asks questions within personal relationships with Christ and with other Christians; questions flow both ways. So, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).

One important development in the Christian understanding of reality was the slogan of Augustine of Hippo (354-430): “I believe in order to know.” Augustine said that knowledge begins with the faithful acceptance of the fact that God revealed himself in Christ. But Newbigin points out that such personal knowledge involves risk. To gain the knowledge that Christ brings involves a total commitment to him.

In the next post about this book I will try to summarize the ideas of Michael Polanyi and show how they relate to Christian discipleship.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.