Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence” & B. B. Warfield’s “The Inspiration & Authority of the Bible”

The doctrine of Scripture, or bibliology, was reexamined heavily in the 19th and 20th centuries.

On one side were liberals who tended to hold the Bible in a more doubtful light. Their confidence was rooted in what they believed about God.

On the other side were evangelicals who held a high view of the Scriptures. Their confidence was rooted in what they believed about the Word of God.

There was special focus on the inerrancy of the Scriptures during this time period. In short, inerrancy is the doctrine that “[t]he Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms.[1]

Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998) represents the typical liberal position which rejects inerrancy.

B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) represents the typical evangelical position which affirms inerrancy. Although they never interacted directly, they represented these positions faithfully.

For Newbigin, confidence cannot be found in the inerrancy of the Scriptures; it must be found in Jesus Christ.

For Warfield, confidence lies in the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

In order to understand inerrancy, Newbigin, and Warfield, it is necessary to examine Newbigin’s view of inerrancy by exploring his confidence, critique of evangelicals, and common ground between the two camps.

Newbigin’s Confidence

First, Newbigin’s view of evangelical (whom he calls “fundamentalist”) confidence needs to be explored.

Newbigin argued that “[i]f objectivity means that we must aim for the greatest possible truthfulness in our thinking and speaking about realities beyond our own minds, then of course it is a proper goal.”[2] That means, for evangelicals, “[they] would have to depend on a personal communication or revelation.”[3] In short, Newbigin argued that the evangelical placed too much confidence in the Scriptures.

Following his view of evangelicals, Newbigin’s central criticism of evangelicals roots itself in James 2:14-26. Newbigin commented that “[i]t is less important to ask a Christian what he or she believes about the Bible than it is to inquire what he or she does with it.”[4] In short, Newbigin gathered that evangelicals were so concerned with what others believed about the Scriptures that they were not serving those around them.

Although it appears that these two positions on inerrancy are diametrically opposed, there is common ground between these two positions. Liberals and evangelicals were rightfully concerned with knowing God. Newbigin summed up the “Christian faith” as “the total commitment of fallible human beings putting their trust in the faithful God who has called them.”[5] In fact, this is where Newbigin’s ultimate confidence lies: “the ultimate reality which is the object of all our search for truth has been made present in history in the person and work of Jesus Christ.”[6]

Like Newbigin, even though he created an unnecessary wedge between the Scriptures and Jesus Christ, evangelicals can place their confidence in God.

Warfield’s Confidence

Continuing the thread of identifying common ground, Warfield’s view of Scripture and inerrancy fits within Newbigin’s view of inerrancy to a degree. Michael Williams postulated, based on Warfield’s view of the Scriptures, that “the doctrine of Scripture includes both a divine speaker or initiator and a community of hearers or respondents.”[7] Essentially, there are two sides to the debate. There are those who demand objectivity and those who demand subjectivity. If one were to read Newbigin and Warfield, one would find both objective and subjective elements.

Warfield’s view of the Scriptures is that “the Bible is the very Word of God.”[8] From this view, Warfield would argue that the confidence of faith must be rooted in the inerrant Scriptures.[9] In short, he would say there are subjective elements to one’s faith in the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

Warfield argued that “our confidence in the Bible as God’s Word is but the proper subjective complement to what Scripture says about itself and shows itself to be.”[10] His view of inerrancy surprisingly contained subjective elements like Newbigin’s view of inerrancy.

However, the integration of these two positions does not extend much further than that point of continuity. Whereas Warfield argued that the Scriptures are the revelation of God, Newbigin argued that the Scriptures are humanity’s reflection on God.

Conclusion

Nevertheless, evangelicals can learn from Newbigin’s view of inerrancy.

  1. First, he allowed the space for reflection on the Word of God. He wrote that “[l]iberal theologians speak much of experience and frequently describe the Bible as particular record of human religious experience.”[11] Without question, Newbigin’s view of inerrancy falls outside of the evangelical view of inerrancy. However, he and liberal theologians emphasized the need for human reflection on God and his Word. While they viewed the Scriptures as the writers’ reflection on what God has done, evangelicals can reflect on what God has done and what he had his writers record in his inerrant Word.
  2. Second, Newbigin allowed for the space to beg the question about certain doctrines: “Liberalism has accepted the critical principles of Descartes and his successors as an integral part of its method.”[12] For the evangelical, this does not mean that every doctrine is thrown off in a mere act of dismissal. Reexamining doctrines can prove to be a fruitful exercise in bolstering one’s faith in God and what he has revealed in his Word. In short, evangelicals can learn a great deal from the thoughtfulness of Newbigin when it comes to reflection and reexamination.

As mentioned before, even though Newbigin and Warfield had common ground in their view of inerrancy, there comes a point where they disagree. Even though both Newbigin and Warfield were rightly motivated to know God, both (if they were alive today) would still cling to their positions on inerrancy.

For instance, Newbigin would still hold that there is possibility of errancy because his worldview has been heavily influenced by Descartes’ Enlightenment philosophy—doubt everything until proven with human reason. In short, for Newbigin, it is less problematic to say that the Scriptures are a human reflection of God than to say that God has revealed himself through fallen humans so that other fallen humans can know God.

Warfield would still hold that inerrancy is vital to knowing God. If the Scriptures were merely human reflection on God, they would be errant; and since they would have come from God, then that means God would be errant. These two views on inerrancy dramatically alter where the roots of confidence take hold.

Therefore, while common ground exists between Newbigin and Warfield when it comes to inerrancy, there is more disjunction than conjunction between their views on the inerrancy of the Scriptures.

Newbigin thought that the Scriptures were human reflection on God’s acting in history.

Warfield thought that the Scriptures were the words of God that were inspired by the Holy Spirit through God’s writers.

However, they both had high views of God in that their only hope in life and in death was Jesus Christ.[13]


Bibliography

Feinberg, P. D. “Bible, Inerrancy and Infallibility Of.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Baker Reference Library. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001.

Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Williams, Michael. “The Church, A Pillar of Truth: B.B. Warfield’s Church Doctrine of Inspiration.” In Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, 23–48. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012.


Endnotes

[1] P. D. Feinberg, “Bible, Inerrancy and Infallibility Of,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2001), 156.

[2] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 45.

[3] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 57.

[4] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 87.

[5] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 98.

[6] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 63.

[7] Michael Williams, “The Church, A Pillar of Truth: B.B. Warfield’s Church Doctrine of Inspiration,” in Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2012), 24.

[8] Williams, “The Church, A Pillar of Truth.”, 25.

[9] Williams, “The Church, A Pillar of Truth,” 26.

[10] Williams, “The Church, A Pillar of Truth,” 30.

[11] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 103.

[12] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 101.

[13] Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1.


Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995.

Warfield, Benjamin. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1948.


This was originally an academic paper submitted to Professor Aaron Goldstein in Covenant Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. This post may be more technical in nature and has been modified from its original submission.

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