Lesslie Newbigin’s Epistemology: Humble Presuppositionalism?


interlocking molecular model as analogy for coherent belief system (click for information about the source image, creative commons license)“Humble Presuppositionalism: Newbigin’s Fallibilist Coherentism, with a Dash of Plantinga,” originally written in June 2009 for a course at Bethel Seminary San Diego. Bracketed comments carrying my initials (DMH) mostly date to 2011 (when I first prepared a version of this paper for the Web), though later comments are also possible. I should note, by the way, that my conservative theological and political convictions would generally put me on the side of Corduan and other of Newbigin’s detractors rather than on the side of those typically most enamored of Newbigin’s thought. Though I believe my charitable reading of Newbigin, and the disagreement with Corduan that goes with it, is plausible, I by no means intend this exploration as a general endorsement of Newbigin’s thought or as a general disagreement with Corduan’s.


Contents

Introduction^

In an apologetics text written some time ago, Reymond observes that “Christian apologetics as a discipline is actually an exercise in philosophical theology, and specifically, in epistemology, or the theory of knowledge.”1 Whether or not every apologetic exercise is also an exercise in epistemology, what one does when defending and commending (”the substance of”) one’s Christian faith (when “doing apologetics”), will inevitably be influenced by one’s epistemology. Epistemology, we should note, may be defined in a technical sense or in a practical sense. In the practical sense, which will be the sole focus of this paper, epistemology concerns how we finite and fallible humans may be justified in our knowledge claims, i.e., how we may commit (or remain committed) to beliefs in a praiseworthy, or at least not blameworthy, manner.2 Sherman, for his part, sees special promise for evangelicals in Newbigin’s epistemology, which, among other things, is “trust-based” and “metanarrative-centered.”3 He admits, however, that his “proposal for adopting Newbigin’s approach to theological knowledge for evangelical thought will undoubtedly be welcomed more by postconservatives than by traditionalists, by those envisioning more light breaking forth from Gods word than those believing all has been revealed and subsequently concretized within certain confessions and catechisms.”4 Here, it seems, Sherman lapses into simplistic and biased overstatement. It would be better, I think, to speak of traditionalists as holding, not that all has been revealed and concretized confessionally, but that much has been revealed and confessionally established, and that any new “light” from Scripture must conform to the old light already in our possession, else it is not really light at all (Jer. 6:16; 2 Thess. 3:16). This said, I believe even such hidebound traditionalists as myself might enhance their epistemology, and with it their apologetics, through a critical appropriation of Newbigin’s thought. My basic thesis is that Newbigin holds to a fallibilist coherentism, and presuppositionalism, that rejects Enlightenment-style perfectionism in belief justification, and that this view holds promise for Christian apologists, most importantly because it emphasizes the inescapability of individual personal commitment in belief formation and maintenance, making clear that demands for coercive proof before making a faith commitment are simply unreasonable and, in fact, a denial of one’s creaturely status.

Newbigin’s Coherentism: Truth Is Correspondence, But Is Shown By Coherence (An Answer to Corduan)

Introduction^

In a 1997 criticism of Newbigin’s thought,5 Corduan argues that Newbigin “abandons” the “two essential requirements” for an effective defense of Christian truth in our pluralistic culture.6 These requirements are: (1) to show that “truth in the realm of values” is not “a purely subjective matter, a function of preference and tradition”; and (2) to “show that Christianity addresses all human beings,” that every individual’s salvation (or damnation) “depends on his or her faith in Christ” (or lack thereof).7 The second of these points relates to Newbigin’s well-publicized unwillingness to affirm the damnation of every person who does not respond in conscious faith to the Christian gospel,8 though he would affirm with Corduan that “Christianity addresses all human beings.”9 (The Christian gospel, Newbigin affirms, is “public truth for all.”10) Though many are willing to question whether (2) is in fact essential to effective Christian apologetics―for better or worse, such restrictivism is a minority view among today’s evangelicals―we will simply pass over it as beside the point of our epistemological inquiry.

Corduan, Newbigin, & Truth As Correspondence^

(1), then, shall be our focus. Corduan believes that Newbigin fails on (1) by abandoning the correspondence theory of truth in favor of conventionalism, which a standard philosophical reference defines as “the philosophical doctrine that logical truth and mathematical truth are created by our choices, not dictated or imposed on us by the world.”11 From Corduan’s discussion,12 it seems he considers conventionalism a synonym for, or else the only possible outworking of, coherentism, which the same standard reference defines as, “in epistemology, a theory of the structure of knowledge or justified beliefs according to which all beliefs representing knowledge are known or justified in virtue of their relations to other beliefs, specifically, in virtue of belonging to a coherent system of beliefs.”13 Though Corduan seems to err in conflating these terms, we can bracket his odd terminology as non-essential to his critique. Where Corduan’s critique errs is in his basic claim that Newbigin rejects the correspondence theory of truth. I believe this error owes to a failure on Corduan’s part to read past a looseness in Newbigin’s use of terms.

Corduan sees evidence of Newbigin’s rejection of the correspondence theory of truth in the following passage (I quote more context than does Corduan, who does not include the first or last sentences below):

The devaluing of belief-statements [as opposed to knowledge-statements] as merely subjective ("What is true for you but may not be true for other people") involves a logical absurdity. It presupposes the possibility of an "objective" knowledge which is not knowledge as believed to be true by someone. This bogus objectivity is expressed in Bertrand Russell’s definition of truth as the correspondence between a person’s beliefs and the actual facts. This definition is futile since there is no way of knowing what the actual facts are except by the activity of knowing subjects. The definition implies a standpoint outside the real human situation of knowing subjects―and no such standpoint is available.14

The fact that Newbigin elsewhere in the same text clearly endorses the idea that what makes beliefs true (as opposed to what demonstrates them true to potential believers, or what justifies belief, or what persuades persons to commit to believing them) is their correspondence with reality,15 Corduan takes as indication that Newbigin does not understand the correspondence theory of truth. Contra Corduan, I believe that what Newbigin is objecting to is not the correspondence theory of truth, which concerns what truth is, but the correspondence theory of justification, which concerns how our belief that a given proposition is true can be justified. Though Newbigin, like Corduan (and like any realist, however critical), holds firmly to a correspondence theory of truth, he eschews a correspondence theory of justification.

Misidentification of a theory of justification as a theory of truth is quite common. For example, James Emery White, a pastor with M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, after writing (correctly enough) that the “correspondence theory of truth usually understands truth to be that which corresponds with fact [reality] and is both objective and absolute,” adds to his discussion of this theory of truth the following statement: “The truth of a statement is demonstrated by its correspondence with reality.”16 But principles governing demonstration of the truth of a statement are part of one’s theory of justification, not one’s theory of truth. White’s use of “theory of truth” to include both one’s theory of truth and one’s theory of justification becomes even more evident when we read his description of the coherence theory of truth. “The correspondence theory of truth,” he writes, ”is usually understood to be in classic opposition to the absolute idealists who understood truth as coherence, meaning that the more systematically coherent our beliefs are, the truer they are.”17 Here, again, the test for whether beliefs are justified is conflated with the question of what truth is. (The absolute idealists, no doubt, held coherence theories of both truth and justification, thus contributing to the confusion of those who would use their example to understand coherentism.) Such use of the phrase ”theory of truth” as a loose way of referring to a theory of justification is very common, so Newbigin’s usage should not surprise us, nor should it have surprised Corduan. In fact, Corduan himself falls into the same sort of looseness, writing that Newbigin’s rejection of the correspondence theory of truth means that his ”whole aim is to show that truth is not established by correspondence to reality, but by coherence within a world view.”18 One could even come away from the ”Truth” entry in the already-cited standard reference with such a misunderstanding intact.19 Only when one turns to that reference’s longer article on ”Epistemology” does one find clarity. The author writes:

The traditional competitor against foundationalism is the coherence theory of justification, i.e., epistemic coherentism. This is not the coherence definition ["theory of"] truth; it is rather the view that the justification of any belief depends on that belief’s having evidential support from some other belief via coherence relations such as entailment or explanatory relations. Notable proponents include Hegel, Bosanquet, and Wilfrid Sellars. A prominent contemporary version…states that evidential coherence relations among beliefs are typically explanatory relations. The rough idea is that a belief is justified for you [is "okay" for you to hold] so long as it either best explains, or is best explained by, some member of the system of beliefs that has maximal explanatory power for you. Contemporary coherentism is uniformly systematic or holistic; it finds the ultimate source of justification in a system of interconnected beliefs or potential beliefs.20

The upshot of all this is that whenever a writer speaks of a ”theory of truth,” we must ask, ”Is this writer talking about (1) a theory of what truth is, or about (2) a theory of how beliefs about what is true can be justified, or (3) both?” In Newbigin’s case, (2) is the correct answer, not (1) as Corduan supposes. Corduan’s own statement just quoted shows, in fact, that it is really Newbigin’s theory of justification that he has a problem with, though most of his objection to it hinges on an erroneous identification of it as a theory of truth. Re-read in light on this understanding, Corduan’s critique has little force.

Conclusion^

Though I agree with Corduan that Newbigin would be wrong to reject a correspondence theory of truth―to reject such correspondence is to reject realism, and with it reality―I believe Newbigin is correct to reject a correspondence theory of justification. In the absolute sense, what makes a belief true, what qualifies a proposition believed as truth, is correspondence with reality. However, as human beings are inescapably embedded in reality, and know that reality only as it is construed by their beliefs about it (by the picture they’ve formed from their interpreted experience), we cannot effectively test our beliefs for truth in the absolute sense.21 All we can test for is truth in the limited sense―does a given new belief cohere with the reality represented, however imperfectly, by the beliefs we already hold? We may call this truth in the practical sense, not meaning that truth is ”whatever works,” but that in practice it’s simply the best approximation of absolute truth we humans can achieve. (And, we trust, if we’ve been diligent, it will often correspond with absolute truth, and so with reality.) To complain about this state of things, or to call admission of this state of affairs an unacceptable compromise, is to deny our creaturely status by insisting on human possession of the sort of absolute knowledge possessed only by God. (Such was the perfectionism of Enlightenment rationality.) As well, no Christian apologist should feel inclined to complain about this state of things, since bringing the non-Christian to a recognition of it can dissolve one common difficulty such apologists encounter: demand on the part of non-Christians for deductively certain, or otherwise coercive, proofs before they will consider making a faith commitment.22 To close this section as Newbigin might,

I must repeat the simple truth that no standpoint is available to any [person] except the point where he [or she] stands, that there is no platform from which one can claim to have an "objective" view which supersedes all "subjective" faith-commitments of the world’s faiths; that every [individual] must take his [or her] stand on the floor of the arena, on the same level with every other, and there engage in the real encounter of ultimate commitment with those who, like him [or her], have staked their lives on their vision of the truth.23

Newbigin’s (Humble) Presuppositionalism

Is Newbigin’s Apologetic Presuppositional?^

As the nature of coherentism is to test whole belief systems, and to assess the justification of each system’s component beliefs in terms of their coherence with the system and the system’s explanatory (and even aesthetic) power, it would seem that the various forms of apologetic presuppositionalism, since they test beliefs in the same way, are expressions of coherentism. Newbigin’s epistemology is, we found above, coherentist (his occasional lapses into foundationalist language, more or less irresistible in the long-foundationalist West, notwithstanding). Does Newbigins coherentist epistemology find expression in a presuppositional apologetic? It would, I think, be difficult to categorize Newbigin’s apologetic as other than presuppositionalist. Newbigin repeatedly emphasizes the necessary grounding of all thought in ultimate, and so essentially unprovable, presuppositions. To phrase it somewhat more carefully than Newbigin himself (typically) does, what Newbigin’s apologetic repeatedly emphasizes is the necessary grounding of all thought in ”basic beliefs” (more on this later) which, though not entirely beyond critical questioning, are nevertheless taken by faith as one’s starting point (”innocent till proven guilty,” rather than ”beyond question”). These basic presuppositions are received as part of a whole system or worldview, which an individual, through participation in a tradition of discourse (participation in a community that utilizes its rational capacities in terms of a shared set of presuppositions, shared plausibility structure, shared story or worldview), comes to indwell that tradition’s shared set of presuppositions, that set of presuppositions (that story or worldview, that metanarrative) becoming the tacit basis of all that individual’s articulate thought and action.24 ”Human reason and conscience,” Newbigin emphasizes, ”do not operate in a vacuum. Their claim to autonomy is unsustainable.”25 For instance, such ”self-evident” Enlightenment truths as ”freedom, justice,” and ”human rights” only ”seemed self-evident to a society that had been shaped for more than a thousand years by the biblical account of the human story. When that story fades from corporate memory and is replaced…they cease to be ’‘self-evident.’”26 The following passage provides a fairly comprehensive picture of Newbigin’s presuppositionalist stance, albeit with some less-than-ideal wording:

All efforts to know must begin with something given. This given includes what we normally call data, the facts [better, in light of what Newbigin will say shortly, the facts as we understand them, as they come to our conscious awareness already tacitly interpreted by us] that form part of the foundation [not the ideal term to use, as we’ll see shortly] from which our reason works. It also includes…the tradition of knowing which has been developed in a human community and which includes the language and all the conceptual tools used in that tradition. All these constitute the given elements that are the precondition for any rational thought. And all this [including, one notes, the "data" or "facts"] can be the object of critical questioning. It is not self-evident truth. [Thus, "essential facets of the thought system" would better fit than "foundation."]27

This presuppositionalism, as well as the humble provisionality of it (”all this…can be the object of critical questioning”), is also evident in Hunsberger’s discussion, though Hunsberger believes the presuppositional aspect might be overemphasized, and the humble provisionality under-emphasized. Nevertheless, he does grant that Newbigin ”acknowledges at points that the necessity for an assumed beginning point for all thought means accepting such a presupposition ’‘provisionally’ and working from there to test and revise the beginning assumption.”28 This picture of starting from presuppositions you nevertheless subject to testing well fits our picture of Newbigin’s epistemology as a form of coherentism, as well as displaying a humility, or it least carefulness, in Newbigin’s approach.29

Wait, Isn’t Newbigin Too Humble To Be A Presuppositionalist?^

Presuppositional apologists, however, have not typically been known for their humility. At least, they have not been known for making humble epistemic claims. Reymond’s response to Buswell is typical in tone. Buswell asserts that “there is no belief without some degree of commitment which goes beyond the sheer data on which the belief is based” because “the data for inductive reasoning are never complete.”30 “But,” Reymond responds, “this is a grave misrepresentation of the nature of biblical faith. Faith, when properly conceived, is Spirit-wrought whole-souled assent to Spirit-taught knowledge data (John 6:45) gained from self-attesting divine revelation.” It is, in other words, certain, not merely probable, and justifies (even requires, Reymond seems to think) absolute certitude in the believer. “It contemns any degree of ‘commitment which goes beyond the sheer data.’ It is not antithetical to knowledge; to the contrary, it glories in knowledge and insists that its basis be knowledge (Heb. 11:6). Biblical faith eschews a ‘leap’ of any kind!”31

Newbigin’s tone, as already suggested, differs markedly. He writes:

the witness that Christians bear to the truth must be a humble and penitent witness….The confession of the truth will be part of a continual indebtedness to grace. It will never be the kind of certainty which supposes that I can become a possessor of the truth by the exercise of my own natural powers. It will mean that my understanding of the truth [since that understanding might owe to my own natural powers rather than to grace32] must be constantly open to revision and correction, but―and this is the crucial point―only and always within the irreversible commitment to Jesus Christ. If that commitment is questioned, then I am once again a clueless wanderer in the darkness, bamboozled by the products of my own imagination.33

Now, Newbigin’s talk of an ”irreversible commitment to Jesus Christ” as the only thing that allows reason to even function, the only thing that makes human thought and inquiry other than clueless wandering and self-deceptive imagination, would certainly meet with the approval of other presuppositionalists (were they not to bring in biasing awareness of less agreeable aspects of Newbigin’s thought). The part about everything but that commitment having to remain ”constantly open to revision and correction,” the aspect of Newbigin’s presuppositionalism that makes it a humble presuppositionalism, might receive less broad agreement. (My own inclination would be to make commitment to Jesus Christ and to scriptural inerrancy irreversible, since it is Scripture that reveals Jesus Christ to us. Newbigin’s occasional aspersions toward inerrantists notwithstanding,34 I believe the humility of Newbigin’s approach could be preserved even while thus expanding the irreversible portion of the commitment.)

Presuppositions As Properly Basic: A Plantinga Tie-In^

So, Newbigin’s humble (fallibilist) tone and limited focus make his thought imperfectly compatible with such ”classical” presuppositionalism as Reymond’s. (We might well call such thinkers as Reymond, Cornelius Van Til, and Gordon Clark ”modern” presuppositionalists, then label Newbigin a ”postmodern” presuppositionalist.35) It does, however, seem compatible in significant ways with the presently influential Reformed Epistemology.36 Certain of Reformed Epistemology’s concepts (as selected and simplified by myself) comport well with Newbigin’s recognition (following Polanyi) that belief, not doubt, is the necessary starting point for knowledge acquisition,37 the Augustinian credo ut intelligam of Newbigin’s epistemology: ”I believe in order that I may know. Here faith is understood not as an alternative to knowledge but as the pathway to knowledge. We do not come to know anything except by believing something.”38 Responding to arguments by atheist John Mackie39―which assert that theistic belief, if it is to be justified, must be supported by evidence and arguments in the same way scientific hypotheses are supported―Plantinga writes:

Why think that theism is rationally acceptable only if there are good arguments [and evidence] for it? Why think that it is, or is significantly like, a scientific hypothesis?….Consider our memory beliefs…one could take a…view [requiring good arguments with supporting evidence] here as well. I believe that I had a banana for breakfast; one could hold that a belief like this (and indeed even the belief that there has been such a thing as the past) is best thought of as like a scientific hypothesis, designed to explain such present phenomena as…apparent memories; if there were a more ‘economical’ explanation for these phenomena that did not postulate…the existence of the past or of past facts, then our usual beliefs in the past ‘could not rationally be defended’ [on Mackie‘s basis]. But…this seems clearly mistaken; the availability of such an ‘explanation’ wouldn’t in any way tell against our ordinary belief that there has really been a past. Why couldn’t the same hold for theism or, more broadly, for Christian belief?40

Plantinga does not here (or elsewhere) suggest that Christians may legitimately ignore arguments and evidence. He would grant that they, like all persons who would be responsibly rational, must make a good faith effort to grapple with all evidence and arguments that arise. This grappling, however, need not be conducted from a starting stance of (professedly) detached objectivity, but may be conducted in terms of, in Newbigin’s and Polanyi’s way of speaking, their precommittment to the Christian tradition of rational discourse (as opposed to some other tradition’s application of rationality). As Newbigin sees it, in fact, rational inquiry cannot be conducted except in terms of some ”socially embodied tradition of rational debate.”41 In pointing out the social-cultural and traditional dependence of human uses of rationality, Newbigin is not claiming non-universality of fundamental laws of logic or other necessary truths. He is not insane. But such indubitable truths exist in their indubitable purity only in the mind. Any effort to apply them to reality outside the mind introduces uncertainty. The uncertainty does not lie in them, but in the human application of them to reality. As Einstein says of one system of such indubitable truths: ”As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”42

Returning to Plantinga, I note that his sole point (at any rate, the sole point I wish to draw from his work at this time), the point he demonstrates at length in Warranted Christian Belief, is that belief in God and ”the great things of the Gospel” (a phrase he borrows from Jonathan Edwards) is properly basic, like memory beliefs. All labeling a belief properly basic really means, it should be noted, is that one may legitimately treat that belief as innocent until proven guilty; one may adopt it as a presupposition. One may commit oneself to it and conduct one’s knowledge-acquiring activities on the basis of it; one may indwell it (use it like spectacles through which one views the world, or like a probe one uses to explore recesses into which one cannot see), without first proving it. Except for that very small set of basic beliefs that are necessary truths (2 + 2 = 4; a given figure cannot be both a square and a circle at the same time and in the same sense; etc.), basic beliefs are not assumed infallible. Though we trust our memory beliefs implicitly, strong evidence that a given memory belief is mistaken will (or should) cause us to concede our memory may be in error in this case. Most of us have (and, at least if we are theists, we are right to have) a basic belief that our perceptual faculties deliver to us an accurate picture of the world outside our minds. We know that ”accurate” does not mean exhaustive, of course, since, for example, we do not see in infrared and we know our sensory intake is time-sampled (neurons don’t fire infinitely fast, e.g.). We also know that perceptual habits, bias, and other factors can distort our perceptions at times, so we accept that our perceptions might be in error when evidence suggests this is the case. (Plantinga’s criticism of Hume and of naturalism suggests that both agnosticism concerning human origins, and naturalistic presuppositions concerning such origins, make our holding a belief that our perceptual, or even our rational, faculties are reliable in the basic way improper or suspect.43)

Concluding Remarks^

Newbigin’s coherentist epistemology sees the comparison of whole belief systems as essential to determining which of our beliefs are justified, and which whole systems (meta-narratives, plausibility structures, traditions) we should embrace. If our beliefs are part of a system that does not hang together, or if some of our beliefs ill comport with, or seem even to make nonsense of, our other beliefs, we are well advised to doubt them. If a belief system successfully ties together more of our beliefs than a competing one, so that the world as we experience it makes more sense, is more evidently coherent, we are well advised to embrace it.44 Newbigin sees Christianity as doing just this. He writes: ”The Christian claim is that, though that other way of understanding the world [the Christian worldview or belief system] can in no way be reached by any logical step from the axioms of this one [post-Enlightenment Western culture’s belief system], nevertheless that other way does offer a wider rationality that embraces and does not contradict the rationality of this.”45 Such conflicts between whole systems ”will not be settled on the basis of logical argument,” since the systems do not agree on the presuppositions for such arguments (though, perhaps, Reformed Epistemology may permit productive debate about each side’s justification in holding the presuppositions it does). Rather: ”The view will prevail that is seen to offer―both in theory and in practice―the widest rationality, the greatest capacity to give meaning to the whole of experience.”46

This epistemological picture advises a presuppositional method of apologetics, one which probes the grounds for non-Christian beliefs and behaviors, seeking evidence of values unsupported by the non-Christian system but supported by the Christian one. These tokens of Common Grace are the ever-present common ground for our apologetic outreach to non-Christians. It also advises a reflective approach to our own faith-based thinking. Though our commitment to the faith and to our Savior must remain uncompromising, we must be careful never to mistake our own epistemic pride, as creatures still to some degree in sinful rebellion against our creaturely status, for the certainty of faith given us by God’s grace. In other words, epistemic humility is called for. Conservative evangelicals, or ”hidebound traditionalists,” given their (our, my) dedication to doctrines of Scripture’s perspicuity and inerrancy, will of course need to express this epistemic humility in ways differing at times from those chosen by Newbigin. The proper manner for such expression I leave primarily to the reader’s reflection, and to future papers, though certainly adoption of a tolerant and civil tone in our apologetics (and in our discourse more generally) is among the actions called for.

Notes^

2 Specialized epistemological discussion, which deals with epistemology in the technical sense, draws a distinction between the term I’ve used here, justified, and another term, warranted, though in popular usage (and older philosophical usage) the terms are synonyms. Justified, as my description’s "praiseworthy, or at least not blameworthy" indicates, means "fulfilling all one’s epistemic duties." Warranted means "whatever in addition to true belief is needed to constitute knowledge." As we humans have no way, in practice, to monitor or control any portion of warrant not included in justification (though knowledge of what warrants our beliefs may help us identify the epistemic duties we must fulfill to achieve justification), I have chosen to keep the focus on justified belief. (And, since justified beliefs, even when true, are not always warranted, I’ve left the word "knowledge" out of my practical description of what epistemology concerns.) For discussion of this terminology, and of its relevance to past and present epistemological discussion, see the early chapters of: Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), notably page 4.

3 Steven B. Sherman, Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Evangelical Approaches to the Knowledge of God, Princeton Theological Monograph Series 83 (Eugene: Pickwick, 2008), 248. Sherman speaks of Newbigin‘s "trust-based, Christian community-oriented, metanarrative-centered, praxis-habituated, and trinitarian-framed theological epistemology," but the current paper will not attempt to address all these aspects of Newbigin’s thought.

4 Ibid., 248. Three notable postconservatives, also called reformists, are Stanley Grenz, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Robert Webber (Ibid., 238). Postconservatives, Sherman notes, tend to be "Reformed Arminian" or "Wesleyan Arminian" in their theology, rather than either "Classically Reformed" or "Modified Reformed." As well, they "generally accept a Wesleyan Quadrilateralism (or a modification thereof)" in their understanding of the sources of theological knowledge. Newbigin, in contrast, is most nearly "Modified Reformed" in his theological outlook, and so more inclined to emphasize the primacy of revelation. (Ibid., 243, 243 n108.)

5 Winfried Corduan, "Ambivalent Truth: A Response to Lesslie Newbigin," Philosophia Christi, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 29-40. Corduan’s criticism focuses on Newbigin‘s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), which Corduan judges the most thorough presentation of Newbigin‘s viewpoint. Newbigin‘s Truth and Authority in Modernity (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996) and Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), though less detailed, are arguably more mature developments of his thought, with Truth and Authority being a particularly clear distillation. They are also more specifically focused on epistemology, and lack the distracting political and economic excursions found in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society and Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), though it is of course these excursions that led to Newbigin‘s receiving "the thunderous applause of the so-called evangelical left" (Corduan, "Ambivalent Truth," 30). Newbigin himself warns against confusing "a particular and fallible set of political and moral judgments with the cause of Christ" (Foolishness to the Greeks, 116), though he does this shortly after presenting his negative moral judgment of free market capitalism as "powered by unremitting stimulation of covetousness" (Ibid., 113). As Newbigin‘s political and economic views seem to me separable from his epistemology, I will not address them further.

6 Actually, Corduan doubts "our present culture is half as pluralistic as it is made out to be" and speaks critically of a "dogma of pluralism." This dogma asserts that "not only are there no universal values in the world, but not even in your neighborhood" and is based on an "assumption…that we are such a diverse mix of sub-cultures, each with their own value-systems, that it would be impossible to agree on a set of standards that should be obligatory for all." The interesting implication of this statement is that the mere fact that a group of persons (presumably meaning the dominant majority of that group of persons) could agree on a set of standards obligatory for all would prove that set of standards really should be obligatory for all, eliminating any need to justify (or explain why one need not justify) dominantly held standards. I also note that the "we" here is apparently limited to Americans, since Corduan doubts the dogma of pluralism because cultures that do not "esteem truth, marriage, life, and most of the other values that are being constantly questioned" are extremely rare, so that "surely the effect of these cultures on American society has been negligible." He also thinks it important to note that "real deviations come from groups that have consciously chosen a different set of values," as though the manner in which a culture or sub-culture originates were really relevant to assessment of its values and interaction with its members. (Ibid., 29.)

7 Ibid., 29-30.

8 Sherman identifies Newbigin as holding to an "approach known as biblical realism" which "is properly viewed as one of several methodologies within the inclusivist category," directing readers to two chapters of Newbigin, The Gospel and Other Cultures: "No Other Name" and "The Gospel and Other Religions" (Sherman, Revitalizing, 233). Sherman notes that the designation "biblical realism" is typically attributed to Hendrik Kraemer (Ibid., 233 n81). Inclusivists, according to one writer, "hold that while salvation is ontologically founded on the person of Christ, its benefits have been made universally available by the revelation of God" (Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical & Contemporary Perspectives (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2003) 25, quoted by Sherman, Revitalizing, 233 n82), presumably meaning general revelation, since availability through special revelation alone is the restrictivist position.

9 Contra Sherman, Gelwick identifies Newbigin as "agnostic about the salvation of those outside the Christian faith," but, in a statement Sherman would agree with, notes that Newbigin is nevertheless "committed to belief in the saving deeds of God in Christ and the mission to tell this story to the entire world." (Richard Gelwick, "Christian Faith In A Pluralist Society," Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 27:2 [2001], 41.) This article is first in a series debating certain aspects of Newbigin‘s thought, in particular his Polanyi-influenced epistemology and apologetics. The other articles in the series are: George R. Hunsberger, "Faith and Pluralism: A Response to Richard Gelwick," Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 27:3 (2001), 19-29; Richard Gelwick, "Heuristic Passion and Universal Intent: A Response to George R. Hunsberger," Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 28:1 (2001 [sic]), 16-22; David Kettle, "Polanyi and Impossible Frameworks," Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 28:2 (2002). Where the articles disagree, Hunsberger seems invariably to display the best grasp of Newbigin‘s thinking.)

12 Corduan, "Ambivalent Truth," notably 33, 36.

14 Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 22. Discussed by Corduan, "Ambivalent Truth," 32-33.

15 Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 23, 55, 56, 191, noted by Corduan, "Ambivalent Truth," 33. Newbigin‘s basic allegiance to the correspondence theory of truth, to the belief that there is a reality "out there" with which our beliefs seek to "make contact," becomes even more clear when we survey his other works. See, for example, the following (a small selection): Truth & Authority, 20; Proper Confidence, 7-8, 25, 44, 50-51; A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 104, quoted by Michael W. Goheen, "Liberating the Gospel from Its Modern Cage: An Interpretation of Newbigin‘s Gospel and Modern Culture Project," Missionalia 30:3 (November 2002), 367. The last of these it particularly clear, Newbigin there stating that "the fundamental issue is epistemological….about how we can come to know the truth, how we can know what is real" (emphasis added).

17 Ibid., emphasis added.

18 Corduan, "Ambivalent Truth," 33.

20 Paul K. Moser, "Epistemology," in Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 233-238. An interesting aspect of Alvin Plantinga‘s Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), is that Plantinga seems to find justification for his belief that certain beliefs are properly basic ("okay" to believe without supporting arguments or evidence) in his ability to tell a plausible story about how those beliefs could, if true, be warranted without evidence or arguments. Thus, it seems (to my inexpert eye) that Plantinga’s belief that certain beliefs are properly basic is itself justified by being situated in a holistically appealing system of thought that coheres with such belief. Whether or not Plantinga intends anything of this sort (which seems unlikely, since he elsewhere identifies coherentism as a special case of foundationalism “according to which the only source of warrant [the sole ‘foundation’ for belief] is coherence” (Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993], 80), it seems possible that Reformed Epistemology might be successfully incorporated into a coherentist framework.

21 Humans are also, of course, always embedded in some particular context within human social and cultural reality. Significant discussion of this topic, and an attempt by one (as I judge him, non-evangelical) theologian to grapple with its implications, may be found in: J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). This is also, of course, a significant topic of concern in missiological works on contextualization and cross-cultural communication.

22 A fellow seminary student, whose name I have not acquired permission to reproduce here, noted how this sort of demand made his appeals to Intelligent Design arguments nonstarters with the young people he works with. (Comments during class discussion, Apologetics, Bethel Seminary San Diego, Spring term 2009.)

23 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 190.

24 A relevant selection of passages from two of Newbigin‘s works include: Truth and Authority, 3-4, 7-8, 19, 29, 50, 51, 52, 53-54, 56-67, 60-61, 74; Proper Confidence, 4, 9, 11-12, 13-15, 19, 21-22, 23, 24, 26, 28, 36, 47-48, 49-50, 58, 63, 70.

26 Ibid.

27 Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 49-50. Newbigin further notes: "The dependence of all systematic thought upon assumptions that are accepted by faith has been well documented in the work of American philosopher Roy Clouser," and refers readers to Clouser’s book, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay On The Hidden Role of Religious Belief In Theories (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991).

29 Additional noteworthy indications of the care and humility, the fallibilism, of Newbigin‘s approach include: Foolishness to the Greeks, 60; The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 63.

31 Reymond, Justification of Knowledge, 61-62. (Reymond’s presuppositionalism draws upon the work of both Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til, and parallels in tone the work of other of Clark and Van Til’s disciples I’ve read or listened to.) Of course, Reymond’s central objection to Buswell, however clear or unclear it may be in his criticism, is that Buswell makes human inductive rationality the necessary basis and prerequisite for Christian faith commitment, something any presuppositionalist would object to.

32 This bracketed emendation highlights what I think is the key difference between Reymond‘s and Newbigin‘s attitude. Reymond has a greater sense of certainty that the "knowledge data" he derives from Scripture is the same "knowledge data" God by grace seeks to communicate to him through Scripture. Newbigin is not so certain. It is not revelation itself, but human apprehension of that revelation, which Newbigin sees as inescapably provisional.

34 Newbigin‘s chief difficulty with inerrantists seems to be more with their typical hermeneutics than with their inerrantism per se, they seeming unwilling to leave what he considers potentially fallible interpretations "open to revision and correction." (Just how flexible hermeneutics can be while remaining faithful is a subject of much debate, of course, though everyone who is not a deconstructionist disallows infinite flexibility.) Typical inerrantist emphasis on precise doctrinal formulations and systematic theology may also contribute to Newbigin‘s bias against inerrantism. Newbigin, in agreement with a current trend among theologians, wishes to emphasize Scripture’s role as disciple-forming narrative or story and to deemphasize its role as a source of propositional truths (for, e.g., construction of systematic theologies). This formative-story/propositional-revelation dichotomy, which may be more emphasized by certain of Newbigin‘s commentators than by Newbigin himself, strikes me as no less misleading than any of the various Enlightenment dichotomies (e.g., fact/value) Newbigin finds objectionable. (Problematic statements about biblical authority may be found scattered throughout Newbigin‘s work [e.g., Foolishness to the Greeks, 57-58], but I will not discuss them in the present paper, as they seem to me non-essential to [i.e., separable from] his epistemology and apologetics.)

35 Hunsberger, in fact, refers to Newbigin‘s apologetic as a "postmodern apologetic." George R. Hunsberger, "The Newbigin Gauntlet: Developing a Domestic Missiology for North America," in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, eds. George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 12-13, quoted in George R. Hunsberger, "Faith and Pluralism: A Response to Richard Gelwick," Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical 27:3 (2001), 19.

36 My present understanding of Reformed Epistemology is drawn primarily from these sources: Michael Bergmann, "Reformed Epistemology," The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming [as of late May 2009, Cambridge Press had not posted a planned publication date to their Web site]), n.p. [This text was, Amazon.com informs me, finally published in March 2011—DMH, April 2011.] ; Ron Nash, Apologetics (Orlando: Reformed Theological Seminary, Fall 2001), available from http://www.biblicaltraining.org/class/th601 [downloaded May 2009] [revised URL, verified April 2011, is http://www.biblicaltraining.org/apologetics/ronald-nashDMH]; Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief.

37 "The faculty of doubt is essential. But as I have argued, rational doubt always rests on faith and not vice versa. The relation between the two cannot be reversed. Knowing always begins with the opening of our minds and our senses to the great reality which is around us and which sustains us, and it always depends on this from beginning to end. The capacity to doubt, to question what seems obvious, is a necessary element in our effort to know reality as it is, but its role is derivative and secondary. Rational doubt depends on faith; rational faith does not depend on doubt." (Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 25.)

38 Lesslie Newbigin, Truth and Authority in Modernity, 3. Throughout his works, Newbigin draws heavily upon Michael Polanyi, who worked out a similarly Augustinian understanding of knowledge acquisition in science, most notably in his Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958; corrected edition, 1962), q.v. Another thinker having affinities with Polanyi is J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, whose thought I discuss in my "What Has Evangelicalism to Do with Postfoundationalism? A Selective Analysis of van Huyssteen’s The Shaping of Rationality, with Reference to Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge and Select Secondary Sources" (unpublished paper, March 2009). I note that at least one commentator has recognized the affinity between Newbigin‘s thought and postfoundationalism (though not specifically van Huyssteen’s version of it) (Sherman, Revitalizing, 220).

39 John Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), published posthumously.

40 Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 92.

41 Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 64. See also: Ibid., 11, 53, 58, 64; Foolishness to the Greeks, 54.

42 Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (1973, no further publication data available), 233, quoted in Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 29. (The original publication date for the English edition of Einstein’s book is 1954.)

43 Alvin Plantinga, “Is Naturalism Irrational?” a chapter in his Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 216-237. See also: Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 218-240, which concludes: "So rejection of theistic belief doesn’t automatically produce skepticism: many who don’t believe in God know much. But that is only because they don’t accurately think through the consequences of this rejection. Once they do, they will lose their knowledge…." [I have since come to see this “warranted so long as one does not reflect” view questionable, as some of my more recent papers indicate.DMH]

44 I have found the following analogy helpful in adjusting my foundationalist mind to a coherentist framework. [I dreamed up this analogy myself back in 2009. It does seem “obvious” enough (to me) that I should not be surprised to discover someone else dreamed it up first. If someone did, do let me know.DMH.] Think of one of those molecular models that students of Organic Chemistry can sometimes be seen making, where little spheres represent individual atoms and sticks connecting the spheres represent the bonds between atoms. Belief systems are like such models, afloat in the void of space. The spheres are individual beliefs (including values and behaviors, the latter always being indicators of implicit beliefs, whether consciously owned or not) that make up a system; the sticks are channels of justification, support, validation, or just niceness of aesthetic fit between beliefs. Coherentism, as I am conceptualizing it, suggests, not that God and his revelation are epistemic foundations that must be taken for granted as foundationalists have taken, e.g., the laws of logic and basic reliability of our rational faculty for granted, but rather that God and his revelation are two spheres without which no belief system can hold together. (Reflection typically finds that the laws of logic and basic reliability of our rational faculty are similarly indispensable to any coherent system.) God and his revelation can still be validated evidentially (e.g, through historical investigation or philosophical analysis of theistic concepts), as the laws of logic and our rational faculty can be validated (e.g., through laboratory experiments in human cognition), though one is already working from within a system that takes the validity of these things for granted (e.g, historical investigation assumes a past-was-like-the-present causal orderliness to nature unjustified if one starts from non-theistic assumptions). Within a coherentist system, note, though one always has to start one’s thinking somewhere, that "somewhere" is never an unquestionable foundational axiom, but always a sphere within and dependent upon the system itself, and so subject itself to critical reflection, should evidence or argument ever call for such reflection.

45 Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greek, 54.

46 Ibid., 64.

Bibliography^

Audi, Robert, editor. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Bergmann, Michael. "Reformed Epistemology." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming. No page number. (As of late May 2009, Cambridge Press had not posted a planned publication date to their Web site. Bergmann was with the University of Notre Dame at time of writing.) [Published March 2011DMH.]

Buswell, J. Oliver. A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, volume II. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1962. (Quoted by Reymond.)

Clouser, Roy. The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay On The Hidden Role of Religious Belief In Theories. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991. (Cited by Newbigin.)

Corduan, Winfried. "Ambivalent Truth: A Response to Lesslie Newbigin." Philosophia Christi, volume 20, number 1. Spring 1997. 29-40.

DePaul, Michael R. "Coherentism." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 133-135. (DePaul was with the University of Notre Dame at the time of writing.)

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. 1973, no further publication data available. (The original publication date for the English edition of Einstein’s book is 1954.)

Gelwick, Richard. "Christian Faith In A Pluralist Society," Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, volume 27, number 2. 2001. 39-44.

__________. "Heuristic Passion and Universal Intent: A Response to George R. Hunsberger." Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, volume 28, number 1. 2001 (sic). 16-22.

Goheen, Michael W. "Liberating the Gospel from Its Modern Cage: An Interpretation of Newbigin‘s Gospel and Modern Culture Project." Missionalia, volume 30, number 3. November 2002. 360-375.

Hodges, David M. "What Has Evangelicalism to Do with Postfoundationalism? A Selective Analysis of van Huyssteen‘s The Shaping of Rationality, with Reference to Polanyi‘s Personal Knowledge and Select Secondary Sources." Unpublished paper, March 2009.

Horwich, Paul. "Truth." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 812-13. (Horwich was with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at time of writing.)

Hunsberger, George R. "The Newbigin Gauntlet: Developing a Domestic Missiology for North America." In The Church Between Gospel and Culture, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. 12-13. (Quoted by Hunsberger.)

__________. Bearing the Witness of the Spirit: Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Cultural Plurality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

__________. "Faith and Pluralism: A Response to Richard Gelwick." Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, volume 27, number 3. 2001. 19-29.

__________. "Faith and Pluralism: A Response to Richard Gelwick." Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, volume 27, number 3. 2001. 19-29.

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical & Contemporary Perspectives. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2003. (Quoted by Sherman.)

Kettle, David. "Polanyi and Impossible Frameworks." Tradition & Discovery: The Polanyi Society Periodical, volume 28, number 2. 2002. 20-22.

Mackie, John. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. (Published posthumously. Cited by Plantinga.)

Moser, Paul K. "Epistemology." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 233-238. (Moser was with Loyola University of Chicago at time of writing.)

Nash, Ron. Apologetics. (Audio lecture series.) Orlando: Reformed Theological Seminary, Fall 2001. Available from http://www.biblicaltraining.org/class/th601. (Downloaded May 2009.) [revised URL, verified April 2011, is http://www.biblicaltraining.org/apologetics/ronald-nashDMH]

Newbigin, Lesslie. A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. (Quoted by Goheen.)

__________. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel in Western Culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

__________. Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, & Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

__________. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

__________. The Open Secret. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.

__________. Truth and Authority in Modernity. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

__________. Warrant: The Current Debate. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1993.

__________. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958; corrected edition, 1962.

Reymond, Robert L. The Justification of Knowledge: An Introductory Study in Christian Apologetic Methodology. Phillipsburg: P&R, 1976.

Sayward, Charles. "Conventionalism." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, edited by Robert Audi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 161. (Sayward was with the University of Nebraska at the time of writing.)

Sherman, Steven B. Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Evangelical Approaches to the Knowledge of God. Princeton Theological Monograph Series 83. Eugene: Pickwick, 2008.

van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel. The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

White, James Emery. What Is Truth? A Comparative Study of the Positions of Cornelius Van Til, Francis Schaeffer, Carl F. H. Henry, Donald Bloesch, Millard Erickson. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994.


If this post is a review, it may also appear, less nicely formatted and typically abridged, on such other sites as Amazon and GoodReads. If this post has odd gaps in it, this probably means some ads have failed to display. If you miss the ads, try reloading the page. Otherwise, just enjoy their unexpected absence.

Like this site? Help pay my expenses: Buy me stuff! | Do I mention a book or other product you’d like to buy? Check prices on Amazon.com. | Protected by Copyscape Plagiarism Checker - Do not copy content from this page.

All Pious Eye™: Seeing by the True Light™ content © 2005– by David M. Hodges, unless otherwise noted. Unauthorized Reproduction Prohibited. Sharing Encouraged. Syndication Enabled.


If you’d like to discuss this post or related issues, please leave a comment below (if comments are enabled) or contact me.


About Pious Eye (David M. Hodges)

I am the person who is Pious Eye: David M. Hodges. Thank you for reading!
This entry was posted in Graduate Papers and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lesslie Newbigin’s Epistemology: Humble Presuppositionalism?

  1. Pingback: Creation Conference 2013: Why Carp Parts and Bahnsen Matter | Pious Eye: Seeing by the True Light (David M. Hodges' Web site)

So, what say you?