Monday, July 06, 2020

The scandal of the cross

The scandal of the cross

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)
For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.I Corinthians 1:22-24

Several months ago, my Irish friend David Glass drew my attention to an additional argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which I had not previously given sufficient consideration--the argument from the scandal of the cross.

'Twould be time-consuming to relate all the verses in which the Apostle Paul glorifies, glories in, and declares salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. The above is only one. Galatians 6:14 is another.

This is really rather remarkable, when you think of it. In Jewish thought, based on Deut. 21:23, being crucified indicated that one was cursed of God. The Romans and pagans thought of crucifixion as a shameful thing as well. These were not, it must be emphasized, cultures that revered the underdog or the anti-hero (more about that below). Yet the Christians identified with the cross of Christ. Baptism itself was a symbol of the believer's death (followed by resurrection) with Christ.

It simply will not do as an explanation for this to say that the early believers venerated and revered Jesus and made up some cockamamy story about salvation from sin through his death and the glory of his cross because they thought so highly of him. That isn't the kind of thing they would normally be expected to do at all. Venerating and praying at his tomb, very plausibly. Distancing themselves from him out of fear for their own skins, even moreso. (See St. Peter's denials.) But glorying in the cross? Not a chance.

The cross was a scandal, a stumblingblock. In fact, we find in the dialogue between Justin Martyr and Trypho that the curse on anyone who hangs on a tree was a sticking point in Christian witness to the Jews in the second century.

It's interesting to realize how anachronistically people approach the Christian attitude toward Jesus' death. Skeptics do it, and we Christians let them get away with it. In our own time, all sorts of causes, secular as well as religious, make vigorous use of martyrs (or "martyrs"). Anyone who is killed and whose death can be appropriated for a cause becomes a kind of posthumous hero, so that assassinating a politician is usually a sure way of making sure that he is venerated and that his name is used as a talisman. Anti-heroes and noble victims are all the rage for modern and postmodern man.

When skeptics talk about the disciples immediately after Jesus' death, they may refer to them as "revering their dead rabbi" or words to that effect. To the modern mind there is nothing particularly strange in the theory that Jesus' followers should have dreamed up out of whole cloth the idea that their crucified rabbi was God or at least was in heaven with God and could save them from their sins by belief in his name and by the power of his death. But this is projecting our own attitudes onto the first century.

And in fact, based just on the sober account in, say, Luke followed by Acts of the disciples' actions, Jesus' death did not motivate the disciples in any such way. The cross was not, all by itself, some sort of glorious symbol to them of the significance of Jesus. On the contrary, they themselves indicated that it was because of his resurrection that they preached forgiveness of sins through his name. It was because, on their view, God the Father had vindicated Jesus of Nazareth by raising him from the dead that Jesus of Nazareth was to be worshipped and that his death had saving significance. It was only because of this belief that Paul gloried in the cross. The belief that Jesus was vindicated by a resurrection miracle performed by God the Father is a much better explanation for the disciples' embracing and glorying in the cross than any alternative explanation that involves their not believing that he was raised up from the dead. Hence, if there is no plausible way that they could have come to believe this as firmly as they did without Jesus' actually being raised from the dead, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the fact that Christians, following the example and teaching of the Apostles, are not ashamed of the cross of Christ.

Timothy McGrew on the Gospels and Acts as History

Timothy McGrew on the Gospels and Acts as History

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

In November, my husband had the great opportunity to give a talk "in" Belfast by Skype on the subject of the Gospels and Acts as history. (The world is getting so complicated that we need a new vocabulary. He was giving a talk in Belfast, but he was really not in Belfast at all. This is starting to sound like magic.) The sponsoring organization was Brian Auten's group, Reasonable Faith Belfast. I've been meaning to get the audio of the talk up here but am just getting to it now.

Here is the Youtube. The Skype talk (followed by interactive Q & A--technology is wonderful) originally did, as I understand it, allow the attendees in Belfast to see Tim talking with a bookshelf behind him, but the Youtube "video" is composed entirely of the Powerpoint slides.

If you want just the audio, it's here.

Happy listening!

Two more interviews on the historicity of Scripture

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

From the last couple of months, here are two more links to interviews with Tim McGrew on evidence for the historicity of Scripture.

This one, from early May, discusses Bart Ehrman a bit, along with a number of other topics listed at the link.

This one is from later in May, and the hosts asked for a variety of information, from incidental confirmations of the historicity of the New Testament to questions about Biblical languages.

I want to emphasize that if you have listened to Tim's other talks and interviews (see info. here, and here), while you will hear some overlapping information, each of the interviews has something in it that is unique, so they're all well worth listening to.

He is risen!

He is risen!

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)


Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas

Wishing a glorious and blessed Feast of the Resurrection to our readers at What's Wrong With the World.

Feel free to respond to this simply as a "happy Easter" post. Those interested in a little bit more of a content tidbit may look below the fold. (And thanks to Steve Burton who drew my attention last Easter to the Caravaggio painting.)

I've previously linked my husband Tim's talk at a New Orleans-area Baptist church in January on undesigned coincidences in the Gospels. (See here, too, for two more talks with additional material.)

The undesigned coincidences in the Gospels (and in Acts and the Epistles) serve to confirm the general historicity of these books--that they are in genre historical rather than fictional. This, in turn, strengthens our confidence that when, for example, Luke reports details of Christ's appearance to the disciples after His resurrection, these are not simply "legendary accretions" but are, at a minimum, what the disciples said happened. By not abandoning the authenticity of the texts--that is to say, the idea that the texts really do represent what people claimed who were in a position to know--we place additional pressure on the skeptic to account for such claims.

But undesigned coincidences can do more than that: They also confirm the proposition that the events recounted actually happened. This is particularly striking, even startling, to think of when an undesigned coincidence involves a post-resurrection account, for in that case, this piece of data confirms the resurrection itself directly, not simply that this was what the disciples claimed.

Viz.: In the famous passage (John 21) in which Jesus tells Peter to feed His sheep, Jesus repeatedly asks Peter, "Lovest thou me more than these?" Contrary to the interpretation we find in a well-beloved Gospel music number, Jesus is not asking Peter whether Peter loves Him more than the good things of this world. Rather, Jesus is asking Peter whether he loves Him more than the other disciples love Him.
Those of us who know the Gospels extremely well know that of course this is an allusion to Peter's having boasted that even if all the other disciples abandoned Jesus, he would stand firm. Jesus is gently (or painfully) reminding Peter of his boast and of his subsequent betrayal.

But knowing the Gospels well can have one unintended negative consequence: It can make us amalgamate all the accounts so that we miss undesigned coincidences. You see, Peter's boast, and his contrasting himself to the other disciples, appears nowhere in the Gospel of John! Nowhere at all. It is in Matthew 26:33 and in Mark 14:29.

Suppose that John were simply making up the post-resurrection incident and, in it, alluding to Peter's boast. Jesus' testing words make no sense without the boast. It would be cruel and pointless for Jesus to ask Peter if he loves Him more than all the others had Peter never made such a comparison for himself. Would not a fictionalizing author have inserted into his text an account of Peter's boast, so that the post-resurrection allusion would make sense within his own book?

But if John were telling an event that actually happened rather than trying to be "literary," he could very well have told what he remembered, what Jesus had actually said, without bothering to go back and insert Peter's boast into his text at some earlier point. In that case, the idea would not be to "make an allusion" in a "narrative" but rather to tell what he had heard and seen (which John himself repeatedly implies is exactly what he was doing) in a post-resurrection meeting not recounted in the other Gospels.

Thus the actual occurrence and John's telling it is at least a somewhat better explanation for the combined presence of Jesus' allusion and the absence of Peter's boast in John than is the creation of the post-resurrection event as a fictional account. But in that case, this small thing is some confirmation, all on its own, of the resurrection.

Again, happy Easter to all my readers!

New Licona series: Fictionalizing Literary Devices

(New content: July, 2020)

Accompanying video here.

As followers of my work know, my recently published book is called The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels From Literary Devices. In it I argue against the view that the evangelists considered themselves licensed by the alleged standards of their time to alter events and factual aspects of their narratives and to put words into the mouths of characters that did not occur historically in those settings in any recognizable fashion.

I also provide much positive evidence that the Gospels are instead highly reliable historically because their authors were truthful reporters in a straightforward sense of that word.

Providentially, The Mirror or the Mask (aka TMOM) became available in a Kindle version for just $9.99 just when Dr. Michael Licona began releasing a series of eight video responses to my work.

In this series, Licona claims that he refutes me by a rain of "hard, cold facts." Here is Licona's "trailer" for the series. Here is his introduction (on which I put a few comments on Facebook here). You can find the rest of his videos on his Youtube channel. When a post here is a response to one video in particular, I will of course link it.

This first post and its accompanying video respond not to just one particular video in his series but to an on-going theme of his series--specifically what Licona regards as the illegitimacy of the terminology I use for the alleged compositional devices in the Gospels about which he and I disagree. Licona repeats this theme often. Here is one of the videos in which he voices such objections.

Having already posted regular, though relatively brief, content on my public Facebook profile while Licona's new series was gradually released, I am responding further to his series via a combination of relatively short videos and longer blog posts. My own first video, to which this post corresponds, is here.

My aim in this series of posts and videos is to make it clear that by no means has Dr. Licona refuted my meticulous case in TMOM, but I hope to do so without rewriting TMOM. It would be the task of Sisyphus and probably pointless to write all over again what I have already written. If you are interested in these issues and are inclined to think that the literary devices views endorsed by Licona, Craig Evans, and some other scholars (including some evangelicals) are or might plausibly be correct, please do investigate that question. The topic is important enough that it will be very much worth doing so.

(Note that there is a great deal of free content available on-line on these matters. For example, I did a series of scholarly blog posts on this topic in 2017. Here is a wrap-up post for that particular older series. Here also is a review essay published in the Global Journal of Classic Theology. Here is a written interview on TMOM. TMOM is the culmination of all of this work, but if you are interested in free materials, there are a lot available.)

Fact-changing literary devices

The compositional devices that Licona alleges are found and that I think are not found in the Gospels are what I call in TMOM "fictionalizing literary devices" or "fact-changing" or "fact-altering literary devices." An example of such a literary device claim (which I think is incorrect) is that John changed the year in which Jesus cleansed the Temple. Craig Keener has advocated this view as has William Lane Craig, and Michael Licona considers it quite plausible. This does not merely mean that John narrated unclearly about time order but that he actually made Jesus cleanse the Temple in his narrative at a different time, in a different year, from the year in which he really did so. (Licona himself explicitly brings up this claim and makes it clear what it is in this video.)

Another such claim, endorsed by Licona and others, is that John changed the day of the month on which Jesus was crucified. (Licona has debated the claim that John moved the day and time of the crucifixion with NT scholar Craig Blomberg, who argues that John did not do anything of the kind.) Another such claim, endorsed by Licona, is that Luke geographically moved the first appearance that Jesus made to the disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. According to that theory, Jesus really first appeared to them in Galilee, as told in Matthew 28, but Luke made it happen instead in Jerusalem in his story.

These stories are narrated realistically, and (on the theory) the original audience just understood that such changes might be made, though there was not some special indicator that some given change had been made. A good analogy would be that of a movie "based on true events." You may know that some things in it might be changed and probably are, but you can't tell from watching the movie what they are. You would have to look that up in some more literally historical source, if you were lucky enough to have one available.

I document meticulously in TMOM that evangelical scholars, especially but not limited to Dr. Licona, have made such claims, and I reply to the arguments for them. These fact-changing claims range from changes of smaller details to quite large changes. Never in TMOM or anywhere else have I said that they are all equally "big" changes or that the theorists think that the Gospels are only fiction or mostly fiction. In fact, I have consistently used the analogy that Licona himself uses of a movie that is based on true events but that makes some changes in facts which the audience can discover only by checking elsewhere. This might, in such a movie, amount to changing a date or some other detail, it might consist in making up something inspiring that a person says in the movie that he didn't say in real life. It might involve making up dialogue to keep the story moving. Or it might consist in making up a whole scene. Thus such movies are partially fictionalized and partially factual.

Many of the claims about the Gospels are even more surprising than those I have already mentioned. These include, for example, John's allegedly inventing Jesus' saying, "I thirst" on the cross as a "dynamic equivalent transformation" of the words, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Michael Licona and Daniel Wallace endorse this position (Why Are There Differences, p. 166, citing an unpublished paper by Wallace).

In the first video in my response series I give more examples of the theories in question, which include inventing sayings (not just paraphrasing), inventing entire contexts for Jesus' appearances, and occasionally inventing scenes. There are more in my book, with full citations. From these examples it should be clear why I call these "fictionalizing literary devices" or "fact-changing literary devices." To be absolutely explicit: Those phrases are just descriptive terms. The terms themselves do not import the assumption that the evangelists didn't do these things. The terms are just explaining what kinds of things we are talking about. I define them on pp. 10-11 of TMOM, which is Chapter I, section 3. Then we get to the arguments for and against those claims. I wrote the book arguing that the evangelists didn't do this. I wasn't building that assumption just into the terms. The terms are stipulative, meant to put on the table what we are talking about, so that we can see what Licona and others think is present in the Gospels and I think is not present. I never use these labels instead of argument.

Understanding clearly what we are talking about does tend to make it clearer to people that there is a heavy burden of proof for the literary device theorist to meet. That is simply a result of the fact that sensible people who understand the nature of the theories instead of having them obscured by equivocal terms do tend to understand intuitively that they are antecedently improbable. This clear understanding may also incline some more conservative readers against the devices, but that is not the fault of the terms. If a clear description of a scholar's views inclines conservative readers against those views, that doesn't mean that the person giving the description has done something illicit in providing that clear understanding. After all, readers with a different view of the Gospels might actually be inclined to agree as a result of hearing those terms, so that can't be the standard of whether a term is accurate or not.

In his book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, p. 189, Craig Blomberg uses the phrase “the theory of fictitious doubling” to refer to the theory of so-called “doublets” in the Gospels. The theory of doublets is the idea that a Gospel author made up a second event of the same type, making it look like Jesus did something similar twice when he actually did it only once. Blomberg is not begging the question, using "loaded language," or poisoning the well by using that term "fictitious doubling," though in fact he does not think that such fictitious doublets occur in the Gospels. His term “fictitious” is descriptive--the doublets would, if they existed, involve creating fictitious narratives to make it look like Jesus did something of the same kind twice when only one of the stories occurred in reality. Just as Blomberg uses the term “fictitious doubling” for descriptive purposes, I use the terms “fictionalizing literary devices” and “fact-changing literary devices” for descriptive purposes.

(In passing, here is the full review of Dr. Licona’s book Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? by Craig Blomberg in the Christian Research Journal, of which Licona in this video quotes only a brief portion. It is partially critical, and their later short exchange in the same journal continues to make it clear that Blomberg had important reservations about portions of Licona's book. Dr. Blomberg endorsed The Mirror or the Mask as well. In that blurb for TMOM, which you can find in full on the first page of TMOM, he notes that the literary devices to which I am objecting are not commonly accepted among inerrantist biblical scholars. I do not identify myself as an inerrantist, but my views of specific Gospel passages tend to be very similar to those of traditional inerrantists.)

Licona repeatedly complains that both the terms “fictionalizing literary devices” and “fact-altering literary devices” are loaded. This is a complaint that he and his followers have made before, no matter how patiently I refute it. The basic point is this: We have to have some clear way of describing what we are disagreeing about before we can get to “first base” in deciding who is right and who is wrong. The phrases “compositional devices” or “literary devices” without further qualifier are uninformative. They say nothing about what sort of devices I am disagreeing with Licona and others about.

For example, I have never objected in the slightest to merely omitting details from an account. Omitting is not denying. Some might call narrating an event briefly (what I call achronological compression in TMOM) a "compositional device," but that is not what is at issue between me and Licona. Or there are mere figures of speech such as, "I have a frog in my throat" or "Bow down your ear and hear me, O God," which every mature speaker of a language immediately recognizes are not intended literally. These, again, are not what is at issue. We therefore need a designator that shows what is at issue in this scholarly disagreement.

It is not legitimate to declare every informative, non-euphemistic, descriptive term that I use for the devices at issue to be “loaded.” To do so puts us in a ridiculous place where I am either supposed to adopt a phrase that begs the question against myself (must I call them “the literary conventions of their day,” even though I think that these weren’t the literary conventions of their day?), or to use an ambiguous phrase like “compositional devices” with no indication of what kind, or perhaps even to invent a meaningless jargon word or sound, which would be of no value.

Perhaps what Licona wants me to say is that these alleged devices change only unimportant matters. But that is also not a legitimate requirement. For one thing, even the apparent "bigness" of the alleged changes varies considerably. For another, obviously people will disagree about how important a given change is. Licona and I pretty clearly disagree about how important a matter it is if, for example, John invented "I thirst." I strongly suspect that many readers will disagree with Licona on the importance of quite a few of these changes as well. So it would be entirely illicit to require me, as part of describing what we are even talking about, to acquiesce in someone else's views about what is or isn't really important. For another thing, details have a lot of ramifications.The Gospels are often verified by their details, but it is probabilistically problematic to try to use arguments that they are accurate in detail to confirm them while simultaneously saying that it was part and parcel of their genre to be allowed to change details.

A given so-called detail can have ramifications that Licona himself does not address. The entire circumstances of Jesus' appearance to the disciples as described in Matthew 28 are quite different from that of the appearance described in Luke 24, which is almost certainly the same as the first appearance to the group described in John 20. One is outside; the other is inside. One meeting is expected and carried out by appointment in response to a command relayed from Jesus to go to Galilee; the other is unexpected and startling, which makes a difference to the probability of any kind of group hallucination. One occurs on the same day that Jesus rose from the dead; the other occurs some time later. Putting John and Luke together would lead us to conclude that the meeting in Galilee occurred more than a week later. Saying that Luke geographically moved that appearance to Jerusalem though it really occurred in Galilee (which I discuss in the accompanying video and in TMOM) is epistemologically a much bigger matter than Licona acknowledges, due to the intertwined nature of evidence.

As I point out in TMOM, if the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples occurred in Galilee rather than Jerusalem, as Licona has stated, it's very difficult to see how the doubting Thomas sequence can be fitted in. Did Thomas walk to Galilee while still doubting? Did the other disciples send him a message that they had seen Jesus? How did that even work? This is just one of the ways in which a change that Licona apparently dismisses as no big deal has epistemological ramifications. As an epistemologist, I notice these ramifications and bring them out. So I'm certainly not going to eschew clear terminology like "fact-changing" on the grounds that these are just unimportant matters and that therefore we shouldn't even use the word "facts" for the things have allegedly been altered!

As he goes on in his video series, especially in his video on my supposed "black and white thinking," Licona explicitly indicates that I should not call something a "fictionalizing device" unless it changes the "essence" of the story. But this is quite a subjective standard. Licona may think that certain changes do not alter the "essence" of a story when others would think that they do. Do you think that it alters the "essence" of Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene if they didn't have the dialogue recorded in John 20 and if she was just along with the other women who met him on the road as recorded in Matthew 28? This is one of the changes that Licona thinks might have been made, though he does not decide between that and Matthew's having changed the story. In the video accompanying this blog post I give a list of some of the other changes that Licona has advocated and that Craig Evans has advocated, including Evans's casting doubt on the historicity of Jesus' "I am" sayings with predicates, Licona's casting doubt on the number of blind people Jesus healed as described in the Gospel of Matthew, on the day of Jesus' crucifixion, and on the number and locations of his appearances after his resurrection. There are many more examples in TMOM.

In any event, something can be a fact even without being of the "essence" of the story in which it occurs. So a fact can be changed even if it is not "of the essence of the story."

In one of the videos in this series, Licona says this about his theories of chronology in the Gospels:

In my book, I provide a few examples in the Gospels in which it appears that one of the authors has altered the chronology of events and that the alteration was both intentional and not merely a topical arrangement with no chronological ties.

Without quibbling on the phrase "a few examples," I note that this is Licona's own characterization of his views and that it clearly attributes factual change to the evangelists. How much more explicit could he be? He is saying that he believes that the Gospel authors deliberately changed the time when events happened, though they believed that they happened at other times. He emphasizes that the narration is intentional and not merely topical. It alters the chronology. Yet there is something wrong with calling these alleged time changes fact-changing devices? Why?

If a movie maker "made" a real historical event happen three years earlier than it really happened, we would unhesitatingly say that he changed a fact. That would just be a description. In fact, no one would bat an eye if someone said, "Yeah, the year when that happened in the movie was fictional. It really happened in 1977, not 1974."

Was Dr. Blomberg obligated to find out whether people who advocate doublet events in the Gospels  think that this is a change in the "essence" of the story (which story?) before he called doublets "fictitious narratives"?

Once we start trying to tell fellow scholars that they cannot use descriptive terms like “fact-changing," “fictionalizing," or "fact-altering," no matter how carefully defined, unless they agree with some other scholars on what constitutes the “essence of the story,” we have passed far beyond the realm of legitimate rules of discourse. Indeed, such a requirement looks very much like an attempt to beg an important question about whether the changes advocated are important. It also stymies fruitful dialogue by derailing the discussion onto a matter of terminology for what we disagree about.

It should go without saying that there are big facts and small facts about history, facts about details, etc. It should also go without saying that people will have differences of opinion about what sort of factual changes are a big deal. People will often (and this is important) consider even a small change to be a bigger deal if it is deliberate, because that changes one's view of the author or speaker. So it is illicit to try to rule out clearly descriptive phrases like “factual change,” "fictionalizing devices," “changing history,” or "fact-altering" merely on the grounds that allegedly a given change should be regarded as no big deal. Such a principle leads to obfuscation and confusion.

Let’s just admit that we are talking about deliberately changing facts and then let people decide for themselves whether a given deliberate factual change would be a big deal. I provide arguments in TMOM concerning issues like importance for reliability, but first let's have on the table what we are talking about clearly rather than unclearly.

It's interesting to see how Craig Evans describes what he thinks the Gospel authors were permitted to do with their Gospels by the "pedagogy of the times." Here Evans is talking about Jesus' teaching and what he thinks the authors were licensed to do. One is from his opening statement in a debate with Bart Ehrman
[W]e do have at hand a lot of important information about pedagogy...But more importantly listen up, about the way that a master teacher’s teaching was appropriated by his disciples....The teaching was memorized, but then it was understood and could be adapted and applied. It could be expanded, it could be contracted, the wording could be altered, it could be made to fit new circumstances.
When we realize that Evans is saying that after doing this the disciples were allegedly supposed to report these altered and applied statements as if they were really said by the historical Jesus, we can see both that this is significantly more than what would normally be meant by "paraphrase" and also that it is fact-altering--making it appear that Jesus taught in a way that "fit new circumstances," for example.

This one is from a piece called “Fundamentalist Arguments Against Fundamentalism.”

Each evangelist presented the life and teaching of Jesus in his own fashion, using creative ways that made it understandable and relevant to different cultures and settings. The numerous differences and discrepancies we see in the Gospels are the result of the writers doing what Jesus taught—and in many ways reflect the standards of history writing current in late antiquity.
Notice that Evans expressly says that the numerous discrepancies and differences in the Gospels are the result of the writers changing things creatively. If a discrepancy is a result of a change, then the change is a change of a fact, though it may be a relatively small fact if the discrepancy that results is relatively small.

It's worth noting here: Fact-changing literary devices do not resolve apparent discrepancies. On the contrary, they lock them in by saying that the discrepant historical information was placed into the document by the authors deliberately. Once again, these literary devices are not harmonizations. They are not the claim that these are "merely apparent" contradictions. They involve saying that, for example, John and Mark really do narrate Jesus' crucifixion on different days and are incompatible in that respect. But one then puts a label of "crafting the narrative," "following the pedagogy of the time," a "compositional device," etc., on the factual change that has allegedly been made.

How does Evans apply his notions of pedagogy in practice? Here are some of his comments about the Gospel of John in the Q and A to a debate with Bart Ehrman:

On a historical level let us suppose we could go back into time with a camera team and audio and video record the historical Jesus and we followed him about throughout his ministry. I would be very surprised if we caught him uttering, “I am this” and “I am that” and one of these big long speeches that we find in John. This aspect of the Gospel of John I would not put in the category of historical. It’s a genre question.

The real question then would be, do these from a theological point of view reflect an accurate theological understanding of Jesus’ person, his accomplishment, what he’s achieved, what he brings to his believers? Is he the light of the world? Is he...the way, the truth, the life? Is he the bread of life? See? And that’s what Christians can affirm.... So you could say, theologically, these affirmations of who Jesus is in fact do derive from Jesus. Not because he walked around and said them. But because of what he did, what he said...and because of his resurrection. And so this community that comes together in the aftermath of Easter says, “You know what? This Jesus who said these various things, whose teaching we cling to and interpret and present and adapt and so on, he is for us the way, the truth, the life, the true vine. He is the bread of life,” and so on. And so that gets presented in a very creative, dramatic, and metaphorical way, in what we now call the Gospel of John.
Evans even emphasizes that he would not put these sayings in the category of "historical." If that is not saying that the community altered facts or fictionalized, it's difficult to know what is. This also reflects how Evans applies the concept of "paraphrase." In fact, he has repeatedly implied that anyone who doesn't agree with the following statements of his must think that all of Jesus' words were recorded verbatim, which is a classic false dilemma fallacy. See here for more of his comments on the Gospel of John.

Licona, while saying that he "would not go as far as" Evans (without specifying what this means) has in general defended Evans's view  of John as well within the realm of reasonable evangelical views, considering it to be the claim that John used "paraphrase" or "adapted" the "Jesus tradition." Evans is another of the scholars whose work I rebut in TMOM and whose work I have in mind in the phrases "fact-changing literary device" and "fictionalizing literary device."

And of course, as I've pointed out numerous times, including in the accompanying video, the changes alleged concern things other than the reports of words. They also include circumstances, context, details, times, and so forth, all of which could supposedly be altered or fabricated, according to the standards of the time.

Moreover, if we are not talking about factual change, it's difficult to know what I could be wrong about. Licona certainly seems to think I'm wrong about the Gospels. Yet I've said again and again that the changes where we disagree are just those where these scholars are alleging that facts were altered. If Licona, Evans, and others are just talking about trivial, casual, recognizable, minor verbal variation in reporting words, or merely omitting details from a story to simplify, those are not things that we disagree over. So if I’m wrong about what the Gospel authors did, if the Gospel authors did do something that I think they didn't do, what is it? What am I wrong about concerning the Gospels?

New Testament scholar Dean Furlong made the following apt comment on Facebook about Licona’s repeated objections to terms like “fact-altering." I quote it here by permission:

Why is he so frightened by McGrew's characterization of his "literary devices" as "fact-altering"? I mean, that's what he believes. He can claim that "fact altering" literary devices were acceptable conventions, but he can't simultaneously take issue with her descriptive characterization while also claiming that fact altering was part of an accepted historiographical convention. His annoyance at the expression make me suspect he wants to have his cake and eat it too. "Conventions that alter facts aren't really fact-altering because everyone accepted you were allowed to alter facts."
I'm afraid it does rather look that way. And thank you, Dr. Furlong!

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Mutual support and circularity

Mutual support and circularity

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

In the interview with Luke Muehlhauser, linked below, we got briefly into the subject of mutual support vis a vis the existence of God and miracles like the resurrection. The question, related to a debate my husband and I have had with Alvin Plantinga, arose (though not in so many words): Isn't the existence of God a premise for belief in any miracle, in which case isn't it circular to say that a miracle increases the probability of the existence of God?

I feel that I wasn't as clear as I could have been in responding to this question, so I'd like to say a little more about the issue of mutual support. Here is the technical paper that addresses this subject, but here I want to try to do this non-technically as much as possible.

Most of us are inclined to reason about things in the following way: Use only propositions for which you have lots and lots of support. Base your predictions on what these propositions really lead you to believe, and go from there.

So, for example, a man whose wife always makes him a chocolate cake for his birthday is most concerned with the question of whether, this year, his wife will continue the tradition. He takes his wife's existence for granted, because it's overwhelmingly supported. He also doesn't worry about whether he's hallucinating all his past apparent memories of chocolate cakes over the years. His only concern is whether she will be too busy this year, and he reasons forward, using what is strongly supported already, to make a prediction about this year's birthday. He may, for example, justifiably conclude that he will get a chocolate cake this year.

In this context, it seems sort of pointless and trivial to argue after the fact that the smell of chocolate cake he notices when he comes home on his birthday is evidence for his wife's existence. No one is worrying about that, and so no one thinks twice about the fact that the evidence runs in that direction.

But if you stop to think about it, it's true: The direct sensory evidence of the baking chocolate cake is evidence that Someone exists who made the cake, especially since he has been gone all day and knows he didn't do it.

Is there any circularity going on here? Not at all. He expected the cake, because he had other evidence from the past both of his wife's existence and of her intention to make the cake. He now has even more evidence of interaction with his wife in the form of the smell of the baking cake. We have, of course, reached a point of diminishing returns here, since the probability for his wife's existence was close to 1 already, even before he noticed that Someone had been in the house baking the cake. To make the epistemic force of the sensory evidence of the cake more vivid, we would perhaps have to imagine the poor fellow as suffering from some sort of mental illness that makes him temporarily doubt that he has a wife, in which case the direct sensory evidence of the chocolate cake would take on a lot more practical importance for him than it has in the ordinary situation!

Here's another example: Suppose that I have a long-distance friend named Bill Smith whom I have never met. Bill and I have talked a number of times on the phone, and the last time we spoke, he asked for my e-mail address and said that he would like to send me a paper. A week or so later, up pops an e-mail in my in-box that purports to be from Bill Smith and that has the paper attached.

Once again, we have evidence here going in two directions but no circularity. The evidence of my previous phone conversations gave me some reason to believe that Bill Smith exists already and also to expect the e-mail. The direct evidence--the "after-the-fact" evidence--that I've actually received an e-mail from someone by that name gives me more reason to believe in the existence of Bill Smith.

And note something that is perhaps clearer in this example than in the cake-baking example: Most of us receive e-mails occasionally from people whom we previously had no contact with. (I certainly have.) Once we have the e-mail, even though we did not have a high previous probability for the existence of the writer or reason to predict the arrival of the e-mail, we have reason to believe in his existence. In other words, the e-mail is evidence for the existence of its author independent of the lowness or highness of our prior probability for the existence of the author.

It's certainly true that my previous good evidence for the existence of Bill Smith and our conversation gave me a higher prior probability for the arrival of an e-mail than I would have had otherwise. But that is not a necessary condition for my believing, on the basis of my sensory evidence and knowledge of e-mail, etc., alone, that I have indeed received an e-mail from a person named Bill Smith (who therefore exists).

In the same way, our prior reasons for believing that God exists (or for doubting God's existence) will be quite relevant to the prior probability of any given miracle. Just as I will not expect to receive an e-mail from a person of whom I have never heard, so I will not expect a miracle from a God for whom I believe there to be little or no positive evidence. On the other hand, if I believe there to be some independent evidence for God's existence, this will raise the prior probability of a miracle. And if I believe there to be enormous evidence--for example, if I believe that the arguments of natural theology render the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent eternal God a certainty--this will "help" the prior probability for a miracle a lot, though it will still not make me positively expect most specific miracles.

But direct evidence for a miracle--for example, testimonial evidence in a context that makes it extremely hard to explain as a lie, etc.--is evidence for the existence of God as well, and it is evidence for the existence of God either way--that is, regardless of whether my prior probability for the existence of God was high or low. Just as the evidence of an e-mail purporting to be from Bill Smith is evidence for the existence of Bill Smith even if my prior probability for both his existence and the coming of the e-mail was low, so it is in the case of miracles and the existence of God.

What this means is that we can have evidential "lines" going in more than one direction without any circularity.

We might be inclined to say that

A: Bill Smith exists
is evidence for

B: I receive an e-mail from Bill Smith

and also that B is evidence for A when the e-mail pops up in my inbox. Drat! A circle! But not really: To say that A is a premise for B is a convenient shorthand, but it comes at the cost of some loss of clarity, and in this type of situation it can be positively misleading. The clearer way to think of it is to think of a set of other evidence, such as

A1: I seem to remember a conversation on the phone with Bill Smith on June 1

A2: I seem to remember a conversation on the phone with Bill Smith on August 25


A3: Bill Smith asked for my e-mail address.

A1-A3 provide one set of evidence that Bill Smith exists and that he intends to send me an e-mail, which raises the the probability of B.

On the other hand,

B1: I have received an e-mail which says that it is from someone named Bill Smith
is evidence for A, independent of whether I have A1-A3. Thus, A1-A3 and B1 are all evidence pertinent to B.

And that's all there is to it.

Look, Ma, no circles!

Now, let's see if I've succeeded in expressing this clearly. What think you, readers?

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Suffering and the Death of God

Suffering and the Death of God


(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

As we head into Holy Week, I wanted to say something about this post. I'm a bit hesitant about doing so, but unfortunately, the post contains some theological implications that are not right, and it seems to me that Holy Week is a good time to answer them.

In brief, the author of the post, Anthony Sacramone (whose work I have never read before), says that he does not want to believe that God had a purpose in allowing his mother to suffer a painful death, he does not want an explanation of this, because that would have to mean that he considered that suffering to have been "O.K." He says,
And so, no, I don’t want to know whether there was a “reason” for it all. I don’t ever want to get to the point where what happened becomes tolerable. I want it forever to be ugly and pointless and cruel.
Sacramone's answer to the problem of pain is the fact that Jesus wept when confronted with human death. Now it is indeed true that Jesus came to bear our suffering with us and to be a High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities. That is a great Christian truth. But it is not by any means the sum total of Christian truth on the meaning of suffering, and to truncate Christian teaching on that matter, especially to do so on principle, is to rob oneself of resources of strength and courage that Scripture has to offer. They are in many ways difficult passages to bear, but they are there for all of us and have been, I believe, inspired by the Holy Ghost, in some cases spoken by Christ Himself, and preserved for our edification to strengthen us in trouble. Here are just some of them:
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work,...(James 1:2-4)Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted....Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you...Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven... (Matt. 5:4, 11-12)
If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. (Matt. 16:24-25)
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:17-18)
It is a faithful saying, for if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him. If we suffer, we shall also reign with him. (II Tim. 2:11-12)
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)

Scripture is unequivocal that there is an explanation for suffering, that God does desire to use all things in us for our sanctification, and that our acceptance of this is an essential part of becoming that which He intends for us, which is our only way to joy. We cannot reject this teaching; it is at the crux of the whole Christian view of the world.

Of course suffering is not "okay" in some shallow sense. Of course we should seek to alleviate suffering. Nor should we seek it for ourselves in some masochistic fashion. But that there is, in the mysterious yet at the same time openly stated purposes of God, a meaning for it, that it is allowed by Him for a reason, is one of the greatest truths He has given us. It would not be an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons Jesus came to earth, died, and rose again was to reveal to us that all human suffering, like the suffering of God Incarnate, is both "not okay" and also not meaningless--not merely "not okay." Rather, suffering, which came upon us initially by the sin of Adam, can be by the terrifying favor and operation of God an opportunity and a means of grace. I do not claim to understand this at the deepest level, but I must try continually to remember it and never to reject it. It will, I pray, be a lifeline to me when my testing times come.

If I were Anthony Sacramone's personal friend, I hope that I would have the sense not to beat him over the head with these verses. Now is doubtless not the time. But if he should happen to read this post, I trust that he will not be offended. And I offer them to you, my readers, that you may be strengthened by the reminder.

Go to dark Gethsemane, ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away; learn of Jesus Christ to pray.
Follow to the judgment hall; view the Lord of life arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall! O the pangs His soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; learn of Him to bear the cross.
Calvary’s mournful mountain climb; there, adoring at His feet,
Mark that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete.
“It is finished!” hear Him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die.
Early hasten to the tomb where they laid His breathless clay;
All is solitude and gloom. Who has taken Him away?
Christ is risen! He meets our eyes; Savior, teach us so to rise.

 (slightly different version)

The ascension and the "objective vision" theory of the resurrection

The ascension and the "objective vision" theory of the resurrection

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

I am presently working on research for an article on history and theism for a projected Routledge Companion to Theism. A cause of slight psychological strain in doing the research is a ban on content notes--footnotes or endnotes--in the finished product. I'm not as dependent as some scholars on large numbers of content notes, but I usually have a few. (I just wrote to the editor today asking, in so many words, "Is the prohibition on content notes set in stone?" But it's hard to send the image of big, sad, appealing eyes over e-mail, and in any event, scholars are notably unamenable to the pure emotional appeal. So I kept it businesslike.)

One side issue that I would probably discuss briefly in a content note, if content notes were allowed, is the issue of the ascension as it relates to what has come to be known as the objective vision theory of the resurrection of Jesus. I'm a couple of months liturgically early in discussing the ascension, but hopefully my readers won't mind too much.

The objective vision theory, associated with the Jesuit scholar Gerald O'Collins (and I gather held by many others) is the theory that Jesus wasn't literally, physically present with his disciples after his resurrection. Therefore, a camera couldn't have taken a picture of him; he couldn't be seen by normal, physical processes. He couldn't, in fact, be seen by anybody at all without special help from God, which has come to be known as "graced seeing" or "grace-assisted seeing."

O'Collins discusses this idea as if it were simply obvious in his seminal 1967 article "Is the Resurrection an 'Historical' Event?" One thing he keeps saying over and over again in that article is that when Jesus rose from the dead he passed out of the realm of space and time and into the "other" world of God.

What I kept thinking as I read the article was, "Wasn't that the ascension?" After all, passing out of this space-time continuum and into the other world of God sounds an awful lot like what we ordinary folk call "going to heaven." And anybody who has been taught the Christian story knows that Jesus didn't go to heaven immediately when he rose from the dead. He stayed around for forty days showing himself to his disciples by many infallible proofs (says Luke) and then ascended into heaven. The ascension is even, you know, in the Apostles' Creed. It's supposed to be important. But the objective vision theory, based on the premise that Jesus left the space-time continuum at the moment of his resurrection, and even as part of the essence of his resurrection, makes the ascension extremely hard to fit in. The ascension becomes, in fact, an embarrassment, because it duplicates something that supposedly happened at the resurrection.

I vote we keep the resurrection and the ascension both. As did the early Church, of course. But to do that, we're going to have to admit that Jesus walked around on the earth in a visible, tangible, physical body after his resurrection. And a good thing, too.

Evidential ammo for the Christian soldier

Evidential ammo for the Christian soldier

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

Do you have kids? Do you know any Christian young people, perhaps heading off to college this fall, who you hope will remain Christians all their lives?

Then I have a suggestion: Don’t leave them intellectually unarmed.

I am an unabashed evidentialist in the area of apologetics, and I think evidentialism can be defended on philosophical grounds. But even suppose, per impossible, that it couldn’t. I encourage my readers to consider from the point of view of outcomes that it is a dangerous thing to send your carefully nurtured young Christian off to college and off into the world without arming him with evidence for his faith. I have heard more stories than I care to remember in which young people had questions about Christianity, went to a pastor, and were given poor answers or no answers at all. In one such story, a young man went with his doubts to his pastor, whose only response was to push the Bible across the desk and ask him, “This is the Word of God. Do you believe it?” The young fellow thought for a moment and then said, “No.” And that was the end of that.

So I have asked my Resident Expert to suggest some accessible ammo for the Christian parent, teacher, or friend. He suggests the three B’s—Bennett, Blaiklock, and Bruce.

Edmund Bennett’s, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899) is an old book, but all the better for that. Delivered repeatedly as a lecture within his lifetime, it can be read all the way through easily in an afternoon. It was published in 1899, is now in the public domain, and can be downloaded from the Internet and/or printed. Bennett’s style is spare, lively, and accessible. I suggest skipping the introduction, which is a slightly sappy call for ecumenical unity (in which he includes Unitarians), and moving directly to the meat of the book.

The greatest value of Bennett’s approach is his use of a now little-known type of evidence for the contemporary time period and historical genre of the Gospels—the noting of undesigned coincidences. Undesigned coincidences, which are far more numerous in the New Testament than Bennett can convey, provide a powerful argument against any thesis that places the writing of the Gospels (and Acts) late and regards them as “developments of the faith community” rather than as historical documents written by people actually acquainted with the times and events described.

Here are just a couple of examples: Bennett points out that in Matthew 26 Jesus is tormented by being struck and told, mockingly, to prophesy about who struck him. Bennett notes that in Matthew there is no mention of any reason why Jesus should not have been able to identify his tormenters by ordinary means. But Luke 22 states that he was blindfolded. Upon reflection, one can see that the omission of the blindfolding in Matthew is not what one would expect from someone writing a fictionalized or “developed” account, since its omission makes the narrative itself somewhat odd.The fact that the two narratives fit together in this way is best explained by their being separate accounts of a real incident.

Nor is Luke always the one to give the explanation. In Luke 9, Bennett notes, we find the bare statement that the disciples told no one about the transfiguration—a surprising reticence on their part, considered in the abstract, and one that would not be left unexplained in a late document intended to be “filled in” with made-up material developed in the “faith community”—but it is Mark (ostensibly the earlier Gospel) that says in chapter 9 that Jesus told them not to tell about the event. As Bennett says, “Is that a contrived variation, or is it the natural and accidental difference into which honest witnesses constantly fall?”

New Zealand classicist E. M. Blaiklock (1903-1983) has written many books relevant to Christian apologetics. His Compact Handbook of New Testament Life features his characteristic beautiful prose, combining historical erudition with vivid expression and clarity. He must have been a wonderful teacher. Blaiklock confirms in more external detail and at greater length than Bennett the historical veracity of the New Testament documents and the familiarity of the authors with the Roman, Greek, and Jewish worlds of the 1st century A.D. prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Blaiklock tells the story of the 19th century archeologist W. M. Ramsay and his growing confidence in the historicity of Luke. “It was gradually borne in upon me that the narrative showed marvellous truth,” said Ramsay. “In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second-century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first-century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations.”

As but one example of Luke’s historical deftness and familiarity with actual mid-first-century facts, Blaiklock mentions Luke’s account of the riot in Ephesus. The city clerk (Acts 19:38) rebukes the crowd by telling them, “There are proconsuls”—that is, to whom they can take any complaint, instead of rioting. Normally there would have been only one proconsul for the province, but just at that particular time there seem to have been two as a result of the assassination of the previous proconsul Silanus by the two imperial stewards at the urging of Nero’s mother, an event independently documented by Tacitus. Says Blaiklock, “The tactful plural in the official’s speech seems to be evidence in a single letter of the aftermath of political assassination, and the delicate relations between a ‘free city’ and Rome.”
George Rawlinson, in The Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records: Stated Anew (1860) makes a similar point regarding the New Testament authors, specifically with regard to the exceedingly messy history of Palestine:
The political condition of Palestine at the time to which the New Testament narrative properly belongs, was one curiously complicated and anomalous; it underwent frequent changes, but retained through all of them certain peculiarities, which made the position of the country unique among the dependencies of Rome. Not having been conquered in the ordinary way, but having passed under the Roman dominion with the consent and by the assistance of a large party among the inhabitants, it was allowed to maintain for a while a species of semi-independence, not unlike that of various native states in India which are really British dependencies. A mixture, and to some extent an alternation, of Roman with native power resulted from this arrangement, and a consequent complication in the political statuswhich must have made it very difficult to be thoroughly understood by any one who was not a native and a contemporary. The chief representative of the Roman power in the East—the President of Syria, the local governor, whether a Herod or a Roman Procurator, and the High Priest, had each and all certain rights and a certain authority in the country. A double system of taxation, a double administration of justice, and even in some degree a double military command, were the natural consequence; while Jewish and Roman customs, Jewish and Roman words, were simultaneously in use, and a condition of things existed full of harsh contrasts, strange mixtures, and abrupt transitions….These facts … render the civil history of Judaea during the period one very difficult to master and remember; the frequent changes, supervening upon the original complication, are a fertile source of confusion, and seem to have bewildered even the sagacious and painstaking Tacitus. The New Testament narrative, however, falls into no error in treating of the period; it marks, incidentally and without effort or pretension, the various changes in the civil government….Again, the New Testament narrative exhibits in the most remarkable way the mixture in the government—the occasional power of the president of Syria, as shown in Cyrenius’s “taxing”; the ordinary division of authority between the High Priest and the Procurator; the existence of two separate taxation—the civil and the ecclesiastical, the “census” and the “didrachm;” of two tribunals, two modes of capital punishment, two military forces, two methods of marking time; at every turn it shows, even in such little measures as verbal expressions, the coexistence of Jewish with Roman ideas and practices in the country—a coexistence which (it must be remembered) came to an end within forty years of our Lord’s crucifixion. [Emphasis added]
Something Rawlinson here alludes to cannot be stressed too strongly and explicitly, though modern skeptics and Christians alike are all too prone to forget it: In a world without contemporary methods of communication and information storage, lacking even so much as a printing press, such detailed information would not have been widely preserved and available for a later “novelistic” fictional treatment of the times by the “Christian comunity,” even had anything remotely like the genre of historically accurate fiction been known, as indeed it was not. The sure and even casual movement of the New Testament writers within the first-century world is overwhelming evidence of the genuine first-century nature of the texts and, even more specifically, of their origin at the times when they themselves purport to be written and when details of circumstances would have been available to eyewitnesses. Blaiklock, with his classicist’s historical eye and eloquence, shows us external evidence that dovetails well with the internal evidence cited by Bennett.
The third book in the group of recommendations is F. F. Bruce’s small textbook on textual scholarship, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Bruce introduces the student to textual scholarship and to such matters as text families and questions of canonicity. One limitation in Bruce is that he accepts (a conservative version of) the Q hypothesis and hence accepts Markan priority, placing Luke’s writing not long before A.D. 70 and Matthew’s writing not long after. These commonplaces of textual scholarship (Markan priority, Q, and a Matthew after 70) deserve to be questioned and corrected by the strong patristic considerations in favor of Matthean priority which in turn support an earlier dating for Matthew. These are laid out by Wenham.

Nonetheless, Bruce is in no sense a liberal scholar, and he answers the question in his title clearly in the affirmative. One of his most useful comments concerns a point which skeptics often use to confuse the unwary: The canonical books of the New Testament did not somehow “become” authoritative by being said, centuries after the events, to be canonical by the Church. We should not think that there is no independent or rational way to tell which books were authentically of apostolic origin, as though the Church had been left to make a mysterious, black-box decision. Rather, the canonical books were declared to be so on the basis both of external evidence and indeed strong traditional tracing of their provenance and on the basis of internal evidence that distinguishes them clearly from other texts not included in the canon. It behoves all Christians to be aware of this and not to give aid and comfort to the skeptic by arguing that it is impossible to tell why some books should be canonical and others not.

Bruce also does not share the anti-supernatural bias of so many in New Testament studies, though it is possible that some sources on which he is relying for his acceptance of the two-source hypothesis were directly or indirectly affected by such a bias. But Bruce’s own treatment of the inclusion of miracles in the texts is sensible and objective. He does not reject texts as late on the basis of the circular argument that they include miracles—the argument that, since miracles obviously do not happen, they must have been added long after the ostensible time of the events recorded. He joins Bennett and Blaiklock in showing the reader how these matters should be approached—in a scholarly fashion and without any double standard to bias us against religious material.

It is worth stressing that each of these books is short, readable, and hence unthreatening. (Moreover, the two still under copyright--Blaiklock and Bruce--are inexpensive.) Bennett can and should be read straight through (except for the introduction). Blaiklock and Bruce can be read or studied more selectively, though it would be easy to read them through as well. All of them and more besides could easily be assigned for a college or high school course on Christian evidences, perhaps for a home school or Christian high school. Together they have the potential to ground the student in a sensible, rational, historical approach to Christianity and evidence that may be new to him but should become a normal part of his mental life and a defense against the assaults of the enemy.

Is "Jesus rose from the dead" a self-committing proposition?

Is "Jesus rose from the dead" a self-committing proposition?

(Originally published at What's Wrong With the World. Link to original post at 'permalink' below.)

In his massive and intensively researched book The Resurrection of the Son of God (pp. 714-717) N.T. Wright states that the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead is a self-involving proposition. If it's true, he says, it matters.*

While I agree heartily with Wright that if this proposition is true, it matters, I'm concerned about a confusion that could arise from calling it "self-involving," much less (as he does on p. 717) "self-committing." And I think it is a confusion to which we at the beginning of the 21st century are particularly prone.
The confused reasoning runs approximately like this:
If Jesus rose from the dead, then the Christian God exists. If the Christian God exists, we have to love and obey him. Therefore, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is to believe that we have to love and obey God. Therefore, to believe that Jesus rose from the dead is to be something very much like a Christian. So belief in the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead already involves being committed to God. So how is it possible to be led to believe that Jesus rose from the dead by anything like neutral evidence? The conclusion is itself not "neutral" but rather self-committing, so one can come to believe it only through self-commitment, not through an objective evaluation of evidence.
In this way, the idea that this proposition is "self-involving" or "self-committing" comes to seem like a challenge to an evidentialist approach to Christian belief.
Wright illustrates this kind of thinking in action on p. 717:
Precisely because at this point we are faced with worldview-level issues, there is no neutral ground, no island in the middle of the epistemological ocean, as yet uncolonized by any of the warring continents....Saying that 'Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead' is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement, going beyond a reordering of one's private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot simply leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere and sail back home to safety.
The most crucial slip in such reasoning comes, I believe, in an ambiguity on the words (in my reconstruction) "have to" in the sentence, "If the Christian God exists, we have to love and obey him." If these words are taken to mean "are morally obligated to," then the sentence is true. If they are taken to mean "are compelled to," then it is false.

We see an outworking of this confusion where the reasoner concludes that one cannot come to believe something by way of neutral evidence if that belief is "self-involving." How, exactly, is that supposed to follow? The confusion there is part and parcel of the very notion that belief in a proposition "involves"--especially if this is taken to mean entails--love and commitment to a person.

To see this point, let's look at a different example: Consider the proposition, "I have made vows to my wife to love, honor, and cherish her, and to forsake all others and keep myself only to her as long as we both shall live, and it would be wrong for me to fail to fulfill those vows." Does belief in that proposition entail that you are committed to your wife and that you do love her? It seems obvious that it doesn't. A man could believe that proposition, and hence feel guilty, while carrying out an extramarital affair. A man could believe that proposition and yet say, "But I don't care. I can't stand my wife. I don't want to have anything more to do with her. So it's wrong. So what? I'm outta here." He would, of course, be a very bad man if he did that, as everyone should agree, but it would be a logically possible thing for him to do. So while the above proposition about marriage vows must seem like the ultimate "self-involving" or "self-committing" proposition, and while it is certainly true that, if it is true, it matters, it does not actually entail the involvement or commitment of the person who believes it.

Sometimes I think that Christians don't keep adequately in mind the words of St. James: "The devils also believe, and tremble." James's words entirely undermine one idea floating about in Christian circles (which I am not at all attributing to Wright, by the way) that the difference between saving faith in Christ and mere intellectual assent is the degree of credence one gives to the propositions in question. That confused notion of 'faith' alone has caused a great deal of harm, because it has given people the idea that, to be true Christians, they need to gin up their faith to some sort of heightened pitch of confidence--a mental state that John Locke would quite rightly have condemned as enthusiasm. This problem is closely related to what presuppositionalists often tell evidentialists: "You can't argue someone into the kingdom of God." The evidentialist will usually look puzzled and willingly grant the point, while not understanding what the point of the point is supposed to be. The evidentialist means only to grant that you can't force someone by argument to commit himself to God. The presuppositionalist means (I think) to make tacit use of the idea of saving faith as artificially high degree of credence, so that "You can't argue someone into the kingdom of God" really means, "After you've presented him with the evidence, he still has to believe more strongly than the evidence warrants in order to have saving faith."

But if anyone can be imagined to have full confidence in the truth of the Christian faith, it must surely be the devils. Who believes more strongly in God, Richard Dawkins or Screwtape? Perhaps even more to the point, who believes more strongly in God, Joe Nominal Christian or Screwtape? Obviously, Screwtape, on both counts. So why is Screwtape in hell? Not because he doesn't "truly believe," but because, quite simply, he hates God. He fights against God, quite consciously. So the difference between Screwtape and a true Christian is that the Christian loves God, not that the Christian believes in God more than Screwtape does.

In a very important sense, then, it is simply false to say that the central propositions of Christianity are self-involving or self-committing. Believing them does not guarantee that one is committed to God, not by a long shot. Nor need one imagine a devilish person (which may be a bit hard to imagine) to see the point. James's own audience were people who really did believe in God, but James means to tell them that they are lukewarm or shoulder-shrugging believers whose faith has no relevance to their daily lives: "Show me your faith without works and I will show you my faith by my works."

One reason that we don't always realize this point nowadays, especially we who move in academic circles and in the blogosphere, is because we tend to divide the world up into "skeptics" or "infidels," on the one hand, and "believers," on the other. In the process, we tend to elide the crucial difference between believing in God and following him, which in turn can lend spurious credibility to the false conclusion that there is no way to approach the question of God's existence objectively and evidentially. In a sense, the fact that we equate "believing in God" with "loving God" is a good thing, because it means that very few people actively contemplate becoming devils: "If I believed in God, I'd hate him," is a sentiment one rarely hears, and if one did hear it, it would probably be on the lips of someone who had suffered a bereavement or who was thinking of the problem of evil. It certainly isn't a standard way of thinking. Still less do people plan to be uncommitted believers. It's hardly imaginable that anyone would say, "If I believed in God, I'd be a lukewarm Christian." All of this has its good side insofar as it means that most people perceive the fundamental fact that we ought to love, obey, and follow the Christian God with full commitment, if he exists, and that therefore the stakes in the apologetics game are high. But it is bad if it makes people deny the existence of objective evidence or think that all argument on this most important of subjects is in some way circular or "worldview-tainted," because the conclusion is "self-involving."

It is rather an odd thought, but this brings me back to something that was dinned into me as a young child in a fundamentalist church: Saving faith is not just head knowledge. It is the commitment of the whole person. It is loving and following Jesus. My teachers were doubtless not evidentialists, but their teaching indirectly, and in a surprising way, supports the evidentialist approach to apologetics.

*I want to make it clear that I do not mean to pan Wright's book. Even judging by the parts I have read (the book is so large that I have read only sections), it contains much excellent scholarship on historical issues relevant to Jesus' resurrection (particularly on views of resurrection in Jewish thought), and even in several sections much good sense. I am pitching on his notion from the end of the book of a "self-committing proposition" for purposes of this post, because it provides a particularly good illustration of a confusion that I think needs to be addressed.