Thursday, May 05, 2022

The Rascal Flatts response to Divine Hiddenness

This is a more explicitly philosophical expansion on some remarks in my previous post. This post is intended more for those interested in philosophy of religion. I want to stress that what I say here belongs to the realm of speculative theology, though some aspects of it (such as the proposition that God is not obligated to give the beatific vision to everyone from conception) seem intuitively obvious.

I had a recent conversation in which I brought out the ideas contained here and was asked if I'd ever written anything on them. I said no, except for the post "Pain and the Silence of Man," which is more "existential" in nature. Asked if anyone else has done so, I said that I'm not aware of any article or book in the philosophy of religion that has done so, though it seems that there must be someone who has written something much like this, since these topics have been written about so much over years and indeed centuries.

The objection I'm answering here goes approximately like this: 

If God is perfectly good, then communion and a relationship with him is the highest good for rational creatures. If God is perfectly good, then he would desire that greatest good at all times for such creatures. Yet there are people who would not resist God if he were revealed to them, who live in ignorance of him. And there are people who already know God somewhat who are left without experiences that would draw them still closer to him, at times when they could benefit from those experiences. This absence of further, personal, individualized divine revelation is evidence against the goodness of God.

I am not footnoting this objection, since I don't claim to have researched the literature, but those who are into philosophy of religion will recognize it as a version of the argument against theism (or against the existence of a good God) from divine hiddenness.

The fact that some people live and die in contexts where they never hear of the true God is an illustration of the issue. The fact that some Christians (me, for example) suffer during "dark nights" when we could be encouraged by some direct experience of God such as an audible voice, but don't receive it, is also an illustration.

Some version of "soft" inclusivism (without the necessity for universalism) or even Molinism is the beginning of an answer to "what about those who have never heard." If we are otherwise evidentially convinced of the justice of God, we can have reasonable hope that God reveals himself, possibly at death, to those who have had no other access to knowledge of him and who, God knows, will respond positively to that revelation and accept the true God and Jesus Christ. The occurrence of Christian dreams as an apparent praeparatio evangelica is even some evidence for the proposition that God uses extraordinary means to bring salvation to those who have not naturally heard of him.

But the person pressing the divine hiddenness argument may respond by saying that his concern rather is that God left that person for years without the knowledge of himself, maybe even for the person's whole lifetime, so that the person "missed out" on the good of the knowledge of God during those years, and that this is incompatible with the goodness of God, since he should want a relationship with his creatures at all times. (All of their times, that is, if God himself is outside of time, which I believe to be the case.)

It seems to me that, taken to its logical conclusion, this objection would require that God not defer in any way to the natural circumstances, the chances and changes, of anyone's life, since these lead to differential levels of knowledge of himself at different stages, but should give everyone the beatific vision from the earliest moment of existence. One might protest that the objection can be qualified so that it concerns only those rational beings at times when they are "capable" of a relationship with God, but that seems a dubious qualification. Suppose that some mentally disabled people lack that capacity through no fault of their own all their lives? If we are saying that a good God "would" give a miraculous revelation of himself to the isolated person who has never heard of him, so that that person could know him and have a relationship with him, and that a good God "would" provide more sensible revelations of himself to non-resistant believers such as myself, then why not demand that a good God work a miracle so that those who are otherwise mentally incapacitated become capable of the knowledge of himself, throughout their earthly lives? Or if one wants to qualify it (though this seems rather arbitrary), the objection would still seem to mean that from, say, age 4 or 5 onward, God should grant everyone immediate knowledge and experience of himself by supernatural means.

Let us suppose that a specific virtuous pagan who (God knows) will accept a revelation of God does receive that special revelation at death, accepts it, and thus enters into eternal bliss and the beatific vision--perfect sinlessness, knowledge of God, and communion with God. The ultimate "personal relationship." That eternity with God makes the years of that person's life seem very short in comparison. If we nonetheless hold as an objection to God's goodness that he did not make such a revelation sooner, then it seems that we are saying that even this comparatively short mortal life is somehow "too long" for a good God to leave anyone without a strong, experiential relationship with himself.

In Romans 1 Paul says that even the heathen have some knowledge of God as Creator, but this objection would say that that knowledge is too little to demonstrate divine goodness. And if it is extended to include the absence of personal experience on the part of Christians such as myself (e.g., the lack of a reassuring voice or "sense of presence" in times of pain), then apparently the claim is that a good God would give a great deal of self-revelation to all non-resistant people at any times in their lives when they could benefit from it. It is hard to see how one could consistently stop short of saying that God must give something akin to the beatific vision, at the very least a mystical, even theologically accurate and contentful, sense of his presence, to everyone whom he knows will be non-resistant, from a very early point in their lives.

Someone pressing the objection might say that this attempted reductio is unsuccessful and that all that he is asking by intuition is something far less than that, though I would say that at that point we are impugning the love of God on the basis of some fairly shaky line-drawing about what God would do if he were truly good. To name some degree of personal relationship that God is obligated to give everyone who won't resist it, in this life, seems to me (to put it mildly) not evidentially strong as an anti-theistic argument.

(It should go without saying, but I will say it in case it doesn't go without saying: I'm assuming throughout this discussion that there is a crucial difference between God's not intervening, using extraordinary means, to bring about a personal relationship with himself by extraordinary means and his intervening, using extraordinary means, to prevent a relationship with himself. Similarly, there is a crucial difference between God's permitting one man to murder another, and sovereignly bringing some greater good out of that permitted sin, and his forcing one man to murder another, in order to bring about some higher good. I am not claiming or granting that God deliberately, miraculously blocks non-resistant people from being in a relationship with him, nor as far as I know do we have any evidence whatsoever that he does so. Verses in Scripture about God's hardening someone's heart, as in the case of Pharaoh, seem to refer to those who were previously resistant.)

But let's come at this whole thing from a different angle, suggested in the title of this post. There is a song by Rascal Flatts called "Bless the Broken Road." The idea of it is that the speaker is in a sense thankful even for the strange and convoluted ways by which he came to union with his earthly beloved: "God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you."

The previous post mused on the venerable Christian teaching that suffering is used by God in some mysterious way for the greater good of the one who suffers. I emphasized there the difficulty of expressing what that "greater good" is and the importance of not being glib about it, and I sincerely hope that this more philosophical post is not in any way violating that caution. But in addition to several biblical verses mentioned there asserting the soul-making value of suffering, consider the statement in Ephesians 2:10 that we are God's workmanship.

To answer to the objection I'm considering here, we should ponder the value of individual diversity in the overall divine economy--the "whole thing" that is all of history and creation, which God is making here in time. (While being, I would argue, outside of time himself.) Each one of us undergoes a certain life, which includes joys and sorrows, our own choices as to how to respond, human interactions, including those by which some of us come to know theological truths and to desire consciously to have a relationship with God. These diverse means include proclamation of the gospel by friends, parents, missionaries, preachers, etc., down to the smallest moments when we are struck, in those things that come our way, with a sense of beauty or the transcendent. Clearly God uses the "chances and changes of this mortal life" to bring souls to himself. In some cases the way is longer than others, and more years of this little life pass before one hears of God. Or perhaps the person is sinfully resistant at first and later softens. There are as many ways of God with man as there are individual men.

Now suppose just for a moment that the specificity of your own life contributes, if you ultimately accept God, love him, and acquiesce in his sovereignty, to your specific niche in the glory of creation, which you will understand and enjoy as perfectly as it is in your nature to do, in heaven. This specific "way of getting there" includes the panoply of joys and sorrows, the fact that you learned of Christ in this way rather than that way, the years when you wandered in exile, physical suffering and physical bliss, agony and the forgiveness of sins, friendships and betrayals, the specifics of your culture, and more. All of these things that contribute to the "total you," that four-dimensional space-time being, God sees whole, all at once, and he turns them to his own glory and also, if you are saved and not damned, to your joy and glory as a finite being. 

The demand that God be "in personal relationship" fully with everyone at all times in all lives on this earth flattens this diversity and would (arguably) prevent us from becoming those unique beings with whom the various niches of rational creation, praising God, are filled. For our differences are not only differences of essence but also of historical contingency. As the angelic beings say in the long vision scene at the end of Perelandra, each one is in a sense the center--the humans are the center, the Perelandrans are the center, the cherubim are the center. Each one has its infinite worth; let no man say it nay. So the adult convert who wandered long in the land of the prodigals and ate of the husks until he came to himself has his unique place in the heavenly choir, where he continually praises God for what God forgave, as does the little child who loved Jesus early and died young. So too does the pagan, if there be any such, to whom the true God reveals himself in a flash of knowledge after a life groping in the darkness of animism. So does the Christian who begged God for a miraculous sign, or for healing, or for a voice in the night, and did not receive it. That "not receiving," in the wisdom of God, becomes a part of what makes that person who he ultimately is, to the glory of God. 

If we reject that process and are damned, hell (I suspect) is a great leveler. You demanded equality? Be careful what you ask for. Heaven is full of shining differences and special glories. God works individually with each one, through the true story that is history, in which we freely, causally participate, until he closes the book.

It is possible that I am wrong in some part of what I have said here, but this theodicy, or  part of a theodicy, has for a long time seemed to me importantly true as far as it goes. It is, at a minimum, conceivable that it should be true. It is a "greater good" on which we can get some sort of grasp, of which we can catch a glimmer. And that, I tend to think, is quite sufficient to answer the objection in question, especially when combined with the evidence for the Christian metaphysics and the Christian revelation that teaches us, explicitly, that God is the great Potter, the great Author, and that eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, all the things that God is now preparing for those who love him. It seems to me entirely plausible that those who see him face to face live forever to bless the broken road that led them to that end.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Pain and the silence of man, or Trust is not a skill

Several months ago I put up a video called "Pain and the Silence of God" about my abrupt descent from robust good health into agonizing and apparently incurable bad health. That video has garnered a lot of views, and I hope it's been helpful to someone.

Not to beat around the bush: I am not getting better, even gradually. Symptom severity simply goes round and round, one day to the next, with no positive trajectory. The medical establishment has no solutions and isn't even very good at managing pain as a symptom. I have recently started taking a new pain medication that is having some slight effect, and I'm grateful for that, but the effects shouldn't be exaggerated. 

In passing, I always swore if I ever were chronically ill I wouldn't be one of those people who tell other people what not to say, but...here we are: When talking with a chronically ill person, it's not the best idea to say, "You're not better yet?" or, a recent favorite, to sign off of a phone call where you were discussing other topics with a chipper, "Glad you're feeling better [click]," leaving the person on the other end saying to himself, "Wait, what? Did I say that?" (Apparently the ability to discuss topics other than one's illness without using an agonized voice means that one is "feeling better.")

In the course of recent days and nights I've been reflecting on the extreme difficulty of expressing the soul-making theodicy in a way that is going to make sense to a person, perhaps especially a Christian, living with long-term, significant pain. The soul-making theodicy, as readers probably know, is the idea that God allows suffering to make us holier and more spiritually mature than we would be otherwise. It has ample Scriptural warrant. (James 1:2-4, I Peter 1:6-7, I Peter 5:10, Romans 5:1-5, II Corinthians 4:16-18, and more.)

But that theodicy can be surprisingly difficult to spell out in more detail, and more and more as I live through this (and perhaps I have decades more of it to live through), I begin to think that almost any way of expressing it, though true as far as it goes, will be inadequate. In other words, I'm beginning to think that perhaps there is something incommunicable and mysterious, something that we'll understand only in heaven (if then) about what suffering does for us and to us that is valuable.

Take any expression that "suffering teaches us that..." A good example would be, "Suffering teaches us that this world is not our home and that we shouldn't be too comfortable and at home here." Let me tell  you right now: For any serious Christian who already believed that in theory, it would take only a few weeks at most of severe daily, even hourly physical pain to have him recognizing fully in every pore of his body that heaven is a much better place than this and that he is not at home here on this earth. Indeed, the far greater temptation is to long for death. Yes, certainly--to depart and be with Christ is far better. Amen. I've got that lesson down, Lord!

Or "God sends suffering to teach us that our blessings shouldn't be taken for granted." Yep, got that one too! When you've suffered significant pain even for a while, you definitely learn to appreciate things you never appreciated fully before. The ability to sit, stand, and walk without discomfort and without thinking about your body, just for starters. The ability to concentrate fully on something other than your own body, and to enjoy concentrating. The ability to lie down in bed and relax all your muscles, to slip from thoughts into dreams, to drift into sleep slowly, deliciously, rather than knocking yourself out abruptly with drugs, going from pain to oblivion. Far too many blessings to list. And there are blessings that I still have: My wonderful husband, for example, whom I appreciate more now than ever before. You promise God, yourself, your spouse, your family, your ancestors, the sky, stars, moon, and sun, the saints, the people on the Internet: If I ever get better, I will never again take x, y, or z, p, d, q, r, or s for granted! I'll be grateful for them all the livelong day! Please give me the chance to prove it!

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that these statements about what God teaches us through suffering are false. I'm just saying they are inadequate.

The idea that God sends, or allows, suffering to teach us how to do something (rather than to teach us a propositional truth) is a little less inadequate, but still...

"God allows suffering to teach us to take one day at a time." Well, yes, that's true. Jesus said it, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." You certainly get plenty of opportunities to practice putting away worries and even not worrying at all about certain things that used to seem big but now seem small next to The Big Thing. (The Big Thing is, will it be like this until I die?) You learn, a little anyway, to look no farther ahead than an hour, perhaps a half hour, perhaps five minutes, just to take from the Lord the grace given, moment by moment. But one is sometimes moved to reflect that the means used seem disproportionate. It feels rather like putting weights on the feet of a toddler who hasn't yet learned to walk and telling concerned strangers, "This is strength training. Just think what a strong walker she'll be if she can walk with those things on her feet!" Hmm, yes, if she ever learns to walk at all. 

Until you've actually lived with severe chronic pain, you have no idea how impossible it seems to put away the obsessive thoughts: "Am I getting better? Is this ever going to go away? Oh, hey, it was better there for about an hour this afternoon. When is it going to come back? Here it comes! What is it going to be like tonight and tomorrow? Lord, please make it stop!" "Take no thought for the morrow" starts to sound like a cruel impossibility, and no matter how often one reminds oneself that strength is given only for now, not for tomorrow, that sounds somewhat academic in the trenches. So in a way you learn to take one day at a time, but in a way you "learn" just the opposite.

One of the best of the "to teach us to..." explanations is "to teach us to trust." It's just here, though, that language fails. For that formulation makes trust sound like a skill. And I'm here to tell you: When you are suffering, trust is not a skill. Like most apophatic utterances, that statement is a negation that doesn't communicate much. I'm well aware of that. Perhaps I can be a little clearer. Trust is not a skill because when you most need to trust, you have no strength to exercise any skill. So it follows that you have no skill. When you most need to trust you have nothing. "Where then is boasting?" says St. Paul on another topic. "It is excluded." Right. Precisely. To trust in those hours and minutes is not a skill but a mental and spiritual necessity, like breathing, in and out. Only it's like breathing when breathing is hard. "Help me. Hold onto me. Don't let me hate you. Help thou mine unbelief. Help so-and-so. Help that woman, I can't remember her name." And so forth, and so on. Childish prayers, incoherent prayers, weird prayers, trivial prayers, the mind confused at times and just trying to find a place to rest. Not a skill. But you can't say what it is. It's something you do because you have to survive. 

Here's a pretty good "to learn to..." You learn to take one joy at a time. If there is anything good, anything beautiful, anything true or straight or lovely, and for even one endless, timeless minute you are given leave, given the privilege, to focus on that thing, not feeling your pain or discomfort, by God, you do it. You learn to say, "Shut up!" and make it stick (at least briefly) to that internal trivial chatterer that accompanied you almost constantly before The Great Change and that ruined so many moments when your body used to let you contemplate beauty at will. So many hours and days that used to be wasted on nothing at all. So that's something. When you get a respite and there is something good that you are permitted to see, hear, smell, taste, or contemplate, without distraction, you learn, or start to learn, or take a first step to learn, not to waste the opportunity.

How well can that be expressed? Suppose I'm having a relatively-less-bad Sunday morning, or even five minutes of a Sunday morning, and something leaps out at me from the hymnal. How can I tell you what it was on a recent Sunday about the words, "Doubt and terror are withdrawn" from the hymn "Watchman, tell us of the night" that nearly had me in tears? I can say only that they were good tears, that it is a great gift to tear up in a fashion momentarily untinged by bitterness or self-pity, filled with a faint, imperfect perception of something solid and beautiful beyond the world, beyond the conceiving of man. But what exactly it was in that phrase that brought that sense? That, I cannot tell you. Nor can I communicate to you clearly what I saw or thought I saw, however briefly.

You might say that I have had such epiphanies before, when I had not suffered this much, and that surely it is not necessary for me to go on suffering so much (or even more) in order to have them. Is it? It can't be, can it? Right, it seems that way to me, too. I don't claim to understand. 

Perhaps the only final answer one can give to the question of what God is doing in each of us (and in a different way in each of us), using both joy and pain, intellect and emotion and will, is that he's making us into something else. (See here for a great preacher's approach to that truth, assuring us that none of our suffering is meaningless.) He is making us into citizens of the Country from which that epiphany came. Which is not quite "teaching us that...." nor "teaching us to..." though it has elements of both. It is something else as well. Something we cannot express. 

If one day we find ourselves together in that Country, we will look at each other and point, and we will say, "There! That! That's what it was all about!" And we will laugh.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

On the minimal facts for the resurrection, Part 3: How did we get confused about what scholars grant?

My purpose in this post is two-fold. First, for those interested in "McGrew history," I want to explain a timeline of how it came about that, for a time, Tim and I were confused about how much scholars across the spectrum grant about the resurrection. That confusion made it into our 2009 article, which has in turn caused some people to think that we ourselves were doing something significantly like an MFA in that article. (This has sometimes led to a frustrating attempt to play "gotcha" by quoting certain comments about consensus from that article and then claiming that it is very strange, or ironic, or something like that, that we have since then emerged as critics of the MFA.) Even at the time, we were self-consciously not doing an MFA. We knew that our argument was not an MFA and that it was crucially relying on the polymodal details of the disciples' claims. But we were mistaken about how much scholars grant, and we referred to that incorrectly (though with some qualifications) in the article. How did that happen, and how did we get un-confused? Some people may find that history interesting.

Second, I want to warn about a very real possibility and ask people doing the MFA to be much more careful. People who state the MFA can cause confusion in others about how little the majority of NT scholars really do grant. 

I realize that that part of my post is going to upset some people, so I want to say a couple of things about that right here at the outset, while perhaps I still have readers' attention: When I discuss below some places where I think that Gary Habermas has been unclear on this point, I am not at all saying that he has been intentionally unclear. I think it has been unintentional. I would call it something like getting carried away or getting overenthusiastic in stating the argument, thus describing the disciples' experiences in ways that go beyond what skeptical and liberal scholars grant, and then returning to claim that the argument depends only on what the vast majority of scholars all across the ideological spectrum grant. 

Also, I am not saying that Habermas is always unclear. Sometimes he is very clear about how limited the appearance minimal fact really is. I fully acknowledge this. 

And finally, I am not saying that Habermas explicitly says that skeptical scholars grant more than they really grant. However, I am saying that in some of what he writes, which is influencing apologetics, he does give that impression (no doubt accidentally), especially if what he writes is read by someone who doesn't already know that skeptical scholars and "critical" scholars would never grant that much. In these writings he is supposedly informing the reader of how much is granted by many scholars and how surprising it is. So you shouldn't need to know already what is and isn't granted in order to avoid getting confused!

Although this may sound harsh, I would like to request that you would refrain from commenting on this post if your only purpose is saying something like, "Habermas is clear over in this other place!" or "Anybody should know that skeptical scholars wouldn't grant that, so you'd really have to have something wrong with you to be confused!" or even, "But I can find some other way to construe this article or this passage, so it isn't unclear, so you're wrong!" The fact that you can find some other way to construe a passage doesn't mean that it isn't unclear and doesn't mean that intelligent people of good will couldn't get confused by reading it. It doesn't prevent my warning from being well-taken.

Look: I'm saying that intelligent people of good will who don't already know what the consensus does and doesn't contain could pretty easily get confused about this from such passages as those I'll quote, and some have gotten confused. Therefore, MFA users need to be more careful. Is that really such a threatening statement that you have to try to read the passages with a magnifying glass, cherry pick certain sentences, insist that we focus only on this sentence or that sentence, in order to find some way to say I'm being sloppy, misrepresenting, or that we must have been nuts ever to have been confused, etc.? If you think about it, it's kind of a moderate point. I'm not saying that Dr. Habermas was or is or ever has been dishonest about this matter.

I'm also saying that the context itself is part of what is confusing. You have to look at the flow of the article or passage. You can't legitimately insist on restricting attention only to the briefest statement of the minimal fact, look at nothing else, and say, "See, there, he doesn't say anything more in that list of the minimal facts, so that's all that matters." No, that isn't all that matters, if he then goes on to rely importantly on something more in the exposition of the argument, while claiming that he's only relying on what virtually all scholars grant! 

I'm saying, here are some illustrative passages from Dr. Habermas that are quite understandably confusing to a reader, so please be more careful than this. It's not necessary and not helpful for MFA proponents to oppose such a point to the death. If you have no objection to being clear, just try to make it extremely clear that the majority of scholars don't really grant much of interest about what the disciples' experiences were actually like

What's the problem? If the problem is that the MFA won't look very strong if we state openly that most skeptical and liberal scholars don't grant much about the nature of the disciples' appearance experiences, that is not my problem. 

Another thing: It doesn't refute anything I'm saying in this post to point to places where either MFA proponents or skeptics say something like, "That the disciples really had resurrection experiences is widely granted, even though some try to explain these naturalistically." That's not the point. Just saying that (or similar things) isn't enough to clear up the confusion. I'm concerned about the potential (and in some cases actual) confusion people have about what the subjective nature of the experiences was like and how much is and isn't granted on that point. Of course skeptics will try to explain the experiences (whatever they were like) naturalistically. The question is, do virtually all scholars grant that the disciples had highly physical-like experiences like those recorded in the Gospels? Well, no, they don't! Everybody who actually knows the scholarly literature knows that. But unfortunately in statements of the MFA, that is not always well explained. When that is combined with eye-popping statements about the amazing scholarly agreement about the resurrection appearances, that can lead to confusion on that point--what do the "vast majority of scholars" concede about what these experiences were like? 

Onward to personal history.

How the confusion about scholarly consensus got into our 2009 article

In 2007-2008 when Tim and I were writing our article on the resurrection for the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, available here, Tim had read far more of Dr. Habermas's work than I had. Our article (as anyone who has read it knows) was already going to be quite long, due to the generosity of William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, the editors, in giving us page space. Obviously we weren't going to include in a single article an entire defense of the reliability of the Gospels!

We knew quite well that we wanted to base our argument in part upon the specifics of the disciples' testimony as given in the Gospels. After all, you can't base an argument on testimony unless you specify the content of the testimony! We knew that we wanted to use the polymodal nature of that testimony--that the disciples claimed that they could touch Jesus, hear him, and see him, that they had long conversations with him, that they ate with him in groups, and so forth. We considered that salient and important. And we therefore knew that we were structuring our argument differently from the MFA. For one thing, we talked about the "testimony of the women" rather than the "empty tomb." I can remember our discussing that specifically. While the testimony of the women of course included their claiming that they found the tomb empty, it included more--their claims of seeing Jesus, talking to an angel, and so forth. Moreover, we decided that instead of saying that the disciples had experiences, as the MFA does, we would instead conditionalize on their testifying to their experiences. Along that axis, we regarded ourselves as (in a sense) being less generous than the MFA in the facts we were conditionalizing on, since the MFA says that they actually had experiences. 

I can remember our discussing the question of what scholars do and don't grant and Tim's being quite definite that, especially given the modestness of our assumption that this was just what the disciples claimed, Habermas's research about the surprising degree of scholarly consensus would support it. He was basing this on his reading of a number of different works by Habermas, such as the older debate with Flew, The Verdict of History, The Historical Jesus, etc. (The latter two of these contain several pages that are identical on this topic.)

So we proceded to write the article, and we put a sentence in it, in particular, that contained something incorrect:

Indeed, much of our argument could be made without even the general claim of reliability, since as we shall point out many of the salient facts are agreed upon by scholars across the spectrum. But we have chosen to frame the argument this way since we think the general reliability claim is quite defensible and since this allows us to tackle the philosophically interesting questions regarding evidence for the miraculous on the same plane where Hume leveled his famous attack.

This is a qualified statement. We don't say that the assumption of reliability is totally unnecessary nor that we are basing our argument only on what is granted. (Why make the assumption if it's totally unnecessary?) But the statement does give the impression that we think that a lot of the things we're going to be using are granted by scholarly consensus. As I recall, I in particular was thinking that our argument was focused upon the resurrection narratives, so even if other narratives in the Gospels were not true, as long as we could take it as given that the resurrection narratives represent what the witnesses claimed, the argument would go through. Of course, lots of scholars certainly don't grant that the resurrection narratives do represent what the disciples claimed, so ... But we didn't know that.

Another quotation contains some isolated sentences that, taken out of their immediate context, could be regarded as causing confusion about what we, ourselves, were doing, but that one actually (in context) makes it quite clear that we weren't doing an MFA. Here are those sentences in context.

It is true that this conclusion is conducted under an initial constraint; it is predicated on the assumption that in matters other than the explicit claims of miracles, the gospels and the book of Acts are generally reliable – that they may be trusted as much as any ordinary document of secular history with respect to the secularly describable facts they affirm. And where they do recount miraculous events, such as Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, we assume that they are authentic – that is, that they tell us what the disciples claimed. This calculation tells us little about the evidence for the resurrection if those assumptions are false. We have provided reasons to accept them, but of course there is much more to be said on the issue. This limitation, however, is not as severe as might be thought. “General reliability” admits of degrees, and we have deliberately kept our salient facts minimally stated with the intention that they should not require reliance at every point on the smallest details of the biblical texts. The weight placed on our textual assumptions varies from one fact to another and even from one aspect of a given fact to another. The facts we have designated as W are perhaps the most vulnerable to a challenge based on textual skepticism. Some aspects of D – for example, that the disciples made specific claims regarding the physical details of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances – depend more heavily on the authenticity of the sources than others – for example, the witnesses’ willingness to die for their belief in the resurrection, which is supported by extrabiblical sources. 

"Minimally stated," "not require reliance at every point on the smallest details"!! See, the McGrews weren't relying on the details of the Gospels! They explicitly said so! Um, no, just read on a little bit further. We immediately illustrate the "at every point" qualifier by explicitly stating that the aspect of D concerning the disciples' "specific claims regarding the physical details of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances" does depend more heavily on the authenticity of the sources. So you'd really have to be quote-mining to get out of that paragraph the idea that we weren't relying on details. 

I hope that no one will do that, at least not after reading this post.

We also made repeated references to the polymodal nature of the disciples' testimonies and to the crucial role they are playing in setting the Bayes factor for D (the testimony of the disciples):

Second, to explain the facts the hallucination theory would have to be invoked for more than a dozen people simultaneously (Luke 24:36-43).26 The plausibility of a collective hallucination is, for obvious reasons, inversely related to the amount of detail it involves.27 Given the level of polymodal interactive detail reported in cases like the one in Luke 24, the probability of coincidence is vanishing. A third factor exacerbates this problem: the hallucinations would have to be not only parallel but also integrated. According to the gospels, the risen Jesus interacted with his disciples in numerous ways including eating food they gave him (Luke 24:41- 43) and cooking fish for them (John 21:1-14). In such contexts, the disciples were interacting not only with Jesus but with one another, physically and verbally. The suggestion that their parallel polymodal hallucinations were seamlessly integrated is simply a non-starter, an event so improbable in natural terms that it would itself very nearly demand a supernatural explanation. Finally, these detailed, parallel, integrated hallucinations must be invoked repeatedly across a period of more than a month during which the disciples were persuaded that they repeatedly interacted with their Lord and master here on earth.

When we consider the fact that at least thirteen men were willing to die for the claim that Jesus of Nazareth had risen again, it is important to consider what sort of account they gave of what had happened in order to know what it was that they were willing to die for. First, the accounts of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples are not vague nor “spiritualized” but rather circumstantial, empirical, and detailed. Not only do they purport to give a number of his statements, discussed below, but they state expressly that he deliberately displayed empirical evidence that he was not a spirit but rather a physical being. It was therefore a physical resurrection claim that the disciples made: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me, and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have.” And when they still do not believe, he asks what food is available and eats a piece of fish and a honeycomb. Later he cooks fish for them and invites them to breakfast (Luke 24:39-43; cf. John 20:27; John 21:9-13). 

So it's very clear that we are relying on DT (stated again below). That much you can see in the article explicitly and emphatically.

At the same time, there were several references to consensus in the article, and the first quotation above gave an impression that some important part of our argument could go through based only on what was granted by consensus, without Gospel reliability. The article thus contained hints (for someone who happened to know that the consensus doesn't grant all that much) that we were somewhat confused about something concerning consensus. As indeed we were: How much did the consensus really grant about the claims made by the disciples and the women?

Time went by after the publication of that article, and I began in the following years, revving up especially in 2014, delving into New Testament studies. The more I looked into things, the more I realized that it just wasn't the case that a majority of scholars granted what I've more recently dubbed DT. DT, as stated in an earlier post, is this:

DT: The Gospel accounts and the account in Acts 1 of Jesus' resurrection appearances and of the finding of the empty tomb reliably represent what the disciples/alleged witnesses (both male and female) claimed about their experiences at that time. This includes such matters as that Jesus ate with them more than once, that they were able to touch him, that he appeared to them multiple times and to varied groups, that he had lengthy conversations with them, and so forth.

Interestingly, the publication of Michael Licona's resurrection book in 2011-2012, fleshing out the MFA, was part of what really raised questions for us about what is granted by scholars. I want to say right here that this is one place where Licona himself is virtually always, perhaps always, clear and consistent--he makes it clear what scholars across the spectrum don't grant. There is a somewhat interesting tradeoff here between Licona and Habermas, the two major architects of the MFA. Habermas, at least in his earlier work, repeatedly states that he's quite willing to defend Gospel reliability, and I believe that he means "reliability" there in its older, unqualified sense, not in any redefined sense. It is even possible that it is his willingness to defend old-fashioned Gospel reliability that leads Habermas to be, sometimes, incautious and unclear (as I'll argue in the second part of this post) about what is and isn't granted by a majority of scholars. Licona, on the other hand, is more inclined than Habermas is (or at least than Habermas was in his earlier writings) to try not to go too far beyond the consensus of scholarship about what historians can know objectively from the Gospels. Anyone who reads my work knows of my many criticisms of Licona's work on Gospel literary devices. At the same time, this greater closeness to scholarly consensus in his own work and greater caution about defying it may be what causes Licona to be clearer than Habermas about what is not granted by scholars.

In 2014 Tim contributed a debate review to this volume on the debate between William Lane Craig and Alex Rosenberg. By that time, he and I were uneasy enough about what was and wasn't in scholarly consensus that Tim thought he needed to issue a caution. Being the tactful fellow that he is, he merely noted that the scholarly consensus, depending on its extent, might not be robust enough to bear the weight being placed on it.

Are a majority of historical scholars agreed that groups of people who were intimately familiar with Jesus’ appearance simultaneously experienced what they believed to be extensive, coordinated, polymodal interactions with him? This claim goes beyond the strict letter of the early creed embedded in 1 Corinthians 15, though it is certainly consonant with it. I am uncertain how far the consensus extends in this direction, and it obviously matters for the evaluation of the hallucination hypothesis. There are ample resources for addressing that hypothesis in the Gospel accounts. But that brings us back to the question of the broader historical trustworthiness of the resurrection narratives in the Gospels. So without knowing more about the details of the scholarly agreement, it is difficult to pass judgment on the explanatory step in Craig’s argument.

In a footnote, Tim specifically tagged our 2009 article as going farther than minimal facts:

For a somewhat different approach to the question, not based solely on 'minimal facts,' see Timothy and Lydia McGrew, 'The Argument from Miracles,' in Craig and Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009), 593-662."

By February, 2015, I was quite convinced that the MFA premise about "the appearances" did not imply that DT was granted by skeptical scholars, and I was particularly bothered about the inclusion of people in the "consensus of scholarship" who quite explicitly deny DT and hold that all that physical stuff is later embellishment. I felt that there was a lot of confusion going on. So I published this post stating outright what the "appearances" claim didn't include and arguing that this significantly weakens the argument. 

In April, 2018, I put out this longer critique of the MFA. In 2018, someone (I forget who it was) pointed out the sentence quoted above from the 2009 article that "much of" our argument could go through without the reliability assumption. Therefore, in May of that year, I put out this explicit retraction of an incorrect implication about the extent of consensus. 

Let me add though that anyone familiar with my criticisms of the MFA from 2015 to the present should automatically know that Tim and I have figured out that consensus doesn't extend to DT! That's at the heart of my critique.

I hope that all of this history is of some interest to someone. 

Now I want to ask and (in the next section) answer a question: Someone might say, how could you, or Tim, or any intelligent person of good will, possibly get confused about what Habermas was saying he'd found to be included in scholarly consensus? After all, we find Habermas making clear statements like this:

The nearly unanimous consent of critical scholars is that, in some sense, the early followers of Jesus thought that they had seen the risen Jesus. "Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What Are Critical Scholars Saying?" Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2, p. 151.

Note the careful wording "in some sense." Or this:

The vast majority of scholars agree that these persons certainly thought that they had visual experiences of the risen Jesus. "Resurrection Research From 1975 to the Present," p. 152.

Note the emphasis upon visual experiences. Or this, from the later Habermas-Flew debate:

I recently finished a study of about 1,400 sources on the Resurrection, all written in German, French, and Enlish from 1975 to the present, to see where critical scholars are today. By far more scholars think that something really happened--that the disciples had real experiences. They believed they saw the risen Jesus. While a majority of scholars in recent decades admit that Jesus appeared in some sense, they often avoid talk about bodily resurrection. They sometimes talk as if--these are my words--there was some kind of shimmering holographic image of Jesus--some manifestation of light. So that’s probably the typical approach today from critical scholars that are somewhere in between Tony and me. 

Obviously, a mere shimmering holographic image or a manifestation of light is not like the polymodal appearance experiences recorded in the Gospels, especially since none of the Gospels say anything about Jesus glowing or shimmering. Replacing an experience of a tangible Jesus with a "manifestation of light" is a pretty big downgrading of the appearance premise. Habermas doesn't apparently realize the epistemic implications, but he states openly here something that pretty clearly implies that the majority of scholars don't grant DT.

So what was the matter? How could any person of good will be confused? Well, quite simply, because Dr. Habermas sometimes is unclear. I will document below that we are not the only ones to be confused.

Unclear statements that lead to confusion about scholarly consensus 

I want to clarify again my purpose here: My purpose is to answer, "How could any intelligent person of good will be confused by the statement of the MFA about the extent of scholarly consensus?" and also to ask advocates of the MFA to be more clear in all their presentations that the scholarly consensus does not extend to saying that the disciples even claimed experiences like those found in the Gospels.

What I'm going to do is to quote and discuss statements from three different works by Dr. Habermas, going backwards chronologically, that I think could understandably cause confusion on this point in those who read them. This is not intended to be disrespectful to him but to raise this warning and concern about the possibility of unclarity.

I could discuss more works in more detail but am going to take the space only for longer quotations from three to show that this is something that Habermas does on more than one occasion. Here I mention only briefly his earlier debate with Antony Flew, but there are ways that one could get honestly confused from that. There is also his use of the physical details of the Gospel reports in the Philosophia Christi response to the work of Dale Allison (2008). He argues in the main text that the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are disanalogous to the apparitional literature: "Jesus appeared many times, to individuals as well as to groups of up to five hundred persons at once, was touched, ate food, and had normal, sometimes rather lengthy, conversations with his followers." At that point he has the a footnote:

Some of these details, especially those in the last half of this sentence, are questioned in the critical literature. But again, as I have said, we are only comparing the various sorts of reported phenomena here, not debating the data on their behalf. After discussion, if certain scholars think that particular items here should be bracketed, that could of course affect their reaction to the conclusions here. But I still maintain that there would be enough remaining that most scholars would still allow various levels of differences between the appearances and the apparitional literature.

Habermas is right in the main text to call out Allison on allowing so many paranormal accounts to pass muster as what the original alleged witnesses claimed while being so skeptical on this point concerning the Gospels. At the same time, Habermas does an odd back-and-forth here himself: First he uses the details of the Gospel accounts to point out disanalogies to apparitional reports. He then admits in the footnote that the most important of these details are "questioned in the critical literature" but then vaguely says that "there would be enough remaining" to create "various levels of differences" between the appearances and the claims of apparitions. But what does this mean? What "level of difference" from the apparitional literature would remain if we stuck, for example, to what is granted by the large majority of scholars? Habermas doesn't claim in this article to be doing an MFA, but if something more than an MFA is necessary to respond to Allison's bodily resurrection skepticism (or agnosticism), that is a fairly significant apologetic limitation, especially if Allison's paranormal sympathies become more popular. Naturally, in Allison's response, he says that Habermas can't justifiably assume that the Gospel accounts are unembellished accounts of witness claims. This is (I agree with Habermas) a double standard on Allison's part, but it was inevitable that he would make that move, given his own place on the NT scholarly spectrum, and the scholarly consensus certainly isn't going to stop him. Habermas's instinct to move beyond the MFA in his response to Allison, then admit that what he's using is questioned by some scholars, but then say that he thinks enough is agreed upon to do the job, raises the question rather urgently: Just how much is granted by the majority of scholars?

There are even clearer instances, though, of confusing language, spanning several decades. Here is a particularly strong statement from a 2018 popular post on The Stream about the very topic of surprising scholarly agreeement on the resurrection.

About 40 years ago, I began writing about what I have called the Minimal Facts Argument. I wouldn’t want you to think it’s a “minimally-sized” argument in any way, or that only a few facts from the day are available. Rather it’s an argument for the resurrection of Jesus based on that small, “minimal” core of facts that all academically credible researchers agree on. Using between three and seven historical events that are recognized by these scholars, it builds on what we may learn from these data.

Not too long ago I listed six of these events in a dialogue with an agnostic New Testament scholar. I used the historical facts that 1) Jesus died by crucifixion, 2) his early followers had experiences a short time later that they thought were appearances of Jesus, 3) and as a result, they were transformed to the point of being willing to die for this message. Further, two former unbelievers 4) James the brother of Jesus and 5) Saul of Tarsus (later the apostle Paul) both similarly thought that they had seen the risen Jesus, as well; and 6) This Gospel message of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ began to be taught very soon after these events. [snip]

How Do We Move from the Minimal Historical Facts to Jesus’ Resurrection Appearances?

Using only the six facts about Jesus and his disciples listed above, backed up by the evidences that confirm them, we have a scenario that points very strongly to Jesus’ appearing to his disciples after he died by crucifixion. Actually, we can boil the case down to those two ingredients. Did Jesus actually die on the cross? Then was he seen afterwards, having conversations with friends just like any of us might do? If Jesus was walking around and talking, seen by groups of witnesses (such as reported in the most scholarly-tested text, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7), then His appearances are solid!

Some might question whether historians can use the New Testament texts at all. Do critical scholars allow that? Actually, they cite these passages as often as conservative Christians do. The difference is that critical scholars generally only make use of those accredited citations that satisfy their reasons, such as those that we just mentioned.

The result of it all is that we have six solid, agreed facts, backed up with good historical reasoning. Rather incredibly, these six facts are enough to argue strongly against all of the major non-supernatural alternative hypotheses to Jesus’ resurrection. This is the primary reason why only a minority of critical scholars today still even attempt to argue these natural suppositions. Incidentally, they were popular primarily in the Nineteenth Century.

But these six facts are also the strongest affirmative reasons for believing that Jesus appeared to His followers both individually and in groups after His death. That so many eyewitnesses reported these experiences is admitted by virtually all critical scholars. You would have to look hard to find very many dissenters.

I want to talk especially about the latter part of this quotation. After introducing these facts as those that this vast consensus agrees on, Habermas characterizes two of those facts like this:

Did Jesus actually die on the cross? Then was he seen afterwards, having conversations with friends just like any of us might do?

Now, this is just getting carried away. It is definitely not agreed on by any sort of vast scholarly consensus that the disciples even claimed that Jesus had conversations with them just like any of us might do! Yet I think if one is honest, one should admit that this looks like its intended as a restatement of the "appearance" minimal fact! Habermas continues:

If Jesus was walking around and talking, seen by groups of witnesses (such as reported in the most scholarly-tested text, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7)...

Two points: Perhaps this was just unclear writing, but I must note that I Corinthians 15 says nothing about either walking or talking. But let that go. Maybe Habermas meant "such as reported..." to refer solely to "seen by groups of witnesses." Okay. But what is a reference to "walking around and talking" doing at all in a statement of the minimal facts argument? To be blunt, it simply doesn't belong in the article, period. Neither does the reference to having conversations with friends. These are not granted by the majority of scholars. The majority of scholars don't even grant that the disciples claimed that this was what their experiences were like. 

I'm sorry to have to say this, but this article is radically unclear about what is and isn't granted by a consensus. Making matters worse, since it makes such a big deal about how surprising this consensus is, and since it's intended to inform people about this surprising consensus, someone who wasn't an expert might easily shrug off his own surprise about how much scholars grant!

Now move backward in time to a more scholarly piece from 2001. This article is about renewed interest among scholars in hallucination theories as alternatives to the resurrection. Early on, Habermas says,

 Lastly, I will present a multifaceted critique of these positions, using only data that can be ascertained by critical means, which the vast majority of scholars will accept.

But here is one of his criticisms of the hallucination theories:

What about the natural human tendency to touch? Would not one of them ever discover, even in a single instance, that his or her best friend, seemingly standing perhaps just a few feet away, was not really there?

Now, it simply is not granted by the vast majority of scholars that Jesus appeared to the disciples to be standing close enough to them to be touched. It isn't even granted by the vast majority of scholars that the disciples claimed this. It isn't even granted by the vast majority of scholars that Jesus appeared to be standing on the ground when he appeared to them. And if someone says that Habermas meant "which the vast majority of scholars will accept" to modify only "critical means," what are the "critical means," which the "vast majority of scholars will accept" by which it is ascertained that Jesus appeared to the disciples to be close enough to touch? In any event, it shouldn't be necessary to get that nitpicky with the sentence to avoid confusion. Here is another criticism of hallucination theories:

The wide variety of times and places that Jesus appeared, along with the differing mindsets of the witnesses, is another formidable obstacle. The accounts of men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, provide an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations.

The vast majority of scholars do not grant that Jesus appeared both indoors and outdoors. Nor, if we confine ourselves to "critical means," are we going to be able to get this out of the texts by widely allowed "critical means." It isn't even clear that the vast majority of scholars grant a wide variety of times and places. Nor do the vast majority grant that he appeared to both men and women. (Remember that there's a big difference between even granting the empty tomb, discovered by women, and granting that he appeared to a group of women.)

I submit, again, that someone of good will and intelligence, reading this article, could easily get confused about what the vast majority of scholars grant.

Last, I'd like to go over some quotations from Habermas's book The Historical Jesus, 1996. Because these cover several pages, I can't quote the pages in their entirety. This means that if someone is determined to say that I must have left something out that prevents these pages from being at all unclear, he can say that. I encourage anyone to read the book for himself. Please, again, remember that all I'm saying is that an intelligent person of good will could be confused by these pages if he didn't already know in some independent way what the consensus of scholars does and doesn't include. It shouldn't be necessary to take a magnifying glass to the pages and find some one-word qualier here or there in order to avoid getting confused. (Note that above, I have owned that someone could be confused by our 2009 statement about scholarly consensus even despite our use of the phrase "much of our argument.")

Habermas, of course, lists his facts in brief form, giving both a list of twelve "known facts" and a shorter list of four "minimal facts." The appearance claim is included in both and is worded in the usual minimal way that is compatible with either "thick" or "thin" apostolic experiences. He emphasizes, as usual, that these facts are granted by virtually all scholars.

There are a minimum number of facts agreed upon by practically all critical scholars, whatever their school of thought. (p. 158)

Earlier, twelve facts were enumerated as knowable history, accepted as such by almost all scholars. It is this writer's conviction that even by using only four of these accepted facts, a sufficient case can be made for the historicity of the resurrection, which will strengthen the earlier apologetic. p. 161

In passing, the phrase "strengthen the earlier apologetic" is just incorrect, taken epistemologically, and is an example of what I called in the last post conflating epistemology and sociology. While it may look more impressive in some rhetorical or sociological sense to use a very small number of premises, it does not actually strengthen the case for the conclusion.

In any event, Habermas has here staked out, as usual, the claim that he's going to do this with only things granted by virtually all scholars.

The appearance fact, as usual, is stated in minimal-sounding terms:

The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. (p. 158)

However, Habermas confusingly states multiple times that the appearance fact is especially important because it concerns the nature of the appearances:

Of these four core facts, the nature of the disciples' experiences is the most crucial. As historian Michael Grant asserts, historical investigation actually proves that the earliest eyewitnesses were convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus. p. 163

One major advantage of these core facts is that, not only are they critically accepted as knowable history, but they directly concern the nature of the disciples' eperiences. As such, these four historical facts are able...to both disprove the naturalistic theories and to provide major positive evidences which relate the probability of Jesus' literal resurrection. p. 164

The statement that the minimal facts "directly concern the nature of the disciples' experiences" simply isn't true in any interesting sense. If one sticks only to the minimal fact as stated, the only thing it tells us about the nature of the appearances is that they convinced the apostles (somehow) that Jesus was literally risen. (By the way, elsewhere at around this same time, Habermas seems to use "literally" to mean "objectively" rather than, necessarily, "physically"--in other words, in such a way that it would be compatible with an objective vision as well as with bodily resurrection. My understanding is that he takes it as a majority-granted but not supermajority-granted fact that the disciples believed Jesus to have been physically risen. It isn't clear whether here by "literally" he means "physically" or just "objectively.")

The emphatic statement that the minimal fact of the appearance experiences "directly" concerns the nature of the disciples' experiences is highly confusing. If the reader doesn't already know in some other way that Habermas is attempting to state the appearance fact in a vague way in order to garner the largest critical acceptance for it (and why should the reader think that, going into this topic?), he could certainly get the idea that this minimal fact, granted by nearly all scholars, includes the idea that the disciples had experiences of some rather specific nature which strongly supports the resurrection. It would be unfair to ask the reader, who thinks he is learning about scholarly consensus on the matter, to take it that what is granted by scholars is only what is given in what is the briefly-stated list. It definitely appears that the further statements that this core fact "directly concerns the nature of the appearances" is a further spelling-out of what is granted by the scholars.

This interpretation seems all the more warranted given that Habermas strongly insists that the minimal facts alone can rule out all naturalistic theories and that this is why these were abandoned in the 19th century:

These known historical facts...answer the various theories which have been proposed in order to account for Jesus' resurrection on naturalistic grounds. These hypotheses, chiefly popularized by liberal scholars in the nineteenth century, are rarely held today by critics, especially since they failed to account for the historical facts surrounding this event (such as those just mentioned above). p. 159

He illustrates this supposed ruling out concerning the hallucination theory in the following way:

First, using only these four historical facts, the naturalistic theories can be disproven....The disciples' experiences disprove the hallucination and other subjective theories both because such phenomena are not collective or contagious, being observed by one person alone, and because of the wide variety of time and place factors involved, p. 164

Do virtually all scholars grant a wide variety of times and places? Do virtually all scholars even grant group appearances? In a recent video Michael Licona has related from personal communication with Habermas that Habermas has said that about 75% of scholars grant group appearances. Some group appearance or other. Since we don't have Habermas's underlying survey and literature interpretation data, and since his estimate relies upon his own interpretation of various articles, even this is open to legitimate question. My own suspicion, based on reading Habermas's other work (such as the original debate with Flew), is that the "creed" in I Corinthians 15 is doing much of the work. Could it be that, if a scholar grants that the "creed" there is pre-Pauline and early, Habermas automatically counts that scholar as "granting group appearances" which "rule out" hallucination? That inference contains a couple of jumps in and of itself. 

In any event, it's not even clear that the "creed" in I Corinthians 15 contains a wide variety of times and places, especially not for group appearances. It mentions only two, even if the skeptic grants the (natural but not absolutely necessary) interpretation of the appearance "to the twelve" to mean "to the twelve all at once," which scholars may not grant. I really don't think we should take it that the vast majority of scholars grant a "wide variety of times and places" at which appearances took place. (The reference to places makes one think of "indoors and outdoors" quoted above, which is far too specific to be widely granted.)

Moreover, the reference to scholars abandoning naturalistic theories in droves after the 19th century does leave one scratching one's head. What did virtually all of the unbelieving scholars in 1996 believe, then? Did most of them believe in ghosts? Did they nearly all adopt an "objective vision" theory? But that requires at least the belief in God. Did they all adopt some paranormal theory? Or is Habermas implying that most of them were so impressed by the minimal facts (which they granted) that they threw their hands up and admitted that they were unable to account for the data and didn't know what happened? This overstatement about the abandonment of naturalistic theories, together with the emphasis upon "the nature" of the disciples' experiences, could certainly lead to unclarity concerning what virtually all scholars grant.

I note, too, that in 2001 Habermas stated that hallucination theories were making a comeback, even by his estimation, but by 2018 he was once more stating that only a minority of critical scholars believe naturalistic theories. Remember this, from the article in The Stream? "Only a minority of critical scholars today still even attempt to argue these natural suppositions. Incidentally, they were popular primarily in the Nineteenth Century." 

In the course of the discussion earlier in the same chapter in The Historical Jesus, Habermas brings in the sermons in Acts and cites C. H. Dodd in support of the claim that,

Next to I Corinthians 15:3ff., the most crucial texts for historical purposes are several early passages in the book of Acts (especially Peter's speeches)....Many scholars have argued that in these early texts we have a clear summary of the earliest apostolic kerygma. pp. 148-149

He also cites, on a different page (p. 141), a long list of facts that one could deduce from the sermons in Acts, including that the disciples ate with Jesus (Acts 10:40-41). He lists this same proposition about eating with them on p. 168, again giving this same reference.

Could it be that Habermas is treating the historicity of the sermons in Acts, taken to be historical declarations of the original witnesses, as included in the evidence he can use to rule out hallucination? I'm strongly in favor of using these passages, but I take a maximalist approach. It should not be included in the evidence relied on in a MFA, when one is emphatically declaring that one is relying only on what is granted by the majority of scholars. Whether Habermas is doing this is left unclear in these pages, though if he is doing so, that would help to explain some of his overstatements. 

In any event, Dodd (whom I have now looked up on the subject, though one shouldn't have to) is moderately positive about the idea that the sermons go back to "the kerygma of the apostolic church," though even that doesn't make for acknowledgement of DT. Dodd is quite definite that the sermons don't represent what Peter himself said on some particular historical occasion. The degree of historicity of the speeches in Acts is extremely controversial among critical scholars. I myself think it is very solid and have argued as much, but I'm considered very conservative, and I'm self-consciously bucking critical consensus. Colin Hemer has an entire appendix on the subject in his wonderful book on Acts, but he certainly makes it clear that by no stretch of the imagination is any strong historical thesis about those speeches granted by a large consensus of scholars across the ideological spectrum! I doubt that you could get even a bare majority to agree that they are substantially historical as some kind of vaguely "apostolic" teaching, and you almost certainly couldn't if you added that they are substantially historical as uttered by Peter on specific occasions.

Perhaps Habermas would try to say that it is only certain portions of these sermons in Acts that he is treating as the testimony of the apostles. But the nearest one gets to a list of such shorter portions is footnote 31 on p. 149, after the sentence, "The death and resurrection of Jesus are at the center of each sermon." The verses selected are those that assert the death and resurrection of Jesus. But Habermas provides no evidence of large majority or even majority scholarly consensus that the content in these verses (including the statement that Jesus ate and drank with them) was actually attested to by the disciples. The closest he comes is to say this: "Critical research has shown that these texts reflect early, largely undeveloped theology, perhaps from theJerusalem community" (p. 149) and to cite both Dodd and John Drane as stating that the language in these speeches appears to be rougher and earlier than the language of the book of Acts. Again, that's all very interesting, but to claim that these verses are earlier proclamation, much less that disciples literally claimed to have eaten with Jesus in a group (!), is stronger, more contentful, and more controversial than the minimal fact of the appearance claim, and such a stronger statement does not enjoy large scholarly consensus, however it is supported. Merely to say that it has been supported by "critical means" just isn't enough to make it legitimately accessible in an argument allegedly based only one the minimal facts.

In the earlier debate with Flew, Habermas also states that Dodd holds that

the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection appearances (and the earlier reports included in them, in particular) should be utilized as records of what the eyewitnesses actually saw. (Did Jesus Rise from the Dead, p. 24)

The parenthesis here is especially puzzling. Surely it should be "or the earlier reports included in them," should it not? It is quite odd to make a distinction between the Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances and some hypothetical "earlier reports included in them" and  then to state that a critical scholar grants that both of these should be utilized as records of what the eyewitnesses saw. The whole point of making such distinction is to claim that the eye of critical scholarship can discern an underlying, earlier layer within the accounts, which is to be taken as more likely authentic. (In fact that kind of procedure is typical of Dodd's whole approach to NT studies.) If one is going to say that the Gospel accounts and such a hypothetical pre-Gospel layer should be taken as accounts of what the eyewitnesses saw (or even claimed that they saw), why make the distinction? This parenthetical only makes the reference to Dodd more confusing, but a person of good will could certainly come away with the impression that Dodd, at least, acknowledges DT. I've looked up that Dodd paper as well (which, again, one shouldn't have to do to get clear on this), and this is an overly optimistic statement. Dodd is intrigued by the story of Mary Magdalene in John and its freshness, thinking that maybe it goes back to some very early human statement, yet he insists that John is a fabricator of scenes, and he says that the scene with Doubting Thomas is made up. (This use of Dodd also raises the point, yet again, that Habermas's claims about scholarly consensus are based upon Habermas's interpretations of a large number of scholarly papers, which no doubt could be challenged in individual cases, perhaps in many cases. The fact that I've found Habermas to be overly optimistic in his interpretation of Dodd here is reason for caution in this area.)

In any event, Dodd is generally regarded as a scholarly moderate. A few cautious moves in a conservative direction by C. H. Dodd do not make for a heterogenous consensus of virtually all scholars!

The inclusion of such supporting evidence from a critical scholar here or there, without clarity as to exactly what role it is playing in the supposedly minimal facts argument, Habermas's repeated insistence that he is relying only on what is granted by the vast majority of scholars, references to the minimal facts as directly concerning the "nature" of the disciples' experiences, and extremely strong statements about ruling out all naturalistic theories, create a situation ripe for confusion about what the majority grants. Habermas summarizes with this very strong statement about what his argument has accomplished and how:

Since these core historical facts (and the earlier accepted facts in general) have been established by critical and historical procedures, contemporary scholars cannot reject the evidence simply by referring to "discrepancies" in the New Testament texts or to its general "unreliability." Not only are such critical claims refuted by evidence discussed in other chapters, but it has been concluded that the resurrection can be historically demonstrated even when the minimum of historical facts are utilized. Neither can it be concluded merely that “something” occurred which is indescribable due to naturalistic premises or to the character of history or because of the “cloudiness” or legendary character of the New Testament texts. Neither can it be said that Jesus rose spiritually but not literally. These and other such views are refuted in that the facts admitted by virtually all scholars as knowable history are adequate to historically demonstrate the literal resurrection of Jesus according to probability. pp. 165-166 The Historical Jesus (emphasis in original)

Again, this is only conjecture, but one can't help wondering if Habermas thinks that supporting arguments that he believes have been established by "critical and historical procedures" can be included in the evidence used to rule out alternative theories, even if those supporting propositions are not granted by a majority of scholars. (Hence, for example, might he think that he can assume that the reference to the disciples eating and drinking with Jesus in Acts 10 has been "established by critical procedures" and that he can therefore take it to be an authentic proclamation by the original witnesses, and that he is therefore allowed to rely on it in ruling out hallucination?) That simply will not do if one is going to say that one is using "the minimum of historical facts" and that "the facts admitted by virtually all scholars as knowable history" are sufficient for one's argument. That's not "the facts admitted by virtually all scholars, plus a lot of other material that isn't admitted by virtually all scholars, but that supports the facts admitted by virtually all scholars, and that I think has been established by critical historical procedures, so even non-conservative scholars should agree with this additional material, even if they don't..." Obviously, more specific propositions (such as that the sermons in Acts came from the apostles themselves, that the disciples claimed that they ate and drank with Jesus, or that Jesus appeared to people both indoors and outdoors) support the proposition that the disciples had appearance experiences. (Some of these propositions even entail that they had appearance experiences. Stronger statements often entail weaker statements, but not vice versa.) But even if such a stronger proposition is allegedly mined out of the New Testament by "critical means" and endorsed by some critical scholar or scholars, and even if it supports a "minimal fact," that absolutely does not mean that it is fair game for use in an argument that purports to use only what is granted by a broad, heterogenous, critical consensus of scholars. I hesitate to attribute a mistake on this point to Habermas, but it does occur to me that such a mistake might be the origin of the ambiguity and unclarity that are the topic of this post.

Now, I've had a number of people say to me, "I've never been confused about what the scholars grant." But just to show that this is not merely a theoretical possibility, nor is it merely a theoretical-possibility-plus-the-weird-McGrews-who-must-have-been-crazy-at-the-time-or-something, here are two examples of popular posts by people who pretty clearly are confused in this way. It doesn't matter who they are. That's not the point. They seem to be thoughtful people, they appear to be people of good will, doing apologetics to the best of their ability, and trying to use the MFA to argue for the resurrection.  I've heard verbal presentations of the MFA that show the same confusion.

First, this one. This is a post called "Minimal facts 5-8 explained." So it's purporting to, you know, explain the minimal facts. And here's the insistence on scholarly consensus. Notice that the author explicitly says that the scholars don't actually believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

Minimal facts are those facts about the resurrection account that the majority of scholars, even skeptical ones, believe to be true. While these same scholars may not believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, they do concede these points in the account are accurate.

The link, btw, is to Licona and Habermas's book on the MFA. Here's the first statement of the appearance fact:

The disciples had experiences which they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

Aaaand, here's the alleged explanation of that "minimal fact," in its entirety:

The disciples report seeing, eating with, walking with and touching the risen Jesus. They did not mean this to be interpreted as a spiritual resurrection. They saw a bodily risen Jesus. We see this when Thomas physically touches Jesus (John 20:24-29). Jesus also eats fish with his Disciples ( John 21:9-14).

Need I say more? 

Here's another example, claiming to present the minimal facts approach to arguing for the resurrection:

The minimal facts approach to the resurrection was originated by biblical scholar Gary Habermas....It is based on his research of 1,400 in-depth scholarly writings regarding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Habermas relies only on those facts supported by multiple sources and accepted by the vast majority of scholars.

Please notice that word "only." Here's his statement of the appearance fact, apparently copied verbatim from Habermas:

The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. 

He emphasizes the consensus:

The fact that such a large percentage of scholars accepts these twelve points is quite compelling. 

Aaand, here's his refutation of the hallucination theory, in its entirety:

This theory claims the witnesses did not see a resurrected Jesus, they saw a hallucination. The problem with this theory is that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people, in different locations and circumstances (eating, walking, talking) for forty days. Hallucinations do not repeatedly happen to different groups of people for extended periods. The resurrected Jesus even told Thomas to touch him.

Then He (Jesus) said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27, emphasis added).

Not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead (Acts 10:41, emphasis added).

And He (Jesus) said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:28-39, emphasis added). 

I wonder how in the world he could have gotten confused into thinking that this refutation of the hallucination theory is fair game to use in the minimal facts argument? 

The fact that these aren't scholarly presentations only underscores the problem. Who, if not non-specialists, needs clarity most? It is precisely those who are not NT scholars themselves who are going to look to apologists and scholars to tell them what the argument is, what the majority of scholars grant, and so forth. Obviously, the MFA is not meant to be presented only from NT scholars to NT scholars! 

Imagine what could happen if a non-Christian non-specialist converts to Christianity on the basis of the MFA, being especially impressed by (what he thinks is) the vast consensus of scholarship on the nature of the disciples' appearance experiences, and then finds out later that he misunderstood and that much less was granted by critical scholars. How is that going to play out?

Once again, I'm not saying Habermas is in any way trying to mislead anyone. But I think it's undeniable that for some reason he sometimes gets carried away when he states his case and makes important use of propositions that he's not entitled to lean on in this type of argument, and that this does cause confusion. 

I'm going to say something rather strong, in conclusion: If you read this post, and you go away, and you present the MFA, and you do not make a self-conscious attempt to make it clear just how little is granted by the scholarly consensus about the subjective content of the disciples' experience claim, then you will be to blame. Because whoever you are, even if you're not anybody famous, you are reading this post. 

And if you're worried that, if you clarify that the vast, heterogenous, scholarly consensus contains very little about the nature of the disciples' experience claims, that will cause the argument not to sound impressive, then I have a suggestion: I suggest you go back to that "outdated" Paley-style approach and consider using it. 

If you do, I'll be here, more than happy to help!

Monday, November 29, 2021

On the minimal facts case for the resurrection, Part 2: Confusing sociology and epistemology

 I have frequently said that those who advocate the minimal facts argument for the resurrection (MFA) confuse sociology with epistemology. Here I'm thinking first of all the statements you hear such as, "Nothing else will work" or "We have to do this," which are ambiguous as between, "This is objectively the strongest way to argue" and "This is sociologically the way to argue that is most likely to get a hearing in today's world." I think that if people are honestly and astutely observing the evangelical apologetic landscape they will recognize this ambiguity in many statements. 

This is related to what I call the "Yugo" model of apologetics--the idea that the best (in some ambiguous sense of "best") vehicle for our endeavors is the one that is the most stripped down. Of course, no reasonable person ever thought that the Yugo was an especially powerful car. 

As I'll note in the next post in this series, on p. 161 in The Historical Jesus, Gary Habermas actually states that using only four minimal facts (rather than twelve) "will strengthen the earlier apologetic." In a footnote he explains that what he means by this is two-fold: Using a smaller number of facts will gain recognition by an even larger number of critical scholars, and doing so will reveal how strong the case is. The latter is sort of a "half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair" motive. But in point of objective fact, reducing the evidence base does not strengthen the argument at all, even if it allows you to say that more scholars are on board. Interestingly, both of these explications of "strengthen" are sociological. Yet the phrase "strengthen the earlier apologetic" sounds like an epistemic evaluation. Such a usage is a good example of this kind of ambiguous language. 

Apparently my saying that MFA advocates conflate sociology and epistemology is considered by some people to be offensive or even a misrepresentation. I'm not likely to let that stop me, since if something like this is going on, it's better for it to be stated and faced than to be avoided on the grounds of not causing offense. And I explain carefully what I mean by saying this and document it, so you can decide for yourself whether it is a misrepresentation. But I will admit that the conflation takes various forms. I've just illustrated one popular form--the ambiguous use of words like "have to," "better," "strengthen," etc.

We find some rather striking illustrations of similarly ambiguous statements in the book Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig.

Language in Reasonable Faith that conflates epistemology and sociology

In Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig lays out the history of the argument for the resurrection. He discusses the way that William Paley did it, but the purpose of this history is to say that we can't do that anymore. Since the rise of higher criticism, Craig believes, we must argue for the resurrection (and also for Jesus' self-understanding of his own deity) in a very different way. We must use various "criteria of authenticity" to show which facts about Jesus, sayings of Jesus, and facts about the events after his death can be supported, preferably by two or more such criteria, and use those to make our arguments. It's a minimalist approach, though Craig prefers that it not be confused with Habermas's MFA, since Habermas's most limited set of facts is smaller in number and since Craig relies more on the criteria of authenticity. 

In The Eye of the Beholder, I discuss the interesting way in which Craig first warns against a negative use of the criteria of authenticity but then, apparently unconsciously, seems to agree tacitly that a saying or event that cannot be thus verified is open to special historical doubt, at least if we're only using objective historical evidence. I argue there that this is a kind of negative use of the criteria, though not the one that Craig discusses and rejects. (Craig says that we should not conclude that something didn't happen if it cannot be specifically supported by "the criteria." But he doesn't reject the idea that historical Jesus scholars qua historians should be agnostic about something if it cannot be thus supported, and in fact, in practice this seems to be what he does.)

In these chapters, Craig has several very odd statements about the older form of argument for the resurrection. These statements sit precisely in that in-between zone--neither entirely epistemological nor entirely sociological. One of the strangest of these is the place where he refers to the trilemma argument for Jesus' deity, relying upon "prooftexts" for Jesus' claims to deity, as "forever obsolete."

Often one hears people say, “I don’t understand all those philosophical arguments for God’s existence and so forth. I prefer historical apologetics.” I suspect that those who say this think that historical apologetics is easy and will enable them to avoid the hard thinking involved in the philosophical arguments. But this section ought to teach us clearly that this is not so. It is naïve and outdated simply to trot out the dilemma “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” and adduce several proof texts where Jesus claims to be the Son of God, the Messiah, and so forth. The publicity generated by the Jesus Seminar and The DaVinci Code has rendered that approach forever obsolete. Rather, if an apologetic based on the claims of Christ is to work, we must do the requisite spadework of sorting out those claims of Jesus that can be established as authentic, and then drawing out their implications. This will involve not only mastering Greek but also the methods of modern criticism and the criteria of authenticity. Far from being easy, historical apologetics, if done right, is every bit as difficult as philosophical apologetics. The only reason most people think historical apologetics to be easier is because they do it superficially. (Reasonable Faith, p. 328)f

There are several highly problematic phrases here. One is "naive and outdated." Really? Did Jesus or didn't he assert his own deity in verses like John 8:58 and John 10:30? If he did, what is wrong with "trotting out" the trilemma and adducing these prooftexts? I note here that Craig does not use either of these texts in his chapter on Jesus' self-understanding, and this lecture on how hard it is to do historical apologetics, especially with respect to the sayings of Jesus, raises the troubling question of why those verses are not adduced. 

Perhaps the phrase "do the requisite spadework of sorting out those claims of Jesus that can be established as authentic" provides a clue, since the obvious implication is that there are things ostensibly recorded in the Gospels that cannot be established as authentic. This seems to involve internalizing, as epistemically binding, the notion that each saying reported must be separately "authenticated," rather than arguing for the reliability of a Gospel (say, the Gospel of John!) and considering that that "establishes as authentic" the sayings of Jesus recorded therein. The notion of "sorting out" those claims of Jesus that "can be established as authentic" can hardly be understood in anything other than an epistemological way. But that is a restrictive, passage-by-passage method. I've argued that this is not a good method and that we should not give it normative force.

The phrase "forever obsolete" is also highly problematic. Obviously neither the Da Vinci Code (a reference to which sounds rather outdated in 2021!) nor higher criticism renders anything "forever obsolete." If all that Craig means is "out of fashion," why say "forever"? Fashion is changeable as the wind. Nor should we care very much about mere fashion.

This is not the only language in Reasonable Faith conflating epistemology and sociology. In the chapter on the resurrection there is this:

The historical apolgetic for the resurrection played a central role in the case of the Christian apologists during the Deist controversy....Too often today Christians employ an apologetic for the resurrection that was suitable for use against eighteenth-century opponents but is today ineffective in dealing with the objections raised by modern biblical criticism. p. 333

Speaking as someone who is self-consciously reviving a Paley-style argument, I find this a problematic lead-in to a chapter on the history of resurrection apologetics. The fact is that Paley and his 19th-century followers (some of whom, living later, had even heard of D. F. Strauss!) would have been quite unimpressed by higher criticism. They would have had no real trouble "dealing with the objections raised by modern biblical criticism." It's not like such objections are all that strong. 

I cannot resist pointing out that the minimalist approach that Craig favors doesn't "deal with" these objections but instead concedes things to them in handfuls for the sake of the argument. Elsewhere Craig has said that his approach is to concede for the sake of the argument virtually all that the skeptic wants to allege in the way of contradictions and discrepancies in the Gospels and then to argue that we still have enough evidence left to make our case. In his introduction to this very edition of Reasonable Faith, Craig emphasizes that it is not actually necessary to argue that the Gospels are reliable, because true propositions can be mined out of even unreliable documents. So apparently the new, updated, non-obsolete way of "dealing with the objections of modern biblical criticism" involves a large amount of pre-emptive concession for the sake of the argument, which hardly sounds like an "effective" way of "dealing with" the objections that became popular in the 19th century! I think I would rather take my place with people who, confronted with the poorly-supported objections of the higher critics and "modern biblical criticism," would actually have "dealt with" them in the sense of answering them, followed by continuing to use the traditional historical apologetic that Craig is telling us is "ineffective."

But notice, again, the conflation of the purely social fact that a Paley-style argument will be considered outdated (by modern critical scholars) with an epistemological claim (or what looks like one) that it is actually not effective. This is even stranger when one reads on in the chapter and finds Craig merely laying out the bare fact that Strauss & co. claimed that the Gospels are riddled with legend and religious imagination. It is not as though Craig claims to show that these assertions have merit to them or strong arguments undergirding them. Presumably he thinks that they don't. But in that case, why not stand up to them? 

One more quote will illustrate the conflation of sociology and epistemology:

William Paley's View of the Evidences (1794) constituted the high-water mark of the historical apologetic for the resurrection. During the nineteenth century this approach dramatically receded. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a significant and influential thinker defending the Christian faith on the basis of the evidence for the resurrection. It seems to me that there were two factors that served to undermine the traditional apologetic. p. 342

The "two factors" are the rise of higher criticism and what Craig calls "the tide of subjectivism." The phrase "served to undermine" is another of those ambiguous phrases. Nothing that Craig says over the next few pages shows (nor even seems intended to show) that the "traditional apologetic" was objectively "undermined" by argument. Rather, what Craig chronicles is a series of beliefs that took over much of European thought, so that many people came to think of the Gospels as highly unreliable. But once again, why not point out that these trends were unsupported by anything  like good arguments? Why not point out that they haven't actually "undermined" anything? Why introduce the historical survey by saying that the historical apologetic of previous centuries was "undermined"?

I also feel the need to make an historical point. I take that statement about how it would be difficult to find a significant and influential thinker, etc., to mean "in the nineteenth century," or perhaps "after Paley," and it sounded dubious to me, especially since Tim and I have revived various 19th-century thinkers like T. R. Birks and J. J. Blunt. These gentlemen apparently didn't get the memo about how the Paleyan approach was obsolete and undermined. And, though he spent most of his career focused on topics like authorship and patristics, I'd be rather surprised if J. B. Lightfoot would agree that the traditional apologetic was obsolete. Esteemed Husband sent me the following list (and this is only a partial list) of thinkers in the 19th and early 20th century who did defend Christianity on the basis of the evidence for the resurrection. (One of these was a Unitarian, and is noted as such.) You can argue about how "significant and influential" they were, but it's not like they were nobodies. Chalmers, for one, was undeniably influential.

Thomas Chalmers, Scottish minister, theologian, social reformer, and leader of the Free Church of Scotland. See his Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation, 4th ed., (1822) and his Lectures on Paley's Evidences.

Andrews Norton, Harvard professor and unitarian theologian. See his Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels (1846).  

Henry Rogers, English nonconformist minister, man of letters, and president of Lancashire Independent College, notably in his Eclipse of Faith (1852) and A Defence of the Eclipse of Faith (1854).

Richard Whately, Oxford professor, logician, and Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. See his annotations to his edition of Paley's Evidences (1859).

Charles Pettit McIlvaine, Episcopal Bishop, professor, and chaplain to the United States Senate. See his Evidences of Christianity in their External, or Historical Division (1859).

Charles Aiken, Princeton Seminary professor, in his lectures on Christian Apologetics (1879).

James Orr, Scottish minister, theologian, and professor. See The Resurrection of Jesus (1908)

The above examples of language from Reasonable Faith show an important part of what I mean by confusing sociology and epistemology, and I think just bringing out such language can serve to warn people. When someone tells you that an approach or an idea is obsolete or outdated, ask him if it's false, and what his argument is that it's false. If the Paleyan approach to arguing for the resurrection is said "not to work" or to be "ineffective," ask him to define what he means by that. If all we are talking about is sociology, we can go there, and we can discuss that, because there are actually sociological reasons why I would argue that the MFA itself "doesn't work" socially. But it's more important to know whether something is a good argument. We shouldn't make it sound like something is "ineffective" in the sense of not being a cogent argument, merely on the grounds that other people (even influential ones) have made silly ideas highly popular! D. F. Strauss and all his followers from his own time to the present have unfortunately made silly ideas popular, but that doesn't objectively undermine anything.

But some may think that all this time spent on WLC is unfortunate, since Habermas and Licona are the bigger advocates and architects of the real MFA. So now I turn my attention to them.

"Historical bedrock"--using sociological considerations too restrictively 

I want to say right at the outset that I am well aware that Habermas and Licona have said that they require both good evidence and a certain type of varied, broad scholarly consensus as requirements for placing a fact in the category of "historical bedrock" or "minimal fact." It is an odd thing, but it seems that when one states that MFA advocates confuse sociology and epistemology, one is likely to be told indignantly that Habermas requires good arguments as well as consensus, so there, end of discussion, such a criticism is a misrepresentation, and there's nothing more to say. Well, no, there's still a lot more to be said. For one thing, the kind of rhetoric quoted from Dr. Craig in the last section is fully compatible with a method in which one requires good arguments for the premises of one's own MFA argument. One could still say of the Paley-style method that it is outdated, was undermined by higher criticism, is "ineffective," and other such ambiguous phrases.

But there is more still to say about the epistemological problems with the historical bedrock approach of Habermas and Licona. So I want to request that if you read this post and if you want to reply to it from a pro-MFA position, please do not bring forward quotations (there are several) in which Licona or Habermas says that their method requires both good evidence and broad consensus for inclusion in historical bedrock. I am fully aware of those and acknowledge those. But I'm raising problems nonetheless, problems that are not answered by that. Read on if you're interested.

In the final section of this post (see below) I will have something rather controversial to say about whether, in Licona's case, these two requirements are collapsing into one another in practice. Perhaps I should provide a "trigger warning" about that. But even there, it is not that I am unaware of the claim that "good evidence" is a separate requirement for inclusion in "historical bedrock."

In this section, I'm going to consider the mixed status of the "historical bedrock" category and even the somewhat larger category that Habermas refers to as "known historical facts." That mixed status is admitted by Habermas and Licona and is a central part of their method. What I mean by "mixed status" is that these categories are defined both by the arguments for the propositions in question and by the presence of a consensus of living scholars (or recently living scholars?) in favor of them. This approach unproductively mixes epistemology and sociology.

A term like "known facts" or "historical bedrock" appears to be a term of epistemic approval. It is natural to think of these propositions as those that have, on the basis of publicly available evidence, a very high probability. They are rock solid. There is so much evidence for them that they should be in no doubt to anyone in possession of the publicly available data. But in that case, why not make that the definition? Even if one wanted to have various levels, one could do that in terms of what the data support. The "bedrock" could be those propositions that, on the basis of presently-known historical information, are very, very probable, while the "next-level" facts (however one wants to label those) could be those that are at least "quite" probable. And so forth.

Habermas and Licona do not do this. For any of the categories that they treat as data to be explained, they require a certain consensus of scholarship--either extremely high, such as 90-95%, or at least a majority, perhaps 2/3 or 75%. This consensus, moreover, must be among scholars within a particular time period (a point I will return to below). They also want this consensus to consist of scholars across the scholarly spectrum--Jews, Christians, liberals, conservatives, skeptics, etc. 

As Bob Stewart has pointed out in a recent article on the MFA (his contribution to Raised on the Third Day, a festschrift for Gary Habermas), there are various problems with restricting the facts to be explained in this way. For one thing, the most significant facts (historically speaking) aren't always those that happen to command the highest scholarly consensus. Stewart also rightly points out that propositions are or aren't justified by a certain set of data even if no one believes them--a salutary and important reminder. For another thing, Stewart warns, consensus could change. It's at least in principle possible that consensus would swing so far "to the left" (that's my terminology, not Stewart's) that there would be no propositions anymore that would meet the consensus cut-off that Habermas and Licona are looking for. I would note that this could, in principle, happen even with a lower consensus cut-off. What then? 

And I would add "what then" epistemologically: Would we, as individuals, not be able to be justifiably extremely confident that, say, Jesus was buried if a time came within our own lifetime that this fact no longer commanded a large and ideologically broad scholarly consensus?  Just what sort of influence upon our own epistemic confidence is it supposed to have if some proposition doesn't command this sort of consensus? This is left unclear, to say the least, in the historical bedrock methodology.

This question is especially urgent when we consider the stated reason for the inclusion of the consensus requirement in the MFA methodology--namely, to guard against personal bias. Licona spends a great deal of space in The Resurrection of Jesus talking about "horizons" and the need for consensus to guard against individual "horizons"--i.e., personal biases. In Habermas's review of Licona's book, here, Habermas singles out this rationale and praises it:

When establishing a consensus of views, it is important to show that such a near-unanimity is “composed of scholars from all interested camps” (p. 64). We are not guessing about where researchers stand, and neither are we basing the case on a small, sectarian element within the academic community. Rather, the scholars should hold a variety of religious and philosophical positions (p. 65). Later, Licona reported that:  

These scholars span a very wide range of theological and philosophical convictions and include atheists, agnostics, Jews and Christians who make their abode at both ends of the theological spectrum and everywhere in between. We therefore have the heterogeneity we desire in a consensus, and this gives us confidence that our horizons will not lead us completely astray (p. 280).

Licona makes an insightful comment here regarding guarding against our own horizons. We must beware of our own imported biases, as well. When discussing the Minimal Facts, I have always purposely included notes at each juncture that list representative numbers of skeptics of various stripes who still affirm the data in question. This is a significant methodological procedure that serves more than one purpose. Among others, it assures the readers that they are not being asked to accept something that only conservatives believe, or that is only recognized by those who believe in the veracity of the New Testament text, and so on. After all, this sort of widespread recognition and approval is the very thing that our stated method requires.

Apparently the answer to the question of why we don't bestow such terms on the basis of the strength of the evidence alone is this: "Doing so isn't guarding enough against our own biases." If that is a correct way to approach things, shouldn't you then be afraid that, if you think the arguments for something are very strong, but the "heterogenous consensus" doesn't support it, you are being too moved by your own biases and should therefore correct your "too high" confidence in this proposition? This is one of the things I mean by conflating sociology and epistemology. I am referring to giving what I consider to be gravely undue weight to purely sociological considerations. The bestowal of a term of apparent epistemic approbation (such as "known historical facts" or "historical bedrock") is being held hostage to a purely contingent sociological fact--whether or not a certain varied consensus obtains concerning that fact. And that's being done on the grounds that otherwise we'd be too likely to be personally biased. 

In a recent video on the topic of historical bedrock, Licona says that a proposition does not need to have the very high degree of consensus required for "historical bedrock" status in order for him to use it in arguing for the resurrection. For example, he says that he sometimes uses the proposition that the disciples believed and proclaimed that Jesus was physically raised from the dead or the proposition that the disciples had group experiences even though these are (he thinks) affirmed only by 75 or 80 percent (or thereabouts) of scholars rather than by a consensus of nearly 100%. This might be brought up to counter my claim here that the use of these concepts is not too restrictive. 

I would answer: 1) Even these additional propositions allegedly have a fairly high consensus of scholarship. It remains a question whether, on this methodology, an individual would be considered reckless in some way if he had a very high probability for a proposition when it lacked this degree of majority consensus within the discipline. 2) The concern about "horizons" and the worry about guarding against "horizons" would definitely seem to caution against believing strongly against consensus. I will return to this point in the next section. While Licona has occasionally (in The Resurrection of Jesus) made a comment about how it can sometimes be okay to buck consensus, he far more often warns about the dangers of doing so and how dubious research is that goes against contemporary scholarly consensus. So the "horizons" concern does indicate, at least in Licona's case, a reluctance to go against consensus, and Habermas appears (see above) to endorse this concern as insightful. 3) I have repeatedly referred here both to the term "historical bedrock" and to the term "known historical facts" because it doesn't really matter where you put the cutoff. The problem lies in withholding terms of apparent epistemic approbation on the grounds of the absence of social approval of those propositions. This point lies at the heart of the "too restrictive" concern that I am raising here and at the heart of my saying that this is a conflation of sociology with epistemology. At the barest minimum, this use of terminology is creating a "mixed" category that combines an epistemic criterion (being well-evidenced) with a sociological criterion (being accepted by some level of consensus or other) and then bestows what sounds like an epistemic compliment. This is just not a good idea at all, even if one has various levels of such terms.

Making things even stranger and more concerning, the consensus required is (as far as I can tell) supposed to be a consensus of modern scholars, even very modern scholars, not of the "democracy of the dead." Yet C.S. Lewis noted explicitly long ago that reading old books can serve exactly the supposedly desired purpose of correcting for our own bias, since living at a certain time period can induce bias. That sort of time-bound bias is especially likely within a given scholarly guild, where careers are at stake and even people from across the "ideological spectrum" influence one another. 

This issue arose recently in a relevant social media exchange. Someone asked Dr. Licona for his opinion on the "democracy of the dead" in the field of New Testament studies. The questioner was interested particularly in the differences between my work and that of Licona and Craig Evans, where I'm agreeing more with older scholars. The question about the democracy of the dead is quite relevant to the issue of consensus. For example, the consensus landscape would look very different on the question of whether or not the Gospel authors deliberately made changes to the facts if we were to include those who intensively studied the Gospels in the past than if we were only to consider modern New Testament scholars. Licona's answer was revealing:

I don't think modern scholarship is "much superior" to previous scholarship. However, our knowledge base builds. Method is pondered on further and fine-tuned. And I'm of the opinion that these things assist us in furthering our knowledge. For example, in the discipline of astronomy, Hugh Ross may not be a smarter and more careful scientist than Galileo. However, he understands a lot more about our universe because his knowledge base is vastly greater than that which Galileo had.

So here we have an argument that we don't (apparently) need to include these older scholars in our consensus-seeking. Why not? Because of some sort of science-like discoveries that have been made in the meanwhile, analogous to discoveries in astronomy, that add to our "knowledge base" and render those scholars simply less-informed than those living in our own time. Such a claim leaves me shaking my head. I really doubt that the older scholars listed above would agree, upon being informed of the work of Strauss or of the supposed "discovery" of fact-changing literary devices in the Gospels, that this is on a par with the discovery of a new planet or scientific law. Suffice it to say that, despite Licona's oft-repeated concerns about "guarding against horizons" and seeking consensus "across the ideological spectrum," apparently he isn't at all seeking to guard against horizons by looking seriously at older, conservative scholars writing before the era of biblical higher criticism or at dead scholars who, during that area, bucked its trends. 

(Also indicative of the use of modern consensus in a way that is too restrictive is something from this video, starting at about minute 9. I will be discussing this video more below. Licona says here, as I have heard him say elsewhere, that "classicists" don't establish the reliability of whole documents. He bases this on the authority of something that allegedly classicist John Ramsey said to him in personal communication. Licona says that Ramsey said that "classicists" don't establish holistic document reliability but rather just ask if certain specific events or passages are correct. Regardless of what Ramsey said, it's certainly easily possible to find classicists talking about the reliability of a given ancient author. Which would, of course, translate into expectations--more positive or more negative or mixed--about the historical reliability of their writings. I expect, however, that this means that Licona will now be citing an alleged consensus of modern "classicists" against the holistic method of supporting whole-Gospel reliability as opposed to the passage-by-passage approach.)

The modern limitation in the consensus sought by MFA architects has the potential both to withhold consensus from propositions which would otherwise receive it (based on a less time-bound measure of consensus) and to bestow apparent consensus upon propositions that otherwise (in the larger context of the generations) would not receive it. This is only one concern, but it is one worth bearing in mind.

So, to begin with, Licona and Habermas are (I argue) conflating sociology and epistemology because, by their own account, they are restricting epistemic accolades by requiring a certain kind of scholarly consensus for their bestowal.

But that's not all.

"Historical bedrock" as a category that is too loose

Right here I want to say that it isn't really true that agnosticism is cautious. I emphasis this in The Eye of the Beholder. There is nothing particularly "responsible," "careful," or "cautious" about agnosticism. If the evidence available to a reasoner justifies a high probability for proposition P and he gives P only a mediocre probability and hence remains agnostic about P, he's not thereby being "cautious." Instead, he's being too optimistic about not-P! 

But it can be hard for some people to shake the idea that, by being hesitant and agnostic about more and more things, we're being more and more careful. To these people, it might seem that the too-restrictive definition of "historical bedrock" and "known historical facts" discussed in the last section is no biggie, because at the worst it would mean that a person was made hesitant about something or didn't use something in his argument when it really was highly justified by the evidence. Now, I actually think that is a pretty big deal. Once again, what if that kind of consensus is withheld from something really important that is really well-supported by the facts? What if that proposition affects some important practical matter? In that case, being overly diffident about it, due to lack of consensus, could have significant negative effects. Not to mention the fact that someone who is epistemically diffident in that case would be misevaluating the actual force of the evidence, which some of us think is a big deal in itself.

But if you still think it's no biggie, I want to raise yet another question: What do the MFA architects propose as the means of knowing how strong the evidence is, independently of scholarly consensus? Here's why I'm asking that: I've heard repeatedly that it would be a terrible misunderstanding of Habermas and Licona to say that they are placing too much weight on consensus because, after all, they insist that things that belong in these favored categories must have both consensus and good arguments. Well, the previous section has shown that even then, even granting that, they can be placing too much weight on sociology. But here's another problem: This way of stating matters assumes that "the evidence" or "the strength of the argument" is significantly accessible in some way that is quite independent of the mere presence or absence of consensus. In that way, the hope is, we won't include something in "historical bedrock" or some other favored category merely on the basis of heterogenous consensus when the arguments and evidence for it are poor. So at least we're supposedly being somewhat cautious about our acceptance of things on the basis of consensus, right? This is the ground for the indignation: "Haven't you noticed? Habermas and Licona are very clear that evidence and consensus are both required."

Suppose, then, that we lacked independent access to the strength of the argument. Suppose that our very access to the strength of the argument was to say, "Oh, look, a large, diverse consensus thinks this is true." Or suppose that we were so diffident about our own ability to evaluate the strength of the argument while going against consensus or working without consensus that we were scarcely ever willing to buck consensus or to go ahead and have very high confidence in something lacking that consensus. In that case, the two requirements would functionally collapse or nearly collapse into one. Hence, it wouldn't really matter if one kept insisting, "I'm taking this consensus to indicate that the arguments are really strong." If you aren't separately evaluating the arguments for yourself, you might as well just say that you're going to take the proposition to be probably true if it has this kind of diverse, modern consensus, and you're highly reluctant to go against that. The supposed requirement that it also be "well-evidenced" would not then be playing a significant, independent, epistemic role. Such a collapse would make it entirely possible for propositions to be treated as highly probable solely on the basis of the appearance of diverse consensus (and the fact that the scholars themselves say that the evidence is good), even if, to put it bluntly, the arguments in question really stink.

Even in The Resurrection of Jesus, there is a passage that disturbingly hints at this sort of collapse in Licona's own approach. (I do not know of anywhere that Habermas has endorsed this apparent collapse.)

When we investigate matters such as the resurrection of Jesus, historians in every camp operate with their own biases, agendas and hopes, all of which serve as unseen advisors. By requiring hypotheses to account for the historical bedrock, a check is placed on the explanatory narratives that are constructed. Any narrative unable to account for the historical bedrock should be returned to the drawing board or be relegated to the trash bin. Of course, this is a guideline rather than a law, since the majority of scholars have been mistaken on numerous occasions in the past. Accordingly there is a risk involved in requiring hypotheses to account  for the historical bedrock before their serious consideration by other historians, since this may result in excluding a hypothesis that denies one or more of the facts belonging to the bedrock but [that?] may later turn out to be mistaken in light of new information. This risk notwithstanding, minimizing the impact of biases and agendas is a serious matter, and historians must weigh the possibility of a mistaken consensus on strongly evidenced facts against the certain presence of horizons. Guidelines are not to be enforced in a wooden manner. The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 58

If the evaluation of strong evidence is really operating as a separate and independent requirement for the bestowal of an accolade like "historical bedrock," this passage is very odd indeed. Licona is considering the concern that a false proposition might make its way into the category dubbed "historical bedrock" and might, from that position of influence, cause historians to exclude (wrongly) some hypothesis that involved denying or "failing to account for" that proposition. A very interesting and real possibility. Licona's response is weak sauce, especially given the resources his own position ought to give him for a better answer. He says that we really need to worry more about being overly influenced by individual agendas but that we must vaguely try not to be "too wooden" in trashing maverick hypotheses that swim upstream against scholarly consensus. Well, that's reassuring. That sounds like a great way to guard against including things in "historical bedrock" that are falsely believed by a majority of our contemporaries!

I myself could use Licona's and Habermas's own statements to construct a much more reassuring-sounding response. Supposedly, or so we are repeatedly assured, no proposition makes it into the coveted category of historical bedrock solely on the basis of any consensus, however broad or diverse. No, no, we are told, it must also have strong evidence for it. Well, if that "also" is to have any practical meaning whatsoever, then it must mean that the individual investigator looks at the evidence for himself, independent (as much as he can bring himself to be) of the knowledge of what all the other people think, and decides whether or not it is strong. Why doesn't Licona say that, then? In response to this concern, he could have said something like this: 

But it must be remembered that our method requires very strong evidence as well as heterogenous consensus. If a historian is confronted with a theory that denies something he has previously regarded as bedrock, he can re-evaluate the evidence for himself, taking into account whatever arguments the maverick theorist brings, and consider whether the evidence is as strong as he previously regarded it to be. If he changes his mind, he should no longer regard that proposition as part of historical bedrock, leaving him more open to the new theory. In this way, the requirement of good evidence, and the possibility of evaluating that evidence for ourselves, can act as a check upon scholarly consensus, just as we hope that seeking heterogenous consensus can act as a check upon individual bias.

See? That would have been a lot more helpful than vague talk about "not being wooden" combined with further fretting about the "certainty of [individual] horizons." It is difficult to read Licona's statement of this problem, and his answer to it, in any way other than as a tacit admission (though it probably did not occur to him that it was any sort of an admission) that he has no really robust notion of independently evaluating the arguments for a position that runs contrary to consensus. Rather, the idea seems to be that a major way that we decide that something has good arguments going for it is by noticing that it has a large, heterogenous, and (at least in the field of biblical studies) modern consensus going for it. But practically speaking, this comes close to collapsing the requirement for strong evidence into the requirement for heterogenous contemporary consensus!

Some comments that he has made in a recent video support this concern. Here (starting around minute 3) he insists, per script, that it would be a terrible misunderstanding to think that he and/or Habermas is saying that something is true merely due to consensus. No, no, it's that it has such great arguments for it, and this is why it commands such a high consensus. But just a few moments later he endorses the proposition that if the Republicans and Democrats agree on the origin of the Covid virus, since they hardly agree on anything, why then, that proposition is "probably true"!

Some people have misunderstood Gary on this about the minimal facts, thinking that we should accept these facts because the majority of scholars grant them, and that's never what Gary said. …It's just a matter of here are 12 facts for which the supporting data is so strong that a majority of scholars, including sceptical ones, grant them as facts. So the importance of that, of course, is if you have a sceptic, a non-believer who grants those facts, you know, they may have biases, but they're not the same bias as a Christian would have. So it's kind of like, look, if both Republicans and Democrats were in agreement let's say that the Covid virus came from the Wuhan lab in China, well, then we could have a pretty good degree of confidence that's the case, because…they don't get along with one another, the Republicans and Democrats, they agree on hardly anything. If they agree on this, well, then it's probably true. 

[Notice that there is no mention here of diving in and evaluating for oneself the evidence about the origin of the Covid virus. Rather, the agreement between the Republicans and Democrats is being treated here as sufficient grounds for believing that the conclusion is “probably true,” due to their usual disagreement. LM] 

So if you're looking at both sceptic and believer alike who are willing to grant certain things based on the data because the data is strong, they think the data strong, well, that gives you some more confidence that that probably is correct. (emphasis added)

Hmmm. So how are we accessing, "There is strong evidence for the claim that the Covid virus came from a lab in China"? Apparently by noticing the consensus between people who often otherwise disagree and noticing that the people we're counting in the consensus think that the data for their position is strong. That's just not very encouraging as far as the permissiveness of the dependence on consensus. It's not very encouraging about the power of the "strongly evidenced" criterion to do any real epistemic work in correcting for a wrong consensus. 

Elsewhere in the video (around minute 9:50) Licona does refer to doing both: evaluating the arguments for the claim that Jesus died by crucifixion, finding them to be strong, and also noting that the consensus agrees with us. But what if we evaluate the arguments for ourselves and find that our independent evaluation of the evidence for some claim strongly differs from a "heterogenous consensus"? What happens then? And is it really necessary to do an independent evaluation if, as in the Wuhan virus example, the proposition is "probably true" if a heterogenous majority of people agree on it?

Licona's tendency to place far too much evidential weight upon consensus is also evident in his treatment of my own work, when he has referred again and again to an alleged majority of scholars "including evangelicals" that (he claims) agree with his views and disagree with mine. Repeatedly in his response videos in 2020, he would make a fairly blatant scholarly bandwagon argument. Sometimes he would  undeniably exaggerate the alleged consensus (though no doubt sincerely), giving listeners the impression that my views are so bizarre that virtually nobody else agrees with them and that virtually all even among living conservatives agree with his literary device views. This is wildly untrue, and I must resist the temptation to take the time to point out the various occasions in that series when Licona simply gave a factually false impression (one he no doubt believes himself, but should know better about) concerning the scope and nature of the alleged scholarly consensus. But that is not my point here. My point here is that he could barely restrain himself from making an argument from consensus repeatedly. Then he would pull himself up, make some brief gesture in the direction of saying, "Well, that consensus doesn't automatically mean McGrew is wrong" followed by, well, but, man, wow, she is so out of touch with the consensus of scholars, and the consensus shouldn't be dismissed too lightly. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Here are just a couple of examples. Licona preemptively sneered at The Eye of the Beholder, which had not yet come out at that time and has now been released to scholarly critical acclaim .(This at least refutes the implication that my work is so crazy and fringy that no real scholar in the field takes it seriously.) 

The point I’m making is there is so much more going on behind John’s Gospel that McGrew fails to appreciate. Despite the fact that Johannine specialists find John’s Gospel to be a challenging conundrum, including evangelical scholars who have spent years focused on John and have published commentaries on it, McGrew apparently thinks the matter is grossly overblown and has announced that she is presently working on her book on John’s Gospel. One wonders what she will find that has gone totally unrecognized by those who’ve spent lifetimes studying the Fourth Gospel. 

Please remember that the supposedly radical, fringe idea that I'm promoting, that Licona is dismissing here, is that John's Gospel is robust reportage and that John never made anything up or changed any facts. It is not even inerrancy! It is not the idea that John recorded every word of Jesus verbatim, like a tape recorder. "So much more going on behind John's Gospel that McGrew fails to appreciate" is code for the idea that John invisibly changed things, reporting things in ways that made it look like they were true (in his narrative) when he knew that they weren't, for theological or literary motives. And that is being treated here as something so strongly supported by scholarly consensus that I'm obviously out to lunch for rejecting it. Of course, the consensus is wildly exaggerated as well. My views on John's Gospel are very close to those of living scholars like Peter J. Williams and D.A. Carson, recently dead scholars like Leon Morris, and older scholars like J. B. Lightfoot. What I'm noting here though is the extremely heavy-handed use of alleged consensus against a view deemed too conservative, even though it is a view that would have been deemed "the" evangelical view up until very recently.

Here's another:

Now McGrew does not think the Gospels belong to the genre of Greco-Roman biography and asks the following question: “Do the Gospels belong to or resemble the genre of GrecoRoman Βίοs in the informative sense that the authors were probably influenced by the conventions of this genre and chose to write their Gospels according to the conventions of this genre?” She answers “no” for 2 reasons: First, she says “Burridge’s arguments are utterly unconvincing.” However, a very large and heterogenous majority of New Testament scholars have found the arguments of Burridge and others quite convincing. Of course, this does not make them right. But such a large and heterogenous majority should not be dismissed too quickly. So, let’s look at McGrew’s second reason.

Here's that back and forth movement. I don't simply say that Burridge's arguments are utterly convincing. I go into why they are unconvincing in some detail. Licona apparently thinks he can move on from my "first reason" (that Burridge's arguments are too weak to support so strong a substantive position) merely by stating that "a very large and heterogenous majority of New Testament scholars have found the arguments convincing"! Then he stops, says that that doesn't make Burridge right, then he goes back to saying the consensus "should not be dismissed too quickly." Then he doesn't examine why I say that Burridge's arguments are unconvincing and moves on to a different argument I give against Burridge's thesis! This is typical of the use of "large and heterogenous consensus" as a way to brush off doubts about the sufficiency of argument. How dare someone say that the positive arguments offered for the position are weak? A large, heterogenous majority of scholars thinks they are strong. They can't be all that weak! Next! 

(And again, Licona himself takes this genre identification to mean that it's quite probable that the Gospel authors used a certain type of "literary devices" that involved changing what happened. By no means do all of the scholars who have adopted the idea of "Greco-Roman bioi" agree with that conclusion. Indeed, one often sees the "Greco-Roman bioi" idea touted as supporting Gospel historicity. So even the invocation of the large consensus is being stated in soft focus and then pushed for more content than it really supports.)

You can search the transcript to see how often Licona refers to a majority or a large majority consensus to imply that I'm wrong. While he will try to say that he isn't assuming that this majority is correct, his continual use of the claim of majority as grounds for dismissing a more conservative view says otherwise.

The mention of a "heterogenous" consensus and phrases like "including evangelical scholars" is particularly noteworthy. 1) "Heterogenous consensus" is what Licona has given so much weight to in the definition of "historical bedrock." So are we now supposed to act like it's something at least akin to "historical bedrock" that the Gospels are specifically "Greco-Roman bioi" and that they make use of Licona's suggested "compositional devices"?!  2) As already mentioned, this includes only contemporary scholars, due to a faulty, pseudo-scientific notion of modern progress in biblical studies. This means that modern biases influencing a large number of scholars in various camps are getting a free pass. 3) The views in question, which he is trying to bolster in this way, are the sort of things that just a very few decades ago would have been considered "liberal" scholarly views by definition.

This last point deserves emphasis and will be the final point I make in this post: When Licona, Habermas, and anyone else talks about a "heterogenous majority" of scholars "across the ideological spectrum," they will often list labels that are taken to indicate real diversity of underlying approaches. These include terms like "skeptic," "liberal," "conservative," "evangelical," "Jewish," or "Muslim." The only assumption that could make such a consensus even a weak indicator of truth is that these terms indicate stable, independent, definitional commitments by such scholars that really would tend to lead to diverging opinions in the area of interest. That, in turn, is what makes it seem like a remarkable thing to find that they all agree. By golly, if an evangelical and a liberal both agree with this proposition about the Gospels, then it must have something going for it. Again and again, in a number of things I have read, Licona will make use of this idea: If (some) evangelical scholars agree that John moved the Temple cleansing, moved the day of Jesus' crucifixion, elaborated Jesus' discourses, and more, then who are you, you non-expert, to disagree with them? The arguments must be good, right?

But it was just approximately yesterday (in the larger sweep of history) that accepting the idea that the Gospel authors changed such facts would have been considered to exclude one, by definition, from being an "evangelical" at all! So the very concept of what counts as an "evangelical" has shifted, and the "scholarly spectrum" has, effectively, narrowed. That is part of what I mean by the biases inherent in all living at the same time. While the "evangelical" label has remained, the commitments involved in that label have not remained stable. We certainly should not assume that just because someone whom someone else labels "evangelical" holds a certain conclusion, when that conclusion might sound "liberal" to the ears of the uninitiated, it must be well-evidenced. And it has been a major part of my mission in writing my last two books to show in detail that such propositions are not well-evidenced. The arguments leading some "evangelicals" to embrace these conclusions are the same tired, old, poor arguments that cause those previously labeled "liberals" to embrace them. Indeed, on occasion the "evangelicals" have even out-liberaled the "liberals" in coming up with a farfetched view supported by Byzantine literary arguments. (I'm thinking here of Daniel Wallace's theory that John changed "My God, why have you forsaken me?" into "I thirst.") The labels therefore mean nothing as far as how strong the argument is for the conclusion. 

It turns out that it just isn't true that people labeled "evangelicals" are moved in a more "liberal" direction only because of the sheer force of overwhelming evidence. Far from it. Indeed, witnessing the way that Licona and others have used the notion of scholarly consensus, one can see that younger evangelical scholars, seminarians, apologists, pastors, etc., are more likely to be bludgeoned into reluctantly accepting more liberal views by the sheer force of peer pressure. Thus the claim of "heterogenous consensus" becomes self-perpetuating. In the contemporary milieu, the very concept of "heterogenous majority," applied to people who are all part of the guild and seeking a place at the table during our own time, is often a misleading concept. It is an illusion of diversity, in a field where truly original thought in a too-conservative direction is laughed off the stage by the charge of hyper-conservatism or even (gasp) fundamentalism.

Taken together, what all this means is clear: We really need to stop worrying about consensus in biblical studies. We need to stop assigning it any significant, independent epistemic force. We need to make our investigation all about the evidence and arguments, as best we can evaluate them. We need to stop pretending that the consensus of modern scholarship, diversity of labels notwithstanding, indicates real, interesting diversity of viewpoints.

In terms of the argument for the resurrection, this also means that we shouldn't really make a big deal about sheer scholarly support for any premise we want to use, even if it is a conservative-sounding premise that does have overwhelming evidence going for it. If you want to mention scholarly consensus on, say, the fact that Jesus existed, be sure to make it clear that you've investigated the evidence for yourself and that that is where your real emphasis lies.

Next up, in Part 3: A discussion of confusion in the statements of the MFA about what is really granted by a large consensus of scholarship.