Tuesday, August 18, 2020

When minimal is minimizing [Updated]


When minimal is minimizing [Updated]

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

I recently ran across a discussion on Reasonable Faith from 2015 that represents, I'm sorry to say, some of the most problematic tendencies in presenting a minimal facts argument for the resurrection of Jesus and the truth of Christianity. I have discussed problems with this argument here, and this post will be a companion piece to that one.

The 2015 discussion, by Dr. William Lane Craig, is an answer to a question from a reader. The reader (Joe) suggests, in my opinion quite rightly, that we should argue in an apologetic context for the accuracy and reliability of the gospels rather than their inerrancy and inspiration. If we take "accuracy" and "reliability" in Joe's question/suggestion in a normal sense, this seems like a legitimate suggestion.

But Dr. Craig, in answering, writes as though he is agreeing with Joe but takes his answer in a very strange and (to my mind) incorrect direction.

One big problem with the answer is that "reliability" seems to be redefined rather radically, so that it clearly isn't at all what Joe meant in his suggestion. Here is part of Dr. Craig's answer:

The task of apologetics is to lay out a rational justification for the truth of the Christian worldview. By “the Christian worldview” I do not mean the entire body of Christian doctrine. I mean the broad outlines of a view that would merit appending the label “Christian” to that view. More simply, it is what is necessary and sufficient to believe for becoming a Christian. This sort of minimalist understanding of the Christian worldview is what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.”

The central pillars of the Christian worldview, it seems to me, are the existence of God and His decisive self-revelation in Jesus, as shown by His raising him from the dead. If one comes to believe those two things, then one ought to become a Christian, and the rest is working out details.

Now, as you point out, in order to provide justification for those two beliefs, one needn’t affirm biblical inspiration, much less inerrancy. The arguments of natural theology for God’s existence don’t depend upon biblical inerrancy, nor does demonstrating the crucial facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, including his radical personal claims, whereby he put himself in God’s place, and the key events undergirding the inference to his resurrection from the dead.

Popular Christian apologists have long given lip service to this point but did not really take it seriously, as revealed by their resorting to implausible harmonizations in order to defend the Gospel accounts against any allegation of error. Such measures are unnecessary. The fact is that the central facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection are granted by the wide majority of New Testament scholars today, even those who think that the Gospels are rife with errors and inconsistencies. For example, my Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg argued for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and empty tomb, even though he thought that the empty tomb stories in the Gospels are so legendary that they have “scarcely a historical kernel” in them. I think that Pannenberg seriously underestimated the historical credibility of the empty tomb accounts, principally due to the work of the German critic Hans Grass; but never mind: the point is that he well illustrates how someone can have a historically justified belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection without a commitment to the inerrancy of the texts.

So I almost never argue with an unbeliever about biblical inerrancy. I’ll concede for the sake of argument virtually all the errors and inconsistencies in the Old and New Testaments that he wants to bring up, while insisting that the documents collected into what was later called the New Testament are fundamentally reliable when it comes to the central facts undergirding the claims and fate of Jesus of Nazareth. For the apologetic task it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which day of the week he was crucified, how many angels were at the tomb, and so on. So long as the central facts are secure, the unbeliever ought to become a Christian.

Notice that we have gone so far past arguing for inerrancy at this point that we are supposed to be conceding, at least for the sake of the argument, virtually all errors and inconsistencies that the skeptic wants to bring up, that the Gospels are "rife with errors and inconsistencies," and perhaps even Pannenberg's view that the Gospel resurrection accounts are so legendary that the empty tomb accounts contain "scarcely a kernel of truth."

Does anyone suppose that, when reader Joe suggested that we argue for the accuracy and reliability of the Gospels rather than their inerrancy, he had in mind conceding that the Gospels are rife with error and inconsistency and that virtually all errors and inconsistencies alleged by a skeptical scholar like, say, Bart Ehrman are really present?

Joe clearly meant just the opposite of this! In fact, Joe says this:

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to convince unbelievers. In my study, a strange thought occurred to me. It does not matter if the New Testament is inerrant or even inspired - it only matters if it is true!

If the gospel writers accurately recorded what Jesus said and did, and if Luke preserved the history from about AD 30-62, and if the writers of the epistles wrote about what they learned from Jesus and the apostles, then we have all we need to become Christians and have a relationship with God.

Notice the reference to the Gospel authors as accurately recording what Jesus said and did.

So Dr. Craig's answer is more or less saying, "I'll see you and raise you five. Let's ditch not only inerrancy but also ditch much Gospel reliability, and then redefine 'reliability' so that it just means 'getting it right on some incredibly minimal set of facts.'"

The use of "reliable" here is apparently supposed to apply to the following statements, listed toward the end of the answer:

With unbelievers we should simply make the case that the documents collected into the New Testament are reliable enough to warrant the beliefs that Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah, the unique Son of God, and the Danielic Son of Man, and that his crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of his disciples’ belief in his resurrection are historically well-founded.

So the Gospels should be deemed "reliable" on the grounds that they were right about these few things, even if we concede virtually everything else negative that a skeptical interlocutor says about them. But this is just a strange use of the term "reliable." There is a huge difference between saying that a document, though riddled with errors and contradictions with other accounts, happens to get a few extremely minimal claims right and saying that the document is reliable! Craig here seems to confuse "getting a few big, minimal things right" with "being reliable" in a meaningful sense. Instead, one more accurately should describe this as the view that the documents are (for all one can tell, given the fact that we're unwilling to assert or argue anything to the contrary) generally quite unreliable but get a few big-picture things right despite being unreliable. Perhaps by accident, in that case.

I would say, speaking as an epistemologist, that it is open to doubt whether one can get the conclusion that the Gospels get even these few things right if one is willing to grant, even "for the sake of argument" that they are as riddled with contradictions and errors as the skeptic wants to claim. Try that with Bart Ehrman and see how far you get. If, as Pannenberg thought, the empty tomb accounts contain "scarcely a kernel of truth" because they are so legendary, one wonders why anyone should affirm the empty tomb. I certainly wonder why Pannenberg did. Once we start allowing "for the sake of argument" that the Gospels contain legend and embellishment, especially at the point of accounts of miraculous incidents, it's not at all clear why the empty tomb should be allowed to pass muster. In fact, Gary Habermas, who invented the "minimal facts" argument for the resurrection which Dr. Craig is pushing rather hard on here, makes quite a point of not including the empty tomb among the "minimal facts." He leaves it out on the grounds that it isn't acknowledged by a large enough consensus of scholars across the ideological spectrum. See here.

I note as well the rather careful statement of Jesus' "radical personal claims." One would normally have expected these to include the fairly direct claims to deity in the Gospel of John, such as, "I and the Father are one," but it's pretty clear that Dr. Craig is wording the claims in a more restrained fashion so as not to depend upon those passages in John and so as to depend instead on the synoptics alone--"the Danielic Son of Man," "the unique Son of God," etc. This is (I would strongly guess) because unfortunately even some evangelical scholars are prepared to doubt the historicity of the unique statements in John. So the Gospels must be granted to be so unreliable that even our statement of Jesus' "radical personal claims" has to be minimal.

It is also questionable whether, once the minimal facts are watered down this much, they provide a strong case for the resurrection. I have argued that in the earlier post and won't restate the argument right now. I will be giving a webinar on this whole subject on April 7 for Apologetics Academy and will go into that point again at length there.

Now, back to Pannenberg. Dr. Craig has been absolutely explicit elsewhere that Pannenberg denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Therefore [according to Pannenberg], the Gospel appearance stories are late legendary developments that represent a kind of materializing of the original, primitive, spiritual experiences. The original experiences were just these visions of Jesus. It would be similar to Stephen’s vision of Jesus in Acts 73. When Stephen is being stoned, he sees the heavens open and he says, “I see the Son of Man in the heavens.” Nobody else saw anything, but Stephen saw this vision of Jesus. And I think that Pannenberg would say that that is similar to what the original resurrection appearances were. They were these visionary events and then they got corrupted and materialized and turned into the Gospel appearance stories, which are very, very physicalistic.

It's therefore very interesting that, in the 2015 answer to the question from Joe, Dr. Craig should have made an error on this very point, for he says, "[Pannenberg] well illustrates how someone can have a historically justified belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection without a commitment to the inerrancy of the texts." No, not bodily resurrection. I'm assuming that was a mere slip in writing, but it's a rather revealing one. It's become unfortunately common for Dr. Craig and others to refer to those who take a view like Pannenberg's as "affirming the resurrection," which in my opinion they should not do. "The resurrection" should mean the bodily, physical resurrection of Jesus, not a vision sent from God. But apparently this habit of saying that this "objective vision" view involves "affirming the resurrection" can occasionally result in a slip whereby one literally slides over into saying that it involves affirming the bodily resurrection even though it is just the opposite--a denial of the bodily resurrection. When one gets into the bad habit of calling something an affirmation of the resurrection when it isn't, it may beget a great deal of confusion.

Another problem with this entire post is the use of inerrancy as a stalking horse. To be sure, that is to some degree introduced by Joe's question in the first place. But as already pointed out, there is no reason to think that Joe was confused on the point at issue--namely, whether apologists should appear to throw out (strong) reliability in the name of setting aside inerrancy for apologetic purposes. That is precisely what Dr. Craig is unfortunately doing here. He keeps talking about inerrancy over and over again while giving illustrations of conceding not just on inerrancy but also on reliability in any robust sense. He does not confront the question of whether the apologetic task really can survive in a healthy form while we grant all of this unreliability, even "for the sake of argument."

Another problem here concerns doctrine. While Dr. Craig refers to C.S. Lewis and "mere Christianity," it is questionable whether the extremely minimal facts he names can give us even that. What about the deity of Christ, for example? If you had to argue that Jesus was really God, God in the flesh, against Arianism, could you do a convincing job if you were to acknowledge that the Gospels are riddled with error and contradiction and if you deliberately refrained from using the unique passages in the Gospel of John? In essence, this involves acknowledging (at least "for the sake of argument") that the Gospels don't do a very good job reporting Jesus' statements. I'm probably a bit conceited about my own argumentative prowess, but even I wouldn't want to be tasked with arguing under those handicaps that Jesus really is God! What about the Trinity? I would think it highly unlikely that one would be "allowed" to use the Trinitarian formula for baptism in Matthew 28:19 as an historical utterance of Jesus after granting "for the sake of argument" that the Gospels are riddled with error and contradiction and contain legendary elements. Why think that Jesus said that, if the Gospels are that unreliable? In fact, something so obviously doctrinal and formulaic-sounding is precisely the sort of thing that higher critics are likely to say, and concessive apologists likely to concede, might well have been added to the story later to reflect the Church's practice and was never historically said by Jesus. And the same for the unique discourses on the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, in the Gospel of John.

This whole question of doctrine becomes rather urgent since Dr. Craig envisages a situation where we actually attempt to evangelize the skeptic we are debating, and in the course of this debate we grant a great deal to that skeptic and then tell him that he should "become a Christian" anyway on the basis of the extremely minimal material that we have left ourselves to work with. But what would it mean for this person to become a Christian? Note that here I am talking about what most of us think of as "mere Christianity." I'm not talking about whether one's potential new convert becomes a Calvinist, an Arminian, or a Molinist! Does he believe in the Trinity? Does he believe that Jesus is God? Does he believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead rather than that Jesus merely appeared to his disciples in the form of a vision sent from God? Does he affirm the virgin birth? Such a person doesn't have to have all the details of Calcedonian metaphysics held clearly in his head, but we need to get a whole lot further than, "Jesus made a radical personal claim to be the son of God and rose from the dead in some sense or other" in order to have even "mere Christianity"!

At that point, if the skeptic is willing to listen, does one go back and say, "Okay, I granted for the sake of argument that the Gospels are a mess of contradictions and errors, but now I want to take that back and argue that we can see objectively that they are much more reliable than that, and therefore you should accept orthodox Christian doctrine"?

If you could do that, why did you grant so much for the sake of the argument in the first place? Wouldn't it have been awfully useful to have more reliable Gospels to work with as part of convincing him of the resurrection? And isn't the skeptic-on-the-verge-of-conversion going to feel like this was a bit of a bait and switch? It didn't seem like you were asking him to accept a high degree of actual, historical reliability for the Gospels in the first place, and now you are asking him to accept that when you get to the point that you want him to believe Christian doctrine.

If a high degree of actual reliability and accuracy cannot be argued for objectively but merely seen with the eyes of faith or something of that kind, why should the skeptic-thinking-of-becoming-a-Christian grant it? Maybe he should become a Socinian or Arian instead. Or maybe he should become a believer in the paranormal rather than in Christianity. But if it can be argued for objectively, why not at least assert that at the outset?

Dr. Craig also downplays harmonization in these odd sentences:

The arguments of natural theology for God’s existence don’t depend upon biblical inerrancy, nor does demonstrating the crucial facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, including his radical personal claims, whereby he put himself in God’s place, and the key events undergirding the inference to his resurrection from the dead. Popular Christian apologists have long given lip service to this point but did not really take it seriously, as revealed by their resorting to implausible harmonizations in order to defend the Gospel accounts against any allegation of error. Such measures are unnecessary. The fact is that the central facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection are granted by the wide majority of New Testament scholars today, even those who think that the Gospels are rife with errors and inconsistencies.

This is the only reference to harmonization in this discussion, and, as seen in the quotation given above, Craig says expressly that his recommended method in apologetics is not to harmonize when talking with an unbeliever but rather to grant him for the sake of argument "virtually all the errors and inconsistencies that he wants to bring up." This gives the seriously wrong impression that harmonization is just something we do as Christian believers rather than being a normal part of historical practice. But even purely secular historical accounts often need to be harmonized, and the use of real-world, sensible imagination to do so is not a religious enterprise but rather a part of rational historical investigation. Why should we assume that "popular apologists" who make use of harmonization are doing so because they are inerrantists and want in some dubiously objective fashion to protect the Bible from any hint of error? Someone might well engage in harmonization both for historical reasons and because he was trying to induce the skeptic to take seriously the possibility that the Gospels are actually reliable in a normal, historical sense.

Naturally, if we restrict our examples only to wild harmonizations, one might understandably wonder what the motive was for making such a suggestion. But frankly, I can't say that I'm hearing popular apologists out there making use of wildly strained harmonization. Why present Joe and other readers with a false dichotomy between some sort of desperate, theologically motivated, strained use of harmonization in apologetics and no harmonization at all? Where did reasonable, responsible harmonization get to in the course of this discussion? This is not to mention the fact that, unfortunately, Dr. Craig regards it as artificial to think that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice in his ministry, so there is certainly room for putting a question mark over his unspecified condemnation of popular apologists with reference to their allegedly strained use of harmonization.

Craig seems to imply that, when dealing with believers, we perhaps can consider harmonization, though he doesn't say so quite explicitly:

When it comes to the task of theology, however, things are different. The task of theology is to lay out systematically the truths taught in Scripture. Thus, one will try to develop a coherent system of doctrine which is faithful to Scripture. Based on what one thinks makes the best sense of Scripture, one will develop a more detailed body of Christian doctrine. This will include doctrines about what Scripture has to say about itself....So in answer to your questions, we don’t need to “argue over inspiration or inerrancy” with unbelievers, but we do need to discuss these questions with fellow Christians....With fellow believers we need to discuss the nature of biblical inspiration and what follows from that for the truthfulness of Scripture.

This would seem to mean that it's okay to try to harmonize when talking with fellow believers, because they are supposed to share some view of biblical inspiration with us. It would also seem to mean that we can use other portions of Scripture that we have otherwise set aside as historically dubious. But I have to say that this treats harmonization as the theological crazy uncle that we're a little ashamed of when he shows up outside of the house. And once again, one must ask why a brand-new believer-in-something-or-other based upon an argument that conceded so much "for the sake of argument" would even accept a doctrine of Scriptural inspiration. Therefore, why would such a person ever become a "fellow believer" in that sense? Why would he care that a passage is found in Scripture and (say) attributed to Jesus if it might just have been a later accretion from the entirely fallible Christian community? For that matter, why should he care about what the apostles said or wrote in letters? If it's so dicey from an objective, historical perspective to figure out whether or not Jesus even made the "I am" statements or said "I and the Father are one," it should be at least that dicey, historically, to decide that Jesus endorsed the teaching of the apostles as doctrinally authoritative!

Theological argument requires historical argument. Historical argument for Christian theology would normally include, for example, the statement that Jesus taught such-and-such and/or that Jesus commissioned his disciples to be theological teachers and that the apostles taught such-and-such. But of course one would need in that case to be able to claim a good historical case for those points.

The split in Dr. Craig's discussion here between the way we deal with skeptics and the way we deal with believers, and hence between history and theology, is troubling. Epistemically, there should be no such split. The facts are what they are. What is justified is what it is. Theology should be based solidly on history, not accepted in a blind leap as a separate, and rather large, package deal after we have wheedled the skeptic into granting "the resurrection" in some sense or other.

Several decades ago the prescient philosopher Francis Schaeffer talked about the "upper story" and the "lower story" in one's worldview. This discussion in Schaeffer was roughly parallel to what has otherwise been called the fact-value split. Schaeffer pointed out that modern man has a major problem with separating the upper story from the lower story and never letting the twain meet. (Unfortunately, Schaeffer attributed the historical origin of this split to Thomas Aquinas, which is crazy. Aquinas was arguing precisely against such a split and was uniting faith and reason. But set that aside.)

I am very much afraid that the history/theology distinction in minimalist modern apologetics is following the lower-story/upper-story pattern. Down on the bottom there is the so-called "historical bedrock" that is so incredibly minimal that it is granted even by quite liberal, non-Christian scholars. Going beyond that is treated by minimalist apologists as historically dubious. But hey, good news: You can supposedly use that incredibly minimal "historical bedrock" to ratchet an unbeliever into becoming a "believer" (for some values of "believer"). Then he's magically supposed to believe in the authority of the books that have been gathered into the canon, known as "Scripture," and then we can go about convincing him of a whole lot more theological doctrine, even though we don't have a good historical argument that these propositions have been endorsed by Jesus or God.

This is highly questionable epistemic practice, and I doubt that any prospective convert should view it with favor. We need, ourselves, to be men with integrated minds; by this means we can produce converts who also have integrated minds.

Update: My attention has been drawn to this post by Dr. Craig in which he carves out an unusual use of the concept and terminology of "bodily" resurrection according to which Pannenberg does believe in the "bodily" resurrection of Jesus, since Jesus' body disappeared from the tomb and in this sense was "raised." (Did the ascension take place instantly, in that case? Perhaps so.) Then Pannenberg holds to the "objective vision" theory according to which Jesus did not appear bodily to his disciples--a point on which Craig has been explicit. Generally the objective vision theory is held to be in contrast with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but apparently in Craig's terminology there is an option that is objective-vision-with-the-body-was-raised-and-went-straight-to-heaven that he believes can be called "bodily resurrection." Given this, apparently he was not (on his own terms) making a slip when he said that Pannenberg affirms the bodily resurrection. I'm happy to correct this terminological point while noting that this is not generally what would be meant by "bodily resurrection" and hence is quite a confusing use of the phrase.

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