Thursday, January 21, 2021

An irony concerning the minimal facts approach

For some time I've been writing and speaking about the problems with a certain minimalistic approach to arguing for Christianity that has become popular in evangelical circles in the last several decades. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) Sometimes it goes by the name of the "minimal facts" approach. But not always. The apologetics giant William Lane Craig refers to the facts in question as "core facts" rather than "minimal facts" and includes the empty tomb among them, whereas the father of the minimal facts approach, Gary Habermas, does not include the empty tomb among his set of minimal facts. But as I have pointed out, the difference there is far more terminological than substantive, since in both cases the core fact or minimal fact that the disciples had appearance experiences is kept vague in order to be able to rope in a lot of scholars and say that they accept it. This causes a lot of epistemic trouble when one tries to argue for the physical resurrection of Jesus, since it's precisely the physical details that give us reason to think that Jesus was physically raised. It shouldn't need saying, but the reason Christians think he was physically raised is because we think he appeared physically to his disciples. (Obviously.) The mainstream scholar Wolfhart Pannenberg, who thought the resurrection accounts in the Gospels were heavily embellished, apparently thought that Jesus' body really disappeared and that in that sense he was "physically raised," but that he went immediately to heaven and that the appearances to the disciples were visions sent by God to the disciples and bore little resemblance to the appearances recounted in the Gospels. I'd say that at that point the meaning of "physically raised" has been changed almost beyond recognition and also that the epistemic support for believing in anything objective at all is gravely undermined.

This point was brought home to me recently by watching a series of video discussions between Michael Licona and Dale Allison. (Videos hereherehere, and here.) Allison is a little hard to characterize. He speaks of himself as a Christian (PCUSA), and Licona calls him a "fellow believer." He talks in the interviews about his prayer practices, which involve a yoga mat and icons. He's obviously a theist of some sort. That much I think can be said definitely. But Allison is and always has been profoundly ambivalent about the physical resurrection of Jesus and treats it very much as up in the air, and he obviously thinks it quite plausible that the resurrection narratives in the Gospels are highly embellished and that the details of those narratives, such as Jesus' eating with his disciples, were added for apologetic purposes. Licona is a strong advocate of the minimal approach and tries to do everything "through Paul," and in the interaction with Allison, it cuts no ice. Mind you, Allison is a naturally somewhat skeptical fellow. As he rather charmingly explains, there are four of him inwardly. They all get along with one another, though they disagree. What is interesting to notice is that none of these four "Dale Allisons" believes that robust, orthodox Christianity, including fully physical appearances, is historically justified by the objective evidence. So it is entirely plausible as a sociological and psychological matter that a discussion with someone who takes a more maximal approach to the resurrection would also cut no ice with Allison. But I consider Licona's attempts to counter him, most of them going "through Paul" (e.g., trying to treat Paul as our main or or even only eyewitness of the resurrection whose account has come down to us) to be objectively far weaker than the available arguments really are and hence consider it somewhat understandable that Allison bats them aside.

In reflecting on their interaction, I thought of an irony concerning the minimalist approach and the way that it bills itself, and I posted this on Facebook.

It is especially ironic that advocates of the minimal facts approach to defending Jesus' resurrection argue that they are appealing only to premises granted by a skeptical audience. Often this is portrayed as especially successful, because it appeals to common ground. I have argued in my "Minimal Facts vs. Maximal Data" webinar that this gravely weakens the case by watering down the notion of Jesus' "appearances" to something that a wide variety of scholars will accept.

But there is a more specific irony, which must be followed carefully to understand it: Due to the watering down of the "appearances," the physicality of Jesus' resurrection is cast into doubt, because the minimalist is not willing to argue that the highly physical details in the Gospel narratives (such as Jesus' eating) are really what the witnesses claimed. After all, the minimalist knows that that is not granted by a majority of scholars. How, then, to argue for the physical resurrection?

Generally the minimalist will at that point spend a fair bit of time arguing indirectly that the disciples believed the resurrection was physical. Per the minimalist's preference, this often goes "through" Paul. (There is a huge preference for doing everything "with" or "through" Paul.) E.g. Paul probably believed the resurrection was physical. Paul said that his gospel that he was preaching was approved by the other apostles. Therefore, the other apostles probably believed that the resurrection was physical. Or: The Gospel of Luke portrays the resurrection as physical. Luke was a companion of Paul and spoke to other apostles. Therefore, the apostles probably believed that the resurrection was physical. Note: This means that even if Luke invented the physical details in his narrative, this somehow doesn't matter because he invented them in order to convey what the apostles believed!

The minimalist will then try to insist that the apostles wouldn't have believed the resurrection was physical if they didn't have good evidence thereof. So, therefore, they probably had good evidence thereof. Again, this argument is supposed to circumvent concerns about the Gospels' embellishment. The idea, then, is to argue that even if those particular details were invented, something else was probably what they experienced that made them rational in believing in a physical resurrection!

So this round-the-barn approach eschews an attempt to defend the proposition that the only actual accounts we have tell us what the original witnesses claimed! It then attempts to bolster the now-weak argument for the physical resurrection by pouring energy into arguing that they probably believed it and that something-or-other convincing had to be what they experienced or they wouldn't have believed it.

Would that proposition be granted by the skeptic? Obviously not! Any skeptic or even ambivalent scholar (such as Dale Allison) is going to reject the proposition, "If the disciples believed that Jesus was physically raised, they were rational in doing so." Of course not! Such a person will point to various apparitions and visionary experiences as an analogy to the resurrection experiences (both Allison and Bart Ehrman expressly do this) and will then say that people believe a lot of things and that the apostles appear to have believed in a physical resurrection of Jesus for some other reason--e.g., because they were conditioned to so by their Jewish background, etc.

The point I am making is that at this incredibly crucial juncture the minimalist is forced to abandon his much-touted method of relying only on premises "granted by a majority of scholars" or even granted by a specific skeptical interlocutor. So even the supposed rhetorical and strategic advantage is suddenly lost.

But in that case, why not take a forward position sooner, make an actually stronger argument, and argue that the Gospels are reliable and that we have good reason to believe that the Gospel resurrection accounts tell us what the original witnesses actually claimed?

Here comes an interesting question: How many minimalists think you can do that? To what extent has the decades-long reliance on this supposed "mere strategy" given rise to a genuine loss of nerve, to an apologetics community full of people who don't think that they can argue that way, who don't think that the evidence actually supports that premise? Unfortunately, I fear that this is too true, and that this isn't really *just* a "strategy." (Indeed, I have provided quotations in the webinar that indicate as much.) That would mean that we are forced to argue in this roundabout fashion and only take a stand at the point of insisting that the disciples' belief must have been rational. But in that case, you might as well admit that that is what you're doing very openly. Just say it: "No, this isn't really a strategy that relies only on premises that the skeptic will grant. But I don't think the robust reliability of the Gospels and the unembellished nature of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection is defensible, so, I'm sorry, but this is the best we can do."

Isn't it a great thing that we have a better way?

In a comment to the Facebook post I was asked if a minimalist approach to arguing for the resurrection is/was just an excuse to bring higher criticism into evangelicalism. As I point out in my response, giving a bit of sociological history, the reality is more complicated than that. Here is what I said (very lightly edited):

I don't think it was intended to be that initially. I truly think that initially, e.g., as formulated by Dr. Gary Habermas, the minimal facts approach was meant to be a strategy for jumping off from what Habermas found to be an encouraging softening of the liberal scholarly stance, in order to to press for more. The idea was that perhaps after, say, the 1970s, the liberal scholars were admitting enough that we could grab that and use it as a set of premises and actually argue for the resurrection as an explanatory inference just from those premises. This was seen as a big advantage, a convenience, and also excellent for the popular use of debates to answer skeptics, because saying, "This is granted by so many liberal scholars" was seen as a knock-down debate tactic.

Unfortunately, a lot of things then happened. For one thing, Habermas did not consult enough epistemologists about the way he was writing and the rationale for his approach, and he confused epistemology with sociology. One finds this in several of his statements of the minimal facts case--he will speak as though a high percentage of scholars' agreeing is in and of itself helpful to strong epistemic status, which of course is not the case.

Second, the strategy took on, as it were, a life of its own so that the "muscles" that would otherwise be used for defending the more robust case tended to atrophy because Christians arguing for the resurrection were not using those muscles.

Third, Michael Licona wrote a book that was a lengthy historiographical expansion of the minimalist account, with Habermas's approval (though I don't really think Habermas fully realized what was going on) in which Licona used the phrase "historical bedrock" for a very limited set of sources. In that book he put big question marks over the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. At this point the embrace of something like "higher criticism" really did enter the "minimalist" approach, as Licona made, as it were, a virtue out of necessity (or a necessity out of an alleged virtue?): Such-and-such isn't "historical bedrock," such-and-such is unsure because we don't know how much of it goes back to the original disciples and we don't know how much liberty the evangelists felt free to take. Therefore we should try to use other methods. This approach was embraced to a disturbing extent around the same time by William Lane Craig, who in the 2008 edition of his book Reasonable Faith actually states that the more forward approach of William Paley and company has been rendered "forever obsolete" by the work of higher critics. Note that this involves, once again, confusing sociology with epistemology.

Since then, Licona's 2017 book and his many presentations have further pressed the idea that the evangelists felt free to "take liberties," and his views have been endorsed by high-level people in the apologetics world, cementing still further the unhappy union between minimalist apologetics and these higher-critical approaches, even though that wasn't the original reason for the introduction of the approach or even for its earlier popularity.

Meanwhile, lay apologetics took off as a cottage industry, and many lay apologists are simply confused about the "appearances" used in the premises of minimal facts. Indeed, sometimes the articles, etc., written by advocates of the approach are confusing at precisely this point. For example, again and again people supposedly presenting the "minimal facts" will bring into popular presentations things that are not granted by a majority of scholars, such as Jesus' appearances indoors and outdoors, to skeptics, etc. This has caused many people to embrace the minimal facts model on the mistaken assumption that a majority of scholars admit far more than they actually do admit. And they are then very reluctant to let go of this assumption. It's too much of a shock for them to absorb, because they are so sure that minimal facts or minimalism is the best way to argue. The prominence of the debate format is part of the issue, too, since people assume that you must use something like this to have a punchy debate presentation.

The demonizing of anyone who points out these issues (aka me) as doing something invidious for criticizing other Christians' work certainly doesn't help in promoting clarity and getting the word out about what the minimal facts approach is and isn't able to support. It also doesn't promote a healthy discussion of the best way to proceed. This is part of why I'm not going to stop pointing these things out, especially since I'm one of the only voices with a following who is doing so.


Mikhail said...

Hi Dr. McGrew,

I was wondering if you have responded anywhere to Licona's Youtube video series on your book "The Mirror or the Mask". If so, where can I find your responses? Thank you.

Lydia McGrew said...

Hi, Mikhail, Dr. Licona's video series came after The Mirror or the Mask, though in many respects it did not really deal with it, and there is no substitute for reading The Mirror or the Mask. However, out of an excess of thoroughness, and also because he said some additional things, I responded in detail and quite thoroughly to his video series, yes. I did so both on Youtube and with accompanying blog posts, all linked in the video descriptions, on this blog.

Follow the video links to get all the video content. Here is the playlist:

I did not separate out those response videos into a unique tag on this blog. They are under the "Licona" tag, to which much material has been added since during a backup project. However, each one is uniquely linked in the video description of the video to which it corresponds, so you can just find those by looking at the videos. There are seven videos.

Lydia McGrew said...

Sorry, I meant that I did not separate out the response blog posts in a unique tag. In any event, all of the material is well-organized in the video playlist and the video descriptions.

Mikhail said...

Hi Dr. McGrew,

Thank you.