Tuesday, April 07, 2009

More on methodological naturalism

JAMES F. MCGRATH SAID:

Thanks for taking the time to interact with my post on Beale's book. I will let you read about my own conversion experience on my blog if you are interested; the authors that have come to be among my favorites did not achieve that status without a fight against them on my part. And I think this too tells against the "conspiracy theory" and "peer pressure" hypotheses.

i) The “conspiracy theory” is not Beale’s theory. Rather, that’s a polemical caricature of Beale’s position–which you impute to him.

ii) Peer pressure was not the only explanation I gave. But it’s undoubtedly a factor in some situations.

iii) There are liberal seminaries, liberal colleges, liberal divinity schools where the veracity of Scripture comes under direct attack. For the ill-prepared student, that can take a toll.

I attended Evangelical Bible colleges, and it was already in those contexts that I found the Bible itself raising the questions, and at times leading to the answers, that I resisted from "liberals". And you are surely aware that both Robinson and Bultmann can only be generalized as "liberal" if one defines that term to mean "anyone who doesn't adhere consistently to conservative Evangelical conclusions".

To the contrary, it ranges along a continuum. For example, Bruce Metzger was to the left of Gregory Beale, but to the right of Rudolf Bultmann. I’m quite capable of distinguishing between conservatives, moderates, and liberals–with many intervening shades.

Bultmann challenged classic Liberalism's assumption that one can merely remove the cultural shell of the first century and take a timeless core of Christianity out from within it.

Which simply means that Bultmann was to the left of classic Liberalism. He was a more thoroughgoing liberal.

And his existentialist emphasis on personal decision became a key element of modern Evangelicalism.

The existentialist emphasis antedates Bultmann. For example, the Puritans place an enormous emphasis on spiritual introspection and experimental religion.

Robinson's conclusions on the date of New Testament writings are more conservative than those of many conservatives.

You didn’t reference his book on redating the NT. Rather, you cited his book on Honest to God. That title was riding the crest of 1960s countercultural. A radical chic expression of secular theology. There were a slew of books in that vein, attempting to cash in on the theological fad du jour, viz. Cox, Altizer, van Buren.

This is one reason why terms like "liberal" and "conservative" are unhelpful: they suggest that there are two opposing views rather than a wide range of partially-overlapping possible positions, as well as the possibility of being more or less conservative on some issues and different on others.

If you dislike the “liberal” label to characterize Bultmann or Robinson, I’d be happy to substitute a more exacting designation: how about atheist or secularist?

I don’t know what sort of God, if any, they still believed in. Certainly not the God of the Bible. They didn’t believe in a God who actively involves himself in mundane affairs–be it creation, providence, or miracle.

But if God never does anything, then there’s precious little evidence that God even exists. Such a God is virtually indistinguishable from a nonexistent God. At best, the “theology” of Bultmann and Robinson is functionally equivalent to atheism.

If that’s their position, then why try to keep up appearances? Why continue to intone Biblical or liturgical language when there’s no extratextual referent?

On methodological naturalism, I don't see how historical study can adopt any other approach, any more than criminology can. It will always be theoretically possible that a crime victim died simply because God wanted him dead, but the appropriate response of detectives is to leave the case open. In the same way, it will always be possible that a virgin conceived, but it will never be more likely than that the stories claiming this developed, like comparable stories about other ancient figures, as a way of highlighting the individual's significance. And since historical study deals with probabilities and evidence, to claim that a miracle is "historically likely" misunderstands the method in question.

I am a New Testament scholar rather than purely a historian, but it is my understanding (which historians I know have confirmed) that historical study works on the basis of probability, evaluating available evidence and drawing conclusions much as a jury might in a court of law. And I don't see how anyone could conclude “beyond reasonable doubt" that it is more probable that a miracle occurred than that a story about a miracle came into existence for some other reason. That doesn't mean that miracles did not occur. It just means that historical study can't "prove" that they did.

I think a distinction must be made. I cannot affirm a miracle as having happened in the distant past based on accounts in texts that have come down to us, because that's the way historical study works. When it comes to modern miracles, that's a question that relates to not only philosophical worldviews but also theology, experience and perhaps much else.


Several problems with your historiography:

i) History is supposed to be a descriptive discipline. A description of past events. It involves an element of discovery. The historian doesn’t know, in advance of his investigations, what has happened. He must learn about the past. Learn about the past on the basis of testimonial evidence or archeological evidence. (An exception would be a historian who is recording autobiographical anecdotes.)

ii) By contrast, methodological naturalism is a prescriptive principle. Applied to history, it prejudges what the historian is allowed to regard as possible or actual. It superimposes a filter on the historical evidence, screening out any evidence which is at variance with methodological naturalism.

Methodological naturalism dictates a foregone conclusion. Before the historian ever looks out the window, methodological naturalism tells the historian what he’s permitted to see. Methodological naturalism prescribes, in advance of the evidence, what can or cannot count as evidence.

That isn’t a way of doing history. That isn’t a way of learning about the past. Rather, that’s a way of insulating yourself from any sort of evidence which would challenge your precommitment to naturalism. It systematically begs all the factual questions.

iii) Moreover, methodological naturalism doesn’t distinguish between past miracles and present miracles, first-hand evidence and second-hand evidence. If you stake out the a priori position that any explanation is more likely than a miraculous explanation, then you could be an eyewitness to a modern miracle, or a series of modern miracles, yet you would be forced, in every single case, to seek an alternative explanation.

iv) You have adopted a principle which immunizes our position from all possible falsification. If you insist that every historical interpretation must be naturalistic, then your historical interpretations are unfalsifiable. How did you ever maneuver yourself into the position that historical study commits you to unfalsifiable interpretations of the past?

v) When you insist that every historical interpretation must be naturalistic, then the historical evidence ceases to control the historical interpretation. Instead, your naturalistic filter is controlling the historical interpretation.

vi) You talk about historical probabilities, but the assessment of what is probable depends on a background knowledge of what is actual or possible. However, methodological naturalism isn’t based on historical probabilities. How could you know, apart from observation, what is actual or possible?

You can’t automatically discount testimony evidence to the occurrence of miracles based on what is likely, for your knowledge of what is likely is, itself, contingent on testimonial evidence.

vii) Methodological naturalism would only be the default position in historiography (or science) if a naturalistic methodology were underwritten by the stronger thesis of metaphysical naturalism. Absent metaphysical naturalism, there is no antecedent presumption in favor of methodological naturalism.

viii) You fail to explain what would make a miracle unlikely. Let’s take the paradigm-case of the Resurrection. Considered on its own terms, what makes the Resurrection likely or unlikely is whether it’s likely or unlikely that God willed to resurrect Jesus. Did God have a reason to resurrect Jesus? Did it serve his purpose?

At a metaphysical level, it comes down to a teleological question, involving personal agency. In this case, divine agency, divine intent.

ix) I’d add that, at an epistemic level, the answer to this question doesn’t depend on prior belief in God. Unless metaphysical naturalism is true, it is not antecedently improbable that God willed the resurrection of Jesus. And, in that event, evidence for the Resurrection would also be evidence for the existence of God as well as the will of God.

My time as a Pentecostal has not persuaded me that regrowing limbs or anything utterly inexplicable of that sort happens today, and so I'm not sure why I should believe it did in the past.

But if you subscribe to methodological naturalism, then even if you did witness the regeneration of limbs in answer to prayer, you would have to discount the miraculous explanation as the least likely explanation.

So are you now admitting that methodological naturalism is an unsound principle? Are you admitting that first-hand evidence for a miracle would be sufficient to attest the occurrence of a miracle? If so, can you drive a wedge between first-hand evidence and second-hand evidence?

That's nothing to do with Hume, it's just a belief in divine consistency, i.e. that God did not do miracles in the past and then stop at some point.

i) I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Consistent in relation to what? Consistent in relation to a divine promise? Did God promise to heal amputees? If not, then what is the basis of your expectation?

ii) Why do you think divine consistency entails that if God performed miracles in the past, he’d perform miracles in the present? Do you think miracles should be a regular phenomenon–like Old Faithful? Something we set our clocks to?

Do you think God should perform the random miracle now and then? What is your theology of miracles?

ii) How can you demand evidence for modern miracles given your axiomatic commitment to methodological naturalism? Your naturalistic methodology would preempt any evidence for modern miracles.

iii) There is, in fact, an extensive literature on miracles throughout church history, up to and including the present day.

Let me not make this comment any longer, but I will say that when inerrancy is nuanced and qualified as in the Chicago Statement, it is not clear what is in fact being affirmed.

I don’t know why that’s unclear to you. The Chicago Statement spells out in some detail what its view of inerrancy affirms and disaffirms.

The Bible can be approximate and imprecise, and contains different genres - that is certainly true. But why then prejudge which texts represent which genres, and why continue to use "inerrancy" when that gives an impression to laypeople that is different from what adherents to the Chicago Statement mean by it?

i) Where does the Chicago Statement prejudge the literary classification of various texts?

ii) What makes you think the impression of a layman should be identical with the impression of scholars? Theology has a number of technical terms. Technical terms have specialized meanings.

iii) Having said that, I don’t know why you think the Chicago Statement defines inerrancy in a way a layman would not. Take round numbers. The average layman doesn’t talk like Lt. Commander Data. The average layman doesn’t give measurements down to the very last decimal point. The use of round number is a convention of ordinary language. Why would a layman think that Scripture cannot or ought to employ the conventions of ordinary language?

I think it is to create a sibboleth (sorry, I have trouble pronouncing that word) that will allow seminaries and theological schools to continue to be funded by conservative congregations and individuals, rather than educating them, since education inevitably involves having our assumptions challenged.

Now you yourself are peddling a conspiracy theory. You act as if all pastors or professors are closet liberals, but keep it to themselves for reasons of job security. Now, some pastors are leading a double life. But many conservative seminaries expose their students to the liberal view of Scripture. They discuss liberal objections to the Bible. Faculty members write whole books on the subject. Many seminarians have read both sides of the argument, and come down on the conservative side of the argument. They have nothing to hide from their congregations. This isn’t a trade secret.

19 comments:

  1. Methodological naturalism reminds me of the Dwarfs in the last book of Narnia. They were so deluded by what they thought was possible, that they were blinded to anything but their "method".

    ReplyDelete
  2. "For example, the Puritans place an enormous emphasis on spiritual introspection and experimental religion."

    Steve, did you mean to write "experiential religion" instead of "experimental religion"?

    Also, thank you for the superb exposition on the defects in James's historiography. Quite well done.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Experimental religion" is a traditional phrase, albeit somewhat quaint.

    ReplyDelete
  4. 1.) I don't think you can equate the pietistic strain of Puritanism with existentialism. Both are introspective, but in radically different way. The Puritan seeks union with Christ, while the other is struggling with the paradox of his own human dignity. Compare Lewis Bayly and Ernest Becker.

    2.) "There is, in fact, an extensive literature on miracles throughout church history, up to and including the present day." This argument only goes so far. The naturalist is frustrated because he can never debunk every miraculous claim. On the other hand, I have no reason to believe in ongoing operations of miraculous events, but that has to do with application of Scripture and other things. This idea of ongoing miracles must be a hobby horse of yours, as shown by your hostility to citing authorities against them.

    ReplyDelete
  5. JAMES VANDENBERG SAID:

    “I don't think you can equate the pietistic strain of Puritanism with existentialism.”

    I didn’t equate them.

    “On the other hand, I have no reason to believe in ongoing operations of miraculous events.”

    You have no reasons because you give no reasons.

    Even Warfield drew a distinction between a miracle-working church and a miracle-working God.

    “This idea of ongoing miracles must be a hobby horse of yours, as shown by your hostility to citing authorities against them.”

    i) Yes, you’re good at citing your “authorities.” So is the Catholic. Or the Mohammedan. Indeed, you are interchangeable with a Catholic or Mohammedan. Same mindset, different authorities.

    ii) Unlike you, I do apologetics. I defend the faith. I engage unbelievers. You, by contrast, jeer from the cheap seats.

    iii) When you summarily dismiss all testimonial evidence for postbiblical miracles, you thereby impugn the reliability of testimonial evidence generally. And that, in turn, undercuts the Bible, for the Bible itself invokes testimonial evidence.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Let me clarify my "conspiracy theory" point, since I suspect I may have been misunderstood. My point was that some have claimed that there is a "conspiracy" of Biblical scholars, or of scientists when it comes to evolution, to maintain theories and ideas which, if students were allowed to investigate matters without pressure being placed upon them, they would reject. It is appealed to at times as an explanation of why a young earth creationist who goes to study paleontology, or geology, or biology at a mainstream institution may no longer be a young earth creationist at graduation. A similar explanation is offered of why many students at seminaries and universities move to less conservative conclusions over the course of their studies: liberal professors putting pressure on them. I simply wanted to raise the possibility that some (clearly not all) may reach the conclusions they do simply because as they study the evidence they change their minds. So also some who study may not change their minds because they are determined in advance not to change them, regardless of the evidence.

    I certainly never meant to claim that all pastors are more liberal than they acknowledge to their congregations. But in denominations or independent churches where a pastor depends on the church for the salary, there is often pressure to not say what they think, and instead say what they most influential laypeople in the church want to hear. I say this from experience: we hire a pastor to teach and lead us but are often ready to challenge him (or her) if he (or she) does not say what we expect!

    You wrote "Did God have a reason to resurrect Jesus? Did it serve his purpose?" as the key questions about the "probability" or the resurrection. My question to you is how historians are supposed to know that, much less how they are supposed to know that before approaching the evidence.

    ReplyDelete
  7. And since it might be relevant, here's a link to an older post of mine, on why I don't find your point about Robinson and Bultmann not believing in the God of the Bible to be relevant: I'm not persuaded that anyone today believes in the God of the Bible precisely in the way Biblical authors did, nor am I persuaded that such is possible.

    ReplyDelete
  8. You wrote ‘Did God have a reason to resurrect Jesus? Did it serve his purpose?’ as the key questions about the "probability" or the resurrection. My question to you is how historians are supposed to know that, much less how they are supposed to know that before approaching the evidence.

    Several issues:

    i) Remember that I stated this as a metaphysical precondition, not an epistemic precondition.

    ii) In many cases, it’s possible to identify the occurrence of an event even if we’re ignorant of the intent (in cases where an agent caused the event).

    iii) An agent can reveal his intent.

    iv) It’s often possible to infer the intent of the agent from the event itself.

    v) There is also a difference between the inability to probabilify an event, and the probability or improbability of an event. Inability to assign antecedent probabilities doesn’t render an event improbable. In that situation you have to judge the occurrence or nonoccurrence of the event a posteriori–according to the evidence for its occurrence or nonoccurrence.

    vi) A mark of agency is the fact that something occurs which wouldn’t occur if natural (i.e. impersonal) processes were at work. Ironically, the very thing you find objectionable about a miracle is the same thing that marks it out as an intentional act.

    ReplyDelete
  9. James F. McGrath said...

    "And since it might be relevant, here's a link to an older post of mine, on why I don't find your point about Robinson and Bultmann not believing in the God of the Bible to be relevant: I'm not persuaded that anyone today believes in the God of the Bible precisely in the way Biblical authors did, nor am I persuaded that such is possible."

    Your post is not an accurate description of what conservative Christians believe about Biblical events. They do not allegorize the fall of Jericho (to use your own example). Even if they use this as a spiritual illustration, that is not in place of the historical affirmation.

    Likewise, if they don't do the same thing that God commanded the Jews to do, that's because God didn't command them to do the same thing.

    You lack the critical detachment to distinguish your position from the position of your opponents. You are projecting your own scepticism onto them.

    ReplyDelete
  10. James F. McGrath said...

    “I must say that I find there to be a strong tension between the rejection of methodological naturalism by historians on the one hand, and the denial that miracles continue to happen today on the other…I might add that, as someone shaped in a Pentecostal tradition, I came to these questions open to the possibility of miracles occurring, perhaps more open than the folks at Triablogue.”

    That's a demonstrably false statement of my own position.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have plenty of critical detachment from my position. It is one I didn't want to reach, and when I write about conservative views, I'm in most instances talking about the sorts of beliefs either I held or those around me held in my conservative days. So I may engage in hyperbole or reductio ad absurdam, but I am not a liberal by upbringing who is looking at conservatives from a distance through binoculars and misunderstanding what I see...

    ReplyDelete
  12. James,

    My problem with what you said is that it fails to distinguish between the past and the present. Are you saying that I, as a Christian in the modern world, cannot believe in the OT miracles, because I do not personally experience extraordinary events? To be blunt this is BS, and you know it.

    Miracles in the Bible seem frequent because scripture is a selective account of history, which emphasizes the activity of God in the life of Israel. I am sure that the people in the Old Testament did not experience miracles everyday, but they still believed in that God. I am also sure that the everyday person did not have the same intensity of Divine experience as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, etc. they probably had experiences more analogous to our everyday religious experience, does that mean that the common person did not "believe" in God in the same way? If not what makes it difficult for me to believe that God brought down the walls of Jericho, parted the Red Sea, or raised Jesus from the dead?

    As with many of your posts you are fighting a strawman. I must give you credit, you beat the strawman to a pulp.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Hi Blake. I certainly don't think that miracles have to be everyday occurrences. I was referring more to the "cessationist" outlook, which considers it important to affirm that miracles happened in the past, while more or less outright denying that they happen today. And I wonder about the many Christians today who probably would not subscribe to cessationism, and would affirm that the miracles described in the Bible happened exactly as portrayed, and yet will only pray nowadays for God to "grant the doctors wisdom". It seems odd to me - not necessarily wrong or incoherent or anything else, just a subjective impression on my part, as someone who as a teenager often wished he had the faith, or the guts, to walk up to a lame man and say "rise, in the name of Jesus, and walk".

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi James,

    You Said: I certainly don't think that miracles have to be everyday occurrences. I was referring more to the "cessationist" outlook, which considers it important to affirm that miracles happened in the past, while more or less outright denying that they happen today.

    I respond: Well, I do not think that this is a very good argument against cessationism. They normally make a scriptural argument, and if their arguments are correct, and that is what scripture says, then what is the problem? I do not consider myself a cesstionist.

    James Said: And I wonder about the many Christians today who probably would not subscribe to cessationism, and would affirm that the miracles described in the Bible happened exactly as portrayed, and yet will only pray nowadays for God to "grant the doctors wisdom". It seems odd to me - not necessarily wrong or incoherent or anything else, just a subjective impression on my part, as someone who as a teenager often wished he had the faith, or the guts, to walk up to a lame man and say "rise, in the name of Jesus, and walk".

    Maybe our inability to see miracles is because of our assumptions. For instance it is known that cancer does just go away with not explanation. I do not know if it is a miracle, but it most certainly could be! I also do not discount individual testimony quite so easily. I knew of a missions professor at Southern Seminary that told us about personal experience with Shamans in certain parts of the world. I believe I read a piece at Glenn Miller's Christian-Think tank that dealt with many of the shamanistic phenomenon and the problem of naturalistic interpretations.
    My point in another comment applies here also. Why assume that because in selective accounts of scripture we have miracles that I should assume one in my own life? The New Testament authors certainly knew of plenty of people that God, in his providence, did not heal. I fail to see the problem. There are certainly problems with faith, and non-faith, but I thin you create problems where they do not exist.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Blake:

    Be aware that "cessationism" isn't synonymous with "miracles don't happen anymore". It's synonymous with "miraculous & revelatory gifts aren't given anymore". Cessationists may believe that God still answers prayer miraculously, but they do not believe that people are given gifts of signs & wonders to exercise at will.

    Some cessationists also believe that God doesn't do any kind of miracle anymore, but that's a subset of cessationists.

    ReplyDelete
  16. "I think it is to create a sibboleth (sorry, I have trouble pronouncing that word) that will allow seminaries and theological schools to continue to be funded by conservative congregations and individuals, rather than educating them, since education inevitably involves having our assumptions challenged."

    Funny, I've found the total opposite in my limited experience attending a secular university. In my NT course we were given in both class lectures and in the textbook all the typical liberal arguments for the authorship of the NT books, Jesus had no sense of being the messiah, contradictions, etc. There was NO interactions with conservative viewpoints.

    What was interesting was that a large number of evangelical students were taking his courses, and many were discounting much of what he taught and researching for themselves on these issues. I know of one student who met with him after classa and told him this and he had no idea, and was totally shocked about what was going on. He was totally blind as to how closed off his view of the Scriptures were and how much of what he was saying was being discounted by his students as just being so much liberal pablum.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Jugulum,

    Thanks for the correction. I have not studied the issue as closely as I should. Do you have any suggestions.

    Blake

    ReplyDelete
  18. You have no reasons because you give no reasons “[to believe in ongoing operations of miraculous events].”

    God deals with man in terms of covenants. Miracles, even demonic ones, serve to help establish these covenants. Once they are established, the miracles ceased. That includes both charismatic gifts (however we define them) and occult apparitions.

    “Indeed, you are interchangeable with a Catholic or Mohammedan. Same mindset, different authorities.”

    This is vicious slander. I assume you will delete this post, as my previous message pointing out your pattern of abuse has vanished. Just because we live in an age of increasing barbarity, even in discourse, that does not excuse your behavior.

    Anyway, learn the Reformation concept of affirming the perspicuity and authority of Scripture while still believing that the church really is the church, which holds the keys. You may not agree with it, but it ain’t Roman.

    “Unlike you, I do apologetics. I defend the faith. I engage unbelievers.”

    How do you know what some guy on the Internet does or does not do? If you cannot be rational about little things, why should you be taken seriously about great ones?

    “When you summarily dismiss all testimonial evidence for postbiblical miracles, you thereby impugn the reliability of testimonial evidence generally. And that, in turn, undercuts the Bible, for the Bible itself invokes testimonial evidence.”

    I’m not dismissing post-apostolic miracles for naturalistic reasons. That’s your hobby horse, like I said. Rather, I say that hidden things are God’s jurisdiction and not a worthy topic for unnecessary speculation.

    ReplyDelete
  19. JAMES VANDENBERG SAID:

    “God deals with man in terms of covenants. Miracles, even demonic ones, serve to help establish these covenants. Once they are established, the miracles ceased. That includes both charismatic gifts (however we define them) and occult apparitions.”

    That’s an assertion, not an argument. To turn it into an actual argument, you need to do at least two things:

    i) Demonstrate that every biblical miracle has the sole purpose of establishing divine covenants.

    ii) Demonstrate that even demonic miracles have the purpose of establishing divine covenants.

    “This is vicious slander. I assume you will delete this post, as my previous message pointing out your pattern of abuse has vanished. Just because we live in an age of increasing barbarity, even in discourse, that does not excuse your behavior.”

    To the contrary, you (selectively) cite Reformed “authorities” with the same blind allegiance as a papist cites Catholic authorities and a Mohammedan cites Muslim authorities.

    If you want your claims to be treated with respect, you’ll have to secure it the old-fashioned way–by earning it. Make a rational case for your position.

    I’m not going to lower the bar for a Calvinist. If anything, I should hold you to a higher standard than I do the Romanist or Mohammedan.

    “Anyway, learn the Reformation concept of affirming the perspicuity and authority of Scripture while still believing that the church really is the church, which holds the keys. You may not agree with it, but it ain’t Roman.”

    That doesn’t even begin to amount to an argument for your claim that creeds outrank us. Learn how to reason.

    “How do you know what some guy on the Internet does or does not do?”

    I judge you by how you choose to present yourself.

    “I’m not dismissing post-apostolic miracles for naturalistic reasons.”

    Irrelevant. You can only dismiss all postapostolic miracles by taking a radically skeptical view of testimony evidence. And that, in turn, undermines the Bible.

    “Rather, I say that hidden things are God’s jurisdiction and not a worthy topic for unnecessary speculation.”

    That simply begs the question of what things (postapostolic miracles?) constitute the hidden things.

    ReplyDelete