Tuesday, April 22, 2014

History and miracles

This is a sequel to two previous posts:

I'm going to respond to some statements by Nick Peters, both in response to me and other commenters:

Also, in my apologetics endeavors, I am very careful with when I deal with Bible contradictions. I will normally address some for other Christians, but too often many atheists have this idea that "If I find one contradiction in the Bible, I can throw the whole thing out." That's a terrible way of doing history and would require we pretty much scrap all of ancient history. I ask that they just at the start treat the Bible like any other document. Of course, I hope that they would come to see its divine inspiration and Inerrancy, but I am fine with them starting where they are.Yet I do not deny for a moment that resurrection is the more important belief. If Inerrancy is false, well I have to change my view of Scripture, but not my view of who Jesus is or if Christianity is true. If the resurrection is false, my entire worldview is changed. We're not saying to reject Inerrancy. Not at all. We're saying it's not essential and the way you can know what Jesus did can also be done just by historical research. You can treat the Bible like any other historical document and still come to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.If someone wants to come to Jesus and says "I'm convinced Jesus is the God-man who died and rose again, but I'm not sold that Jonah was in the belly of a big fish for the time he was" I'm not going to tell them to wait. They need to come now.
This conflates several issues that need to be distinguished:
i) We need to distinguish between defensive apologetics, and offensive apologetics or personal evangelism. 
In reference to offensive apologetics or personal evangelism, you can't make a direct appeal to the authority of Scripture since the unbeliever rejects the authority of Scripture. For the unbeliever, that's not a given. So the Christian apologist must reason for the authority of Scripture in that context. That's a conclusion rather than a starting-point.
ii) But in defensive apologetics, the Christian apologist can and should take the inspiration of Scripture for granted, since defensive apologetics isn't confined to common ground with the unbeliever, but what Christians believe. 
iii) In principle, a Christian apologist can ask or challenge the unbeliever to grant the inspiration of Scripture for the sake of argument, and explore the consequences of that postulate. 
iv) On a related note, it's necessary to distinguish between apologetic strategy or apologetic method, on the one hand, and Christian theology, on the other hand. 
Even if we think, as a matter of apologetic method or strategy, that we should bracket inspiration and simply treat the Bible like any other historical document, even if we think the inspiration of Scripture is inessential as an apologetic presupposition, it hardly follows that inspiration is essential from the standpoint of Christian theology.
v) Apropos (iv), it is essential to Biblical theism that God is a God who speaks as well as acts. A God who communicates to and through humans. Divine inspiration/revelation is no less important to the Biblical worldview than the Resurrection. Both involve core notions of God's activity in the world.
Likewise, inspiration/inerrancy is arguably indispensable to the distinction between true and false prophecy. And that's a key distinction in Biblical theology.  
A religion in which God raises Christ from the dead, but God doesn't communicate to and through humans (e.g. prophets, apostles) is not the Judeo-Christian faith. 
vi) There are "progressive Christians" who distinguish between inspiration and inerrancy. They hold some diluted view of inspiration which allows for errors in Scripture. Be that as it may, bracketing inspiration in toto, to simply treat the Bible as a historical document, whatever its merits as an apologetic method or strategy, is wholly inadequate unless we can reintroduce inspiration/revelation into Christian theology at a later stage of the apologetic argument.
vii) Merely treating the Bible as a historical document is deceptively simple. For Bible history isn't just a matter of historical events, but miraculous events. In that regard, unbelievers raise one of two objections:
a) Some unbelievers insist that methodological naturalism is essential historiography. Therefore, as a matter of principle, they preemptively discount the record of Scripture when it reports a miracle. 
b) Some unbelievers allow for historical evidence for miracles in theory. However, they maintain that the prior probability of a miracles is so vanishingly small that historical testimony for miracles can never surmount the overwhelming presumption to the contrary. A naturalistic explanation, however improbable, is always more probable than a supernaturalistic explanation. 
Therefore, simply approaching the Bible as a historical document isn't nearly as straightforward as it sounds. That's instantly complicated by these objections. So a Christian apologist who takes that tack will be immediately plunged into a debate over methodological naturalism and/or the probability of miracles. 
viii) Nick hasn't explained how he gets from the Bible as a generally reliable historical source to the Bible as inerrant/inspired.
ix) There are traditional ways of arguing for Scripture that don't just treat the Bible as a historical document. Take the classic argument from prophecy. To be sure, that has its own complications. The apologist must establish the priority and fulfillment of the prophecy. 
But that's an argument that which the Bible as divinely inspired right from the outset–without, however, begging the question. For the apologist proceeds to make a case for prophetic corroboration. 
x) The question of apologetic method/strategy is also distinct from the question of whether Christians need a fallback position, short of inerrancy and short of apostasy, to soften the landing in case they either lose faith in the inerrancy of Scripture or were never convinced in the first place. Even if we agree with that, it's a separate issue from apologetic method/strategy.
xi) Apropos (i), the threat that if I find one mistake in Scripture I will chuck the Christian faith, assumes that there's a viable alternative to the Christian worldview. Many apostates make fairly minimal adjustments to their worldview after they defect from the faith. That's because they are philosophically superficial. They continue to take many things for granted which naturalism is unable to justify. 
Rather than lowering the bar of Christian theology, we should raise the bar of atheism. There are atheists who are more candid and probing about the radically skeptical consequences of atheism (e.g. Hume, Quine, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Dennett, Rosenberg, Benatar, Paul & Patricia Churchland). It would be better to point out that if you jump ship (i.e. Christianity), there's no lifeboat waiting for you to conduct you to safe harbor. Rather, you're diving into the shark-infested waters of nihilism. Conversely, we can turn that into a presuppositional argument for Biblical theism. 
xii) If an unbeliever says he can't take Jonah's fish miracle seriously, instead of giving him a pass, we should question him on why. Does he object to that miracle because he objects to miracles in general, or is there something about that miracle in particular which he finds incredible? If so, what?
xiii) There's the specter of lowballing the unbeliever in Nick's apologetic strategy. Instead of leveling with the unbeliever about what the Christian faith commits him to, we try to get him hooked, then reveal the hidden surcharges after the fact. Is that really preferable to being upfront about the whole package deal? Otherwise, we're guilty of false advertising. 


  1. When it comes to Inerrancy, for me the most important issue is that of apparent *internal* contradictions in the Bible. Apparent external errors or discrepancies aren't that problematic since they usually depend on comparing Scriptural statements with empirical or historical data. Since empirical and historical data can always be questioned epistemologically, it can never trump Scripture (as Clarkians preeminently point out). Other issues like canonical and textual issues (e.g. variants, copyist errors, lost readings etc) are important, but in my opinion are not as crucial as internal contradictions.

    Apparent irresolvable/irreconcilable internal contradictions can, in the minds of many Christians, call into question the truth and/or inerrancy of Scripture. Since, contradictions can't be true and the truth of inerrancy precludes the possibility of real contradictions. Most Christians (including myself) are simple and unsophisticated and therefore wouldn't know how to handle an apparent (or a truly) irreconcilable internal contradiction in Scripture. In such an instance, many honest and unsophisticated Christians (like myself) would have to either give up belief in inerrancy in order to continue believing in the truth of Christianity; or give up the truth of Christianity since in such a case Christianity (would seem to have) failed it's own test (viz. the test of truth which at a minimum requires internal consistency). It's logically possible for Christianity to be true even if Scripture is mostly true but not inerrant. While, it's not logically possible for Christianity to be true if the truth of Christianity hinges on inerrancy and inerrancy were in actual fact false.

    In all honesty, for myself, there are still some seeming/apparent internal contradictions in Scripture I haven't found a truly satisfying resolution to and which have the appearance of being irresolvable. So, I can sympathize with apologists who lower the importance of inerrancy or modify the doctrine and its definition for the sake of 1. removing a large obstacle that keeps many from becoming Christians and 2. (IMO more importantly) keeping honest current Christians from apostatizing.

    Continued in next post.

    1. Steve wrote:
      xi) Apropos (i), the threat that if I find one mistake in Scripture I will chuck the Christian faith, assumes that there's a viable alternative to the Christian worldview.

      I don't think that's necessarily the case. It's logically possible to reject one option without having (or claiming to have) a viable alternative simply because the first option is contradictory. That's why I agree with (or at least very sympathetic with) Van Til's insistence that our use of the laws of logic itself must be submitted to Scripture.

      I think Van Til rightly criticized Edward J. Carnell when he wrote in his An Introduction to Christian Apologetics the following:

      "Bring on your revelations! Let them make peace with the law of contradiction and the facts of history and they will deserve a rational man's assent. A careful examination of the Bible reveals that it passes these stringent examinations summa cum laude."

      Making the law of contradiction, as we (can only) fallibly use it, as the litmus test for truth gives the unbeliever (and the believer!) the autonomous prerogative to reject Scripture's infallible authority if an apparent irreconcilable/irresolvable contradiction were found.

      Van Til wrote a response in his festschrift "Jerusalem and Athens" (p. 368):

      "The fact that all other religions fail Carnell's test (at least he hoped they did) and that Christianity passed it magna cum laude is not to the point. The point is that the man who is a creature of God and who has sinned against God is accorded the prerogative of setting the examination which the Creator and Redeemer must pass before he may become what he is."

      Having written the above, I confess on some days I side with Steve's approach to inerrancy and other days I side with W.L. Craig, C. Michael Patton and others who take a similar position.

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    3. In Steve's three year old blog HERE, he interacts with the following transcripts I typed up of one of William Lane Craig's podcasts, "What Is Inerrancy?."

      Here's the transcript:

      Harris: The debate often centers on Inerrancy with skeptics of the Christian faith and those who are considering [it]...I've seen it go round for years and years just on Inerrancy and that often detracts from the *person* of Christ.

      Craig: Yeah, I think that's just a huge mistake, Kevin. Because now, what you're trying to make the focus of your evangelism is *Inerrancy* rather than *Christ*...as you say. It's *Christ* that is the center of the Gospel. And so, *He* ought to be the stumbling stone. Not the doctrine of Inerrancy. Inerrancy is an in-house debate for someone who is already a Christian.

      Harris: Okay, alright.

      Craig: It's an in-house argument about what corollaries are there to the concept of inspiration.

      Harris: Now that is very important because, again, you can go off on a rabbit trail for years with a person on Inerrancy. And, again, to detract you from [what Kevin says is garbled but he seems to say "the central truths of the gospel."]

      Craig: It would actually...here's the...here's the serious [thing]...it would keep people from salvation. Which is just horrible. If people have to jump through the hoops of Biblical Inerrancy in order to become a Christian...you will actually prevent people from coming to know Christ. By forcing the unbeliever to embrace this belief in order to be saved."

    4. Speaking of contradictions, HERE'S A VIDEO LINK where Ray Comfort loses a bet regarding an apparent contradiction. There's a dispute among the participants regarding the reason Comfort did lose the bet and had to give $100. It goes to show how Christians, including (and especially) Christian leaders, need to be more familiar with alleged Bible contradictions. It's surprising that Comfort didn't have an answer to this commonly cited apparent contradiction. With all his emphasis on evangelism, I would have thought he would have encountered it already. It's so basic even introductory apologetical books address it (e.g. Josh McDowell type ones).

      It also goes to show how we Christians need to be more careful in making it clear to others what we believe and what we claim to be able to demonstrate, answer, or provide evidence for. One can believe in inerrancy without having to claim she can resolve all apparent contradictions, discrepancies and errors. We need to be epistemically humble enough, modest enough in our claims and honest enough to be able to sometimes say, "I don't know the answer to that right now. But I'm willing to do some research on it and get back to you." Sometimes honest responses like that will make skeptics more open to the truth of Christianity. As opposed to someone shooting from the hip and "BS"-ing her way out of a problem. Ad hoc responses diminish credibility.

      Also, since skeptics can cite alleged contradictions all day long, a strategy to help move beyond contradictions is to ask the person his number one (or top 10) greatest contradiction he can provide and ask him if he is willing to admit the possibility of inerrancy if his greatest example could be answered. This is useful when dealing with especially prejudiced skeptics who will reserve their greatest examples for last in order to sinfully justify their continued disbelief. Asking such a question can expose their insincerity if not openly, then in the privacy of their own hearts. Especially if you phrase the question just right (but not in an accusatory manner).