Sunday, October 01, 2017

Blank slate historiography

It is important to know that I am a historian. When the practice of history is conducted with integrity, the historian does not allow himself or herself to allow their theological presuppositions to weigh into their investigation. After all, the results of one’s inquiry may reveal that certain presuppositions are mistaken. For example, an atheist historian should not bring his or her presupposition “God does not exist” to an investigation of Jesus’ resurrection. For it would force the conclusion that Jesus did not rise from the dead, in spite of the abundant and forceful evidence to the contrary. Conversely, if I as a Christian historian want to conduct an investigation in the Gospels with integrity, I cannot bring a theological conviction that the Bible is God’s infallible Word to that investigation. Historians who practice with integrity must come to an investigation being as open as possible to what it may yield, even if what it yields suggests something I presently believe must be modified or abandoned. Otherwise, one ends up being guided more by his or her presuppositions rather than the historical data. That’s practicing theology or philosophy; not history.

i) That's an inadequate framework. On the one hand, Christian apologists want to be able to say that Muslims and Mormons (to take two convenient examples) shouldn't bring a theological conviction that the Quran or the Book of Mormon is God's infallible Word to their investigation. However, the way Licona has framed the issue is asymmetrical. The logical alternative to "God does not exist" isn't scripture (e.g. the Bible, Book of Mormon, Koran) is God's infallible Word. There's a continuum. Theological presuppositions needn't be that specific. 

ii) The problem with suspending your theological convictions is that God's existence or nonexistence has far-reaching ramifications for ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics in general. Yet any investigation into a religious claimant must operate with some criteria. But criteria are value-laden. We don't come to any text as a blank slate. And we can't evaluate any text as a blank slate. We must take some philosophical, theistic, or atheistic operating assumptions for granted. We either come to the text with theistic or atheistic operating assumptions. There's no middle ground between atheism and theism, per se–although there are varieties of theism and degrees of atheistic commitment. 

Criteria make assumptions about the nature of the world we inhabit. About what's possible, impossible, probable, or improbable. Consider presuppositions regarding the general reliability of reason, sense perception, testimonial evidence, and induction. An expectation that the world is in some measure comprehensible. That math and logic are applicable to the external world, and not merely mental projections or human constructs. 

Are these theistic or atheistic assumptions? What must the world be like for these assumptions to be warranted? Assuming these criteria are theistic, a reader ought to bring these theological presuppositions to bear when reading the Bible. He needn't begin with specifically Christian presuppositions. These might intersect with Christian presuppositions. But even if a Bible reader is not initially a Christian, it would be good for him to come to the text with these theistic criteria already in place, if in fact that's the basis of rationality. The Bible then would complement and undergird those criteria. 

iii) One problem with Licona's framework is acting as though every historian either has or ought to have the same viewpoint when investigating religious claimants. But one historian's background may dramatically differ from another historian's background, and the philosophical or theological presuppositions he brings to the text may be warranted or at least enjoy prima facie justification based on prior experience. For instance, suppose a young man was raised in a Christian home. Suppose, moreover, that he has witnessed miraculous answers to Christian prayer. Is he not justified in bringing that background knowledge to bear when he reads the Bible? Doesn't that create a warranted presumption? 

iv) Suppose a young man had a secular upbringing. Atheism might be his default frame of reference when examining the Bible, but that can be a provisional frame of reference. Something he holds to lightly, which could be falsified. Experience and inexperience aren't opposing lines of evidence. One is evidence while the other is not. 

Likewise, a historian who has no religious background can read the Bible through different filters, comparing and contrasting the explanatory power of a Christian or theistic interpretive grid with the explanatory power of a secular grid. Suppose he's initially noncommittal in either regard. But it's not as if he's coming to the text without a viewpoint. Rather, he's examining the text from competing viewpoints. 

v) If the Bible is true, wouldn't we expect the experience of Christians, or at least some Christians, to correspond to the outlook of Scripture? If their extrabiblical experience (e.g. miracles, answered prayer) already dovetails with the Bible, why shouldn't they bring that to their reading of Scripture? Indeed, if the Bible is true, we'd expect some cross-pollination between Biblical observations of reality and extrabiblical observations. A Christian has access to both. Suppose he, or friends and relatives pray to Jesus because Scripture encourages them to pray for Jesus. Suppose, in some cases, there are unmistakable answers to prayer. That feeds back into his Bible reading. 


  1. Two recent debates some might be interested in:

    Could it Ever be Rational to Believe in Miracles? Tim McGrew vs. Zach Moore

    Is WLC's Moral Argument Sound? Jeffrey Jay Lowder vs. Wade Tisthammer (Maverick Christian)

  2. I would also add, and intend on making this explicit for the umpteenth time when I write more in response to this post of Licona's, that my own objections to his views are not based upon an a priori assumption of inerrancy, which in fact I don't even hold! I think he's doing poor history and poor historiography, period. He's trying to cast me, and anyone else who criticizes him, as some kind of benighted fundamentalist who insists that he should import explicitly Christian assumptions when he does history, and the label just won't stick.

    Ironically, I would greatly prefer if Licona would *more often* be willing to invoke some perfectly normal scenario such as, "Luke hadn't been informed of P and writes on the assumption of ~P in good faith" or "John made a trivial error" rather than bringing in these elaborate, complex, unjustified, and historically corrosive fictionalization theories. His ideas can be seen to be unsupported from an historical and philosophical standpoint. He simply hasn't brought a good argument that the authors of the gospels are doing what he says they are doing! This isn't a theological but an epistemic judgement.

    When I talk about the dangers of his views, I do so chiefly to motivate people to stop saying that this doesn't matter, *so that* they will get up and investigate for themselves and demand a really good argument, rather than passively accepting what Licona and the NT establishment hand them. If it would be a great loss if Licona *were* right, examining his arguments carefully and seeing if they hold up is the least that can be asked from the Christian community. He wants to escape criticism both by insisting that none of this would be a problem anyway for Christian doctrine or evidences and by insisting that those who criticize him are not credentialed to do so. Surely Christians should have at least enough gumption to get up and look into these matters for themselves. Telling them (truly, in fact) that this is a big deal is one way of trying to overcome the shocking passivity and sheep-like attitude that far too many people are bringing to this issue.

    That is where I'm coming from, anyway.

    1. Hi Lydia,

      Slightly off topic, but why don't you hold to inerrancy and where do you see errors in the text? Thanks

    2. I kind of doubt Steve wants this to be the topic of the thread, so ping me on e-mail if you like and I'll write back as I have time. I'm working (as you can imagine) on a response to Licona now, and that may take me a couple of days. lydiamcgrew [at] gmail [dot] com

  3. My problem would be when evidentialists, used to verification for the Resurrection, freak out when there isn't verification for things like the resurrection of the dead as a sign and say those stories are made up instead of "we can't historically verify this."