Saturday, November 16, 2019

Color-coded Bible

My post

provoked a conversation in the combox which I'm posting separately because it offers a high-level comparison and contrast between the respective positions:

Lydia McGrew
I would say that evidentialism per se doesn't tell us anything about any of those specific things. If we imagine an evidentialist who is convinced of the most conservative position on all of those specific things, and thinks he has extremely strong evidence for them, then there is no reason to talk about a "floor" at all anymore, unless we assume that he's just missing some significant piece of evidence right now.

I would put the marriage analogy a little differently: Suppose that I say that I believe that my husband exists based upon evidence, not as a presupposition.

And suppose someone says, "Well, then, you could in theory become convinced that your husband doesn't exist? So it could go that low, there's no floor?"

How would one answer this? Presumably one would say, "Well, that's a crazy scenario. Are we imagining that I get some almost unimaginably bizarre influx of new evidence in which I become rationally convinced that my husband is really a robot inserted into our country by space aliens, or what?"

In other words, there are tons of things that we are so over-justified in believing by evidence that we can only envisage becoming convinced that they are false if we make up the wildest of future evidential scenarios, which we'd have to be crazy to lose sleep over.

Does that mean that we are "presuppositionalists" about those things? No, of course not. It means that our evidence is so mountainous and overwhelming that we have, by evidential means, a kind of "practical certainty" about them so that we would have to rip up huge amounts of our other justified beliefs (in this case, our justified confidence that space alien robots are not successfully impersonating humans over many decades, etc.) in order to change our minds about them.

In that trivial sense one can say that there is "no floor" on whether, in principle, one could abandon such a belief, as long as it isn't something known a priori. 1 + 1 = 2 is more justified than "I have a hand" or "My husband is not a robot." But that's not an argument against being an evidentialist about such propositions.

A problem I have with that response is that while I used some picturesque metaphors to illustrate the principle, my primary examples aren't hypothetical, much less farfetched hypotheticals, but real-life examples, and not exceptional but commonplace. Lots of folks who used to be conservative Christians but over time the content of their faith atrophies along the pattern I describe. It's not so much that the bottom fell out of their faith, but that their faith had no bottom to begin with.

Lydia McGrew
Sure, but presumably presupps don't have particular positions on all of those things as part of their "floor." At least I wouldn't imagine that they do. There's nothing about being a presupp per se that means you have to have one particular position on the ages of the patriarchs or Noah's flood. I can easily imagine presupps disagreeing among themselves about those issues.

Nor is there anything especially friendly to "myth or legend" in the evidentialist position.

I can easily imagine a presupp who takes a more "liberal" position on those particular issues than an evidentialist. Or I can imagine a presupp. and an evidentialist having exactly the same set of things where they draw a line and say, "No, I'm not going to change my mind on that."

The meta-level positions don't really tell us where someone's "floor" is going to fall. I have a really strong position on the historical Adam. I can easily imagine a presupp. who would be more friendly than I am to theistic evolution for the body of man.

In practice, I suspect that both presupps and evidentialists have as their practical "floor" those things that they tacitly or explicitly believe are extremely strongly justified by the data, including the data of Scripture. The reason that a particular position on the deity of Christ is a non-negotiable is (in no small measure) because we all recognize that it is over-justified by the Scriptural data as a tenet of Christianity. But that's not the case on, e.g., a local vs. a universal flood.

I would instance here Paul Moser as a guy who is a sort of rabid neo-Barthian and hates evidentialism with the passion of a thousand burning suns. I'd be willing to bet a sum of money that his positions are far more liberal on all of those issues than mine and that he has a lower "floor" than mine on other issues as well.

To generalize, presuppers have a more theological orientation whereas evidentialists have a more historical orientation. By that I mean, evidentialists approach the Bible as historians–in contrast to presuppers who approach the Bible as a religious document (as well as a historical document), so that, as a matter of principle, presuppers treat Christian theology and Bible narratives as a unit–rather than an assemblage of separable parts, to be individually reaffirmed or discarded. (Which doesn't mean presuppers, or at least the most intelligent representatives, are unconcerned with the value of corroborative evidence, where available.)

As long as we're toying with hypotheticals, here's another hypothetical way to frame the difference between presuppers and evidentialists:

i) Suppose the Book of Esther made demonstrably false historical claims. An evidentialist might say that just means we should dispense with inerrancy. The Book of Esther might still be a historically useful witness to an especially trying time in Jewish history, but it's not infallible. It's comparable to 1 Maccabees.

By contrast, a presupper might say in that case it's not that Scripture is fallible, but that Esther isn't Scripture. Scripture wasn't mistaken; rather, the canonization of Esther was mistaken. We don't dispense with inerrancy but with errant books. 

ii) Put another way, presuppers accept or reject books as a unit rather than accepting or rejecting parts of (the same) books. 

iii) That's because presuppers regard Scripture as a religious document (as well as a historical document). A supernatural rather than naturalistic product.

iv) BTW, this isn't a uniquely presuppositional approach to the Bible. I also approach the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Arcana Cœlestia (to cite three representatives examples) as religious documents. They purportedly originate in supernatural encounters, and that's how I evaluate them (although historical analysis is certainly pertinent, where possible). As such, I accept or reject them as a unit. I don't affirm parts of them while discarding other parts. Rather, I accept or reject them in toto.

Of course, the Koran does have some incidental historical and autobiographical value regarding the life and times of Muhammad. It's worthless on Bible history, but does shed light on a particular period in Middle Eastern history.

To illustrate the contrast from different, but related examples, here are some more comparisons:

i) As I presupper, I don't approach the Koran the same way I approach the Jewish Wars by Josephus. Josephus wrote a historical account, not a religious document. It doesn't claim to be Scripture or divine revelation. 

I can accept or reject parts of the Jewish Wars, if some parts are of dubious historicity. 

By contrast, the Koran is first and foremost a revelatory claimant. Considered on those terms, it reject it in toto. 

ii) Considered as a canonical candidate, I reject 1 Maccabees in toto. That's if I judge it on Catholic grounds.

iii) However, 1 Maccabees isn't a Catholic document. It was appropriated by the Catholic church, but it didn't originate in Catholicism. It's a pre-Catholic, pre-Christian document. A historical document about the Maccabean revolt. It doesn't claim to be Scripture. So at that level, I can accept parts of it and reject parts of it, if some parts are of dubious historicity. 

iv) Consider the scribal/apocryphal additions to Daniel, Mark, and John. I don't accept some parts of Daniel, Mark, and John while rejecting other parts. Rather, I don't regard the apocryphal additions to Daniel, or the scribal interpolations to Mark and John (the Long Ending of Mark, the Pericope Adulterae) to be parts of those books in the first place. They're not original to Daniel, Mark, and John. 

v) This is not to deny that the same document can be both historical and religious. But if a document puts itself forward as a candidate for Scripture, then I'll assess the status of the document on religious terms rather than historical terms. Of course, if the revelatory claimant makes blatantly false historical claims, that doesn't help its case!

Lydia McGrew
What I'm pushing back against here is the to my mind mistaken view that evidentialism says, "Never come to a strong conclusion about anything" or "always hold a lower-than-really-high probability for all religious propositions." There is nothing about evidentialism that says that. That's maybe a caricature that arises understandably from statements like, "Always follow the evidence," but my point is that you can follow the evidence and thereby come to an extremely high confidence in a proposition such that you don't envisage changing your mind on it ever. It's not like evidentialism puts some kind of artificial "ceiling" on the degree of confidence you can have in any religious proposition, like you have to hang around in a state of semi-uncertainty about the deity of Christ (or whatever) all your life so that you can prove to yourself that you're open-minded and ready to follow the evidence. I forget if it's GK Chesterton who has that famous quotation about how open-mindedness is fine so long as it doesn't prevent us from closing our minds upon the truth when we find it. An evidentialist can say "amen" to that at least as loudly as a presuppositionalist.

There's the question of what motivates a reinterpretation. For instance, the reason people question or outright deny the longevity of the antediluvians is because they think that's unrealistic. Whereas a presupper would say it's realistic because that's attested in Scripture. 

Now, I agree with you that one can postulate hypothetical scenarios which create untenable dilemmas for presuppers. But like hypothetical moral dilemmas, that ultimately becomes a question of divine providence in real life. Will God allow believers to be confronted with untenable intellectual dilemmas? That also depends on how much control we think God has over world history. So the debate spills over into other theological commitments.

Lydia McGrew
Is it your position that presuppositionalism per se contains a position on the meaning of the ages of the antediluvians? Because I would bet there are presuppers who would disagree with you on that.

I was under the impression that presuppositionalism had various issues where various interpretations of Scripture's literalness was allowed in a generally evidential manner just as it is for evidentialists, not that presuppositionalism per se is committed to a more literal hermeneutic.

For example, I think there are presupp OECs as well as presupp YECs.

(I'm inclined to take the ages of the antediluvians as literal, btw.)

Maybe we should distinguish presuppers from "people who take some non-evidentialist approach to apologetics." Perhaps one wouldn't say William Lane Craig is a presupper. See my comment below. He's not an evidentialist, though. But evidently the "internal witness of the Holy Spirit" isn't telling him that Genesis 1-11 are not "mytho-history," even though the IWHS is telling him that the Bible as a whole is true!

So it's not just hypothetical but actual for someone to have a commitment, even what that person characterizes as a whole-book, non-evidentialist commitment, to the truth of the Bible as Scripture, and to reinterpret segments as non-historical in fairly radical ways just as you are bringing up here, even more so than a given evidentialist (like me) does. Again, this isn't just a hypothetical scenario.

i) When I contrast presuppers with evidentialists, that doesn't mean I'm exempting classical apologists (e.g. Craig) from the contrast. I'm just using evidentialism as a representative point of contrast.

ii) Especially among the laity, some Christians appeal to the IWHS as a hermeneutical shortcut. The Holy Spirit gives Spirit-filled Christians the correct interpretation of Scripture.

However, that's just folk theology. The Bible itself never makes that promise. It's convenient for lay Christians who don't have access to academic Bible commentaries or the aptitude to process them. But the appeal is misguided. 

iii) In terms of historical theology, the IWHS wasn't used as a hermeneutical shortcut but to undergird the assurance of salvation and/or conviction that the Bible is the word of God.

On the one hand, the principle has some value, possibly indispensable, because most Christians lack the aptitude to justify their faith through rigorous argumentation, so they must have an alternate mode of access to ground their faith. For a fairly sophisticated formulation of the IWHS:

iv) However, the IWHS, if valid as a general principle, is too coarse-grained to function as a criterion for the canonical candidates (or textual criticism). 

We might compare it to the argument from miracles, which eliminates conventional naturalism, and creates a presumption in favor of Christianity compared to non-Christian religions (because miracles cluster around Christianity), but is too indiscriminate to eliminate intra-Christian rivals. 

v) In principle, the IWHS isn't the only epistemological paradigm that could perform the role assigned to it. An alternative might be a providential paradigm where God instils Christian faith by arranging for people to be exposed to good religious conditioning, as well as miracles, special providences, or answered prayers.

vi) The IWHS could be expanded into the argument from religious experience.

vii) As you know, "reinterpreting" the Bible is sometimes a euphemism for "the Bible got it wrong", but it would be controversial to say that, so a reinterpretation is more politic. 

viii) As I said before, the primary issue isn't reinterpretation per se, but what motivates reinterpretation. If I question or reject a traditional interpretation, I didn't personally change my mind. That interpretation was around long before I was born. Every new Christian generation must assess traditional interpretations. Christians in different times and places may find themselves in different epistemic situations. A cliche example is geocentrism. 

ix) Moreover, it's not always a case of revising the interpretation under pressure from factual challenges. For instance, biblical archeology may provide new evidence that invites an alternative interpretation. 

x) My primary target is an approach to Scripture like the Jesus Seminar. A color-coded Bible in which we go through the Bible rating various statement as probably true, probably false, definitely false. 

And that also happens under the guise of "reinterpretation," where reinterpreting a passage of Scripture is functionally equivalent to saying it's wrong. The revised interpretation is face-saving device. 

This dovetails with your criticism of token inerrancy, where lip-service is paid to inerrancy but the affirmation is vacuous because it strips historicity out of inerrancy. Inerrancy becomes an empty suit.

Lydia McGrew
Just thought of this: Bill Craig has critiqued evidentialism and doesn't consider himself an evidentialist, and he's out there saying that Gen. 1-11 is "mytho-history." I don't know if you just think WLC is an outlier or something, but he really is an example of someone who both a) has distanced himself explicitly from evidentialism (I guess he'd be more of a Plantingian in certain ways) and b) has engaged in reinterpretation in exactly the way you are talking about and, I would say, for the same motives, though perhaps he would dispute the motive claim.

I don't really think he's all that unusual among non-evidentialists and anti-evidentialists. But perhaps you're just making generalizations about presuppositionalists more narrowly conceived and saying that those in that group are more inclined to stick with a more literal hermeneutic and not to engage in reinterpretation based on outside evidence or judgements of probability than self-styled evidentialists. 


  1. Now that the adults have spoken, the children can pontificate from their high chairs [bibs included]. My motto: Love the Evidentialists and their evidences, hate the EvidentialISM.

    Some of my problems with Evidentialism [or at least unsophisticated versions]:
    1. Every new datum can controvert absolutely everything one once concluded and believed. That doesn't provide a stable environment for faith in the Christian God. For example, the very next scientific "discovery" could conclusively "PROVE" that we're in a simulation. Something which scientists are already seriously suggesting based on current evidence. [Fortunately, some Christians are arguing that that evidence can be interpreted in terms of theistic idealism]. There are other evidences or even mere theories or claims which we fortunately now have reasons to doubt which in times past and/or under other circumstances ordinary Christians wouldn't have been able to answer or refute given an Evidentialist approach. And so giving them reason to doubt or reject Christianity. Evidentialism doesn't provide stability for the shifting sands of evidence for and against Christianity given various times and places (past, present and future). For example, a Christian layman living in 19th century wouldn't know what to do with the objections of higher criticism; source criticism; the demythologizing of the Bible; and the Jesus Myth arguments that would later be abandoned by scholars in the 20th century due to the Jewish reclamation of Jesus movement [but which 21st century internet atheists are reviving].

    Given evidentialism the Bible might indeed provide all kinds of internal evidences of verisimilitude, but why would that be enough for non-Christians to rationally conclude [using evidentialist criteria] that the story is true? Verisimilitude is consistent with its truth, but doesn't tip the scales so as to place a moral obligation to believe the Gospel message.

    1. For all we know, given evidentialism, there is no God; no internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to convict people of their sins, for being sinners and of the truth of Christianity; no sensus divinitatis; no general revelation that cries out the existence of God; no God implanted innate ideas or concepts like morality, a conscience, laws of logic, causation, time etc. Given an evidentialist approach, as Dan Barker states, the most evident thing of all is that God's existence isn't evident. We've been debating it for thousands of years. Since it hasn't been settled in all that time, isn't that evidence [or at least suggestive] that there is no God?

      Also, evidentialism doesn't provide for the preconditions of intelligibility. It takes no hard stand, but rather bypasses that crucial and fundamental issue. Why assume there can even be such a thing as "evidence" [say, given Evolutionary Reliabilism; Eliminative Materialism; the Hard Problem of Consciousness; Mereological Nihilism; Epistemic Nihilism; the Law of Identity in a contingent changing world and its implications on personal identity through time; etc.]??? After all we might live in a completely absurd, irrational and lawlessly contingent world of chance. As Van Til was fond of quoting Aristophanes statement, "Whirl is King, having driven out Zeus". Nothing may be stable, reliable or knowable. Global skepticism might be justified, and the non-Christian would be justified [or at least be "justified" in being content with] living pragmatically and prudentially. He/she might conclude, "Stuffing 'food' down my gullet might not actually be sustaining my life nor my avoiding being hit by a bus, but so far it has worked for me and kept me happy [or at least from being more miserable]." A non-Christian approach to life that renders all humans like the inhuman character in Camus' The Stranger. To put it another way, Evidentialism doesn't provide what Van Til called the "Intellectual Challenge of the Gospel" [which also emcompasses moral, existential, scientific considerations]. The concept of "evidence" makes best sense in a theistic framework where a perfectly rational Supreme Being created us in His rational image and with our sensory organs and rational faculties adapted to our structured/orderly and predictable environment.

    2. Evidentialism doesn't take a stand on theological or scientific presuppositions. Science has presuppositions or axioms which cannot themselves be proven scientifically [and/or evidentially] but must be assumed [almost like "faith"] in order for science to be done [i.e. to even begin]. Some of those presuppositions include:

      Here is a list of some of the presuppositions of science:
      (1) the existence of a theory-independent, external world;
      (2) the orderly nature of the external world;
      (3) the knowability of the external world;
      (4) the existence of truth;
      (5) the laws of logic;
      (6) the [general] reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth gatherers/identifiers and as a source of justified true beliefs in our intellectual environment;
      (7) the adequacy of language to describe the world;
      (8) the existence of values used in science (e.g., "test theories fairly and report test results honestly");
      (9) the [presumed] uniformity of nature and [propriety of the use of the principle of] induction;
      (10) causation
      (11) the existence (or at least usefulness) of numbers. Given atheism, it's a strange "Happy Coincidence" that nature is so very much structured on mathematics that physicists can make predictions about the universe which are later confirmed empirically. Whereas, given the existence of God it makes perfect sense that God would create the physical world mathematically, and intellectually/rationally accessible.

      These assumptions and the subscription to them make sense in [Christian] theism, but the various atheistic worldviews have difficulty grounding such axioms. Most atheists live by "faith" (so to speak) when they operate with these working/operating assumptions.

      Given an evidentialist approach to apologetics and evangelism, why assume such scientific presuppositions or axioms are true and why expect non-Christians to assume/accept/agree or take them from granted as well? As Van Til points out in his hypothetical discussion between Mr. White, Mr. Black and Mr. Gray; with all the evidences you provide non-Christians, they can easily toss each and every single one into the bottomless pit of Chance and it won't phase them one bit. A historical Jesus existed and rose from the dead? "Big deal." Or, "That's interesting, I guess strange things do happen in this world. Why don't you submit it to Ripley's Believe it or Not? I'm busy studying other Fortean oddities. When I get the chance, I'll add that topic to my mental shelf of subjects to titillate me. I might even purchase some used books on the "Jesus thing" and place them on my reading list behind those on Alien Abductions, UFO sightings and the mystery of Oak Island."

    3. In other words, Evidentialism doesn't take a stand on worldview issues (e.g. presuppositions, axioms, ideas; and regarding things like ontology, epistemology, teleology, the mind, persons, uniformity/regularity, laws of logic/morality/science etc.) that are foundationally necessary to even begin to predicate, ask questions or present "evidences". And no one can be neutral on such topics according to the Bible; and which experience confirms. Evidentialism would have had more effectiveness during Modernism when the world still had the vestiges of a Christian worldview as a foundation hidden underneath the floorboards of its secularism, but not in Post-Modernism where ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING is up for grabs. Nothing can be taken for granted or assumed. Not even basic things like biological sex or humanity [given transgenerism and transhumanism/trans-speciesism].