Friday, November 01, 2019

"I never claimed to be doing history"

I've seen village atheists misrepresent the position of Peter Williams in his recent debate with Bart Ehrman. They quote his statement out of context: "I never claimed to be doing history". But that grossly oversimplifies his stated position. You can misrepresent someone by quoting them verbatim if you quote them out of context. By quoting one snippet but disregarding the ways they qualify that statement. If you watch the entire exchange, his real position is far more nuanced than that bare snippet. Just watch the extended back-and-forth between 53-57 min. mark:

In addition, "history" is ambiguous. It can mean different things:

i) What actually happened in the past

ii) What demonstrably happened. What historians think happened. What historians think probably happened or probably didn't happen, what definitely happened and what definitely never happened. 

iii) So "history" in the sense of (ii) comes down to the personal judgement of individual historians. 

iv) Ehrman appeals to historical criteria, but criteria are value-laden and mirror the worldview of a given historian. For Ehrman, "history" is what's left over after you filter the historical evidence through the pasta strainer of methodological naturalism. But there's no presumption that we should operate with methodological naturalism unless metaphysical naturalism is true. So that's a dishonest shortcut. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, methodological naturalism has all the advantages of theft over honest toil. 


  1. These are often the same atheists and agnostics who look up to Bart Ehrman and follow William Lane Craig just enough to criticize him. Yet, Craig has said numerous times that as ordinary human beings we're not limited to the criteria of historians [which IMO are often arbitrary and beg the question in terms of worldviews].

    In fact, in Craig's debate with Ehrman in 2006, Craig said the following [already cued up]:

    //But finally #3 this isn't a debate about what professional historians are permitted to do. That would be a debate about methodology, about the rules of professional conduct. This is a debate about whether or not there's historical evidence for the resurrection. And even if the historian is professionally blocked by some methodological constraint from inferring the resurrection of Jesus, you and I aren't so blocked. We're not so constrained. Nor, would I say, is the historian so constrainted in his off hours, for example. It would be a tragedy and a shame if we were to miss the truth about the past about Jesus simply because of some methodological constraint.//

    It's in that sense in which Peter J. Williams isn't "doing history". He's examining it as an ordinary, real life, authentic human being who factors in all relevant historical, evidential, philosophical, existential [etc.] considerations. Not limiting himself to only the "historical".

    1. Above I said that the criteria of [secular and/or non-Christian] historians are often arbitrary. While I'm a Van Tillian presuppositionalist, I have some agreement with what Vincent Cheung [a modified Clarkian presuppositionalist] says in the following:

      //If scientific plausibility is made the standard of truth, at least for the sake of argument, then we can show that Christianity is superior, but scientific plausibility should not be made the standard of truth. Consider another example. Historian C. Behan McCullagh writes that the best explanation to a body of historical facts must satisfy the following six requirements: 1. It must have great explanatory scope. 2. It must have great explanatory power. 3. It must be plausible. 4. It is not ad hoc or contrived. 5. It is in accord with accepted beliefs. 6. It far outstrips any of its rival theories in meeting the previous conditions.

      William Lane Craig argues that the proposition, "God raised Jesus from the dead," meets the above conditions. The details of his argument are not relevant here. If it is successful, it would seem to vindicate the biblical claims concerning the resurrection of Christ and refute the unbeliever's objections. However, we question whether these tests are reliable, and whether an explanation that satisfies these conditions is in fact true. In the first place, by what authority or argument does McCullagh impose these tests upon all historical explanations?

      Craig's argument cannot be considered a compelling proof for the resurrection of Christ, because these tests themselves have not been justified. However, if Craig's argument indeed successfully argues for the resurrection of Christ relative to these tests, then it is at least an ad hominem argument that refutes all objections against the resurrection of Christ made on the basis of these non-biblical principles. This means that if one adopts these tests to be the standard of truth concerning historical matters, he should come to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. In any case, on the basis of the historian's principles, one cannot prove anything about historical events, and this includes the resurrection. But at the same time, based on these same principles, there can be no good argument against the resurrection.

      Since all non-Christian worldviews are without rational justification, nothing prevents them from collapsing into skepticism. But skepticism self-destructs – it is self-contradictory to affirm that we know that we cannot know. Only Christianity rescues the intellect from this impossible position; therefore, rather than depending on a non-Christian foundation to construct a case for the biblical worldview, the Christian adopts the epistemology of divine revelation and biblical infallibility. Since the non-Christian theories of evidence are complete nonsense and render everything complete nonsense, when non-Christians demand evidence from the Christians, they do not know what they are asking. Unless one secures intelligibility by the proper presuppositions, his demand for evidence is unintelligible. It cannot be logically understood.
      - Vincent Cheung, Ultimate Questions, pages 54-55 [bold added by me-AP]

      [[Though, there are aspects of Clarkian apologetics that Van Tillians can incorporate into their approach, the overall method should be rejected. For reasons to reject Clarkian/Cheungian Scripturalism and presuppositionalism see the LINKS HERE. ]]

  2. Ehrman has said that a miracle should always be considered the least likely explanation of the evidence. I assume that this is a principle of Ehrman’s historical methodology. The implications are troubling. How implausible do natural explanations of some event have to be before we reject them? If we follow Ehrman’s “logic”, then there could never be a point where natural explanations become too implausible.

    And if natural explanations can never be too implausible, then there is little or no incentive to subject them to scrutiny. In this respect we can see that Ehrman definitely practises what he preaches. In How Jesus Became God, Ehrman sets out to “explain” the Resurrection. But Ehrman knows in advance that no miracle could have taken place; therefore there is an obvious temptation to be careless in proposing natural explanations. Consider the empty tomb: How do you explain that? “No problem,” says Ehrman. There was no burial in the first place; therefore the tomb couldn’t have been empty.

    But how careful was Ehrman when he rejected the claim that Jesus was buried? Not very careful, it seems. As Craig Evans and others pointed out, Ehrman made no effort to consult with better-informed colleagues or to research the issue properly. But, hey, why bother when you just know that a miracle never happened?

    So perhaps we can draw some conclusions about what it means to “do history”. As far as Ehrman is concerned, someone who is prepared to scrutinise natural explanations of some event and, if necessary, reject them is not “doing history”.