After the famous Liar, Lunatic or Lord trilemma, the second most-discussed apologetic argument advanced by C. S. Lewis must be the argument against naturalism found in the third chapter of his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study, commonly known as the argument from reason. This is, I suppose, largely my fault, since I wrote a book, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason,1 dedicated to the discussion and defense of that argument. The argument was the subject of Lewis’s famous exchange with Elizabeth Anscombe,2 which resulted in Lewis developing a revised version of the argument. Besides my own efforts, the argument has been defended by more recent philosophers such as William Hasker,3 Richard Purtill,4 and Angus Menuge.5 What is more, perhaps the best-known Anglo-American philosopher of religion, Alvin Plantinga,6 has developed a line of argument that bears a family resemblance to the argument Lewis defended. The argument has, however, had its critics. Not only Anscombe, but also Antony Flew7 and John Beversluis8 have criticized Lewis’s version of it, Jim Lippard,9 Keith Parsons,10 Theodore Drange,11 and Richard Carrier12 have criticized my efforts, and Plantinga’s argument has attracted a whole host of philosophical opponents.13
In this essay, I will begin by discussing the role Lewis’s argument plays in the context of his book on miracles. I will then proceed to discuss the argument’s antecedents, particularly its place in the apologetic writings of the British Prime-Minister and philosopher Arthur Balfour.14 I will then present the argument of Lewis’s first edition, explain Anscombe’s criticisms, and then present the argument as it appears in the revised edition of Miracles. I will attempt to show that it is not the case, as Beversluis maintains, that Anscombe’s objections can be pressed further, and that Lewis’s revised argument does nothing to meet them.15 Rather, the argument, in my judgment does successfully survive Anscombe’s objections. After that I will discuss some recent versions of the argument, both mine and those of others, and will then respond to also discuss some objections that have been put to it by recent writers.
I. The Argument from Reason and its place in Lewis’s Miracles
Lewis was first and foremost a Christian apologist, and not merely a theistic
apologist. What this means is that Lewis does not typically follow the “classical” model of apologetics in which it is deemed necessary first to prove the existence of God and then to prove the truth of various Christian doctrines. Lewis’s Miracles was written in response to a request by Dorothy Sayers, who wrote him and told him that there were no good books on the subject. Lewis called the book Miracles: A Preliminary Study, and this immediately raises the question “preliminary to what?” That answer is, preliminary to the study of biblical scholarship. An innocent Christian, (or non-Christian) might pick up a book on biblical scholarship and assume that the scholarship there presented reflects the state of the evidence for and against a particular miracle claim found in Scripture. What he or she may not be aware of, however, is that the evidence for or against a miracle claim is typically assessed against the backdrop of some presuppositions on the part of the scholar concerning the antecedent likelihood of the miraculous. Some scholars and historians begin their investigations of Scripture with presuppositions that rule out accepting any miracle story as literally true. Rudolph Bultmann, an enormously influential German biblical scholar with whose works Lewis was familiar, wrote:
"It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. We may think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world"16
Similarly, earlier this year, in a debate about the Resurrection of Jesus with William Lane Craig, the eminent biblical scholar Bart Ehrman maintained:
What are miracles? Miracles are not impossible. I won’t say they’re impossible. You might think they are impossible and, if you do think so, then you’re going to agree with my argument even more than I’m going to agree with my argument. I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can. What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means. A theologian may claim that it’s true, and to argue with the theologian we’d have to argue on theological grounds because there are no historical grounds to argue on.17
Biblical scholars who follow the lead of Bultmann or Ehrman begin their investigations with the presupposition that any story about what happened in biblical times that contains no miracle is better than an story about those same events which involves God’s miraculous intervention. This view was given its classic expression in David Hume’s famous “Of Miracles,” section X of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The casual reader might think a scholar such as Bultmann or Ehrman has discovered that a non-miraculous account of, say, the events surrounding the first Easter, is preferable to a miraculous account, when in fact these scholars feel obligated to presuppose, going into their investigations, that miraculous explanations must be avoided.
Bringing such presuppositions to the study of Scripture, in Lewis’s view, threatened the very essence of Christianity. The Apostle Paul said “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” and “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 19). Thinking clearly and consistently about miracles is critical to understanding the issues surrounding Christianity. Lewis maintained that unlike religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, the miraculous element in Christianity is absolutely critical. “Demythologized” understandings of Christianity, for Lewis, drained Christianity of its content.
People like Bultmann and Ehrman, who study the founding events of Christianity with a deliberate disregard for the miraculous element, use a principle of methodological naturalism when investigating biblical texts, that is, in the investigation of those texts only natural processes should be considered, and nothing that would involve the supernatural. What they maintain, essentially, is that, at least for the purpose of investigating historical events, they are obligated to view the physical world as if it were causally closed.
Lewis begins his book on miracles by pointing out that one cannot simply look at the evidence to determine whether some miracle or other has occurred, one must consider whether the antecedent probability of the miraculous before deciding this. One decision that a person has to do with whether or not one believes that there is anything other than nature, and if so, whether that undermines the causal closure of the physical world.