Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hume, Biblical Criticism, and Wagging the Dog

A redated post. 

 A response to some discussion on Debunking Christianity.

A lot of biblical criticism is done by people who either accept Hume's essay on miracles, or are influenced by people who accept Hume's essay. This goes all the way back to David F. Strauss in the 19th Century. This poses a profound question as to whether the biblical-critical dog is wagging the philosophical tail, or whether the philosophical tail is wagging the biblical-critical dog. This was the point that Lewis was making when he wrote his book Miracles; A Preliminary Study. Preliminary to what? Preliminary to the actual study of the biblical documents. If you are coming to those documents thinking that miracles are maximally improbable, then you get one set of results. Bultmann was the representative figure of a scholar of that persuasion. All Bultmann said was you couldn't live in the modern world and consistently believe in the New Testament miracles. Bart Ehrman is another example of present-day vintage, as are the scholars of the Jesus Seminar.

Now if I want to know whether the New Testament miracles have occurred or did not occur, having the testimony of some expert who has claimed to have "discovered" that they didn't might be a tad suspicious unless I know that this is a scholar who would have accepted the miracle claims had the evidence been there. If we know, in advance, that miracles cannot occur, then perhaps the scholar is applying Sherlock Holmes' maxim: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." However, if the scholar is entering the field thinking that the miraculous is not the impossible, then we are likely to get different results.

In 1990, when I was a junior fellow at Notre Dame's Center for Philosophy of Religion, I attended a conference in which a number of biblical scholars got into it with some Christian philosophers, and there it seemed to me that the biblical scholars were on the whole more skeptical than the philosophers, and that they were largely unconscious of the philosophical presuppositions underlying their own work.

I took Critical Introduction to the Bible from two professors at the liberal Candler School of Theology in the mid-1970s. The New Testament professor was Dr. Arthur Wainwright, and his overall conclusion was that you can bring anti-miraculous presuppositions into biblical scholarship and end up like Bultmann, or you can go in thinking miracles possible, in which case you end up believing in the central Christian miracles, as Dr. Wainwright in fact did.

Nothing I have read in biblical studies since has altered the perspective I took from Dr. Wainwright's course.

35 comments:

unkle e said...

This is a very interesting and important topic. I think most NT scholars I have read take a two step approach to miracles.

Firstly, they put the miracles to one side, on the basis that they are a metaphysical question which cannot be resolved by historical analysis alone, and certainly would not be resolved in the same way by both christian and atheist historians. They consider other aspects of the life of Jesus, including whether people believed that miracles occur (something that believers and unbelievers alike can possibly agree on).

Having come to their conclusions, some scholars go on to make a personal conclusion either for or against the actual occurrence of miracles, and some do not. This statement by EP Sanders on the resurrection is an example:

""That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know."

As a christian who believes in the Gospel miracles, I have felt this was a fair way to proceed, but I notice in the last decade or so some christian scholars (NT Wright, perhaps R Bauckham & C Evans) arguing more directly for the truth of the miracles stories (especially the resurrection) on the grounds that the Gospels only make sense as a whole if the miracles actually occurred. So they seem to be taking the line Dr Wainwright did.

We will see whether NT scholarship as a whole is moving in this direction.

Walter said...

In my case, I do not really believe in miracles, and I think that skepticism is warranted.

Let's examine miracle claims in a contemporary setting. If I claimed a guy in Idaho was born of a virgin, healed the sick by touch, fed thousands of people from one lunchbox, raised other people from the dead, and finally resurrected himself after three days of being dead, then how many would believe it without empirical evidence? Yet, I am told that I should believe these same claims coming from written accounts from superstitious men living in a pre-enlightenment era -- men who thought that every illness was caused by demons, or that thunderstorms were the product of an angry god(s).

I remain skeptical.

Bilbo said...

Walter: "...then how many would believe it without empirical evidence?"

By empirical evidence, do you mean besides eyewitness accounts?

Walter said...

By empirical evidence, do you mean besides eyewitness accounts?

I would consider eyewitness accounts as anecdotal evidence. Eyewitnesses are also notoriously unreliable. Further, how can I scrutinize the credibility of "witnesses" that have now been dead for centuries?

Empirical evidence is what Doubting Thomas is supposed to have received -- he got to touch the wounds firsthand. Without evidence, all we have is a nifty story that happens to be revered by many in Western culture.

Victor Reppert said...

Walter: It seems to me that a good Humean could dismiss that as a hallucination. After all, Keith Parsons argues that the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus.

unkle e said...

Walter said: "Let's examine miracle claims in a contemporary setting. If I claimed a guy in Idaho was born of a virgin, healed the sick by touch ...."

I guess I would be pretty sceptical too. But if that same guy gave plausible evidence to be God's exclusive agent acting on earth (Messiah), someone we might describe in Jewish terms as Son of man, or in any terms as Son of God, then I would be willing to think again.

unkle e said...

"finally resurrected himself "

BTW, I don't think this is the Biblical claim. I think it clearly claims the God of the universe resurrected him.

Mike The Mad Theologian said...

What is empirical evidence if not an eye witness account. If we limit ourselves in knowledge to what we ourselves experience directly we can know next to nothing. Even science becomes impossible because every scientist has to do every experiment personally. We obviously need to carefully evaluate eye witness account but we can not simply dispense with them.

John W. Loftus said...

In the comments on my blog I responded but let me repeat one of them here.

Vic raises the ugly head of anti-supernaturalism. I myself raised it when a believer because I didn't understand it. Hume's argument allows for miracles, since we should never discount out of hand such a possibility. But his argument, as Ronald Nash repeatedly wrote about in Christianity Today, Eternity and elsewhere, including his book Faith & Reason, that Hume's argument is that he couldn't be able to know that one happened even if it did. His argument is not a metaphysical one but rather it's an epistemological one. This is the same thing Bob Price claims in a chapter for The Christian Delusion and the same one I make. And you must know Bob and I started out with a supernatural presupposition. We were turned to the dark side by Biblical studies as has Hector Avalos, Jaco Gericke and Bart Ehrman. William Dever turned away from his faith because of archaeology. Kenton Sparks is on the way.

Then I posted a video that highlights the problems for any kind of credible Natural Theology right here, which was what I was writing about.

Cheers

Walter said...

uncle e said:
I guess I would be pretty sceptical too. But if that same guy gave plausible evidence to be God's exclusive agent acting on earth (Messiah), someone we might describe in Jewish terms as Son of man, or in any terms as Son of God, then I would be willing to think again.

Well, the Jewish concept of messiah is a different animal than the Christian concept. The Jews were expecting a conquering Davidic King who would restore Israel to greatness among the nations. They were not looking for an executed state criminal as a candidate for messiah. Even Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that "Christ crucified" is a stumbling block for the Jews.

My second problem with this is: you run into the same problem as the miracle claims. Did Jesus really say and do all the things attributed to him in the New Testament? Who really knows for sure? We have writings that may or may not be from eyewitnesses who may or may not be credible.

Agnosticism should be the default position.

Mike The Mad Theologian said...

I agree that need to investigate carefully the testimony and documents involved to reach any conclusion on their reliability, but but I do not think we can take agnosticism so easily as the default. If I am investigating whether Lizzie Borden murdered her parents I can with little or no consequences hold I do not know. But if I were on the trial jury I would have a much greater need to reach a decision one way or the other. The claims of Christianity involve fundamental issues of what life is all about. You may reject these as false but any answer is an answer and none should be arrived at simply by default.

Bilbo said...

Walter, you asked how many would believe you if you claimed that somebody in Idaho did the miracles that Jesus did, without empirical evidence.
I asked if eyewitness testimony was empirical evidence. You said no, it was only anecdotal evidence.
In that case, yes, if presented with enough credible eyewitness testimony, I would believe that there was somebody in Idaho who had performed the same miracles that Jesus performed, without any empirical evidence.

Bilbo said...

The question for me, then, is whether there is sufficient eyewitness testimony to believe that what is written about Jesus is true. If I begin by asking myself what sort of testimony would I expect to survive two thousand years later, I find that the testimony of the New Testament accounts is sufficient. This would include things such as their occasional inconsistencies with each other, which is what one would expect from eyewitness accounts. Or the way people would react if Jesus really did perform miracles. Or the way people in power would react to his growing popularity. But most of all, to the consistent portrayal of Jesus' personality: His combination of humility and authority, as if here is someone who knows he is a king, but a king disguised as a commoner, so that he may get to know his subjects, and they may get to know him. And Oh! When we get to know him! The man who notices the individual in the crowd. The man who lifts up the humble but brings down the haughty. The king who comes to serve, not to be served.
Yes, the evidence is more than sufficient for me.

unkle e said...

John W. Loftus said: "Hume's argument is that he couldn't be able to know that one [a miracle] happened even if it did."

John, you have quoted a few scholars, so I presume you are aware that scholars these days are not nearly as sure about the validity of Hume's argument as you suggest. There seem to be two main views:

1. His arguments are invalid. See Reppert, Earman, Matheson and Johnson.

2. The arguments as presented by Hume may be valid if they are re-stated (see Millican), but their acceptance may depend on a number of other philosophical factors (see Taylor, or perhaps Hume never meant to rule out miracles in all cases (see Fogelin).

This article by Jacovides and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sum things up.

It used to be that the sceptic could merely utter the mantra "Hume" to banish miracles just like garlic will apparently ward off werewolves, but it seems nowadays the tide is running in the other direction, and a strong argument is needed to stand against the tide.

"We were turned to the dark side by Biblical studies as has Hector Avalos, Jaco Gericke and Bart Ehrman."

And of course you know that the tide is running against your views here too. Yes, a few scholars totally disbelieve in miracles in the NT, but it seems far more either accept them (e.g. Wright, Evans, Bauckham, Twelftree) or think historians should not or cannot address the issue (e.g. Meier, Sanders). And the majority seems to be in accepting them as historical - as Twelftree says: "the vast majority of students of the historical Jesus affirm that Jesus performed mighty works" and this represntes a significant change since the end of the "Second Quest".

So if scholarship matters to you as your post seems to indicate, perhaps you should reconsider your conclusions?

Best wishes.

Walter said...

Bilbo states:

I asked if eyewitness testimony was empirical evidence. You said no, it was only anecdotal evidence.
In that case, yes, if presented with enough credible eyewitness testimony, I would believe that there was somebody in Idaho who had performed the same miracles that Jesus performed, without any empirical evidence.


Thank you for your response. I cannot make the leap to belief due to the fact that 'witnesses' to this event are long dead and not available for cross-examination to determine credibility. In fact, after my own study of biblical criticism, I am not convinced that the gospel stories are written by witnesses at all. These stories appear to be theological hagiographies based on oral traditions and not literal historical documentaries.

Neither am I swayed by Paul's visions of the "Christ" since the same kind of experience is generally rejected when coming from Muhammad or Joseph Smith. Why does Paul get the benefit of the doubt?

I feel that there are 'naturalistic' scenarios that can account for the rise of Christianity and the belief in a resurrecting savior. As long as there are alternative plausible explanations then I remain agnostic towards the events recorded in 'scripture'.

For the record, I am not saying that miracles are impossible, just implausible. An extraordinary claim carries with it a much higher burden of proof than a mundane claim. For me personally, miracle claims from all cultures have not met that burden.

Dustin said...

and Bart Ehrman

The impression I get from hearing him speak is that Ehrman is agnostic over the problem of evil?

Hume's argument is that he couldn't be able to know that one happened even if it did.

Hume also thinks we lack rational justification for using induction, you know.

Bilbo said...

Walter: I cannot make the leap to belief due to the fact that 'witnesses' to this event are long dead and not available for cross-examination to determine credibility.

Uh, yes, just as the witnesses to the Idaho man will be dead in a couple of generations. If future generations require the ability to cross-examine them before determining credibility, they will be disappointed. But that doesn't mean that the witnesses were not credible, nor does it mean that believing that there were credible witnesses would be unreasonable.

In fact, after my own study of biblical criticism, I am not convinced that the gospel stories are written by witnesses at all. These stories appear to be theological hagiographies based on oral traditions and not literal historical documentaries.

I agree that the gospels were probably not written by witnesses. But that does not mean that they were not based on eyewitness accounts. The oral traditions seem to be rather formal, suggesting that they represent attempts to remember exact teachings and stories. Since Mark was written not longer than 40 years after Jesus' death, and since the other gospels were not written longer than 70 years after his death, this formal oral tradition puts us very close to Jesus' actual life.

Neither am I swayed by Paul's visions of the "Christ" since the same kind of experience is generally rejected when coming from Muhammad or Joseph Smith. Why does Paul get the benefit of the doubt?

To be honest, I don't know much about Muhammad or Smith. Were either of them violently opposed to the movement they eventually became one of the chief spokesman for? But Paul isn't the crux of the case. Just one of the threads that strengthens it.

I feel that there are 'naturalistic' scenarios that can account for the rise of Christianity and the belief in a resurrecting savior.

It seems clear to me that the rise of Christianity depended upon the disciples firmly believing that Jesus rose from the dead. So firmly, that they were willing to die for it. There are naturalistic explanations of how they came to that belief. But I don't think they are necessarily more reasonable than the supernaturalistic explanation.

As long as there are alternative plausible explanations then I remain agnostic towards the events recorded in 'scripture'.

Given two plausible explanations, one of which means that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and one that means he really rose from the dead and is King, I prefer the second.

For the record, I am not saying that miracles are impossible, just implausible. An extraordinary claim carries with it a much higher burden of proof than a mundane claim.

Which is why we need to consider background philosophical views when judging the historical evidence of miracles. And that is what Lewis does in the later chapters of Miracles; a Preliminary Study.

Cole Matson said...

Dr Reppert,

I'm a theology undergraduate at Oxford University.

I've had difficulty with the advice expressed by my tutor that I should put aside the question of whether miracles can happen when I do biblical criticism. I should make decisions about the authenticity and trustworthiness of the text while entirely suspending judgement about whether the claimed miracles within the text are actually miracles.

Now, I find this difficult to do, because for me biblical criticism (and theology in general) is not a purely academic exercise, but has consequences on how I live my life. If the text is not trustworthy, why should I be a Christian? If it is, then I must decide whether to follow the person of Christ. But part of deciding whether or not the text is trustworthy is deciding whether or not its *content* is true, not just whether the person writing it thought it was. If a Gospel claims that a miracle occurred, it both matters whether the evangelist truly believed it was a miracle, and whether it really was a miracle.

The closest one can get to deciding the trustworthiness of the Gospels while suspending judgement about miracles, it seems to me, is to say that the evangelists really believed that they had seen miracles, and that they had seen Jesus physically resurrected from the dead. (That's, of course, assuming one concludes that they are trustworthy.) Is that as far as one can go in biblical criticism? Some scholars do stop there, but others go farther and attempt explanations, from the body being gone from the tomb because of an earthquake to the disciples experiencing real-seeming visions of a recently deceased friend who had been particularly close to them. (There is modern documentation of, for example, wives seeing and touching their dead husbands. It's uncommon, but normal, and these visions - which seem real at the time - are part of some people's grieving process.)

However, these explanations seem to pre-suppose that an actual resurrection is either impossible, so unlikely as to be counted impossible for all practical purposes, or should not be considered as a historical option because, as a supernatural event, it cannot be proved and cannot be counted as a historical event. That is, history does not cover *what actually happened,* but only *what we can prove to have happened,* and since supernatural events cannot be proved, they de facto can never be historical.

To me, this seems to set up a way of doing biblical criticism in which one can only say how likely it is that a text is authentic, and how likely it is that the events described in it actually happened, but can never actually say whether they happened or not, or what it would mean if they did or didn't. If one believes that the Gospels are generally trustworthy, in that the evangelists believed that the events they wrote about actually took place (i.e. they weren't deliberately making things up), is that all one can say as a biblical scholar? "The evangelists believed they had experienced events which they understood to be miraculous?" Does one just look to the philosophers to say whether the events could have been miraculous? Does one then look to the theologians to say what such miracles (if they could be such) mean in regards to our understanding of God and Jesus? If so, are biblical criticism and theology two separate fields (biblical scholars being more like textual or literary critics, scientists, anthropologists, or historians)? Must a theologian wait for the "assured results of modern (biblical) scholarship" before speaking?

Cole Matson said...

I should also mention that I just saw The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard at the Oxford Playhouse last night. There's an excellent scene in which the older A.E. Housman and the student version of himself talk about why they each study the classics. Young Housman says it's because the Greeks wrote about the meaning of life and love. Old Housman says the only reason to study the classics is so that one can use scientific techniques to determine whether a letter or word in today's manuscripts is the letter or word that the original author used. Classics as life-changing philosophy versus classics as textual criticism. That scene really struck me and the two other theology students I saw the show with hard.

J said...

The real Humean doesn't reject miraculous claims out of hand--he applies a conceptual "Fork". Look at the two claims on the fork, and weigh them: do the reasons, evidence, testimony in favor of ordinary explanations (ie supposed miracle was an exaggeration, mistaken testimony, possibly even...a hoax) outweigh and outfavor the belief in the miraculous claim?

While there may be difficulties in assigning any numerical quantity to anecdotal or historical reports (which are not really data, contrary to what some bayesians insist), the reasonable person will generally always side with ordinary explanation, and with the "uniformity of experience." When he sees Mary or an angel floating above the 405, he probably changes his belief set....


That said, Hume tended to overestimate the power of Reason. Religion is not merely a detective's search for clues....

Mike The Mad Theologian said...

If we reject eyewitness testimony or even secondary testimony derived from eyewitnesses we make all history impossible. Nor do we normally have the luxury of cross examining those witnesses (they in most historical inquiries are all dead). One must of course examine the records, how close are they to the time, do they seem to be reliable, what reasonable alternate explanations are their. But to reject the miraculous a priori is a philosophical conclusion. As C. S, Lewis points out in his book Miracles A Preliminary Study the uniformity of human experience is against them only if we conclude they do not happen and all records reporting them are false.

Dustin said...

That said, Hume tended to overestimate the power of Reason.

It would be more accurate to say that Hume overestimated the power of a naive sort of empiricism. He had rather a low view of reason ("slave of the passions" and all that.)

Bilbo said...

Hi Cole, you know a lot more about theology than I do. I did read a book on Karl Barth, where he expressed appreciation to Biblical criticism in helping to understand more about the origin of Scripture. But he saw the theologian's role as accepting the Bible as the word of God and interpreting it as such. In other words, regardless of the process, it was only a means that God used to give us His Word. Or perhaps His word about the Word.
So I think Barth would have answered you, "No. The theologian need not wait upon the results of the critic, but is duty bound to interpret the Word of God."

J said...

Hume's an empiricist, but not so naive. He anticipated analytical philosophy with his separation of matters of fact, from relations of ideas (synthetic, and analytical truths, more or less). Hume did not think induction produced necessary truths, but he's not some ultra skeptic as some read him.

Hume may have been a sinister pedazo de mierda (tho he did give donations to poor houses of the time). Either way, that shouldn't detract us from his specific points (or his eloquent writing). His points on miracles are not so easily dispensed with.

It's certainly possible other explanations (ie mistaken testimony) for supposed miracles might hold, however unsettling to the people who uphold inerrant views of the Bible. There are translation issues as well as historical issues.

Technically, the positivists would have agreed that history did not produce infallible truths. except of a primitive sort, like " Napoleon existed". Many dates/facts/events might be disputed, questioned, however--say what exactly transpired in Egypt, or Russia, etc. The point holds a fortiori for ancient religous texts (and Tacitus,and other roman history should be considered, which rarely alludes to Christians. Christ the person most likely existed, but it's odd that JC doesn't appear in the roman history, though Pilate and other biblical figures do). That sort of historical detective work--which Hume and his crony Gibbon was good at-- may not be formal logic, but still reasonable (compared to say merely accepting the dogma).

Mark said...

There are circumstances under which we are extremely suspicious of testimony that claims to descend from soi-disant eyewitnesses, such as that of alien abductions, Catholic mass visions and miracle claims originating from other ancient authors. In order to sort out which are reliable and which aren't, we're going to have engage with the psychology of memory and belief, especially as they exist within highly superstitious cultures. After we do this, the Gospels may still pass the test, but it's always frustrating to hear people speak as if we should treat all types of historical claims on a psychological par. It's not the case that we have to throw out all testimony once we throw out testimony we have special reason to think is vulnerable to corrupting psychological influence.

Gordon Knight said...

I wonder what readers here think of a contemporary analogue to miracle reports: children who seem to remember past lives. I am in the process of trudgin through some boring social science type discussion of these cases. I have also read philosphical dismissals of them on the grounds taht such reports do not fit in with contemporary science (so even assuming correct methodology etc the the reincarnation hypothesis should be rejected).

Interestingly, reincarnation is not a miracle. As far as I can see, no law of nature is violated.

Steven Hales argues that because there is no scientific theory that makes sense of reincarnation, it is less likely than alternative hypothesis, such as extraterestrials influencing the minds of children.

I tend to think Hales confuses scientific and philosophical theory. Materialism is not a scientific theory, but a philosopihcal one. Of course dualism is a phil. theory that does make sense of reincarnation.

It would seem to me that those of us who think materialism is suspect on philosophical grounds alone should be relatively open to the reincarnation hypothesis.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

My difficulty with believing the Bible's miracles is based on many factors. Some of those factors Hume doesn't even raise. Neither does Hume assume miracles cannot happen. He was skeptical, he asked how can we know they happened.

Furthermore, Strauss did not invent biblical questioning or criticism. The deists were already asking questions before him. They did not believe the Bible to have been specially inspired and they explained why.

Besides which, many Christian theologians and ALL institutions of higher learned founded by conservative Christians have grown more liberal over time. Give them at least 200 years each from their founding date and after engaging the finest professors and scholars and interacting with other scholars and see what happens.

You can't put the Humpty Dumpty of orthodox Christianity back together again once it has been examined and open questioning allowed. For centuries open questioning was NOT allowed, under penalty of blasphemy laws or heresy trials.

Get off your duff Vic, and read more of the classics of Biblical criticism, and study brain research as well. Those are my suggestions.

Edward T. Babinski said...

Vic,

My difficulty with believing the Bible's miracles is based on many factors. Some of those factors Hume doesn't even raise. Neither does Hume assume miracles cannot happen. He was skeptical, he asked how can we know they happened.

Furthermore, Strauss did not invent biblical questioning or criticism. The deists were already asking questions before him. They did not believe the Bible to have been specially inspired and they explained why.

Besides which, many Christian theologians and ALL institutions of higher learned founded by conservative Christians have grown more liberal over time. Give them at least 200 years each from their founding date and after engaging the finest professors and scholars and interacting with other scholars and see what happens.

You can't put the Humpty Dumpty of orthodox Christianity back together again once it has been examined and open questioning allowed. For centuries open questioning was NOT allowed, under penalty of blasphemy laws or heresy trials.

Today there is a WIDER spectrum of Christian beliefs than EVERY before including among orthodox believers. Do you even know what kinds of questions Emergent Church leaders are currently asking?

Get off your duff Vic, and read more of the classics of Biblical criticism, and study brain research as well (the first of which C. S. Lewis shows very little sign of ever having bothered with, and the second of which he couldn't do in his day since brain and cognitive research was in its infancy). Those are my suggestions. Even N.T. Wright admits it was painful for him to learn about and integrate what is known today about the Bible into a more orthodox viewpoint.

unkle e said...

Cole said: "I've had difficulty with the advice expressed by my tutor that I should put aside the question of whether miracles can happen when I do biblical criticism."

Cole, I wouldn't think of myself as a theologian, but I did complete a degree course in theology in my misspent youth, and I have considered questions similar to the ones you ask.

My conclusion is that, like a lot of things in life, we should approach this on several levels. For example, I have been married more than 40 years. When deciding to get married, I gave serious consideration to the question of whether she was the person for me. But once I made that decision (and she made a similar one), we made a commitment and were married, I didn't think much about that, and got on with the business (and pleasure!) of living. Of course, if things had become rocky, I may have had to reconsider that choice, but fortunately that never happened.

I think it is the same with Biblical criticism and following Jesus. At first (logically, if not chronologically), we need to consider whether we can believe in Jesus and trust the NT as a reliable portrayal of him. That process seems to me to require putting aside any theological assumptions and looking at the historical evidence. My conclusion, with some caveats about the NT, is that I can believe in Jesus because the NT is reliable on the level of ordinary history.

Having made that choice, I can safely put it in the background, unless something major comes along to challenge it, and get on with the business of having faith in the Bible as revelation (not just as history) and following Jesus. That includes believing the miracles occurred, believing in what he and his apostles said, and following those teachings as best I can. I find myself re-visiting the historical-critical questions more often because I engage in discussions with others who are questioning those matters, but in the rest of my life I have little reason to consider them, because I find historical criticism of the NT is currently moving in a less critical direction.

I have found this approach has sustained both my reason and an active faith for 40 years, not without the occasional difficulty, but sufficient that I can get on with sharing God's love where I can with confidence.

I hope that helps. Best wishes.

Shackleman said...

Mr. Matson,

Can you prove the defeat of the Spanish Armada without eyewitness testimony?

Remember, any archeological artifacts are also off the table because they are ultimately attested to by an expert witness who claims that the artifact is what it is.

We ultimately have very little first hand knowledge. We place our trust in the "experts" and "witnesses" who tell us what is, and is not true, and what is and is not *possibly* true.

Therefore, the trustworthiness of the "expert" or "witness" is of paramount importance. At least it seems to me. *Especially* when they testify to things which go against the grain of the majority of other "experts" and "witnesses".

Galileo comes to mind.

And so too does St. Paul.

Mike The Mad Theologian said...

C. S. Lewis was not ignorant of the results of Biblical criticism (at least as it was known in his day but he suggested questioning the skeptics. I am convinced this is a good idea. It is easy to go along with predominant theories of our own day only to have them found dubious at a later date. I started out as a skeptic and ended up in Christian orthodoxy. I know others who have followed the same path. Much of Biblical criticism starts with the idea miracles can not happen and interpret the texts based on those assumptions. This still leaves open the question of whether miracles really can happen or not.

Dustin said...

Hume's an empiricist, but not so naive. He anticipated analytical philosophy with his separation of matters of fact, from relations of ideas (synthetic, and analytical truths, more or less). Hume did not think induction produced necessary truths, but he's not some ultra skeptic as some read him.

By "naive," I had in mind his rather simplistic view that all knowledge must be able to be traced to a specific sense impression. If nothing else, it's certainly incompatible with the more speculative portions of modern science.

And I'm pretty sure Hume doesn't think we have any rational basis for induction. The justification he gives of it is ultimately psychological--it's what we do, and that's that. There's a reason he suggested his philosophy be offset with doses of good food and backgammon.

J said...

Not exactly.

It's about knowledge via experience, which Hume claims is not necessary. We have no logical guarantees that the future will resemble the past--some area might have a few centuries of "normal" behavior, and one massive earthquake ruins your day.

Hume's not a complete skeptic as many fundies read him, nor denying that physical science is possible; he's saying that such "laws" are not necessary, but a matter of habit--uniformity of experience. he was also an early probability theorist, and really however unsophisticated Hume's frequentism is, frequentism is still used--via frequentism, miracles (er, reports of miracles--arguably not even data) seem nearly non-existent. Really it's no better with bayesian methods, with likelihood of under 1/100th of one percent, or something like that. But Hume doesn't say miracles are impossible, merely that other explanations seem far more plausible........he's not quite the sinister heretic some fundies read him as....

And the macro-point relates to the provisional nature of science itself, as Popper realized.

While I agree that Hume (and Popper, who doesn't always get Hume on induction) may have placed too much emphasis on subjectivity, he did anticipate say Einstein's revision of Newton.

Gregory said...

Let's not fool ourselves here. Hume was guided by the assumption of "naturalism". If he wasn't, then he wouldn't have bothered criticizing the idea of "miracles" in the first place.

His argument is easy to misunderstand because it involves 3 key premises:

1) Miracles are violations of "natural law".

2) Non-miraculous reports are much more prevalent than miraculous ones.

3) Given that the super abundance of non-miraculous reports far outweigh the miraculous reports, it is more prudent to believe that any miracle "story" is probably non-miraculous (i.e. natural events being factually mistaken for a "miracle", or are outright lies). Due to the virtually unanimous experience of the fact that people are known to be mistaken---or liars---and that the universe operates uniformly according to natural law, we are then granted a greater probability that a miracle report originates from human imagination or deception than from a genuine supernatural source.

Some interpreters of Hume argue that he was merely proposing a calculus for determining whether or not to believe a miracle based on experience. Since the experience of "natural" events weighs much heavier than "supernatural" events, then it would be wiser to believe a "natural" explanation.

Others have taken Hume's argument in a much stronger sense. They see Hume's project as a demonstration of the incoherence of "miracles", altogether, based on naturalism. This is due to Hume's own definition of "natural law" as inviolable. That being the case---miracles, by definition, cannot occur.

I think that these interpretation of Hume's thought are correct. This is due, in large part, because Hume is conflating two lines of argumentation (i.e. one "deductive" and the other "inductive"). It's as though Hume couldn't decide which side of the plate he wanted to place his "fork".

Gregory said...

I wonder, though, if followers of Hume aren't struck by the sophistry of his argument, in light of the paradigm shifts in 19th and 20th Century scientific conceptualizations of the universe.

In fact, a recent NY Times article features a story about a respected String Theorist at the University of Amsterdam that questions all previous concepts of gravity. Here's the link:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/13/science/13gravity.html?no_interstitial

I also wanted to comment upon this post:

"There are circumstances under which we are extremely suspicious of testimony that claims to descend from soi-disant eyewitnesses, such as that of alien abductions, Catholic mass visions and miracle claims originating from other ancient authors. In order to sort out which are reliable and which aren't, we're going to have engage with the psychology of memory and belief, especially as they exist within highly superstitious cultures."

This completely begs the question by assuming the non-existence of the miraculous from the very start. It also illustrates chronological snobbery, at it's best, while demonizing our ancient forefathers, at it's worst.

I, for my part, do not question the sanity of anyone who believes in miracles, past or present, anymore than I question the sanity of people who have practiced alchemy (i.e. Isaac Newton), human experimentation and murder (i.e. Joseph Mengele and/or the disturbing serial murder case involving the "Lainz Angels of Death"), and/or those who irresponsibly exploit natural resources in the name of science.

We, today, are in no position to question the sanity of our ancestors. But if we do wish to judge them so, then let us embrace them as fellow "nuts".