Tag Archives: Historical Methods

Is the presuppositionalist approach to apologetics Biblical?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Here’s J.W. Wartick’s take from Always Have a Reason blog.

Excerpt:

Cornelius Van Til pioneered the field of “presuppositional apologetics” primarily through his works Christian Apologetics and The Defense of the Faith. His arguments are easily misunderstood as question begging or viciously circular. Herein, I have presented a brief outline and analysis which reveals that while the presuppositional approach may indeed have some logical faults, the overall system has a certain power to it and can be integrated into a total-apologetic system.

[…]The key to understand here is that Van Til does not accept that there is a neutral reason “out there” by which Christians and non-Christians can arbitrate the truth of Christianity; his point is that there is no neutral ground and that one’s presuppositions will determine one’s end point. Again, he writes, “this [apologetic method] implies a refusal to grant that any area or aspect of reality, any fact or any law of nature or of history, can be correctly interpreted except it be seen in the light of the main doctrines of Christianity” (Christian Apologetics, 124).

However, Van Til takes it even further and argues that one must presuppose the truth of Christianity in order to make sense of reality: ” What is the content of this presupposition, then? It is this: “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority” (The Defense of the Faith, 253); again, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything” (Christian Apologetics, 19). Thus, Van Til’s apologetic does not make Christianity the conclusion of an argument; rather, Christianity is the starting presupposition.

The presuppositional approach here cannot be stressed enough. For Van Til, one simply cannot grant to the non-Christian any epistemic point. “We cannot avoid coming to a clear-cut decision with respect to the question as to whose knowledge, man’s or God’s, shall be made the standard of the other. …[O]ne must be determinative and the other subordinate” (The Defense of the Faith 62-63).

What place is had for evidences in Van Til? At some points, he seems to be very skeptical of the use of Christian evidences. In particular, the fact that he argues there is no neutral evaluation grounds between the Christian and non-Christian seems to imply that  there can be no real evaluation of such arguments apart from Christianity. One of Van Til’s most famous illustrations of the use of evidences can be found in The Defense of the Faith pages 332 and following. He uses three persons, Mr. Black (non-Christian), Mr. Grey (Christian non-presuppositionalist), and Mr. White (presuppositional/reformed apologist):

Mr. Grey… says that, of course, the “rational man” has a perfect right to test the credibility of Scripture by logic… by experience… [Mr. Grey then takes Mr. Black a number of places to show him various theistic evidences. Mr. Black responds:] “you first use intellectual argument upon principles that presuppose the justice of my unbelieving position. Then when it it is pointed out to you that such is the case, you turn to witnessing [subjectively].

…At last it dawned upon Mr. White that first to admit that the principles of Mr. Black, the unbeliever, are right and then to seek to win him to the acceptance of the existence of God the Creator… is like first admitting that the United States had historically been a province of the Soviet Union but ought at the same time to be recognized as an independent and all-controlling power… If one reasons for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity on the assumptions that Mr. Black’s principles of explanation are valid, then one must witness on the same assumption [which makes witnessing wholly subjective.] (p. 332-339)

It can be seen here that even evidences for Van Til must be based within a presupposition. There is no way to look at evidences in the abstract. One can either offer them within the presuppositions of Christianity or outside of Christianity. For Van Til, once one has agreed to offer evidences outside of Christianity, one has granted the presuppositions of the non-believer, and therefore is doomed to fail.

This would include using arguments like the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, arguments from miracles, etc. – including the resurrection. That seems to be Van Til’s view. No evidence allowed – you have to presuppose Christianity is true in order to make sense of the world.

Now, I think we need to make a distinction between using questioning the pre-suppositions of our opponents, as with William Lane’s Craig’s moral argument, Plantinga’s epistemological argument for reason and Menuge’s ontological argument for reason. There are arguments for theism that question the pre-suppositions of an atheist. Certainly, non-theists cannot ground things like morality, free will, consciousness and rationality on atheism. But that’s not what Van Til is saying. He says that an atheist cannot be swayed by evidence unless he first becomes a Christian. I.e. – he is saying that atheist Anthony Flew is lying when he says that evidence caused him to turn to believe in God. On Van Til’s view, that’s impossible.

My view of presuppositional apologetics is that is as a system, it is circular reasoning. It assumes Christianity in order to prove Christianity. But there is an even worse problem with it. It’s not a Biblical way of doing apologetics. It’s man’s way of doing apologetics, not God’s. I think that the best way to understand Van Til’s apologetics is by saying that it really just a sermon disguised as apologetics. The problem is that Van Til’s sermon has no basis in the Bible. Wherever he is getting his view from, it’s not from the Bible. When I look the Bible, I don’t see any Biblical support for the view that pre-suppositional apologetics is the only approved way of defending the faith. Instead, the standard method seems to be evidentialism.

In Romans 1, Paul writes that people can learn about God’s existence from the natural world.

Romans 1:18-23:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,

19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

And in Acts, Peter appeals to eyewitness testimony for the resurrection, and Jesus’ miracles.

Acts 2:22-24, and 36:

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

23This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

24But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.

And finally from the same chapter:

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Professor Clay Jones of Biola University makes the case that the use of evidence when preaching the gospel was standard operating procedure in the early church. (H/T Apologetics 315)

Intro:

In 1993 I started working for Simon Greenleaf University (now Trinity Law School) which offered an M.A. in Christian apologetics (Craig Hazen was the director). Much of my job was to promote the school and although I had studied Christian apologetics since my sophomore year in high school, I decided I needed to see whether an apologetic witness had strong Biblical precedence.

It does.

As I poured through the Scripture I found that Jesus and the apostles preached the resurrection of Christ as the sign of the truth of Christianity.

What follows are some of the passages which support the resurrection witness.

Here is my favorite verse from his massive list list of verses in favor of the evidential approach to Christian apologetics:

Mat. 12:39-40: A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Jesus is saying that the resurrection was deliberately given as a sign to unbelievers to convince them. (“The Sign of Jonah” = the resurrection)

So, I see that God uses nature and miracles to persuade, which can be assessed using scientific and historical methods. Can anyone find me a clear statement in the Bible that states that only pre-suppositional arguments should be used? I could be wrong, and I am willing to be proven wrong. I think we should use the Biblical method of apologetics, not the fallen man’s method of apologetics.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.

So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.

Excerpt:

The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.

Tim McGrew lectures on undesigned coincidences in the Bible

Dr. Tim McGrew
Dr. Tim McGrew

I have an interesting lecture for you to listen to today, by Dr. Tim McGrew. He is a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University.

The MP3 file is here.

I do not have a summary of the lecture, but I do have an article that explains what undesigned coincidences are.

Lydia McGrew explains the concept of undesigned coincidences on her blog:

Undesigned coincidences in the Gospels … is an argument that was well-known in the nineteenth century but has, for no really clear reason, simply been forgotten as time has gone on. It is a cumulative case argument that the Gospels reflect, to an important extent, independent knowledge of actual events. Please note that this argument is quite independent of one’s preferred answer to the synoptic question. That is to say, even if, e.g., Mark was the first Gospel and others had access to Mark and show signs of literary dependence on Mark, the argument from undesigned coincidences provides evidence for independent knowledge of real events among the Gospel writers. There are many more of such coincidences beyond those given in the talk.

Basically, this argument finds cases where the same story is in two sources, but where some important detail is left out of one account so that something about the story seems out of place. But the other source has the missing detail that unlocks the mystery. This supports the view that the sources are independent witnesses of the same events. Multiple attestation is an indicator that the material is historical.

My favorite example of undesigned coincidences is the Philip example from John 6.

Lydia explains that example here:

As I was listening to Tim’s examples, I was struck by all the reasons there might be for a real eyewitness not to fill out the explanation for a detail. Think for example how tedious it is to listen to someone who goes back to explain every little detail he mentions in a story.

[…]Similarly, as John is telling the story about the feeding of the five thousand, it would be quite natural for him to say that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread if he were really an eyewitness–that is, because he remembered that Jesus did ask Philip. (Tim talks about why it was Philip in the interview.) But John himself might have had to stop and think for a moment if someone had asked him, “Why did Jesus ask Philip rather than any of the other disciples?” Presumably when John told the story, he wasn’t particularly thinking about some special reason for Jesus to select Philip for the question. But if someone were forging the story as fiction, he would have a reason for choosing to use a given disciple as a character at that point in his fictional narrative, and therefore he would be unlikely to choose that character without making the reason clearer to his readers.

All sorts of such things can happen when one is telling a true story, especially a story one has witnessed. One gets caught up in what one actually remembers and drops in incidental references to small facts, which facts are to some extent selected randomly by the memory as one brings the scene back to memory. This is typical of real memoirs but not of elaborate forgeries.

If you think this is interesting and useful, then give the lecture a listen.

Mike Licona lectures on historical methods and the New Testament

Here’s a quick overview of Michael Licona’s latest book on the resurrection, entitled “The Resurrection of Jesus“.

60 minutes of lecture, 20 minutes of Q&A.

Summary:

  • Dr. Licona’s background and education
  • The definition of history and philosophy of history
  • Postmodern approaches to history
  • Historical bedrock: facts that are historically demonstrable
  • Historical criterion 1: Explanatory scope
  • Historical criterion 2: Explanatory power
  • Historical criterion 3: Plausibility
  • Historical criterion 4: Ad Hoc / Speculation / non-evidenced assumptions
  • Inference to the best explanation
  • Investigating miracle claims: is it possible? How?
  • Objection of James D.G. Dunn
  • Objection of Bart Ehrman
  • New Testament sources: Gospels and Paul’s letters
  • The Gnostic gospels: are they good sources?
  • The minimal facts
  • The hallucination hypothesis
  • The best explanation

While watching this lecture, it struck what good preparation it was for understanding debates. This lecture is more about historical methods, but if you’re interested in Mike’s minimal facts case for the resurrection, here’s a video on that:

This is the case he uses in his debates with Richard Carrier, Dale Allison, Bart Ehrman, etc.

Mike Licona’s ministry is here: Risen Jesus.

If you are looking for a good book to read on the resurrection of Jesus, the best introductory book on the resurrection is “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” and the best comprehensive book is “The Resurrection of Jesus“.

What criteria do historians use to get to the minimal facts about the historical Jesus?

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.

So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?

Dr. Craig explains them in this article.

Excerpt:

The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.

It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”

In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.

What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:

(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.

(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.

(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.

(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.

(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.

(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.

For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives I, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.

Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.

And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.

Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:

Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:

1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.

Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.

2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.

In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.

There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.

So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.

Try this approach instead:

  1. Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
  2. Explain your list of minimal facts
  3. Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
  4. Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
  5. List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
  6. Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
  7. Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
  8. Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)

And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.