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More on evidentialism and Christianity

I have written before about evidence and Christianity. One piece, giving some reading suggestions for Christian young people, is here. Another, on the question of whether a proposition like "Jesus rose from the dead" is a "self-committing" proposition, is here.

Over the weekend, this post by Prof. George Hunsinger of Princeton was brought to my attention. After some internal debate, I decide to write some criticisms of it and have put the long version up at my personal blog here. My post is called "What Not to Tell a Young Inquirer About the Evidences of the Christian Faith," and it is considerably longer and meatier than the light things I most often put up there. If the title is not sufficiently provocative, it includes the sentence, "Hunsinger represents a theological establishment that has lost its nerve."

Despite the fact that I chose to post the entire piece only at Extra Thoughts rather than cross-posting it here, feel free to make comments in either location.

Comments (20)

I posted a comment on Lydia's reply to Hunsinger.

I noticed you said this:
(Clarification: The above paragraphs are all separate block quotations, not a single long quotation. They do not come immediately after one another in Hunsinger's piece.)

The common internet idiom for this is usually to post a separator between non-consecutive paragraphs, such as [...] or <snip>

You may already be aware of that and consciously chose not to use them. I just tend to think that the separators are less clunky than a posting a verbal explanation. :)

Aaron, I knew that at some level but simply forgot it at the time when I realized how it looked. Here at W4 block quotations go into separate boxes, which makes clarification unnecessary. I suddenly looked at the post and realized that the series of quotations could be misunderstood as a misrepresentation, and the explanation was the only thing that popped into my mind at the moment.

The question of the Gospels, their authorship and timing, have interested me of late, associating as I do with friendly but excitable atheists.
Much is made of the several decades lapse between them and the death of Christ, an issue raised in Lydia's link. It immediately struck me, well almost immediately, that no such fuss surrounds the work of other writings of a secular and distant nature on topics, events, non-religious.

The authors Suetonius, Plutarch, or Livy meet with less skepticism though both essay their tasks at much greater lengths of time, Schliemann discovered Ilium by a close reading of Homer, or the many Homers as it may be, and you not talking about 50-70 years after the fact written authorship there.
Verbal traditions continued to exist alongside a minimal literacy as time progressed, providing sources and insight into bygone cultures.

Granted, you are being asked to accept so much more with Christ, but ought not the evidence be treated similarly whatever the conclusion?

Faith is more than religion, it inheres in being human and finds uncountable forms. But in a society militantly secular standards towards religion exist on a far higher and aggressive plane.

Johnt, I couldn't agree more about the "no double standard" principle. It is something that can't be said too often.

I would add, too, that the lateness of the Gospels has been much exaggerated. With the exception of the Gospel of John--which, though written apparently (according to patristic evidence) in John's old age, was written by an eye witness--an early date for the Gospels seems much better supported than New Testament scholars often acknowledge or realize. The _very_ late dating has been overwhelmingly discredited purely on the evidence of manuscript discoveries. And linguistic evidence, evidence from political references, and the like, support a pre-70 date for the synoptics. It's important to remember that when standard reference works date the Gospels after 70, this traces (sometimes indirectly) to the assumption that Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem didn't really occur but was written back in after the fact, which is of course question-begging from the perspective of his divinity and the possibility of prophecy.

Just a minor note.

I couldn't agree more about the "no double standard" principle. It is something that can't be said too often.

Right. At the same time, that principle is only one step, though important one, in a detailed case for the essential parts of the NT history. E.g., when Whately shew that the Humean infidel should conclude that Napoleon Bonaparte did not exist, the infidel could well be prepared give up the Humean historical principles and become skeptical about the right principles of historiography. In other words, there's a need to explicate not only who's applying double standards, but also what the right standards are.


Your comment about explicating a historiography based on right principles is extremely important. Such an historiography must be based on a correct epistemology of phenomena. Of course, the Bible provides such an epistemology of phenomena: "Out of the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be confirmed" and "we cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard." According to the Bible, accurate information about phenomena comes in a judicial setting where witnesses are questioned; from the perspective of a biblical epistemology of phenomena, forensic evidence is no evidence. Forensic evidence cannot be questioned and the discovery of tampering may be impossible, not to mention the likelihood of drawing the wrong conclusion from the evidence even without tampering. There might be several methods by which the forensic evidence might have been constructed; we might select the wrong method as the constructor of the evidence.

Witnesses can be questioned by judges and forgery can be discovered by competent judges because judges can sequester witnesses so that they have an overwhelming epistemic advantage since they know what witnesses have said but witnesses don't have access to all the testimony--only to their own memories of what they themselves have said.

Finally, we must remember that Christ called the apostles His "witnesses." The apostles understood this to be their key role as evidenced by their method of selection of a list of candidates to fill Judas' empty office. Both Matthias and Joseph had been with Christ from the beginning of His ministry, which was essential for them to be Christ's witnesses. The witnesses needed to be familiar with the details of what happened and with the form, image, and voice of Christ. John clarifies this even further in I John 1:1-3, emphasizing the empirical evidence to which the apostles had access--their own observations about Christ based on seeing, hearing, examining, manipulating, etc.

Vlastimil, I think part of what you are alluding to is historical relativism or post-modernism. I appreciate your having drawn my attention at another time to W.L. Craig's section on historical relativism in his Reasonable Faith. It seems to me like a good and useful section, though I haven't read every word.

My usual approach is to assume that the people I am talking to are not dyed-in-the-wool post-modernists. I suppose one could say that the sheer fuzziness exemplified by writers who insist (as Hunsinger does) that the Gospels are not historical reports has some affinities with post-modernism, but I would put them in different categories. That sort of Barthian modernism pre-dates postmodernism by a long way and does not involve the acceptance of historical relativism generally. It merely fuzzifies the historical nature of _miracles_, usually because of an acceptance of the idea that miracles in the nature of the case cannot be regarded as historical phenomena.

To make a long story short, I would treat historical relativism as a species of relativism more generally and would consider an attack upon epistemic relativism to be beyond the scope of apologetics qua apologetics--rather it would be a prolegomenon to _any_ rational investigation. I usually consider that apologetics qua apologetics is addressed to people who at least _claim_ to be seeking reasons, which means that they believe it is possible to have knowledge and to have good reasons. If we haven't even gotten that far, the apologist has no (supposedly) rational skepticism to answer, because the skepticism in question is rejecting rationality ab initio.

Thanks, Tom.


One can be skeptical WRT (the relevant parts of ancient) history and at the same time believe that it is possible to have knowledge and to have good reasons about many other things. He would be just a local skeptic: maybe he just does not know how to assess the historical evidence with confidence. I have a hunch that's the cause why any arguments from historical premises do not impress even such sophisticated and open-minded philosophers and scientists who definitely are not global skeptics. I remember Tim once wrote to be that the world would be much better place if philosophers understood the process of historical proof.

And if they are not open-minded, the local skepticism remains for them as a place to hide in. Do you remember the debates of Tim and Spur, a Leibnizian rationalist, at Bill Vallicella's blog? Similarly, a friend of mine is a scientist, no global skeptic, yet, he says, the historical evidence is, so far, unscrutable to him.

Maybe that the epistemology of historiography is a prolegomenon to apologetics, yet, a crucial one, and so far no such a detailed prolegomenon can be found in the writings of contemporary philosophy. Maybe that's the reason why Craig inserted an introductory ch. on the issue in the 3rd. ed. of Reasonable Faith.


Perhaps the reason for skepticism about history is naivete about testimony. I suggest that "sophisticated" people may be aware of the problems with testimony in the American legal system that Elizabeth Loftus has investigated and written about, but not aware of the remedies to those problems found in biblical legal methods. Of course, these remarks about law also come to bear on history, where the historical context is also legal. History and law both rely on testimony, of course, so they have some overlap as regards epistemology of phenomena. Science also relies heavily on testimony, of course, as Steven Shapin discusses. "Sophisticated" people are often not aware of these things.

Last I knew, testimony was of interest to philosophers primarily as regards reductionism. Philosophy hasn't yet regarded the potential impact of the meta-analysis performed by biblical judges on testimony, which might have a significant impact on the reductionist thesis--essentially invalidating it in the context of a biblical court. Coady would prevail over Hume.

This could have a major impact on apologetics, if we could show that the early church examined the testimony of the apostles in their own biblical courts.

Thanks, Tom.

Would you have some tips on the very best epistemological literature on testimony or historiography known to you?

E.g., the Stanford Enc. of Ph. entry on testimony treats testimony of the kind relevantly different from the kind Christian apologists like Lydia make use of.

Vlastimil, I think your point about scientists is well-taken. Scientists in general are very confused about history. For example, they will say that an hypothesis has to be tested and repeatable. But this is absurd for any historical hypothesis about some free action of a person, as historical events are typically unique. It's not like we can "run the experiment" again to see if Caesar crosses the Rubicon under the same circumstances! One would think that this could simply be pointed out. One would also think that one could point out all the things that scientists themselves believe, even about recent history (e.g., that terrorists destroyed the Twin Towers by flying planes into them on September 11, 2001) and that this would shake them from their historical skepticism because an event doesn't meet "scientific standards." Unfortunately, I suspect that very often what is happening is that an a priori refusal to admit the possibility of the miraculous is hiding behind a claim that "the evidence isn't good enough because it isn't repeatable" or something of that sort, which _really means_, "This is supposed to be a miracle, so it isn't the _type_ of thing that I am open to believing happens in the real world, because I have no other instances of miracles that I believe have happened in my own experience." Which is, of course, complete closed-mindedness and would never permit any inference to the occurrence of a real miracle to get off the ground.

Lydia, I continue to believe [based on the evidence ;)] the best posts from you have been on epistemology. Given your vocation, I suppose this shouldn't be news. But kudos to you on another insightful post. I think your characterization of (some of) the theological establishment losing its nerve is accurate, as well as the Barthian and fideistic tendencies in that professor's letter. Barth's shadow, for good and ill, is very long.

Thanks for the post(s).

Thanks, Albert. It's my avocation, really, but I try to keep it up to standard.


I started with the Bible in constructing my epistemology of phenomena.

A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the [lit.] mouth of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.


Notice the singular for mouth, contrasted with the plural for witnesses. This indicates corroboration. Check out the cross-references at the linked site--there are two in the Old Testament and five in the New which say almost the same thing. This repetition indicates either emphasis or simply a foundational way of thinking. Kind of strange that this hasn't been noticed much before, isn't it?

So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."

See also similar constructions: Acts 4:20, Acts 22:15, and I John 1:1-3 (which repetition in John is emphatic because it is densely packed in three verses). The emphasis on seeing and hearing is simply empirical; it disallows analysis by the witness.

Analysis is limited to the role of the judge in a biblical court as we see in Deut. 19:18, where the witnesses must be questioned diligently. It seems obvious to me that a biblical judge would automatically sequester witnesses in order to gain an epistemic advantage in order to defeat any forgery of testimony.


Here's the rest.

I also recommend the following:

Coady, C. A. J. Testimony: a philosophical study (the modern starting point)
Lipton, P. The Epistemology of Testimony http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/3367/Default.aspx
Loftus, E. http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/ (asks some very good questions)
Shapin, S. The scientific revolution (search on "steven+shapin+testimony"; select the books.google.com link) (examines the relationship between science and testimony)


I am not quite sure how to understand your thesis: Are you saying that the Bible gives us an excellent standard for general "epistemology of phenomena", and that excellent standard works not on account of the Bible telling us to use it but because it is appropriate in itself; or are you saying that the Bible gives tells us the appropriate standard to apply in testing the Bible itself and its veracity?

If the former, do we have to believe that it is sound methodology merely on the authority of the Bible? Can't we establish the soundness in other ways as well?


I just mentioned that I started with the Bible because that was where I began to be interested in epistemic questions. I think that it is an adequate authority about such things and that its epistemic usefulness can be tested. The ideas are adequate in themselves and one doesn't need to come to them via the Bible.

I think that generally we are in agreement about how to discover/evaluate epistemic methodologies. I think that the non-Christian philosophers make a mistake in ignoring what the Bible says about philosophy.

Thanks Dr. McGrew.

I visited that site once and immediately found reverential posts on Bultmann to which I replied with a link to CS Lewis' 'Fern Seeds and Elephants' from which you quoted. Stony silence from everyone. The very next post was just as uncritical of Foucault. As a teacher my first thought was that at least some qualification was needed about the man and his worth to Christian thinkers on an explicitly Christian website. My post on that occasion expressed those sentiments and in non PC language used 'sadomasochistic sodomite' to get my point across. I mean I teach teenage children who may wander to the site for research or general knowledge: the man shouldn't be lionised, (critically evaluated yes) in a Christian website. My post was deleted. Everything has a Christian dimension it seems except traditional sexual morality.

They do lack courage, they have lost their nerve, they use sophisticated theological language and believe themselves Christian but they really are only Christian on academia's/secularist's terms. It terrifies me: what about my own compromises?

Many moons later on a closely related website I was witness to this memorable post in support of an heroically sane contributor:

" . . . good to see you babysitting the kids. This blog's utterly sincere, so-post evangelical, I'm NOT a Republican, twenty-somethingness is so cute I can only handle it in small occassional doses. Sorry I can't be of more help against these goddamn hippies trying to radicalise our coffee shops. Carry on."

Needless to say a little while later the post was deleted.

That's very interesting, Martin. I avoid the junk going around in evangelical circles as much as possible and am of the opinion that the Emergent Movement is of the devil. (Seriously.) I learn about these things at one remove, usually from well-informed graduate students, and I'm very concerned at the direction evangelicalism is going in America. I'm wondering from what you say to what extent older Barthianism--which seems a tad stuffy for the hip, postmodern post-evangelicals--is actually making common cause with it.

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