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Minimal Facts and intermediate premises

Recently at his blog, eminent NT scholar Craig Keener published a post stating that Christians should not "attack" the minimal facts argument for the resurrection. Given that I have written quite a bit on this subject and had a webinar on this subject not long ago (see here, here, and here), it might quite understandably be thought that his post was directed to my views, though he does not say to whom he is responding.

Via personal communication I have now verified that Dr. Keener has not read or listened to my material on the topic of the minimal facts approach and was not intending to respond to my criticisms of the method. He has stated that he had heard that "some" are attacking minimal facts and, although he did not say who these are nor quote anything that they have said, conjectured that perhaps they may be distorting my views. Well, I obviously cannot speak to that, since I don't know who these "some" are or what, precisely, they have said about minimal facts.

However, I want to say for the record here that there is nothing in his post that either represents or responds to my own objections to the minimal facts approach. Therefore, I of course cannot regard myself as bound to agree with the conclusion he states that "Christians should not be attacking minimal facts" if "attack" means "seriously criticize."

Dr. Keener's one-sentence summary of the view to which he is responding is this: "Some Christians do not like the sound of 'minimal facts,' supposing that it means we believe as few facts as possible."

This is by no means a summary of my own objections--not surprisingly, since Dr. Keener does not know what my objections are, not having examined any of my material on the subject.

Again, just for the record, here is a brief statement of my central objection to the minimal facts approach. I set it off to make it easy and quick to read:

The minimal facts apologetic approach has been billed as giving us a solid argument, via inference to the best explanation, for the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. However, since the claim that the disciples experienced "appearances" of Jesus after his death must be construed in a way that is agreed upon by a large majority of scholars across the ideological spectrum, the argument is too weak to deliver. At most, an argument based upon such a non-specific notion of "appearance" experiences provides an argument that something strange happened after Jesus' death that could be worth looking into. If we are not willing to assert that the appearance experiences reported by the disciples were of the detailed, polymodal sort that we find expressly described in the resurrection accounts in the Gospels, the argument is severely weakened, and it is no longer clear that a rational person ought to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead on the basis of this argument.

I will not go on at further length about that right here, since I have already discussed it in more detail elsewhere; see the above links. This of course is a matter of epistemic evaluation of the strength of evidence, which (though I almost hate to mention it) is a matter of my professional specialty. That doesn't, certainly, mean that a non-epistemologist cannot disagree with me. Far from it. But if one does so, he should encounter and grapple in at least some detail with my actual objections and arguments.

I want to mention another point that might be missed by those who read Dr. Keener's post. In my webinar on the subject of minimal facts (see here), I distinguished four different uses of the minimal facts argument: Preliminary minimal facts with clear eyes, preliminary minimal facts with some confusion, naïve minimal facts, and aggressive minimal facts.

The preliminary minimal facts case with clear eyes is a kind of limited prolegomenon. As I suggest in the webinar, this might just cause the skeptic to go, "Huh." I do not condemn this preliminary usage so long as the person making it understands its limitations. This type of distinction should respond to Dr. Keener's injunction that we "should be celebrating that there are some fairly undisputed facts that really invite consideration even from those who do not share all [our] views."

Dr. Keener's post does inspire me to make one further epistemological point. Keener refers repeatedly in his post to the fact that it is common in various disciplines to work from agreed-upon data. For example, he says,

Scholars regularly work from common ground in our discussions. In the academy, there are certain ideas taken for granted, including a measure of scholarly consensus on many issues. Scholars debate with one another precisely because we do not all agree with one another, but we do so on the basis of certain working assumptions.

And of course this is true. Now, I don't want to attribute the concern I am about to spell out directly to Keener, because he does not state it in these terms. But it is plausible to me that someone reading Keener's post might, as a result of such statements, develop a concern about what I have called the maximal data approach to the resurrection. This concern would be something like this: If we do not start with points of contact that a skeptic agrees upon, then how can we avoid being either question-begging or dogmatic? Is Lydia recommending something like presuppositionalism, in which we must simply assume that the Bible is true or even that the biblical accounts are reliable? Again, I am not attributing this to Keener, but it could be a concern that might arise from reading his post.

Anyone who watched my webinar on minimal facts would know that this is by no means what I am recommending. (And anyone who knows what a staunch evidentialist I am also would realize this.) On the contrary, I repeatedly suggested that one state one's case briefly (particularly the premise that the disciples really attested to the experiences recounted in the Gospels) but that one be prepared to defend that premise with further data if challenged.

What is needed here is the concept of an intermediate premise. An intermediate premise for some contentful conclusion is not absolutely foundational, at the level of, "I seem to be appeared to redly." In most cases it isn't even what one might think of as "really close" to the foundations. Perhaps such a "close" proposition for most real-world arguments would be something like, "The external world exists" or "Human beings exist." For most historical arguments we can assume a lot of completely accepted background knowledge that doesn't need to be defended. But we have to spell out premises at various intermediate levels supporting the conclusion we want our opponent to draw--in this case, that Jesus rose from the dead.

As I pointed out in the webinar, the minimal facts case is also making use of intermediate premises--the minimal facts themselves. For example, the proposition that the tomb was empty is something that the minimal facts (or "core facts") apologist is prepared to defend if it is challenged and for which he usually gives some other argument--such as multiple attestation, for example. It is not something he merely asserts dogmatically, nor does he claim that it is the rock bottom of his argument.

My suggested intermediate premises are things like, "The disciples claimed that they had experiences in which the risen Jesus ate with them and was tangible." And that, too, will often have to be argued for when challenged.

The difference is that the minimal facts theorist prefers that even his intermediate premises be fairly uncontroversial in a scholarly sense. Therefore, one of the things he can say when supporting his premises is that they are accepted by a large majority of scholars.

I simply am suggesting that we need to be willing to do without that particular argument from scholarly consensus for some of our most crucial intermediate premises.

But by no means does that mean that I am enjoining dogmatism about them. Rather, one will back up to other facts that are neutral, such as the fact that the documents exist, that they say such-and-such, that they fit together in certain ways, that they have this or that feature. One will then attempt to argue that these other facts about the documents support an intermediate premise that the resurrection accounts actually give us reliably what the putative witnesses claimed happened to them. That in turn supports the claim that the disciples said that they experienced detailed, polymodal, group conversations with Jesus. That in turn supports the conclusion that the resurrection occurred. In other words, one will do explanatory and argumentative work to get from more basic agreed-upon facts about the contents of the documents (and external evidence, and so forth) to the intermediate premise about the claims of the disciples that one wants to use prominently in one's argument. It is precisely this sort of work that the minimal facts argument promised to absolve us from, but doing that work (with all the wonderful resources of the maximal data available to us) is not remotely like foot-stomping or just assuming that the Bible is true.

So, in empirical arguments, I applaud the injunction to use data that are neutral on the point at issue between myself and my opponent--in that sense, data that my opponent at least should grant if he is reasonable. But by no means does this mean that we must use premises at every level that are agreed upon by a "consensus of scholarship" in a given field. The consensus of scholarship might be so far wrong that, if we limit ourselves to what it will grant for our intermediate premises, we will simply have an argument that is too weak to support the conclusion we think is true and, ultimately, well-supported.

An analogy may help somewhat here. Suppose that there is some event that an historian thinks occurred in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Suppose that the evidence for this event consists chiefly of some letters, purporting to be written by several of Lincoln's close friends, that refer to the event. Suppose that, for some reason, the authenticity of these letters is controversial within the circles of Lincoln scholarship. The scholar who wishes to defend the event then has the job of arguing from various internal marks of authenticity, from external evidence, and the like that the letters are indeed written by people "in the know" about Lincoln's doings, that they are solid primary source documents, and that therefore the event occurred. The relevant intermediate premises concern the provenance, authorship, etc., of the letters. Since the letters are disputed, and since there isn't enough other intermediate evidence that is undisputed to support the occurrence of the event, he doesn't have the luxury of using only intermediate premises that are granted by the consensus of scholarship. But that doesn't mean that he will be doing anything dogmatic, "presuppositional," or illicit. He simply has to back up farther to other information about (say) the content of the documents, the shape of the handwriting, and other points at that level, to find the common ground that should be granted to him by reasonable opponents who dispute the provenance of the documents.

Once again, I am not attributing the question I have raised here to Keener, but his post seems a good opportunity to address it given the reasonable point that scholars work from common ground in making their arguments.

If you are interested in these issues and wonder if I am doing something illicit in "attacking the minimal facts argument," I suggest that you dig into these matters and see what I have to say. Meanwhile, I hope that this summary and follow-up are helpful in their own way.

Comments (12)

As I age, the appeal of minimal facts (MF) argumentation is decreasing for a few reasons:

(1) There is so much more evidence for Christianity beyond a MF line of argumentation. Such evidence is metaphysical (cosmological, ontological), historical, and even empirical (e.g. apparent design in the universe, supposed documented miracle claims, etc). Going the MF route seems like an artificial limitation, although it is a worthwhile question to ask how far one can go with the MF approach, much like as in mathematics when you ask how minimal a set of assumptions does one need to prove a theorem.

(2) I am getting crankier as I age and ask, why do I personally care so much about the approval of mainline scholarship and why do I let them set the rules? A MF approach has always struck me as implicitly ceding winnable turf to the skeptics and modernists. I have such little regard for mainstream scholarship nowadays, which to me resembles a rickety popsicle-stick house built on a tilted pile of sand on the beach at high tide during an earthquake. Why do they get to set the terms of debate? Why do we let them set the rules when we think on principle that their assumptions and such are wrong?

(3) Could not somebody accept the MF line of argumentation and still in the end have a watered-down non-deity Jesus who is not much different than the ever-luvin' Jesus of the social gospel and progressive Christianity? You know, the sort of Jesus who is not the Word (who was with God and was God) made flesh, but the cool guy driving the psychedelic VW van telling you that whatever you do is a-ok and that inclusivity is more important than truth.

The main appeal of MF as I see it is that it is a foot in the door. Somebody who accepts MF might think that traditional Christians are not so crazy after all, and perhaps there is something to this whole thing. I can't speak from experience. My own conversion was slow, meaty, and gradual, being hit from various sides for a few years until I woke up one morning and realized that (gasp) I was one of them.

Wow, this was a crabby post. This is what happens when you rise from the catacombs of Auckland Castle after ~130 years to comment.

I wonder if there is a fallacy in probabilistic reasoning lurking in the minimal facts approach. Let's see if I can explain what I mean by this clearly.

The minimal facts approach relies upon facts that are widely recognized by scholars in the field as one's most significant evidence in arguing for something like the resurrection of Jesus. For instance, Fact #1 enjoys the support of 88% of relevant scholars, Fact #2 is accepted by 92% of scholars, Fact #3 is affirmed by 89% of scholars, etc. It is concluded, then, that we should work with this evidence because of its acceptance by the mainstream of scholarship. But the problem is that while each Fact taken individually is supported by mainstream scholarship, what if the conjunction of all the minimal facts is *not* supported by the relevant scholarly consensus (say, only 45% affirm the conjunction of all the minimal facts)? For instance, in a raffle-style lottery with 100 tickets, people are prone to say of every ticket taken individually that it is very likely a losing ticket, but no one (I hope!) is going to say that all of the tickets together are losers.

The point, here, is that if scholarly consensus plays such a significant role in specifying what facts we should use and which facts we should not use according to the underlying methodology of the minimal facts case, shouldn't we also be concerned about which conjunction of facts we should use?

The main appeal of MF as I see it is that it is a foot in the door.

Yes, that was what I meant by "preliminary with clear eyes." I do have a rhetorical concern about how one could put that across while not over-selling. Is it not plausible that the reason it gets a foot in the door is precisely because it is billed (in headlines, titles, etc.) as showing that the resurrection happened, or something to that effect? In my webinar I talked about a then-recent post on minimal facts that (IIRC) was tweeted by Jordan Peterson, of all people. Well, at some point in that article it said that Jesus was "seen conversing with his friends just like you or I would" several days after his crucifixion. Errrr, but *that* is by *no means* conceded by the majority of scholars! In other words, the post made the argument conceded by scholars sound way more "sexy" than it really is.

Would it still get a foot in the door if we said soberly, "Now, here are some odd facts that do suggest it might be worth looking into this more" and then when one got to the "appearances" claim if we said, "And a majority of scholars agree that the disciples had *some kind* of experiences several days after his death, including at least one group experience, that convinced them that he was risen from the dead. If we say much more than that about what the experiences were like, I admit, we'll be going beyond what most scholars concede"?

Would that really get many people interested if it were billed quite that honestly? Wouldn't they just brush it off? As it is we have skeptics saying, "Yeah, a lot of people think they saw Elvis alive, too," and it seems like such a cautious view of the appearances invites that kind of dismissal more than it invites deep interest.

This is why even rhetorically I tend to recommend instead just *stating* that the disciple claimed, and were willing to die for, their having seen him and spent time with him, that he was tangible, and so forth. If anything, that sounds a lot more likely to get a foot in the door. And it's also completely true, as long as I don't say it's "granted by the majority of scholars."

Johnny-Dee, you're certainly right to raise cautions about the probability of the conjunction of the premises, which will be lower than the probability of any one of them, since they are not mutually entailing.

I do think that the problems with minimal facts go much deeper. Even if it were given at probability 1 that the disciples had *some sort of appearance experiences or other*, just how far would that get us? It's the weakness of the content of the proposition that seems to me a real Achilles heel, even beyond the possibility that it's false or that it or some other premise is false.

That being said, I would say that if a skeptic wants to push on a premise, he should probably push on the empty tomb, which is one reason why (I recall) Habermas does not consider the empty tomb to be a minimal fact. After all, once the gospel narratives are called so much into question, and once the apologist has said he's not going to press for their reliability, one does wonder why we should be so confident of the empty tomb. Dale Allison has really pushed on this, more or less saying that he believes the tomb was empty but treats it as only barely more probable than not. Obviously, then, any conjunction with independence that has such a weak premise in it is going to be "pulled down" by that premise.

Johnny, it occurs to me that what you note there may explain some things about minimalist approaches and even varieties thereof.

The smaller the conjunction, all else being equal, the fewer premises there are that could go wrong, so the less risk. Hence you find Habermas's strict minimal facts case that leaves out the empty tomb. But William Lane Craig wants a somewhat more robust inference, so he beefs up his set of premises. He makes a slight trade of that appearance of "safety" (fewer premises) for the ability to use the empty tomb as a given fact in his set of "core facts."

I would also guess that the large emphasis upon scholarly consensus is meant, tacitly, to address the concern that the individual premises do not have probability 1. By using scholarly consensus as a rough proxy for probability of the premise, they tacitly hope to "gin up" the probabilities of the individual premises (by sticking to those with very high levels of consensus) to the point that the conjunctive issue becomes negligible.

I think that appearance described by the small conjunction (in comparison to the maximal facts approach) hit the nail on the head as a major attraction for the minimal facts approach. It's almost as though it has become too sharpened for debates specifically as opposed to more expensive defences.

I'm glad Keener didn't disagree with your specific position. I get the impression Dr. Keener is one NT scholar who's views may be more inline with your own than most others.

I get the impression Dr. Keener is one NT scholar who's views may be more inline with your own than most others.

Hmmm. On John at least, not so much, I'm sad to say. See an earlier post on "Does John Narrate Theologically."

As for whether he does or doesn't disagree with my specific position on minimal facts, he might disagree if he thought it through, but as it is, he apparently has no position, because he hasn't found the time to investigate my views.

I got a book (edited by Norman Geisler and Paul Hoffman) for my birthday that has a chapter by a minimum facts apologist, Gary Habermas. He writes this about the gospels:

"However, it is far from the case that all New Testament scholars have adopted the stance of radical criticism. A. M. Hunter maintains that there are several reasons for believing that the Gospel presentation of Jesus is essentially reliable. (1) The earliest believers were Jews who were very careful about faithfully preserving the initial traditions of Jesus’ life and teachings; (2) the Gospel authors were 'in a position to know the facts about Jesus'; (3) Jesus taught in such a manner that his teachings could be more easily remembered; (4) all four Gospels correctly reflect the first-century Palestinian mileau; and (5) in spite of differences, the same portrait of Jesus emerges from each of the four Gospels.
By applying the same methods to the Gospels that are applied to other ancient documents, then, scholars have shown that these four volumes provide accurate depictions of Jesus’ life."

He also cites approvingly, Gleason Archers, Norman Geisler, and Thomas Howe's books on handling Bible difficulties who exhibit many traditional harmonizations. .

I just thought that comment was interesting and that he does, at least sometimes, present a more "maximal" case.

This is in a book edited by Geisler and Hoffman called, Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, page 156. Published in 2001 through Baker.

Yes, Habermas will definitely move outside of the minimal facts presentation, and I have no doubt that he himself has more "maximal" ideas personally. In fact, he does so somewhat in the symposium exchange with Dale Allison, pointing to the fact that Jesus was tangible according to the resurrection accounts.

What I always point out in those situations is the *need* to "go maximal." It's not like it's *hard* for Allison to say things that invite more details of the resurrection accounts as the obvious answer. It's very easy for him to do so. Any advocacy of a paranormal or visionary account invites such answers.

But in that case, why not give stronger premises up front? And why claim that the far more minimal case really is sufficient all by itself to support the conclusion as a strong IBE?

I believe that what happens is a kind of unspoken morphing back and forth. When it becomes necessary to beef up the appearances to answer objections, there isn't enough explicit recognition: "Hmm, looks like I had to go beyond minimal facts to answer that objection. How should this chasten my future billing of the strength of the minimal facts case?"

I especially mind it when the minimalist approach (whether called "minimal facts" or "core facts") is treated as *virtuous in itself*. I give some quotations in my webinar. For example, it will be said that this is the way that we avoid importing bias, that this is the way that we avoid saddling ourselves with too much to defend, that this is the way in which we appeal to what is neutral without assuming inerrancy, and the like. Those sorts of recommendations of a minimalist case do seem to imply that there is some *problem* with being more "maximalist." But if there's a problem, then we're all in trouble, because even the minimalists sometimes have to get more maximalist! So maybe we should rethink whether minimalism really is *better* for any of those reasons.

Habermas has also said he found a presentation by J.W.Wallace about as convincing as his own approach if in not mistaken.

Habermas is a generous guy with a broad mind.

I will say that I think Wallace sometimes presents something that sounds like minimal facts but that tacitly is probably giving the stronger meaning to the word "appearances." (In my webinar I call this "naive minimal facts"--presenting it and assuming that the skeptical scholars have just handed us a gift of consensus on stronger premises.) I have never felt like I was called to badger Wallace and point out that, in fact, stronger appearances are not acknowledged by a majority of scholars.

The minimal facts approach relies upon facts that are widely recognized by scholars in the field as one's most significant evidence in arguing for something like the resurrection of Jesus. For instance, Fact #1 enjoys the support of 88% of relevant scholars, Fact #2 is accepted by 92% of scholars, Fact #3 is affirmed by 89% of scholars, etc. It is concluded, then, that we should work with this evidence because of its acceptance by the mainstream of scholarship. But the problem is that while each Fact taken individually is supported by mainstream scholarship, what if the conjunction of all the minimal facts is *not* supported by the relevant scholarly consensus (say, only 45% affirm the conjunction of all the minimal facts)?

As far as I can see, there is no "what if" about it at all: if one takes in to account ALL of the so-called scholars who talk about the Bible, there is effectively a null set for the conjunction of statements "accepted" by scholars, because there are an awful lot of atheists and deists and new-agers who pooh-pooh virtually every aspect of the Bible. And others who re-write any remaining claims into virtual meaninglessness: The resurrection accounts are merely the early Christian communities expressing how close they feel to God, by imagery that puts Jesus present to them. One has to begin by choosing to set aside the true nonsense to even get some kind of scholarship that is worthy of being considered. But then one might as well go whole hog and get rid of the REST of stupid "scholarship" that is unworthy of the name, like the knuckleheads who go for the "monologuing Jesus" or the "three gospels against one" nonsense. In point of fact, an awful lot of the so-called "scholarship" is not just wrong, it is blatantly and stupidly wrong, and choosing to be bound by a "consensus" that doesn't distinguish the relatively reasonable from the blatantly stupid is accepting a rigged deck of cards to begin with.

I think that Lydia's thesis is essential: if you hope to have a reasonable discussion, you have to presume upon the right to BUILD UP from simple and easy stuff, to intermediate stuff that is not (at first) absolutely accepted by everyone, to the more difficult stuff that is held in contention, with the presumed stance that with this person here and now, you have the right to seek a discussion that might (if you present your case well) actually convince them to move a step or two in your direction, with the right (again) for you to then make a case for a more advanced point. If someone is committed to not giving you even the opportunity to make that kind of progress, then they are not committed to an honest discussion, and they need another kind of intervention - grace, a miracle, a lightning bolt, an illness or emergency - not an argument.

The point, though, is that with this person here and now, they may accept more or OTHER theses than those minimal facts Keener or WLC want to present as their preferred go-to set, and they may (at first) decline some of those that Keener or WLC claim for their set: for that person, by going with a pre-determined set of theses that "most scholars accept" you limit yourself to a smaller set than might work here, and you might accidentally include theses that they don't accept and thus you FAIL Keener's own standard:

Scholars regularly work from common ground in our discussions. In the academy, there are certain ideas taken for granted

In the whole range of people who debate the Bible, there are virtually NO ideas that are common ground and taken for granted among all. "The academy" is an artificial subset, and frankly when you think about the atheists in the public universities there isn't any idea too outrageous for some professor to claim it. Just because you can document that "many scholars accept" X doesn't mean that (a) it is reasonable, or (b) that THIS person is (argumentatively) in the wrong right off the bat for not granting you that "certain idea" X. And so you are effectively begging the question if you still assume it: you still have to ARGUE for X, even though it is "common ground" among some other scholars. And if you have to argue for X, go ahead and argue for X, and for Y, and for Z, even if Y and Z are not as widely accepted.

So, it is a fine and reasonable rhetorical position to start out by saying "I will begin by arguing from a set of premises A through K, but if you object to any of these, we can backtrack and reconsider those because I have good arguments for them as well." There is no reason to limit A through K to ONLY a subset of theses that "most scholars accept" in such a proceeding, because such a self-limiting approach is unnecessary and you are unlikely to just happen to land on a set that THIS person accepts all of unqualifiedly anyway.

Right, I pointed out in my webinar on minimal facts & maximal data that a "minimal facts" person might encounter a Jesus myther and have to decide whether or not to backtrack and argue that Jesus existed. In other words, even things that most liberal scholars accept (e.g., that Jesus existed at all) can be questioned by a given interlocutor. Nor is this merely hypothetical. There are plenty of people out there who debate Richard Carrier (a Jesus myther). Of course Jesus mythicism is crazy, but the point is that the minimal facts person has to have additional material "in his back pocket" (so to speak) that he can bring out at more length to defend his own premises if they are challenged. And they may indeed be challenged. So it's not even clear that the minimal facts approach is more efficient. After all, if someone *has* been influenced by Jesus mythicism, he's hardly going to crumple instantly if you merely say to him, "The vast majority of historians think that's crazy." He's probably prepared to resist such a blunt appeal to consensus. And the minimal facts or core facts certainly go beyond merely asserting that Jesus existed.

WLC uses the empty tomb as one of his "core facts," and Dale Allison (who is allegedly a Christian) argues that it's barely more probable than not. So...I find both WLC (and others) just keep sort of going back to, "But you do *accept* the empty tomb" in dialogue with Allison. But that's hardly the point. Allison at that point will keep pointing out that he only barely accepts the empty tomb! So they have to keep backing up and arguing for it all over again, which is difficult to do from a determinedly minimal starter set.

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