There are some people who are self-designated apologists that I struggle to take seriously. I am skeptical of what they write because I sense that it is tainted with a misguided agenda. I imagine that if I sat down for coffee with one of these folks he would raise his voice until it got uncomfortable, then he’d storm out of the building if he couldn’t convince me of his position. I understand why people want to avoid these types.
Yet I think it has become a bit too easy to call someone with which one disagrees an “apologist” as if this automatically eliminates the responsibility to address their claims. Some figures whom I have seen unfairly labeled over the years include people like Richard Bauckham, Craig A. Evans, Larry Hurtado, Craig Keener, Michael Licona, and N.T. Wright among others. There is no denying that they are “conservative”, and it is possible that they use their scholarship at times for apologetical puposes, but a backhanded dismissal of their work because it is “apologetic” makes me lose confidence in the the accusers and not the accused.
In one SBL session this year Darrell L. Bock was asked how he could do good historical work considering his confessional stance in favor of inerrancy and dispensationalism. I share this concern with both of those paradigms. Personally, I think they can hinder good research. Yet I respected Bock’s response: Read by argument on the topic at hand and judge it’s merit.
I think it would be wrong for me to dismiss outright the work of an atheist or agnostic, e.g. Bart D. Ehrman. I may think that his presuppositions handicap his work, but that doesn’t automatically disqualify his argument. If I read what he writes and I find it unconvincing this may be because I think his presuppositions mislead him, but it should be the argument itself that I find flawed–not the person.
Sometimes critics of more conservative scholars come dangerously close to dismissing their colleagues ad hominem. This doesn’t make them look bad. It makes you look nervous.
Let me take two examples: Michael Licona’s reworked historiography regarding the resurrection of Jesus and Craig Keener’s regarding accounts of the miraculous. While I believe in both (A) the resurrection of Jesus and (B) miracles I admit that I wrestle with whether or not we can say much about these things when we agree to limit ourselves to the confines of historiography. I worry that there will be a bit too much “begging the question” involved and that some Christian scholars may ask for exceptions that they would not give Buddhist or Muslim scholars in an AAR meeting.
There does seem to be a place where historiography ends and philosophy and/or theology begins. At times the line is blurry and it is hard to know when you’ve crossed from one side to another. I am wrestling with this myself. Is there a place where as a historian I can say no more than, “Jesus’ followers really, really believed that he has risen from the dead. They thought this experience was physical and that he had a body both similar and dissimilar to his body before the crucifixion. Yet there is no way to know for sure what the disciples experienced.” Then as a Christian state, “I believe that the best explanation of the data is that God raised Jesus from the dead.”
I think the main factor is epistemology. How do we use the word “know” in relation to our historiography? Is this a very strict term that limits us to a list like that organized by E.P. Sanders where we know Jesus was a Jew, that he was affiliated with John the Baptist, that he was crucified, and a few other items. If so, then the projects of many scholars move quickly from the firm “knowables” to questions of plausibility. When I think of the projects of scholars like J.D. Crossan and Marcus Borg I think most of their work is spent in this area of reconstructing a Jesus that moves further and further away from what we can “know” about Jesus. This isn’t the project of conservative scholars alone.
One thing that Lynn Cohick emphasized at another SBL panel I attended is the need to be forthright with our presuppositions. This is what I respected most about Licona’s project. Wright’s books on the historical Jesus provide his philosophical approach as well. Some scholars seem to assume we are on the same page and they never tell the reader from where they are coming.
If one person dislikes another’s presuppositions there is room for that debate. Yet we cannot end conversation if we can’t agree on presuppositions. If someone is a confessing Christian who approaches their historiography from that angle they will bring their blind spots to their work, but so do other people with other views. At the end of the day it comes down to whether or not the argument is good or bad, whether it does a good job at explaining the data or not. We can’t ignore someone simply because they are a “conservative” or a “liberal”.
Brian, I was recently thinking in a similar vein. It was motivated by a contemplation of post-modernist influence in theological thinking.
You said “Is there a place where as a historian I can say no more than, “Jesus’ followers really, really believed that he has risen from the dead.” Then you also said “Then as a Christian state, “I believe that the best explanation of the data is that God raised Jesus from the dead.”
Does the first question presuppose that our experience as Christian’s with faith, doesn’t count for knowledge in a historiographical sense? Of course, you hit upon this when you ask “How do we use the word “know” in relation to our historiography?”
The reason I ask is this: Hebrews defines faith as “…. the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen [Heb 1:1], which seems to be an epistemological statement saying something along the lines of “our faith itself provides sufficient evidence for us to be certain about unseen things”. I take it to mean that since faith is experienced directly it provides sufficient evidence to be certain of metaphysical truths (def’n: conviction is to ‘fix a belief as certain).
Therefore, we don’t need to experience ‘resurrection’ physically as long as we experience ‘faith’ since ‘faith’ is sufficient evidence of ‘spiritual’ resurrection that we can be certain of physical resurrection since ‘faith’ is evidence of resurrection in general (being its spiritual example) [Rom 6:3-11][Col 2:11-14][1 Peter 3:21].
If this logic holds, Christian “faith”, as something experienced, should be sufficient for a historiographical belief in resurrection; that is unless we presuppose that historiography ‘auto-magically’ precludes “faith” as evidence.
The point you make here, about taking other peoples presuppositions seriously enough to consider them or contend with them is true except that it could very well be a one way hope. Non-believers (and even some professing believers) are rarely willing to be so gracious when they are not willing to consider the validity of some of our own presuppositions (such as the epistemological implications of [Heb 1:1])
Brian–I understand what you’re saying. I think it’s sometimes misunderstood that there is a purely “objective” way to do any sort of research, and that there is a purely historical approach that is absent of any presuppositions or worldview that is foundational to that approach. Amen on defining presuppositions upfront and then contending as ably as possible with the data.
@Andrew: I would agree that our faith provides us with a form of epistemology that goes beyond what can be offered in an academic setting. Like you, I think the Spirit of God provides us with a “knowledge” of truth that goes beyond hard data. This is how some people can “know” Christ risen without having done much academic work on the historical event of the resurrection.
What I am asking here has to do with that setting though. For instance, if I were at an AAR in a session where Muslims and Christians were present and the Muslim scholar said that the Koran is true because he felt Allah warm his heart I may consider deeply his religious experience, but I don’t know that his testimony would be convincing on an academic platform.
Likewise, if a Christian did this in an academic setting it seems like they wouldn’t be playing by the established rules. This is what I fear anyways. It is not a denial of the truth of resurrection and miracles or even that we can “know” these things, but whether there are different boundaries in an academic setting that disqualify certain pieces of evidence.
@Brian, I agree.
All of academics seems to be under pressure to be “scientific” which is to say – hold a presupposition that only by empiricism and observation can things be known. Notwithstanding the effect this has on seminaries, this is ironic given that science itself is in debt to faith (and belief).
Even so, if the established rules preclude knowledge apart from empiricism and observation than our knowledge will be limited to the physical universe. There is nothing wrong with this par se if we are content limiting our knowledge to that realm, but I don’t believe we are.
We ask questions such as “Is there a difference between Brain and Mind?” Brain is physical, and mind is metaphysical, so that isn’t a scientific question. We also as questions such as “What happened the first instant of the big bang?”. This is outside of the bounds of time so it is also a metaphysical question.
Because science presupposes math which presupposes logic which presupposes metaphysical laws, it isn’t possible to play within the bounds of these established rules. (Even physical science presupposes metaphysics for example – why look for laws of a universe that aren’t physical?). So we should really be challenging the (inconsistent) application of this need to live within these established rules.
If it’s OK for a scientist to presuppose the validity of the metaphysical “law of excluded middle”, why isn’t it OK for a Christian to presuppose faith as evidence of other supra-natural truths. Then when the faithful Muslim asserts his truth claim and the faithful Christian hers, there are both metaphysical and theological grounds for exploring truth and gaining further knowledge. (I don’t believe a Muslim can be contended on scientific grounds, but can reasonably be contended on other grounds).
@Andrew : Let us think through this as it relates to historography. Now historiography doesn’t determine what is true or false, per se. It determines what can be said confidently about past events. If a Muslim scholar was presenting on the events surrounding Muhammad’s receiving the Koran and he kept defaulting to “It happened because I know in my heart that it happened.” or “C’mon, it is altogether possible that the Prophet received the Koran if you’ll accept it as divine intervention.” these statements may be true, but do we have confidence in their historical probability based on what we know from the world around us? I don’t think so.
I think this is the fear of speaking of the resurrection and miracles in an overtly metaphysical sense. Sure, our presuppositions demands some metaphysical principles, but the Law of Excluded Middle is a far cry from “God raised Jesus from the dead.” If they were both self-evident in the same sense almost everyone would be a Christian, no? The Law of Excluded Middle, while “metaphysical”, can be tested. The resurrection of Jesus can’t be tested in the same way (we may “test” it by the testimony of the Spirit, but you get what I’m saying).
“If one person dislikes another’s presuppositions there is room for that debate. Yet we cannot end conversation if we can’t agree on presuppositions. ”
Is this really necessarily true though? Someone suffering from schizophrenia for instance. We dislike their presupposition that a shadowy conspiracy is controlling their thoughts by entering into and manipulating their dreams but can we really continue such a conversation with them?
An extreme case I know but lets step back and take a look a Blocks response, “Read by argument on the topic at hand and judge it’s merit.” I take this to mean that his argument is unrelated to either his belief in inerrancy or his belief in dispensationalism. If this is true they are not functioning as presuppositions in the argument at all. In fact neither presupposition factors in at all in deciding the arguments merit.
It strikes me as odd however to believe in inerrancy and dispensationalism and not have those things feature prominently in any historical argument (Inerrany in any historical argument concerning the ancient near east and dispensationalism for any historical argument in general.).
Which leads me to one of two conclusions. Either Block really doesn’t believe in inerrancy and dispensationalism or that the arguments he is presenting are presented in bad faith. They are not really his arguments, they are arguments he has constructed according to a different set of presuppositions, it’s a game.
“At the end of the day it comes down to whether or not the argument is good or bad, whether it does a good job at explaining the data or not. We can’t ignore someone simply because they are a “conservative” or a “liberal”.”
But isn’t this notion, this notion of an argument being good if it does the best job explaining the data, itself a fundamentally liberal notion?
@Dan H: I am glad you recognized your analogy as reductio ad absurdum because that is what I was going to critique. Again, while I share your concern that inerrancy and dispensationalism may hinder someone’s historical work it is true that case-by-case we should not denounce a person’s work because of their presuppositions. I don’t think it is true that this means someone like Bock doesn’t really affirm their presuppositions, but rather that on each given subject we must ask ourselves whether we think those presuppositions really, really hindered good historical work.
As regards the notion of a good or bad argument being a fundamentally “liberal notion” I say “no”. I have read plenty of liberal scholars who make very poor arguments. A good argument is a good argument and a bad argument is a bad argument.
“Apologetics” is such an unfortunate word these days. No one, least of all Christians, should feel a need to “say they are sorry” for whatever sincerely held belief. Since the present topic is “talking with outsiders”, we should try to present our thoughts in a way that they can understand and accept (Romans 14). We can always make compelling “Justified true belief” statements about what are our beliefs without needing to compel belief that the content of our beliefs are the facts of the matter (that a secular rationalist would be compelled to accept).
Whether that does the job or not depends on the goal and the setting. At an AAR meeting (never been there but) I imagine statements of faith are understood, and one can respond, “I don’t accept that it is Abraham warming your heart, but I can follow and accept or critique the argument that follows from there.” One can discuss the meaning and moral import of Biblical passages even with very committed Atheists, but faith statements would not be appropriate in a submission to Science magazine and downright counterproductive some places.
All very Postmodern of me, I’m sure.
@Marshall: And that is part of the question. Is something not acceptable in a science magazine something that should be welcomed in a critical society like SBL? Many would say no.
SBL. I don’t know this acronym.
I’m over my head really, but I say sure, statements of faith ought to acceptable as long as they are properly bracketed. Practically anywhere, as long as you don’t scare the horses.
SBL = Society of Biblical Literature, I presume. Seems to me a faith statement there would count as full disclosure, but what do I know.
Three cheers and more for those courageous souls willing to defy the self-important customs of their respective academic fields and say without equivocation, “I believe the testimony of those who bore witness with their own sweat and blood that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures.”
@Andrew: SBL = Society of Biblical Literature.
@Marshall: There is some value in full disclosure, but there must be agreeable terms for discussion as well. That is what it is difficult to determine.
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