So I have eagerly been awaiting the review of my chapter in the book True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism from Mike D’s blog The A-Unicornist. I actually forgot for a while that he was doing a chapter by chapter review of the book that I contributed Chapter 13 to, but stumbled upon his review of it yesterday. My Chapter was entitled “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.”
I want to say, first of all, that I appreciate Mike’s willingness to work through the book. I have not read through the whole book myself due to some other priorities, but his engagement of the book is far more appreciated than those who presume out of hand that it’s not worth the time of day simply due to the conclusion. I’d certainly much rather have a reviewer label a work as BS if he’s given it a thorough reading than one who won’t even touch it.
But, alas, in order to avoid being disingenuous of his time to read through the book, I thought it would be fitting to respond to many of Mike’s thoughts. He was, after all, not too impressed. In hopes of preserving time (both mine and yours) I will try and deal only with the areas Mike takes issue with and I will try (though perhaps not succeed) in making this both as lucid and brief as possible. I am afraid, simply because I know the attention span of blog readers, this will require two posts. But there’s great news! Over on the right side of this blog is a subscribe button. You should click it and get the next update sent to your e-mail. 😉
Mike opens up his review by stating,
If the gospels aren’t demonstrably reliable, then there’s no reason to believe Christianity is true at all.
Well, from the very beginning I disagree. Mike’s position is a popular misconception which emphasizes the gospel record and downplays the resurrection. But Christianity does not rise or fall on the reliability of the gospels. Simple. If the Beatitudes never were preached, this does not imply that Christianity is false. It merely means that Jesus never said them. If Jesus never healed Jairus’ daughter, this does not mean that Christianity is false. It just means that this particular event didn’t happen. Mike may be surprised at my position on this, as there are certainly Christians who hold that the truth of Christianity rests on inerrancy. But this is a very fundamentalist understanding of scripture which feels threatened by higher criticism. I do not and neither do the vast majority of scholars I read and work with. If Mike is at all interested, two books may serve him well on understanding my viewpoint, namely, Kenton Sparks God’s Words in Human Words and The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
The narrative of the gospels is not the essence of Christianity. It is, as many theologians and scholars–both Christian and non-Christian note–the resurrection of Jesus which provides the foundation for belief in Christianity. Now, does that make this chapter a moot point? Of course not, as an historian knows that reliable data increases the confidence one has and the conclusions one draws about a particular event in history. Further, the gospels provide with information on the things that Jesus said and did, the rise of the Church, and–most importantly–a reflection of the face of God. They compel our lives forward, they lead us in our ethics, and they allow us to know, in an incarnational way, who Christ was and is. The reliability of the Gospels is not a moot point by any means but I also disagree with the sentiment that Christianity (or more to Mike’s words, rationale for belief in Christianity) rises or falls on their reliability as historical texts. [For the record, I wanted to make a second point here concerning other evidence for Christianity specifically but for sake of space I will refrain from doing so.]
Mike makes some other points concerning philosophy, but I will let them stand for the moment since my concern is much more on the historical side of things. Perhaps Mike will be willing to have a dialogue with me on these points of philosophy and naturalism in the future.
Mike goes on to address a remark I made about many atheists never having interacted with the works of Christian intellectuals. He documents his own list of interactions (I could recommend some better ones btw, especially in light of his claims about history), but he goes on to quote me here as if it somehow is one of my major points about the reliability of the Gospels (an odd thing to bring up, especially given how much he actually chose to ignore). I will address it though. He notes,
A better question here is why Hardman assumes that atheists are unfamiliar with such arguments.
Because many are, Mike. And note that I said “many”, and did not make a categorical statement like your quotation above suggests. I very much appreciate you documenting your bibliography/videography. But I’ve personally encountered many atheists–both online and off–who have failed to read anything of relevance by Christian intellectuals and refuse to do so because, well, it’s Christian. My experience is that many ardent atheists have a handful of names which they are familiar with not by reading books of various stripes and colors but by watching Thunderf00t and Amazing Atheist videos and complaining about how stupid Christians are. And before anything comes back the other way, let me say with full disclosure, I recognize that many (perhaps most) Christians would equally refuse to give an ear to atheist discourse. So don’t take it personally…I harp on both sides for not having broader conversation partners.
Okay, now we’re on to the meat of the post:
In my chapter I wrote the following:New Testament scholar David DeSilva suggests that if we can get past an anti-miracle bias and leave open the possibility of such occurrences, the potential for engaging the Gospels and Acts on their own terms increases exponentially. 14 That is, if one leaves open the question of the resurrection as historical possibility— and therefore the question of God’s existence— one will be able to read the Bible with a fuller, more complete sense of options and voices. 15 The historian is not committed to denying the miracles of scripture, while forcing data to fit explanatory paradigms too small to hold it.
I’ll agree with that, with one caveat: if you are going to take one miracle claim at face value, you have to take all miracle claims at face value. You don’t get to pick just the ones from the religion you already believe in – that’s a fallacy called special pleading.
True. And, indeed, you will notice that I recommend the same thing. I am not one that holds to the idea that all miracles not done in the “name of Christianity” are automatically false. Indeed, I think many miracles and supernatural occurrences happen all around the world. Craig Keener, in his two volume academic study of miracles (see my review in ATI), documented hundreds of these. His conclusion is not “trash them all” but, rather, to place them in comparison with the NT and OT claims. And continuity is precisely what we see: it’s not just the disciples which are doing “supernatural occurrences” but others as well, though the categories may sometimes change. At the same time, there are canons by which to go about such an endeavor of analyzing miracle claims critically. Certainly the alternative is to just throw out all claims a priori as being unworthy of a hearing. Again, I would refer Mike to read through Craig Keener’s very well researched and thoroughly documented book on Miracles.
He may suggest one has to sift through each and every claim if one accepts that miracles can occur; fine. Agreed. But equally the atheist–if he wants to demonstrate his point that miracles don’t happen or even to uphold a justified methadological naturalism–has to sift through each one to determine that it didn’t. Methdological naturalism breaks down at a particular point, namely in the face of something which defies it. Indeed, what point is there in saying “We cannot accept a supernatural claim, even if its true!” I would rather not live in a willful lie for the sake of keeping a method. As a skeptical individual by nature, I quite refrain from labeling all miracle accounts as genuine as I hear them; I will search for alternative explanations, even mere coincidence. But there must be a point at which you have to say “Maybe there’s something to this…”
Okay. I go on. Mike says concerning miracles,
It’s not repeatable, and it by definition defies the very laws of nature.
Well, certainly its non-repeatable. But that does nothing to deter us from saying something happened anymore than the unrepeatability of the Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon (to use an example ad nauseum) compels me to disbelieve it. Further, C.S Lewis gives the illustration of placing $3,000 every day into a sock drawer. After two days you have $6k. After a week you have $21k. But what if, after a week, you went back to find $7k in the drawer with the rest gone?? You would not suppose that the laws of nature have been defied, nor would you be committed to saying “we have to have a natural explanation!” You would note by inference to the best explanation that someone–some intelligence–has intervened! This is not defying the laws of nature; it is intervening in them. We do this every day! A ball dropping with the laws of nature would naturally fall until hitting the floor; but if you set out your hand to catch the ball mid-air you have not defied nature, you have intervened in it.
Like I said, as brief as I am trying to be (really, I try!), this will need to be a two-part response. The next blog will wrap up on how the Gospel writers saw the miraculous and, beyond that, whether they provided accurate historical information in the form of oral tradition.