An Atheist Reads Reasonable Faith
Chapter 5: The Problem of Historical Knowledge
- OsirisLord left a comment on the previous video in this series asking if the problem of historical knowledge was that historical knowledge directly contradicts the positive claims of Christianity. That would certainly be a problem for me if I were still a Christian — but by the time I was engaged enough in this subject to know a little something about those contradictions, I had already rejected Christianity on moral and philosophical grounds, as well as on the grounds that the incredibly involved and active God of the Old and New Testaments had been oddly inconspicuous ever since the supposed events of those books. Still, if all that hadn’t done it, the historical case would have.
- But that is not the problem Craig addresses in this chapter. Craig’s talking about the problem of historical knowledge, the problem we find when we ask how we can truly know anything about the past. “On the scholarly level, the problem finds expression in the outlook of historical relativism, which denies the objectivity of historical facts. This outlook has profound implications for Christian theology . . . It would make it impossible to demonstrate historically the accuracy of the biblical narratives, since the past cannot be objectively established.” (William Lane Craig, REASONABLE FAITH, p. 157) Craig also points out that the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy would be out the window as well, and for these reasons Christian scholars must know how to handle this school of thought, historical relativism.
- Right away, before he’s gotten into any specifics, we see the flaw in Craig’s method — both in addressing the subject of this chapter, and in everything else he does. Look at the way he talks about historical relativism — if this were a valid way of understanding history, it would mean it’s impossible to establish the accuracy of the Bible! As we’ve seen already, his own position is set in stone and ultimately based on nothing other than his own subjective experience, which he holds to be more important than reason or evidence. So Craig, as we’ll see in this chapter, doesn’t give historical relativism any honest consideration at all. He perceives it as contradicting his position, so it must be wrong, because there’s no chance Craig himself is wrong.
- Here’s the thing — if he took an honest, open-minded look at historical relativism, he might still reject it. Not everyone is a historical relativist, and if he gave it a fair shake he might discover some legitimate reasons for deciding to evaluate history using some other method. But in order to do that, in order to give it a fair shake, Craig would have to open himself up to the possibility that the relativist view might actually make sense to him, and then he would also have to reckon with its implications for his pre-existing beliefs. That’s something that honest people have to do all the time — re-evaluate their beliefs in the face of some new evidence or argument that forces them to question those beliefs. This happens to all of us, all the time, in small ways and large ways. We find out that a family member we always admired as a virtuous person cheated on their spouse, or that someone we long assumed to be guilty of a crime is actually innocent, or that the position in our career we’ve worked toward for years and finally attained isn’t as great as we thought it would be. We are confronted with evidence that what we believed to be true may not actually be true, and we have to adjust. This is something William Lane Craig — here, and everywhere else, apparently — refuses to do.
- Craig summarizes the history of historiography as it relates to the church. He mentions that history as a field of study didn’t really exist during the medieval period, so apologists of the time based their arguments for the faith on deductive reasoning (Anselm) or on defenses of miracles and prophecy (Augustine and Aquinas). When the modern science of history began to emerge during the Renaissance, it was in relation to the church, as humanists — and later, Protestants — sought historical evidence to undermine the doctrines and authority of the Catholic Church, and Catholic scholars began employing similar methods in their defense.
- Craig singles out three important voices from the formative years of modern apologetics: Juan Luis Vives, Philippe de Mornay, and Hugo Grotius.
- Vives was significant for his attempt to deal with the question of why the evidence for Jesus is found primarily in Christian sources. Craig considers his work to be a link between the early days of the dawning of historical consciousness and modern historical apologetics. His attempt at an historical approach is significant, but Craig says “His arguments are primitive and amount to little more than assertion . . .” (p. 162)
- The lack of self-awareness in this man never fails to stagger me.
- Mornay is significant for using a two-pronged defense, relying on both philosophy and history to argue for the deity of Christ and the truth of Christianity. Mornay’s historical argument is based on the reliability of the gospels, which Mornay attempts to establish by citing the witness of the disciples, the supposed great number of witnesses to the miracles of Jesus, and the conversion of Paul.
- Nice to see how far apologist arguments have come since the 16th century, isn’t it?
- Now to Hugo Grotius, whom Craig calls the father of modern apologetics. Grotius wrote De veritate religionis Christianae (On the Truth of the Christian Religion), where he makes philosophical and historical arguments in support of Christianity, as well as attempting to refute paganism and Islam and establish Christianity as superior to Judaism.
- For his historical case, Grotius asserts that Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person, that he performed miracles, that he was put to death and that he was worshipped afterwards by his followers. This is supported by the conversion of early Christians who came out of other faiths, convinced by their own research that Jesus had actually worked miracles.
- Furthermore, Grotius argued that no one, neither Roman nor Jewish, had been able to deny Jesus’s miracles by attributing them to natural causes or to the work of the devil rather than God. “With regard to the first of these possibilities, it is not naturally possible that terrible diseases and infirmities should be cured by the sound of a man’s voice or his mere touch. As to the second, Christ’s teachings was diametrically opposed to Satan, so that his miracles could hardly be attributed to demonic power.” (p. 163)
- Also, there’s no such thing as demonic power. But, sure, Grotius’s argument works too, I guess.
- Grotius argues for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus by citing the eyewitness accounts of the apostles (which don’t actually exist), and the testimony of the five hundred brethren who saw Jesus after his resurrection (which also doesn’t exist).
- “In his argument for Jesus’ resurrection, Grotius presents his opponents with a dilemma. Given the authenticity of the gospels and 1 Corinthians, the apostolic testimony to the event of the resurrection can only be denied if the apostles were either lying or sincerely mistaken. But neither of these are reasonable. Therefore, the resurrection must be a historical event.” (p. 164)
- Of course, once we remove the assumption that the gospels are authentic — since, you know, we have no reason to make that assumption — this argument falls apart. The most likely explanation for what we read in the gospels is that it is the product of generation after generation of exaggeration and legendary invention. In other words, it’s a myth with traces of history here and there.
- Craig traces the development of apologetics throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, noting the focus of French apologists on persuading people of the truth of Christianity by appealing to history, by attempting to establish it as a religion rooted in historical facts. French apologists developed a distinction between reason and faith, arguing that the theological truths of Christianity cannot be directly demonstrated and must be taken on faith, but that the historical facts in which that theology is rooted can be demonstrated through reason and historical study.
- We see the influence of this in Craig’s own method, when he argues that reason and evidence cannot compel faith, but they can serve to support it.
- Moving into the 19th and 20th centuries, Craig covers the rise of relativism. First he mentions Leopold von Ranke and his objective historicism which held that the job of a historian was to discern the facts and let the facts speak for themselves — to describe the past as it actually was, as he said. Craig — in a rare and, for him, perilous display of reasonability — describes von Rankian objectivism as “naïve,” since it is essentially impossible to know the facts of history to that degree of certainty. Then he mentions the rise of relativism, which came about as a reaction to von Ranke, and which asserts that history cannot be known “as it actually was,” and that the historian, no matter how hard he may try, cannot be a neutral observer. The past, so holds the relativist view, can only be reconstructed on the basis of the present.
- “The chief obstacle to a historical case for the gospels, as we have seen, was the nineteenth century’s conviction that miracles had no place in a historical narrative. Because this presupposition was accepted into biblical criticism, the historical method assumed great importance there, whereas it did not take hold in apologetics.” (p. 168)
- Craig calls it a presupposition that miracles have no place in a historical narrative. And he’s right — when you say “miracles don’t happen” you’re making an induction, you’re presupposing the nonoccurrence of miracles. The question we should be asking is, is it reasonable to presuppose the nonoccurrence of miracles? And given the lack of reliable evidence for the miracles in question, plus how problematic the very concept of miracles is, as we discussed in the previous video, I think it is reasonable to presuppose that miracles do not occur.
- And this is important because it’s an issue that Craig and other apologists bring up often when discussing whether or not the gospels can be trusted as historical accounts. A skeptic will say, well, we should subject these texts to rigorous critical scrutiny if we want to determine what parts are reliable history and what parts are fabrication or legendary embellishment, because the presence of miracles in the narrative is a red flag that maybe these aren’t the most reliable sources for accurate historical information. And Craig will counter with, oh, you’re being biased, you’re just tossing out the miracles based on your assumption that miracles don’t happen. But the point Craig misses is, that is the most reasonable assumption! What reason do I have to assume that miracles happen at all, let alone happened two thousand years ago as described in the gospels? What reason, other than wanting to carry water for my religion, do I have to make that assumption?
Relativist Objections to the Objectivity of History
- “If a historical apologetic for the Christian faith is to be successful, the objections of historical relativism need to be overcome. This does not mean a return to naïve von Rankian historicism. Of course, the subjective cannot be eliminated. But the question is whether this subjective element need be so predominant that the study of history is vitiated.” (p. 169)
- Craig isn’t actually good at anything so far as I can tell, but he comes the closest to being good in his framing of his arguments. Look how nicely he sets this up: the obstacle to a historical apologetic is historical relativism. So if he can overcome historical relativism — voila! — the road is cleared for successful apologetics.
- Unfortunately, Craig presenting it that way does not make it so. It’s true that historical relativism does create an obstacle to the sort of certainty about the authenticity of the gospels that Craig is trying to establish. But even if you refute relativist objections and remove that obstacle, there are still lots more obstacles in the road. Dealing with relativism is necessary to establishing a strong historical case for Christianity, but it is not sufficient.
- But anyway. Craig divides relativist objections into two main categories: the problem of lack of direct access, and the problem of lack of neutrality.
The Problem of Lack of Direct Access
- As I said earlier, the past can only be reconstructed on the basis of the present. The past no longer exists, it cannot be directly observed. So how can we ever be sure we’ve got it right? Craig says this problem raises two questions: what is the nature of historical facts, and how can the truth of historical facts be tested.
The Problem of Lack of Neutrality
- Objective history is impossible since the historian is always seeing the past from the perspective of the present. There can be no reconstruction of the past as it actually happened, only interpretations of what that past was like based on the evidence that remains of it in the present.
Critique of Historical Relativism
The Problem of Lack of Direct Access
- Craig rejects the philosophy of ontological constructivism, which holds that the past consists only of the historian’s reconstruction and that there never was an actual, objective past, but only a relative past that differs from person to person. To illustrate his problem with this view of history, Craig quotes Alvin Plantinga (the Paul Sheldon to his Annie Wilkes), who argues that according to ontological constructivism Holocaust denial would be not only permissible, but praiseworthy, since, in the absence of an objective past, it would represent an attempt not to deny that the Holocaust happened, but to make it true that the Holocaust never happened.
- “The serious point in this justifiably deserved satire is that ontological constructionism is not only obviously ridiculous, but even sinister, in that it lends itself to wicked and self-justifying distortions of history.” (p. 174)
- Again, total lack of self-awareness. Remove the reference to ontological constructivism in that quote, and out of context he could easily be talking about Christianity there.
- Craig’s point, ultimately, is that there is a body of evidence, a collection of texts and artifacts and other remnants of historical events that serve to limit the reconstructions historians can make of the past. When there are rival theories surrounding a given bit of history, it is this body of evidence that allows us to weigh these theories and determine which is the best one. “. . . any acceptable reconstruction must make its peace with the empirical evidence.” (p. 180)
- So glad to hear you say that, Bill (can I call you Bill?) . . . Why are you a Christian, again? Seriously, you say an acceptable reconstruction must make its peace with the empirical evidence, but you don’t actually mean that, right? Because the witness of the holy spirit trumps all. If a reconstruction fits the empirical evidence perfectly but contradicts what you just know through the witness of the holy spirit, you’ll still reject it. Right? So what makes empirical evidence so great?
- What is the nature of historical facts? Craig asks. Do facts exist only in the mind? Are they merely the historian’s opinion? Or do they represent accurate information about past events?
- Craig rejects the concept of facts without meaning, calling this “a notion trembling on the brink of self-contradiction.” (Oh, like miracles?)
- How can we test for truth in history? “If a historical reconstruction is logically consistent and provides the best explanation of the evidence, then it ought to be accepted.” (p. 182)
- Provided it doesn’t contradict the witness of the holy spirit! You keep forgetting that bit, Bill. Look, two pages later you do it again: “The historian should accept the hypothesis that best explains all the evidence.” (p. 184)
- What about the self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit? If a hypothesis that best explains all the evidence contradicts that, then we have to throw it out! That’s what you said, Bill! Why spend so much time arguing for subjecting history to these empirical tests if you’re just going to shitcan the results if you don’t like what they say?
Problem of Lack of Neutrality
- Craig argues that lack of neutrality is not a major stumbling block to an accurate reconstruction of history because any historian’s hypothesis must be tested by the body of evidence about the past that hypothesis means to describe. Craig argues that an objective body of historical facts exists, that it is possible to distinguish between history and propaganda (though Craig apparently finds this a lot tougher than some people), and that it is possible to criticize poor history.
- Craig also says that the problem of the lack of neutrality can also be overcome by having the historian simply declare his bias up front.
- Before leaving the subject, Craig turns specifically to the problem of lack of neutrality as it relates to the resurrection of Jesus, specifically the presupposition of naturalism. We already covered this earlier, so I’ll just read you this quote from Craig, who is responding to C. Behan McCullagh’s description of the resurrection of Jesus as a less plausible and more ad hoc explanation than other hypotheses that describe the historical Jesus: “Whether the resurrection hypothesis is more ad hoc than its rivals can be deferred until our discussion of that event, but for now we may ask why this hypothesis should be considered less plausible than rival hypotheses.” (p. 188)
- Craig goes on to argue that it’s only the natural resurrection of Jesus that is implausible, and that since Jesus wasn’t resurrected naturally, but by an act of God, we have no reason to regard this hypothesis as any more implausible than any of its rivals.
- At this point you may be wondering whether or not you and I, and William Lane Craig are speaking the same language. It’s an honest question to have. Afterall, this is a man who, in a book, on the radio, on stage in front of hundreds of people, on television, will argue without a trace of embarrassment or self-consciousness that the miraculous raising of Jesus from the dead by God is not merely not impossible, but not even implausible. In light of this behavior, can we even assume he knows what the word “implausible” means?
- No. I’m being too charitable. He knows what “implausible” means. He just has that ultimate weapon of “the self-authenticating witness of the holy spirit” that allows him to blow through those obstacles of implausibility that would confound a more honest and rational person.
- William Lane Craig admitting the possibility that he’s wrong about Christianity, and that the voice of the holy spirit whispering in his ear might not be the most reliable source of information — a better example of “implausible” you will not find.
Next: Chapter 6: The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, by Craig L. Blomberg