Friday, September 14, 2007

On Certainty and Apologetics

I have occasionally been told that I am unreasonable in the amount of evidence I demand from apologetics. As I understand it, my accusers believe that I demand much greater certainty from the evidence for their claims about Jesus and the Bible than I would demand from the evidence for other propositions that I am willing accept as true. I don’t think that is quite right, but I do think there are valid reasons to scrutinize the claims of apologetics a little differently.

When an evangelical Christian asserts that the gospel accounts are “true,” he does not mean the same thing as a person who says Ulysses S. Grant’s biography is true in its depiction of the siege of Vicksburg. The Christian is asserting that every word of the gospels is true and inerrant. He is saying that everything Jesus said is accurately quoted. He is saying that God made sure that the Gospel writers got everything correct. He is saying that that I need not be concerned about anything Jesus said or did that was not recorded because God made sure that the gospel writers included everything the world needs to know about Jesus. In short, the evangelical Christian claims that the Gospel accounts are true in a way that no other historical accounts are considered to be true. Moreover, the evangelical Christian claims that this unique type of truth makes everything else in the Bible equally trustworthy and true. Given such an extraordinary claim, I think that it is reasonable to expect the evidence that supports the accuracy of the canonical gospels to be particularly impressive.

Not only does the evangelical Christian insist that the gospel accounts be understood as historically true in a special and unique way, he also asserts that our way of thinking about what is true and what is false in other fields must be adjusted as a result of this special sort of truth. For example, because the Bible is uniquely true, the scientific study of geology and biology become unreliable and need to be understood in theological terms. Conclusions based on empirical data must be understood as anti-religious expressions of faith. The conclusions of psychology and psychiatry as they apply to sexual orientation must also be rejected due to conflicts with this unique understanding of historical truth. Many evangelical Christians believe that foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of their understanding of God’s ancient land distribution schemes. Some reject findings of climatologists because they conflict with their understanding of how God orders nature. This special notion of truth is capable of trumping a wide variety of scholarly conclusions.

So concluding that the gospels provide a thorough and accurate picture of Jesus is not just a matter of deciding that this is the scenario that best fits the evidence in regards to the gospels. It would also require the conclusion that there is some inherent flaw in the way that scholars and thinkers generally apply reason to evidence to reach conclusions about the way things are. Unfortunately, this would call into question the conclusion that had just been reached.

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