The prior post on Multiple Sources is here.
I hope you are tracking along in our study. It’s meant on my part to be an accumulation of smallish arguments that add up to something convincing by day’s end. I leave it to you to judge whether or not I’ve been successful.
And I realize the general topic of trustworthiness in present-day culture is delicate due to its frequent abuse by advertisers, dishonest companies, and sometimes most painfully by family and friends.
Yes, and by clergy at times. Many persons have left the faith due to “church-hurt,” for which I feel bad. The church is loaded with gradually-improving sinners (including clergy such as myself). That’s why we’re in church, because we know we’re lost and need God’s grace in order to change. But it also means we say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing at a vulnerable moment, to the harm of others. So they make their exit from the church. Perhaps that is you; if so, I hope you’ll accept my apology. I am truly sorry. I cannot reverse what happened to you but perhaps a small olive branch extended your way at this moment will help in some small manner.
BTW: Feel free to leave comments below any of the posts, or write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
If I may zoom in for a moment on the core question at hand:
Did the early church present the life of Jesus faithfully to the world, or did she err or mislead?
If the church got it right — that is, if the disciples of Jesus discovered that he was truly Messiah/Son of God — and told his story accurately in the New Testament to humankind, then all of us should give Jesus full attention. But of course if the disciples failed in some way, failed perhaps to understand Jesus and thus innocently misrepresented him . . . or worse yet, understood him accurately as mere mortal but intentionally fabricated him as Messiah/Son of God and sold him to the world, then trust is off the table, and any of us who are generally cynical about such matters are found to be justified.
The cynical view is found in David Hume, the famous 18th-century Scottish philosopher who attempted to undermine the trustworthiness of all miracle claims. Hume insisted that even eye-witness testimony of miracles cannot be trusted. Eye-witnesses misunderstand what they see or they exaggerate what they report. They are either deceived or deceivers. This is obviously an argument against trusting the Gospels as witnesses to the miraculous life of Jesus.
Hume, I should say, has been criticized for an obvious flaw in his thinking: If a real miracle came along, he’d miss it. Since no eyewitness can be trusted — including, presumably, Hume himself — a genuine miracle could never be understood or reported accurately. The philosopher seems to be giving us a doctrine against miracles rather than an investigation of miracles.*
Additionally, the very “scientific” understanding of the natural world to which Humean followers appeal is violated by failing to examine the actual data of the supposed miracles — that is, the events themselves and the manner in which individual witnesses perceive, process, and report the events. Skipping over such investigation surely is not the way of science. Adhering to a pre-conceived rule about not trusting any testimony sounds quite dogmatic to my ear. Minimally, shouldn’t we at least check things out? Give miracle claims a fair hearing? Test the credibility of witnesses?**
I was at a Christian conference at a hotel in Chicago led by campus ministry leader James Chambers, a few years ago. James is a friend of mine. He and some laypeople from his local church held a healing service for college students, and we saw miracles. Right there before my eyes. Not “overseas” or on social media or in a hyped-up mass auditorium. 30 people were in the room. A team of five from the church prayed quietly to God on behalf of students, asking for deliverance from pain. A student who couldn’t walk on his severely sprained ankle was bouncing around the room on it after five minutes of prayer. A student who couldn’t twist her wrist or lift a textbook was flexing her arm freely. A young atheist sitting next to me declared he would “never believe,” but an hour later went forward to witness the healing of a student’s leg. He came back to me, shaken. The most skeptical person in the room had seen the power of God and soon after placed his faith in Christ.
I’m not saying a few modest healings done in the name of Jesus prove God’s existence or the reliability of the Gospels. Yet, these and other pieces of data begin to add up and provide the basis for what philosophers and lawyers call an “inference to best explanation,” meaning, a conclusion based on the evidence at hand rather than on prior-held convictions.
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I appreciate your reading all this. I hope and pray that it stimulates your thinking.
In the next post I talk about some of the differences and tension points between the four Gospel accounts. If they’re all “true” and all tell the same story of Jesus, why are there points of apparent disagreement?
* In his short book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton remarks, “Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them . . . because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them . . . because they have a doctrine against them.” Orthodoxy Part IX: Authority and the Adventurer.
** NT scholar Michael Licona reminds us that “poorly attested miracle-claims are scarcely able to rule out well-evidenced ones.” In other words, the existence in history of unreliable eyewitnesses shouldn’t diminish our confidence in quality eyewitnesses. See Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Kindle location 1461 (ch 2.2).