Sunday, May 03, 2009

[christianity] is fair discussion possible [1]

DISCLAIMER 12.04.12: This series is now old, as you can see from the date. It fitted the context of the time, which was focussed on the early or late dating of the gospels but new material has come my way since then which puts many points better. Also, to have titled it "Christianity" was not as accurate as titling it "The Gospels" perhaps. It's in the process of being rewritten and recollated, to get it into a less rambling form. Once that's done, I'll take excerpts from it for a post at Orphans. I'm giving myself a week for this. For any who've come over from the Atheist article at Orphans, this here is therefore not the series of posts I'm putting forward and relying on to back me.


You can call this saccharine sweet but it's still an endangered species.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6


To answer Sonus’s article on Satan, the approach I’m taking is to first establish the historicity and dating of the Gospels, then to deal with the historicity of Jesus, thus leading to the question of the existence of G-d, which then defines Satan as an altogether different personage to that which Sonus contends.

The article on Satan himself, answering Sonus, follows this series and will be posted next week.

To start the ball rolling, this is not a bad article by Shandon L. Guthrie on various aspects of the resurrection but I include it here only as an illustration of methodology:


The first presupposition that needs to be jettisoned is the view of naturalism (or anti-supernaturalism). Naturalism supposes that the only events that can occur in history are purely physical, natural ones. Of course this precludes even the possibility of any supernatural events in the history of the universe. Once someone's mind is exclusive to explanations that posit natural elements then a Resurrection of any sort is barred a priori. Naturalism is a self-contained rejection of the supernatural.


First, Hume argues that our "firm and unalterable experience" militates against the reality of miracles. Any claim of miraculous intervention, therefore, must be matched with our uniform experience and weighed appropriately. Therefore, any miracle claim will be disconfirmed by our "firm and unalterable experience" on the matter.

Hume's second argument deals with the factual improbability of miracles. That even though the principle is sufficient to render miracles impossible, it is in fact true that miracles have never occurred in human history because any natural explanation outweighs a supernatural one. Thus anyone examining the historical evidence surrounding a miracle claim will conclude that something else must be the better explanation.

Hume's first argument has been recognized to be a classic case of petitio principii (begging the question) because Hume begins by assuming that our "firm and unalterable experience" already excludes a history of miracles. It is only when he assumes that our uniform experience does not involve the miraculous can he conclude that miracles never occurred. But surely this is putting the cart before the horse.

Secondly, one can disavow Hume's approach even if we suppose that he means to suggest that an improbability yields a disconfirming conclusion. There are no good reasons to suppose that because an event is improbable that it is, therefore, impossible. If one were to argue for the improbability of an event then such evidence would have to include that event as the best explanation of the surrounding facts.

So one must now ask, With respect to what is the notion of miracles improbable? If anyone is to confidently conclude a high improbability of a miraculous claim then the arguer owes it to the Christian to supply the backdrop of the improbability.

Antony Flew

Contemporary attackers of the claims to the miraculous suggest a new twist to the Humean problem. Instead of dealing with probabilities based on historical observation they surmise an analogy between the present state of affairs with that of history. This is to say that the regularities of today's events must be consistent with the regularities of history.

For example, there are no observations of mermaids in today's world and none seem physically possible. Thus, one ought not to think that a mermaid may have been observed by a 19th century seagoing captain simply because no confirmations of mermaids subsist. Captains probably mistook manatees for mermaids.

The only difference between Antony Flew and Hume, in this respect, is that uniform experience consists of only one's current experiential data. Flew posits a similar construction that bases its assessment of miracle claims on the general experience of the modern man.

Flew calls this the "critical history" approach. He contends that no good historian can adequately do good history unless claims that contradict contemporary experience are disposed of. Presumably no contemporary experience involves the miraculous.

The issue that has to be dealt with is whether or not Flew's methodology is true given the historical analogy to contemporary events. By way of evaluation, I think there are several problems with Flew's defense.

First, analogical arguments are probabilistic in that they do not claim identity but merely claim verisimilitude. For example, laboratory testing on mice may give analogous effects to human responses but the fact remains that mice are not human beings. Analogies, in this respect, serve to conclude the probability of a hypothesis based upon relevant similarities.

So, even if we can agree with Flew that an analogy is warranted (as I believe it is) then the analogy serves to undergird the relevant factors of today with those of history.

Now the question becomes, "What relevance do contemporary events have with miraculous events of history?" The Christian could appropriately deny the connection while pleading for the uniqueness of historical, miraculous events.

Secondly, it appears that Flew is special pleading. Miraculous events are generally not repeated events and are very much unlike standard events as we see both in history and today. Why should non-unique events be disqualified by the analogy of today if an event, by definition, is infrequent?

In this respect, Flew's argument appears to take on a Humean flavor by making a special methodology already suited for the non-believer in miracles. But this is precisely what is at issue.

Thirdly, Flew believes (like Hume) that miracles are impossible events in principle. But as with Hume, this is question-begging.

Fourthly, if Flew were correct then there would be no historiographical fecundity. Something is said to be fecund if it opens the doors to further investigation in additional areas. Flew's analysis certainly precludes this sort of methodology and does not open the door to any unique investigations.

Fifthly, Flew's analysis is a resurgence of the late German theologian Ernst Troeltsch who advocated a similar "principle of analogy" which appears to badly falsify historical claims of the miraculous.

The problem with a Flew/Troeltsch historiography is that it fails to affirm an analogy and, at best, can only disconfirm the non-analogous.

So, in order for analogy to be properly viewed with respect to history it must explain, for example, how the Resurrection appearances are analogous to, say, mass hallucinations. It does no good to suggest that a miraculous claim of history is non-analogous to a current event because it may very well be a unique and unprecedented occurrence.

Historical explanations are not employed by repeating experiments for the desired observable outcome (since in most cases the historical context is unrepeatable).

Instead, historians seek to explain a historical event by the surrounding context in which it had taken place.

This evinces a slightly different approach. Instead of seeking circumstances by which a historical hypothesis can be put to the test, the historian, like the geologist and archaeologist, investigates the surrounding context of the event.

As The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy correctly summarizes, we see that the historian is primarily concerned with two governing factors:

1. the temporal progression of large-scale human events and actions, primarily but not exclusively in the past

2. the discipline or inquiry in which knowledge of the human past is acquired or sought.

A debate on the Resurrection between William Lane Craig and German New Testament critic Gerd Ludëmann threw light on the method of discovery.

The objective of the debate was to assess the New Testament for reasons to either accept or reject the Resurrection of Jesus as a historical event.

As the debate came to an end, Dr. Craig made an interesting analysis that there are two roads that lead to the same affirmation about the reality of Jesus' Resurrection:

The historical road and the personal road. The former is the pursuit of the historical information on Jesus in an effort to evaluate the material for the Resurrection hypothesis (which is what the debate hammered out and what this essay has concentrated on). The latter is not only a road to finding the authentic Jesus of the New Testament but an existential path to finding the meaning to our lives.


  1. My goodness, James, you're not going for small targets today are you?

    It's going to take time to read this stuff, but as you will know I think that this story needs to be retold at every opportunity. Christianity is way the most important part of our civilization, and is the chief ideological generator of the good within it, and I believe that it needs to be upheld and protected from all its enemies - including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

    And it should also be noted, before we, your honoured readership, start going for it comment-wise that Sonus' gnostic spirituality IN NO WAY diminishes the factual and economic arguments he makes for a subterranean network of financial con-men secretly embezzling our wealth and hollowing-out our freedoms.

    It's going to be an interesting read, I think.

  2. What mirthless smiles the models have. Nail 'em up!

  3. I'm so pleased that you feel competent to judge my gnostic spirituality from one small, extremely limited in content, article, which was intended to deal with a very limited topic.

    A topic which every reader so far, has missed.

  4. Having said that, I am also pleased that you appreciated the "finance/economic" related articles.
    Many thanks.

  5. I'm so pleased that you feel competent to judge my gnostic spirituality from one small, extremely limited in content, article, which was intended to deal with a very limited topic.

    No, Sonus, I don't judge 'your' gnosticism. I look at gnosticism. :)

    I DO have a go at you on Satanism though, on Monday. Ha ha. Don't kill me.

  6. James - I thought that Sonus was answering me...?


    "Gnostic spirituality" was a quick way of labelling a very wide area. The idea of hidden (and indeed disguised) ancient knowledge, sometimes accompanied by the inversion of orthodox theory and the accustomed allegiance does indeed require the trade name of gnosticism for your kind of belief system.

    Whether you're specifically into all that demiurge or Sophia jazz is a different matter.

    I have several long reads ahead of me [plus longer thinks - thanks to James and Sonus... and I was planning to spend the weekend with Herodotus!] in all this and I was only trying to briefly distinguish between my perception of what may, indeed, be a true and accurate account of how we are misgoverned on the one hand, and your personal faith on the other.

    If we are indeed the property of a bunch of usurers from Lucerne or Bermuda or wherever, then I think the tale needs to be told in straight political terms for a largely secular modern readership.

    Using the term 'gnostic' for what you believe in all its depth and its totality was intended to reach a similar level of simple courtesy to that I get when unbelieving friends call me a 'pagan' - a good general term for roughly what floats my spiritual boat - rather than 'heathen' - the specific term for what sets that boat alight.

    Both are distinct from the slightly pejorative 'tree-hugger,' whose equivalent I don't even think: let alone use, regarding you.

    So that's a typical pompous, long-winded North Northwester apology to you.


Comments need a moniker of your choosing before or after ... no moniker, not posted, sorry.