Bridging Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch”: The Historical Testimony to Miracles

One of the great skeptical minds of the 18th century, Gotthold Lessing, coined a phrase to describe what for him was an unbridgeable gap between the 18th-century enlightened mind and the purported supernatural events of the Bible. Lessing called this gap the “ugly broad ditch,” a chasm in knowledge that made it unreasonable for someone in the 18th century to believe in miracles and consequently many of the New Testament claims. For Lessing, since miracles did not occur in his time, the likelihood of them having never occurred at all was high. As such, the historical claims made by the Apostles and recorded by the writers of Scripture were too unreliable to put one’s faith in.

In Lessing’s thought, the contingent, or “accidental,” events of history could not be the basis for a rational belief in what had to be universal and necessary truths of religion. Whether or not historical claims were true, was leaving far too much to chance and fluctuations in the kinds and degree of evidence for those claims. This inherent susceptibility of historical testimony to skepticism made belief in any supernatural features of that testimony, especially the miracle stories of the Gospels and resurrection of Jesus, unjustified. If one was to accept only what was rational for an 18th century person to believe, one would have to forgo belief in the miracles related in the Scriptures, and consequently the idea of their being any historical basis for Christianity’s grand, theological claims.

Still, why think that Lessing’s “ugly ditch” is really there? Why believe either that religious claims must be grounded in necessary truths, like those of mathematics, or that the historical evidence for miracles was in the 18th century no longer valid, while it seems that in the 12th century it was?

First, the claim that religious truths cannot be left to the evidence of history is itself question-begging, since there is no reason to think that all truths must be self-evident or necessary in the same way that “2+3 = 5” or “there are no married bachelors” are necessary and self-evident. Moreover, if the actual content of a specific religious revelation (e.g. the Bible) gives good theological reasons for why religious claims are not grounded in necessary truths like math or logic– for example because human freedom is valuable, and interpersonal love must be freely chosen as opposed to coerced–then there is also an explanation for why religious truths are fundamentally different from others, and consequently need not be grounded in the same way. As to Lessing’s second contention, that the historical evidence is too shaky to believe in the miracles of the Bible, or that there was too much temporal distance between himself and those events to justify belief, this also seems tendentious at best.

Miracles and Historical Testimony

One obvious reason to reject Lessing’s claim is his assumption that miracles did not occur in the 18th century. Much of his argument seems to ride on the fact that because one has not experienced miracles personally, it is then unreasonable to assume that figures in the past experienced miracles. Seeing for Lessing would indeed be necessary for believing, albeit one is left to wonder if it would have been sufficient.

Lessing therefore begs the question whether or not there were credible miracle claims circulating in his own time. This is a logical fallacy that also appeared to not bother the Scottish philosopher David Hume enough to rethink his own position on contemporary miracle claims. It was assumed that there simply were none, and that they were mainly to be found among the more “barbaric and ignorant” peoples– peoples that must be intellectually naive, or predisposed to perverting the truth for the sake of more mundane goals. Either way Lessing, like Hume, argues circularly, simply asserting that contemporary miracles claims are not reliable.1 It is worth noting here that Humean skepticism goes far beyond just claims of supernatural activity, but to cause and effect relationships themselves. As such, Hume’s skepticism cut across a much broader range of knowledge than just the religious.

There is another problem though with Lessing’s understanding of miracle claims as it relates to the generational thread of historical testimony. For, it is not simply that the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ apparent miracles, or to the apparent Resurrection, claimed to have experienced miracles, it is that all of the early church–all subsequent Christian communities that persisted past the original eyewitnesses– also believed in those same miracles. Those historically and culturally closest to the original testifiers of Jesus’ miracles had no problem believing them, unlike Lessing who, being further removed in time, apparently could not. But, temporal distance alone seems hardly sufficient to dismiss the validity of a historical claim!

While it could be the case that the earliest, non-eyewitnesses were simply duped by the so-called eyewitnesses (e.g. Peter, Paul, the Marys), this would entail that all, or many, of the early Christians (young, old, rich, poor, peasant, aristocracy) were equally susceptible to the lies of these original Apostles. They (the early Church members) basically believed the testimony of the Apostles without any independent, corroborating evidence to support the idea that things like miraculous healings, or the multiplying of food, could really happen. This means that none of these early Christians, many of them eventual martyrs, had ever seen or heard of a credible miraculous event in their own time, yet regardless still believed the Apostles’ testimony to the same or similar kinds of events in their time.

If not duped, however, then the other option is that early followers knew for themselves the stories were false, yet propagated them in spite of knowledge to the contrary. If this were the case, then the earliest Christian communities, to include their leaders, would be implicated in the greatest conspiracy of all time– propagating known falsehoods about miraculous events, events that never occurred, over a vast geographical space and an extended, continuous period of time. For what purpose they would have done this, we have no idea. That they were able to maintain that known falsehood for so long, and across so many cultures, might itself be considered more miraculous than the Resurrection they claimed to believe occurred.

Further, it is hard to believe that these earliest Christian communities would continue to propagate known falsehoods only to enjoy the social ostracism, imprisonment, and even the torture and death that ultimately befell many of them. This was hardly a win-win situation. In fact it was clearly a lose-lose: lose if you are persecuted for telling the known falsehood, lose even if you are not, since ultimately you know there is no real, redeeming content to the faith you claim to hold– something made explicit by the Apostle Paul himself (see 1 Cor 15:12-19).

On the other hand, one reason why the early Christians might have believed in the purported miracles of the Gospels is that they had independent evidence that miracles occurred in their own times, a fact that would begin to undermine Lessing’s critique, as belief in contemporary miracles, say in the 2nd century, would bridge the epistemic gap about supernatural claims between 2nd century Christians and the generation of the 1st century Apostles. Thus, if this belief in contemporary miracles by post-Apostolic, early Christians was part of the reason why they believed the miracle stories passed on by the Apostles– orally or in Scripture– then the question must be asked: “When, or at what point in time, or even in what place in time, did this epistemic bridge from one generation to the next regarding belief in miracles collapse? When did the “ugly ditch” actually get dug?

The question can also be formulated this way: at what point in history did testimony about specific miracles, either the ones mentioned in Scripture, or in ones ongoing, cease to be a valid source of evidence for justified belief in miracles?

The Seamless Testimony from The Apostles to Today

It seems that for the vast majority, historical testimony to miracles was still a valid source of evidence in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as well as in the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and all the way through to the 14th and 15th centuries. There is not an abundance of skeptical literature about either ancient claims to miracles, or contemporary ones, in the 16th century either (although skepticism about Natural Theology begins with the likes of Michel de Montaigne around this time). That is not to say that there are not any critiques of miracle claims prior to the 16th century, but just that the abundance of evidence is to the contrary: most people accepted the reality of miracles up to Lessing’s day.

So, when does Lessingische skepticism toward human testimony about miracles first emerge in history? When does the “ugly ditch” get dug, especially if the majority of people up until the 18th century did hold that testimony about miracles was reliable? Who or what ultimately digs this ditch? After all, the ditch cannot simply be assigned to some arbitrary date; as if in 1748, on a Thursday at 5:45pm GMT, all miracle claims, both ancient and contemporary, became subject to the skepticism of 18th century man.

The reason for Lessing to reject justified belief in miracles is not that the historical testimonies were ever demonstrated to be false, something that is nearly impossible to do, or that the temporal gap between the New Testament miracle claims and Lessing’s belief about them is too long, especially if there was continuous, persistent belief in miracles. Clearly it would be one thing to pick up some ancient text no one had read in several hundred years, comprised with fantastic stories in it and say: “Eh, these are ancient stories filled with claims of things we have never seen before. Why believe these things really happened?” But, when you have a historical lineage, a succession of real, human communities called “the Church” that has passed on these beliefs, and passed them on often under very harsh conditions, then you have some additional reasons to believe that what was being passed on was not just mythological. It was something real enough that people were willing to stake their physical lives and their cultural identity on its being true. Very few philosophies have garnered that kind of dedication in both belief and practice!

It seems therefore that the reason Lessing felt belief in miracles was unjustified was the simple fact that he never experienced one personally. So, there really is no argument about whether older, or contemporary, testimonies about miracles are false other than to say: “I never saw one, therefore all testimonies to miracles are false, or at least unreliable.”

Further, if the writings of the New Testament were mere fabrications, at least in regard to reports about its miraculous events, then the entirety of the early church, starting with men like Polycarp and Ignatius, moving forward to Irenaeus and Origen, up on through Augustine, Boethius, and Aquinas, to Luther and the Reformers, through the great puritan thinkers of the 17th and 18th-century, to today’s analytical philosophers of religion, are all in some way implicated in the continued fabrication of said miracle stories– for each generation going back to the first would have known that the miracles reported by the Apostles were false and thus irrational to believe, and yet passed them off as being true. Or, if not liars, there has been a persistent, almost seamless strain of men and women being “fooled” into thinking something incredible happened that did not happen, and that based solely on the fact that someone told them so.

After all, if miracles do not happen then literally no one, not Clement of Rome, not Ignatius, not Polycarp, not Jerome, not Augustine, not Aquinas or Edwards, nor Lewis or Ratzinger, Swinburne or Polkinghorne, has ever experienced anything themselves, or heard any credible account in their own time that would give them additional warrant that the claims made by the Apostles, or found in the Scriptures, are reasonable to believe. Talk about a leap of faith by men who could hardly be called “barbaric or ignorant.”

What is more likely then– that thousands, if not millions, of Christians throughout the Church’s history have experienced miracles that make it justified for them to believe the miracles reported in the Scriptures actually occurred;2 One contemporary compendium of miracle claims is Craig S. Keener’s book, Miracles. Keener documents personal testimonies from every continent, most of which are healing miracles. That said, some miracles in the Bible might be harder to accept than others, e.g. the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as opposed to the healing of the paralytic, in virtue of seeing more kinds of one miracle attested to today than other kinds. Still, a miracle is a miracle.or that Christians from the very beginning have been fooled into thinking that incredible events for which they have no independent reason to believe happened, except it was told to them, really happened?

In the end Lessing dug his own ditch, and did so because he was seeking absolute certainty. But, absolute certainty is not forthcoming about anything in this life outside of a very limited set of claims. Lessing’s concern about the shifting sands of time may have been warranted, but his ultimate conclusion on where to place his faith was not. What Lessing perhaps should have done is believed in the preponderance of evidence– a preponderance that points to the reality of miracles, both in 1st-century, in the 18th, and today.

Defending Christian Hope against Its Historical Contenders

In the preface to his 1968 book Marxism and Christianity, then atheist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre1 MacIntyre eventual went on to convert to Roman Catholicism. opens with an incisive statement about the nature of Christian and Marxist beliefs:

“The second point worth remark is the extent to which Christians and Marxists both wish to exempt their own doctrines from the historical relativity which they are all too willing to ascribe to the doctrines of others. They thus fail to formulate adequately the task of discriminating between the truths of which their tradition is a bearer from what are merely defensive or aggressive responses to their social situation. But if they will not do this, then their critics have a duty to try to do it for them.”2MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books. 8

In this part of the preface MacIntyre points out that both Christianity and Marxism share a fundamental commonality, they both make claims about their own systemic beliefs, their own “doctrines” that place the truth value of those beliefs outside the reach of the relative and contingent nature of historical and cultural conditions. They assert that their beliefs sit on a firm metaphysical (Christianity) or epistemic (Marxism) foundation, while the truth values of beliefs of other world views shift and move as historical currents ebb and flow. Christianity and Marxism make claims that seem to be untouchable by these shifting sands of social history, and act therefore as universal hermeneutical lenses by which all of human history can be properly interpreted, both at the cultural and individual level.

If this is the case, then for every generation of the Church it will be a fundamental task of the Christian apologist to answer the singular question that MacIntrye raises in this descriptive statement, namely, to what extent is Christianity, or more particularly Christian beliefs, the byproduct of cognitive reactions to particular historical and cultural conditions, and to what extent are Christian beliefs separate from or transcendent to those same historical or cultural conditions. In other words, if there are Christian truths, are they merely contingent ones that are valid perhaps only for a moment in time or for a particular culture in a certain place in time, or are they necessary truths that are valid regardless of any given historical or cultural situation. And, if there are such transhistorical truths, how does one discern or “discriminate” which ones are born by the actual Christian tradition, from those that are just beliefs conditioned by historical circumstances, and that can eventually be altered, amended, or even eliminated from the overall deposit of faith as the circumstances themselves change?3 one example of this might be the role of women in ministry vìs-a-vìs the doctrine of the Trinity.

This is a fundamental task for the Christian apologist trying to answer the skeptical voices of her day, whether that skeptical voice come in a rationalistic, modernistic tone, or in a post-modernistic, existential one. But, how we answer the rationalist and how we answer the existentialist will differ, and must differ, if we are going to successfully challenge the current Zeitgeist that seeks to undermine those transhistorical truths of the Christian tradition, as well as adapt our theology to meet its legitimate historical contentions. To answer the first type we must defend the truthfulness of Christian propositional claims, but to answer the latter type we will be required to defend the beauty of its vision.

Responding to Modernist Positivism & The Challenge from Science

For almost two and a half centuries, since perhaps the dawn of the Enlightenment with Rene Descarte, and through the advent of Darwinian Evolution in the late 19th century, Christianity has had to contend with one broad, yet very dominant philosophical view of reality: rationalism. Although other non-Christian intellectual movements were always afoot, e.g. 18th-19th century German Pantheism, rationalism has broadly shaped the course of Western culture, especially in Europe, the UK and the US for some time. More accurately though, it was not just the hegemony of human reason as the sole source of knowledge, but really the theories of empiricism that won the day, beating out its historical competitors, such as pure rationalism and philosophical idealism, to become the guiding light of modern social and political reality. While pure rationalism held that human reason alone, entirely apart from observation, could gain access to universal or necessary truths, and Idealism claimed that human consciousness was more fundamental than the matter it perceived; pure empiricism suggested instead that all knowledge arises out of experience, which means it arises through the senses.

This empiricism then, with the natural sciences operating as its functional arm, eventually culminated in what many philosophers know as “Logical Positivism” a philosophical view that asserted that any truth claim that could not be verified by scientific methods was essentially a meaningless claim. On the historical heals of David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent epistemic dismantling of metaphysical knowledge, logical positivism was the ultimate outworking of a rationalistic and hyper-empirical framework of knowing. Logical Positivists like A.J. Ayer sought for certainty about truth claims, and determined that only the methods of natural science and mathematical reasoning could deliver that certainty. This view effectively transformed most religious claims, and all kinds of other claims, into ones of a merely private and utterly mystical sort. Ultimately Logical Positivism fell apart as internal critiques mounted and as external critiques about the truth conditions of science itself were levied against it.4 see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

With regard to the challenges that more modest forms of scientific empiricism have made to religious metaphysical and epistemic truth claims, these have been responded to for well over 50 years now. They have been met with robust philosophical and theological answers, and it is these interactions that most Christian apologists today are familiar with.5 A prime example would be debates such as William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll, or Craig vs. the late Christopher Hitchens, or John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins. As the rise of analytic philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century provided post-WWII Christian scholars with tools to redevelop in a fresh way many of the classical arguments for Christian theism, so now one can find Christian philosophical resources answering the challenges of scientific empiricism with relative ease. The big names in this field are easily recognized by Christians who dabble in theology, philosophy or even biblical studies: Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, Pruss, Adams, Alston, Stump, Van Inwagen et al., are well known analytical philosophers of religion who have specifically engaged in the defense of either theistic belief broadly, or Christian doctrine more precisely.

This movement has even spawned a more focused inquiry in the area of Christian doctrine called Analytic Theology, where the tools of analytic philosophy of religion are pressed into service to more carefully articulate core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation.

This scientific empiricism that has challenged and continues to challenge the historical deposit of the Christian faith one could label as Modernistic Positivism. It is modern in that it reflects the core tenets of the early modern period, which emphasized the use of human reason as the main tool for accessing truth about the world. It is positivist in that it seeks through verification principles a positive understanding and description of reality, one that human beings could hopefully take in, grasp, and build off of. Today, there are still well known modernists who despite their atheism or agnosticism on religious or metaphysical claims maintain their belief that there is objective truth that can be accessed by the means of science, and that there are law-like structures that can be discovered by human investigation. Some who have a modernist bent will even suggest that religious systems like Christianity make true claims when it comes to morality, even if its metaphysics is false. They are moral realists in the fullest sense, even if moral values find their grounding in some object other than the divine nature or will.

To this historically conditioned modernist positivist view, it seems now that not only is there a robust and fairly charitable, ongoing dialogue, but that Christianity now even has allied itself with some of modernism’s more rigorous defenders. The reason for this is the unity found in the use of reason as a means to access truth. Reason, for many modernists, is not historically situated, at least not entirely, and while there may not be a “viewpoint from nowhere” in the words of one atheist philosopher,6 This phrase is attributed to NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel there are views of reality that can be shown to be more legitimate than others, more accurate than not, and more true than false. While Christianity may have been reeling in the mid- 20th century to meet the challenge levied against it by modernist positivism, it seems now to have held its own with regard to defending the universal truths that are born by its Great Tradition: e.g. that God exists, that God is Triune, that Jesus is God, that He rose from the dead, etc.

Outstanding areas of debate of course still exist in many realms of inquiry, e.g. the historical Adam and Eve, the reliability of the Gospels, the transmission of the Old Testament manuscripts, and modernist positivists will always raise objections to objective claims about metaphysical and historical truths, especially in their demand for more concrete forms of evidence for those claims. For the modernist positivist, dialogue will still be primarily a matter of discussing evidence and using reason to adjudicate truth values of propositions. But, these demands and this method can at least be met with some measure of force today, even if they are never fully satisfied by the tools of reason alone.

The larger problem that now looms before many Christian apologists however is no longer how to respond to a subsection of Western culture that embraces these increasingly irrelevant 19th and early 20th century philosophical views, but how to respond to what is quickly becoming the dominant philosophical view of our times, a view I will call postmodern existentialism.

Responding to Postmodern Existentialism & The Marxist Challenge

“But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

Karl Marx

Christian apologists may feel they have been by and large battling men in white lab coats and grizzled logicians in the Russellian tradition the last several decades. Men in this rationalist tradition, and only infrequently women, have pressed Christian defenders, always looking for more evidence and more verification for their claims. Today, however, the tide has shifted yet again, and apologists find themselves confronted with a different face of atheism, one that is far more subtle in its manifestations and far more willing to operate as a replacement for religion than its modernist predecessor.

While the modernist positivist often still believes in progress based on a persistent and rigorous investigation of nature and its laws, the postmodern existentialist differs drastically from the Enlightenment hanger-on in her rejection of the idea that objective truth is attainable. All claims to truth are tainted by human innovation and thought, and therefore the only area of inquiry worth putting to the test is human thought itself. The postmodern existentialist therefore places far less emphasis on putting microbes under microscopic scrutiny and instead puts the social conditions of the biologist herself under scrutiny, in the hopes of finding out why the biologist will make certain conclusions about said microbe and not other ones. On this view, society itself is the lab rat, and everything else, to include philosophy, theology and even the natural sciences, is downstream from culture. On such a view it will matter who examines the nature and effects of the Coronavirus, regardless of whether they have identical academic credentials. But, it will not be their reason that leads them to varying conclusions, it will be other sociological properties that differentiate them.

For the postmodern existentialist then it is the human agent herself that constructs the systems in which she lives and externalizes and reifies (makes real) her own identity and essence. Man is animal for the postmodern existentialist to be sure, but he is an animal of his own making. To engage with this kind of philosophical worldview puts the Christian apologist in a very different epistemic and social arena than when dealing with the aforementioned modernist, since the modernist positivist still has an outward looking view of truth, while the postmodern existentialist finds all truth, even those outside herself, as products of her own thinking. This marks the inward turn from truth as verifiable fact subject to reason, to truth as “lived experience” subject to social and cultural conditions.

At the outset of this essay I suggested that it would be the task of every generation of the Church to have to show how Christian truth claims (at least some of them) are not subject to the shifting sands of cultural development, or mere byproducts of social conditions, but rather are transcendent, universal, timeless, and perhaps even necessary, e.g. the belief that God exists. However, there is a second task that each new generation of the Church will face if MacIntyre’s opening statement is true, namely, Christianity will have to persistently counter the arguments of the other worldview that claims to provide a universal interpretive lens to human history: Marxism.

My goal here is not to retell the history of Marxism, which must be understood in light of Hegel’s phenomenology and his view of the history of philosophy. A history that Marx thought needed to move from the realm of the abstract to the concrete realities of life. Marxist philosophy is philosophy actualized. That is why Marx’s focus was to present history as not a history of abstract ideas like Hegel, but one of economic stages. For Marx, it is the lower rung of material conditions that shapes and molds the human animal, and in shaping and molding the human animal, the very thoughts that that animal has, to include her religious thoughts, are also shaped. Thus, to change the lower rung of material conditions, is to change the constitution of the thinking animal. And, to change the thinking animal is to change the abstract thoughts the animal has, i.e. to change philosophy itself. Change the abstract thoughts and you change the very possibility of thinking about God. And, if as Feuerbach argued, God just is a replacement for the wants and needs left unmet in the individual human animal, and if those wants and needs can be met by the reshaping of the lower rung of material conditions, then you have a means by which thinking about God can itself vanish into oblivion. This is why, “in the course of building a communist society, the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in its path.” (MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books 102).

As such, Postmodern existentialism is postmodern in that it claims (circularly) that human reason itself is shaped by the same lower level material and social conditions that Marx pointed out. And, because human reason is shaped by things like social location (e.g. poor or wealthy), or material composition (e.g. male or female, black or white) there are therefore multiple competing reasonings. And, if there is no transcendent Principle or Person by which to adjudicate these various human reasonings, then there is no way to really adjudicate which systems developed by different human groups or cultures are superior or inferior. Postmoderism essentially does away with normative claims in this regard. There just are systems of belief, grounded in different cultural ways of reasoning, and that is about all there is to say. This view accepts that history is fundamental, while philosophy and theology are contingent.

But because Marx also offered a practical theory of economics, Marxism becomes analogous to the natural sciences of the modernist. It provides the mechanism through which the postmodern utopian vision can be attained. That vision is conceptually however a Christian one. It is a vision of a Christian eschatology realized apart from the divine person of Christ:

“This belief [that communism is inevitable given the possibilities and resources of human nature] without which Marxism as a political movement would be unintelligible, is a secularized version of a Christian virtue.”

MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 92

Where the hardcore modernist failed in offering a replacement to religious faith, the postmodern existentialist steps in. After all, the scientific empiricist simply gives an account of material facts, leaving the human person and the human society at a loss to relieve the existential angst that weighs him down. What postmodern existentialism with cultural Marxism as its operational arm does is try to fill the God-shaped hole caused by scientific rationalism (i.e. the Enlightenment project). It is in this sense that postmodernist existentialism is existential. As such the task of the Christian apologist now must be altered to meet this different challenge, for it is not as much about offering evidence for truth claims about Christian doctrines, as offering a vision of the Christian hope behind those claims. Or, as MacIntyre puts it:

“Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.” (12)

Reimarus, Lessing, Strauss, Bauer, Renan and their 20th-century analytical successors like Russell, Ayer, Mackie et. al., may have generated the rational critiques of Christianity and theism respectively, but they did not provide much of an alternative to fill the gap. Deism or a contentless atheism never finds much foothold in the throes of humanity’s masses. For that a religious replacement is always needed, and Marx knew this.

Conclusion

In sum, there are two different paradigms of thought that the Christian must contend with: something like modernist positivism with the natural sciences as its operative arm, and something like postmodern existentialism with social or cultural Marxism as its operative mechanism. To combat the former, Christians have drawn, and quite successfully so, from the reservoir of analytic Philosophy to defend classical Christian truth claims against their scientific despisers. This project has been successful enough that one well-known Christian philosopher has been able to call it a “renaissance of philosophy of religion”7 I attribute this to William Lane Craig who mentions it often in his public debates over the past several decades in the academy. However, to defend Christian truth claims against skeptics who tend to make no attempt at a constructive vision to replace the Christian worldview is qualitatively different from defending it against skeptics who do make an attempt to construct a replacement vision. After all, “both Marxism and Christianity rescue individual lives from the insignificance of finitude…by showing the individual that he has or can have some role in a world-historical drama.”(MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 110)

What the Christian apologist must do therefore is not just defend its transhistorical propositional claims, but also be in the position to offer the postmodern existentialist, the one who sees cultural Marxism as the best (or only) medium for realizing an essentially Christian vision, a better eschatological view, both of society and of the individual. Again, however, MacIntyre points out a common problem in both of these systems that offer such “transcendent” claims about the human condition, namely, there inability to articulate what the solution to man’s condition ultimately looks like:

“But just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.” (92)

The Christian and Marxist narratives both give an account of the fundamental problem of human existence: alienation. But for the Christian it is alienation from an actual Creator. For Marx it is alienation from one’s own nature (whatever that may be) and from one’s neighbor. For the Christian alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when the alienation from God ends. For Marx, alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when labor is eliminated and all people have the same material conditions. On Marxism the “transcendent” historical assertion is made: change the material conditions change the humanity, change the humanity change the human relations, change the human relations instantiate an abstracted heaven on a concrete earth. On Christianity the metaphysically transcendent truth claim is made: change the relation to God change the human person, change the human person change the human relations, change the human relations do the will of God on earth.

To this end, apologists must offer a better articulation of what the end goal of the Christian life is. We must give a better account of what it means to be united in and to Christ, to have a true communion of the saints, and to relish for eternity in the power and glory of the Creator. We must remind and bring to mind that justice will be done, and that all things made right, and good, and harmonious, but only if we subject our own desires for justice to the providence and Lordship of Christ. To do this we must draw from a different arsenal than that of analytic philosophy of religion, we must do imaginative apologetics. We must create a vision of the life that can in part be fulfilled here through the love of Christ working in people, but that will also be ultimately realized apart from our own efforts when Christ Himself does return. Moreover, we must understand the desires of men to have justice and beauty, and respond with examples of each.

Finally, to challenge this new wave of Marxist thought we must fight fire with fire: we must be active in our theologizing, the way Marx argued philosophy must become active. We must step out from the realm of the abstract and demonstrate concretely what the Kingdom of God on earth will look like. Our biblical call to justice must counter in concrete and visible forms those voices who would call for a justice apart from Him Who is just.

Without a positive, imaginative vision of what comes after the Fall and even our own individual salvation, we may well find ourselves overwhelmed once again by the swelling tides of history, and facing yet another dystopian collapse.

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgements are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants….

Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”

Revelation 19:1-2; 6-8

Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Apologetics (Epistemology)

Continuing in this short series on Apologetics, here is part II which deals with Epistemology, the second area of Philosophical Apologetics.

Epistemology

The study of how we know things is called Epistemology, from the Greek episteme (belief), and logos (knowledge or understanding). It is in this sense that Epistemology is often considered first in the order of philosophical inquiry, for before we can have any knowledge about what kinds of things exist, or how things change over time, or what powers or liabilities substances may have, we would first have to know about how we know these things, and whether or not when we say we know something, we actually do know it.

Current theories of Epistemology differ noticeably from classical theories of knowledge, most of which derive from Plato and Aritstotle who presented knowledge as justified, true belief, even though it is Xenophanes who is often referenced as the father of Epistemology. Moreover, Aristotle’s correspondence theory of truth was the standard theory of truth for well over a millennia, and at least until the Enlightenment in the West. It is stated succinctly:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.”

Although late 19th and 20th century philosophers and theologians have claimed that the Correspondence Theory (CT) of truth is no longer a viable epistemic theory of knowledge, the fact remains that the CT is still the most common-sensical, and most commonly used approach to knowledge. Thus, it cannot ever be fully discounted, nor relegated to some philosophical dustbin of history. It will always have its defenders, and, most who defend Christianity as a true worldview, will rely on the CT as their primary approach to truth, since a straightforward reading of Scripture best aligns with the CT.

As such then, we have two classical theories, one about truth itself, the Correspondence Theory (CT), and the other about knowledge of truth, or Justified True Belief (JTB for short).

However, there have been major shifts in Epistemology since the classical and Christian medieval eras. Two such shifts were seismic in their impact on Western thought, and our current approach to knowledge. The first such shift came with Rene Descarte, whose attempt to find epistemic certainty established a theory known as foundationalism as the best available theory for guaranteeing knowledge. Foundationalism, in short, is the theory that all justified true beliefs have to be grounded in some foundational beliefs that themselves are not justified by other beliefs. They are justified by something we call “givens” or “raw feels” or “direct experiences.”

Foundationalism

Foundational beliefs are directly given, usually through introspection, direct perception, or something like hearing a personal testimony and remembering it. For Descarte, the foundation of all other beliefs was “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think therefore I am.” Or, in other words, because I am a thinking thing, I can at least have certainty that I exist, for something, the “I” or self, has to be doing the thinking. There is obviously much more that could be said about Foundationalism than this, both its “Cartesian” version, and more contemporary versions. To illustrate, however, here are some examples of how Foundationalism might work.

Call a particular belief, (B), for short. Each belief has some proportional content to it, call that (P).

  • B1 = Tony believes that (P1) “the trees outside his back window are green.”

How does Tony know that B1 is justified? Answer: He simply sees trees that appear green to him. The perception of the trees itself is not a belief, it is a “given” that forces the belief upon him.

  • B2 = Tony believes that (P2) “he is thinking about Foundationalism as a theory of justified belief.”

How does Tony know that B2 is justified? His internal introspection of his own thoughts (his thinking about his thinking) cannot be false. The content of his thoughts could be wrong, but that he is having those particular thoughts is neither true or false, he simply is having the thoughts he is having, it is a given that forces the belief to emerge. Givens on Foundationalism are something like non-propositional, direct awarenesses, or immediate experiences.

Still, in the 20th century, Foundationalism fell on hard times, which lead to an emergence of other theories of truth and justified belief. Two alternative theories to Foundationalism are: the coherence theory, or Coherentism, and Post Modernism.

Alternatives to Foundationalism

Coherentism argues that there are no real givens, or direct experiences, that cannot be doubted, and therefore there are no real foundational beliefs. All direct experiences: perception, testimony, memory, even introspection, could, after all, be faulty. We can see this since it is obvious that even the most apparently true perceptions in fact could be faulty, either because they are interpreted wrongly, or they are just not real (like vivid dreams, or drug-induced illusions). Or, we could see how even the famed “Cogito Ergo Sum” may not work on a Hindu understanding of the “I” or “self.”

As such, what matters is not what foundation one’s belief structure stands on, but to what degree one’s individual beliefs logically cohere. In other words, does one have a network of beliefs with as few contradictions as possible. The main problem with Coherentism is that it seems to ignore the truth value of particular beliefs in favor of how those beliefs relate to one another. Thus, that one could have many individual beliefs that cohere well together, but otherwise have little to nothing to do with reality, seems clearly possible, and this is crippling to the coherentist view.

Coherentism in this sense, seems to abandon the Correspondence Theory of truth, and neglect the requirement that beliefs be related somehow to reality, or, in other terms, to a metaphysical counterpart. If Foundationalism is a bottom up belief structure, like a building or pyramid, Coherentism is like a web of beliefs, or a raft, that hangs in mid-air, or floats amid a sea of moving waters.

Post-Modernism, if it can be called an epistemic theory at all, is essentially a view that says no beliefs require any justification at all. And that primarily because it views “truth” fundamentally as a construct or project of either individual minds, or of cultural communities. Reality for the Post-Modernist is simply inaccessible, and because it is inaccessible, every claim to “truth” is inherently false, as it is fundamentally an interpretation of one’s personal experience of something we know not what.

Post-Modernism as an epistemic view can be traced back to Immanuel Kant who made a fateful distinction between the noumena and the phenomena, or “the thing itself” and “the thing for me” (in German “das Ding an sich” and “das Ding fur mich.”) For Kant the activity of the mind made it impossible for us to ever know “the thing in itself” and we could only know “thing thing as it appears to me.” Post-modernism, in this restricted, epistemic sense, says that knowledge is essentially unattainable, because every “fact” about the world, even scientific ones, goes through an interactive, interpretive process.

On Post-modernistic theories, therefore, we should see claims to truth as expressions about one’s experience of the world, not of the world itself. Or, more nefarious perhaps, Post-modernists who have also bought into versions of Critical Theory, see statements as fundamentally “power plays” (alla Nietzsche) aimed at achieving far more immediate and pragmatic benefits. Truth, or claims to it, on this view are primarily assertions of the will to power, means to try and control others for personal or national gain. “Truth” claims are expressions of the philosopher’s desires, not actual conclusions about the world.

Furthermore, on Post-modernist views of knowledge, abstract thought and metaphysical speculation become almost totally irrelevant, or, are seen as linguistic games that have these far more mundane goals. As such, “God talk” is often not about an actual divine, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, causally efficacious personal Being and Creator of the universe, but rather about our human concepts of such a Being, and how those concepts cause us to think, or not think, to do, or not do, certain things in the physical world.

“Post-modern Christianity” has become a popular trend since the 1960’s, and is often connected to liberal and progressive forms of Christianity, but need not be so liberal. For theologians have pointed out for centuries that reason itself is damaged through the Fall of Adam, and, in that sense, there are always, and only, finite and flawed interpretations of reality.

While some people who attach themselves to post-modernism, tend to see foundational truth claims as ever-changing and always in need of reinterpretation, this doesn’t have to be the case. But, it does make it very difficult to understand how there can be any universal truth of the Gospel that transcends both time and culture. The “poster-boy” for this kind of Christianity was for many years Bishop John Shelby Spong, who was notorious for rejecting almost every metaphysical and moral claim of the Bible, yet still presenting himself as a believing Christian, and leader in the Episcopalian church. Occasionally one will see atheist “Christians” who are still employed as pastors or preachers by some church that has bought into post-modernism like this.

A counter to this kind of extreme post-Modernism in so-called Christian circles, might be a modified or moderate post-modernism, one which takes into account the fact that reason seems often not only deficient, but also not neutral. In other words we are creatures of desire as much as reason, and if there are real noetic effects of sin, then there may be a form of reason itself that must be redeemed in order for us to really think properly about anything.

Still, as an epistemic theory, post-Modernism has rightly been shown by professional philosophers to be not only a self-refuting proposition, but also a fairly dangerous one at that. Much of the rise of philosophical popularizers like Jordan Peterson has been due to their withering critique of Post-Modernism.

Externalist Answers to Epistemological Problems

The second seismic shift of the Epistemological landscape started with a landmark paper written by Edmund Gettier in 1963, whose name is now synonymous with certain epistemological thought experiments, know as “Gettier problems.” Gettier basically showed in his very short essay (just under 3 pages) that one can have justified, true beliefs, yet still not have real knowledge about something. The key to what makes the difference between having a justified true belief, yet not having knowledge, depends on how I came to have the justified, true belief. In short it cannot be the case that in my “mental journey” to having a justified and true belief, there was a false belief, or something purely accidental, that lead me to have that justified and true belief. I cannot say I know reality, if it happens by sheer luck, or through some falsehood, that I hold a justified, true belief!

Without going into detail on how Gettier showed this discrepancy in the classical formulation of knowledge, these problematic thought experiments led to what is now called “externalist” views of knowledge, or views that posit that a belief can be justified based on how it was formed, and that regardless of whether or not the believer is aware of any reasons for actually believing what she does.

Reliablism, or Proper Function views are called externalist views of justified belief. They rely not on whether there are foundational beliefs per se, or what those beliefs may be (although some Reliablist and Proper Function advocates, like Alvin Plantinga, are also foundationalists), but focus mainly on how the beliefs themselves are formed. Thus, the Proper Functional view, for example, posits a model of what it thinks it would take for a belief to be justified, and, if that model is correct, then we can assume we have at least some justified beliefs, and hence some knowledge. Robert Audi, a Christian philosopher, describes reliablistic interpretations of knowledge succinctly:

“Knowledge, so conceived, results from the successful functioning of our epistemic equipment, which consists above all of finely tuned perceptual, memorial, introspective, and rational instruments.” (Audi, Epistemology)

In this sense, knowledge is the result of the proper functioning of our mental “equipment,” similar to how the healthy flow of blood in the body results from the proper functioning of our heart. How we know whether our mental equipment is functioning properly, however, is another problem.

There tends to be two ways of looking at externalist views like Proper Function as an epistemic theory: a naturalistic, and a supernaturalistic way. Naturalistic views treat human beings as basically highly evolved, yet purely biological animals that have luckily developed the right kinds of cognitive tools to accurately collect data and track facts about reality. There just happens to be a lucky, accidental interaction where that thing that is me forms beliefs about the natural world that are accurate representations of the world. What demonstrates the reliability of this process is something like the fact that we continue to survive fairly well in our environments.

On naturalistic accounts like this, if I have a perceptual experience of the green trees in my backyard, it is because evolution has endowed me with the right kind of visual processing equipment to receive such perceptual data, and because the trees themselves cause me to have those perceptual experiences. There are only two things: my brain with its bio-chemical reactions, and my environment. In short, the natural world triggers functions of my brain, which then cause me to have beliefs. However, when it comes to other kinds of true beliefs, for example like “2 + 2 = 4” or “If Jane is taller than Sally, and Sally taller than Sue, then I know that Jane is taller than Sue,” it seems like naturalistic, proper function theories are inadequate. Naturalistic theories seem riddled with such problems regarding how we know things, or whether the things we know are true, or, if blind evolution is the correct, why true beliefs would actually aid survival, as opposed to false ones.

When it comes to supernaturalistic theories of proper function, no one has done more to develop a rigorous system of how we can have justified (or in his terms, “warranted”) true beliefs grounded in the proper function of our cognitive capacities than Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (perhaps the 20th century philosopher most responsible for the resurgence of Philosophy of Religion as a serious academic discipline). On Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology” view, we can have justified, or warranted, beliefs based on the proper functioning of our mental faculties, because those faculties have been designed by a Divine Being, namely God, to function in specified way, and in such an environment, as to produce accurate and true beliefs about not only the physical world, but also the metaphysical and spiritual world. As such we can have true perceptions of physical realities, and also we possess a “sensus divinitatus” that gives us some true beliefs about the spiritual realm, and even God.

Epistemic Options for Christian Apologetics

For the purpose of Christian Apologetics, the question that lies before the defender of orthodox Christian claims is to what extent he feels we must justify our true beliefs, and, how he thinks we should go about demonstrating that justification. There are essentially two camps when it comes to religious epistemology, that of the Plantingian sort, which suggests justification is external to the believer, and grounded primarily in the process of belief formation; and internalism, which suggests that justification is accessible to the believer, and must be grounded in personal reasons for believing. On internalist views, without good reasons that the believer herself is also aware of, there is no justification to believe any proposition of the Christian faith.

On the first view, beliefs cannot really be justified through arguments or evidence. Justification comes through the witness of the Holy Spirit, as He awakens our sensus divinitatus or “sense of the divine,” which itself has been put there by the Divine Architect. Here we find ourselves believing true things, because the process of God enlightening us to reality is a reliable process. This epistemological view is best suited to presuppositional apologetics, which suggests that arguments and evidence are ill-suited to bringing the skeptic to belief in God, because reason itself is, due to sin, a deficient and faulty mechanism if God exists, and a totally unreliable process if He does not. There must be a God, if we are to think at all that we are able to reason properly. Thus, we should start with God, and only then can we talk about what reason is capable of doing for us, and the justification of our beliefs. Arguments and evidence can be brought in later to bolster confidence in Christian belief, but ultimately what matters is the process of belief formation.

This is to be contrasted with the other, somewhat more common, mode of religious epistemology, which tends to see justification as something internal to the individual, and grounded in that person’s reasons for believing a particular claim. As such, internalists, who tend also to be foundationalists, will suggest that evidence and arguments are the better way for an individual to have justified, true beliefs. Here reason is certainly damaged, but God has allowed men to be able to have a sort of “natural light of reason” as part of his common grace. And that natural reason can be drawn to God through rational argumentation and a fair presentation of the evidence. This epistemological view is best suited toward evidential (or classical) Apologetics, which places a strong emphasis on deductive and inductive arguments for certain Christian claims, e.g. the Resurrection of Jesus.

Epistemology: Conclusion

In conclusion, there are options for Christian apologists when it comes to epistemological theories about knowledge, but, for the most part we would want to adopt minimally some version of the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Even if some kind of Post-modernistic thinking that takes into account the role of personal experience in one’s ability to reason about the world is necessary to work into our epistemology, we should not goes as far as to believe we must throw out truth claims because of the interpretive facet of the human mind.

In the next post we will look a the third area of Philosophical Apologetics: Ethics.

“Celebrity” Deconversions & The Journey of Faith – Part II (Kinds of Experiences)

Further reflecting on the recent “rash” of celebrity deconversions in the Evangelical church, I now consider what kinds of personal experiences, in contrast to intellectual habits, may increase epistemic resiliency with regard to Christian faith. In other words, apart from intellectual preparedness, will some people have a greater capacity to overcome doubt, both emotional and intellectual, due to particular kinds of experiences they have had?

I think there are people who have a greater capacity to endure through doubt, and I believe there are three kinds of personal experiences that strengthen the epistemic resiliency of the Christ follower.

Profound Religious Conversion Experiences

Many adult believers who fall away from faith often relate some subjective feeling or experience of a personal encounter of Jesus they had, either as a youth, or teenager, which supplemented their belief that Christianity was true. This, along with community and a sense of purpose, provided the foundation for their adult faith. Thus, when they deconvert after being presented with counter-evidence they had not previously seen, they find themselves torn between this subjective, albeit deep, feeling of Jesus being real, and this apparently more objective and rational data that undermines the Jesus story.

However, there are also cases of converts who personally attest to an intense visual or audible appearance of Jesus, and this not in their youth, or still cognitively malleable teenage years, but as fully developed, mature adults. Some of these adult conversions also take place apart from the right kind of community (think current trends in Muslim conversions), and when the person already has a sense of purpose in their life. Moreover, many such cases of dramatic religious experience, whether occurring during an actual church service (as was my case), or in some other more private context, are reported by adult converts as being far more real than the daily reality that surrounds them.

In this sense, there seems to be a qualitative difference among kinds of religious experiences. Some seem generated in, or under, the “right” kinds of conditions: a youthful church member who has a feeling of Jesus during a Christian worship service, youth camp, or summer retreat. But others are not, they are had by non-church members, living adult lives already full of meaning and purpose, yet where there is also some accompanying visible or audible quality to their experience of Jesus. Of course, there are more types of religious experiences than just these, and various combinations of the qualities of such experiences could be considered. However, if we take adult conversions which occur through profound religious experience, under non-optimal conditions as genuine, it seems that we can identify at least one kind of religious experience that may lend to epistemic resiliency when counter-evidence to Christian truth claims is presented later in one’s life.

My conversion, for example, was at 34 years old. I was at the top of my game physically, and mentally, having just qualified for the Army special forces “Q-course” a few months prior. My motivation for going into my first ever Evangelical church the day of my conversion was not any particular desire to seek out and find God, but the girl who had asked me to go with her. After all, I already had my own personal, and very syncretistic beliefs about deity, and girls just interested me more than Jesus. However, the experience I had was so real, and also so altering when it came to my beliefs and behaviors, that it is difficult now, as a 44 year old, to not see this experience as a significant piece of evidence for the veracity of the Christian faith. Of course examples like mine can be abundantly multiplied, and are certainly not limited to white, male, heterosexual Westerners like myself.

Therefore, it seems that profound, religious experiences with visual or audible content that occur under sub-optimal conditions (e.g. not in an explicitly Christian environment, not being sought out directly, etc.) can increase epistemic resiliency in the journey of faith.

Witnessing or Interacting with the Demonic, or Extraordinary Evil

Another kind of experience that may lend to epistemic resiliency in the journey of Christian faith, is prior encounters with the spiritual realm. Many, even skeptics, attest to observing or encountering things that are so bizarre, as well as extraordinarily real, that they cannot be explained away as mere psychological phenomena. Interactions with demonic agents, or experiences of horrendous evils (genocide, torture, etc.), can open one up to something that can only be described as “non-physical,” yet entirely actual.

People who have converted to Christianity out of the occult are often very aware of this, and because of their many interactions with a realm beyond the natural one, they too have a certain epistemic resiliency that those who have not had these kinds of experiences do not. For when the abstract claims about supernatural agencies (like the many references to demonic possession in the New Testament) become real, concrete experiences, such experiences are rarely forgotten, remaining as vivid memories, and cognitive reminders, that, at a minimum, the Bible is right about the supernatural world.

My own account of this involves two experiences with the demonic. One particularly malevolent one took place in a small apartment in a densely populated part of Munich, Germany, during a “sting” operation against child sex trafficking in which I participated (on the side of the investigative journalists, of course, not the perpetrators). The other, far too personal to relate in a blog post, had to do with someone I was involved with, who had dabbled with various forms of religious Yoga, and practiced things like astral projection.

One of my best friends, however, who converted to Christianity out of native American shamanism, relates a harrowing account of what it is like to live “on the other side.” Here is his story, one that will not leave you skeptical about the reality of the spiritual realm: http://www.readphoenixroad.com/

Thus, encounters with spiritual forces, especially demonic agents, or horrible moral evil, can also serve to bolster fidelity to some core claims of Christianity, in spite of other epistemic challenges. That the spiritual is real, and that it seems to be fundamentally dualistic, i.e. there is real evil and real good, increases our confidence in the biblical worldview.

Gross Immorality

Finally, a third kind of experience that may provide greater epistemic resiliency is one’s personal struggle with, or long-term involvement in gross immorality. What I mean by gross immorality here is those folks who have committed acts like murder, rape, unjust war, and torture; or who have engaged in sexual perversion over extended periods of time, or egregious forms of greedy behavior, fraud, or even political corruption, e.g. Chuck Colson.

People who have sinned in dramatic fashion, or pursued sensual pleasures or egotistical behaviors all the way to their fullest extent, often come to know experientially the total bankruptcy of what the world has to offer. Thus, upon conversion, they tend to more fully appreciate Peter’s words in John 6:68-69 when doubt comes to them later in life, “Lord, who will we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that You are the Holy One of God!”

People who have been forgiven much, love much. And it is often the case that even if they come across challenges to their Christian faith, they nevertheless have had the experience that there really is nothing else out there to turn toward when the existential chips are down. There is a quality of Goodness and Beauty about Christ, and Christianity, that compels them to see beyond the intellectual challenges to some of its truth claims, and thereby remain steadfast in their faith.

Conversely, not everyone who is an adult Christian has strayed into deep sin, or egregious immorality. Normally, this is a good thing too! But, those Christians who, by and large, have lived a morally decent life, who have not drunk deeply from the well of iniquity, simply have not had the personal experience of moral evil against which they can contrast their current experience of a decent, Christian lifestyle. The “not knowing what it is like,” whether it be that of a bat (Thomas Nagel reference), or of a mafia boss (Michael Franzese), of serious moral depravity, gives the average Christian a sense of not actually being as wicked or depraved as the Bible seems to suggest. And that is in spite of professing it every Sunday with their mouth, or when trying to witness to a skeptic.

True, many adult deconverts will not walk away from their Christian morality, at least in the basics, and certainly not at first. But that is mainly due to the fact that most of their inner life has been shaped by years of Christian moral formation, and even good habits can be hard to break.

Thus, long-term involvement in gross immorality and sin can also act as one more factor in the epistemic resiliency of the born-again believer. Skeptics may make their claims against some propositional truths of Christianity, but the Goodness and Beauty of the faith is powerful to those who have engaged in evil, and know ugliness from the inside.

Conclusion: Personal Experiences can Increase Epistemic Resiliency, but They Cannot Be Actively Pursued

Of course, the main problem for epistemic resiliency based on personal experience, is that none of the kinds of experiences I related here can, or should, be actively pursued. They tend to just happen to the person. As such, people who just happen to have had these kinds of experiences will likely have a greater resiliency in their faith journeys than those who have not. But, none of these experiences can be intentionally sought out by a Christian believer! By their nature they are things that either occur unexpectedly, i.e. the profound religious experience, or that either happen prior to one becoming a Christian, i.e. practice of the occult, or that lead one to become a Christian, gross immorality.

Still, it seems to be the case that believers who have been through experiences like these, will often have an easier time of persevering to the end, at least in their beliefs, if not their practices.

Photo By The King of Mars – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78156864

Did Jesus Make Historical Errors?

A recent Facebook post asked the intriguing question of whether or not believers in Jesus (i.e. in Jesus’ full deity) would be comfortable if it were the case that Jesus referenced Old Testament events that themselves were not factually historically, but as if they were factually true. That is, could Jesus as God incarnate genuinely reference Old Testament narratives as historical events that contemporary commentators take to be allegorical, mythical, or just plain false? In short, did Jesus make historical errors?

This is a really good question, especially for all those who hold to a high Christology, whereby Jesus, possessing all of the properties of the Godhead, would be incapable of error. After all, could it really be the case that God might flunk a simple exam on Ancient Near Eastern history? Likely not, if He is indeed the greatest conceivable Being.

I see two possible solutions to this problem: one, that Jesus concealed knowledge from His audience for some greater good, or two, that Jesus, like his contemporaries, didn’t actually know the facts of the matter. Neither of these conclusions, however, should diminish our faith in the God-man, nor the reliability of the Scriptures.

Christology & Communication of Attributes

First, it is necessary to do some Christological work. For clearly what we are discussing here is the nature of the divine attributes, in particular the attribute of omniscience, and how those attributes are shared, or communicated, between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature. Historically, scholastic theologians distinguished between the communication of divine attributes in the abstract (communicatio idiomatum in abstracto) and the communication of attributes in the concrete (communicatio idiomatum in concreto). The former meant that the divine attributes were shared with Jesus’ human nature at the level of essences, while the later held that the divine and human attributes were shared concretely in the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth (contra Nestorius, who thought that God could not suffer, or thirst, and most certainly not die).

If the sharing of divine attributes (let’s stick with omniscience as an example) were shared at the level of essences, that is between the divine essence and human essence, then, for example, it would be the case that baby Jesus, had he so desired, was entirely capable of formulating Einstein’s theory of relativity without any normal process of human learning, right there in the manager. Since God knows all truths about the universe (to include Einstein’s theory), then the Christ child not only knew this theory, but could articulate it as well since he would also possess divine omnipotence at the level of His human nature and, therefore, would not be limited by underdeveloped vocal cords, or cognition.

However, this seems highly unlikely, especially in light of verses like Luke 2:52, a verse almost all biblical scholars take at face value. But, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then he likely also learned things, like any other 1st century Palestinian boy. That would mean that Jesus’ attributes, both divine and human, were shared in the concrete, in His very person, the individual being who just is both the second person of the Trinity and the man Jesus (the theanthropos). That means that the God-man can have divine attributes correctly applied to Him (see 1 Cor 2:8) and also human attributes correctly predicated of Him (Rom 1:3), even though He is only one man. But is also means that Jesus would have had to grow and develop as a human before certain capacities could be exercised.

However, if this communication of attributes in the concrete is assumed, it seems clear that there are times when Jesus’ divine attributes are non-operative (Matt 24:36-37). Now, if one believes that the communication of attributes does occur at the level of essences, or natures, then one might be able to say that in passages like these Jesus simply hides the fact that He knows such truths. He knows them, but conceals them from His followers, the same way He conceals the fact He can do S5 modal logic from Mary during their flight to Egypt.

But, if Jesus is not concealing His divine omniscience at times like this, then the only other option is that Jesus, being human, is actually unaware of certain truths; e.g. like the timing of the end times. We will look at this shortly. Another option would be to say that within the Trinity itself there are things the Father knows, which the Son does not. But, while this might be true in one sense (e.g. the Father knows the proposition “I am the Father” to be true, while the Son does not), in other areas of knowledge, like the timing of the end times, this is highly problematic.

One possibility that might answer the question of legitimate ignorance of historical facts by Jesus is sometimes referred to as kenotic Christology. Kenosis Christology suggests that Jesus empties Himself of some of His divine attributes (see Phil 2:5-11), but in doing so did not necessarily lose His divinity. Loss of divine attributes, or their fullness, does not mean lack of or deficiency in divine status. Here, Jesus relinquishes the “omni” of His divine attributes, but maintains the “supra” of those same attributes. So, while Jesus may be ignorant of the timing of the end times, He still can still exercise super-knowledge, or super-power, for example, in His knowledge of the thoughts of human person (Matt 12:25) and in His power to cast out demons, or walk on water.

So, how does this all play out with regard to the original question? How do these two, perhaps three, models of the communication of attributes apply to the idea that Jesus might have referenced OT narratives as genuinely historical events, when, in fact, they were either mythical constructs, or mistaken reports, or perhaps something in between, like mythicized history.

Let’s take the last two models first. On the kenotic model, Jesus simply does not know whether these events were factual, and that is because He has emptied himself of some of his divine attributes. He probably takes them as literal, because that is the way the contemporaries of his day took them. Thus, it would not be in any way wrong, again considering His setting aside of omni-science, for Him to assume what the scribes, pharisees, and laypeople of His time also assumed about these stories; they were, after all, Israel’s history. In this sense Jesus has accommodated His whole self to the human context, and, therefore, there is no inconsistency or problem with us understanding Jesus as still fully divine, yet without this kind of knowledge.

Alternatively, on the communication of attributes in the concrete model, we can only make basic remarks that accord with Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology, yet which leave us a bit unsatisfied as to an actual explanation of how Jesus can be called both fully divine and fully human. At certain times Jesus displays only divine properties, and at other times, seemingly, only human properties. Thus, we say simply that when Jesus enacts a miracle, he acts miraculously according to his divine nature, and when he fails to know a bit about the future, his failure to know is according to his human nature. Beyond that, we cannot say much more. The “how” of this unity of contradictory attributes is simply not for us to understand. Again here there is no problem or inconsistency with saying that if Jesus did not know some truth about history, He did not know it according to His human nature. This should be unproblematic, unless we think that not knowing a fact about history is a sin; which I doubt anyone does.

Applying One Model to Understand Jesus’ OT References

On the first model, however, the communication of attributes in the abstract, we might say that Jesus knows the facticity of all historical events, to include those narrated in the OT (and knows them exhaustively), but chooses to conceal that knowledge from his original audience, and consequently from us. Why might He do this though? Why not tell them all of the facts of the story?

Well, on this view, that of Jesus as having attributes communicated at the level of natures, one solution to the problem of OT references presents itself.

With regard to OT narratives that Jesus seemingly references as historical, let’s say the story of Jonah, it is possible that on this model of Jesus’ attributes, a) Jesus was incapable of making factual mistakes due to the sharing of divine attributes in the abstract, and b) that not every story in the Old Testament, to include those Jesus referenced, was a one-to-one accurate account of a historical event that occurred in the same spacetime universe we inhabit right now. 

Thus, Jesus knows the facticity of any given historical event, yet also knows that some of these OT narratives that His audience takes as factual are indeed, to some degree, non-factual. But, Jesus conceals this knowledge from them, accommodating his communication to His audience for the sake of getting them to understand something more significant than just historical facts, something like a necessary theological truth; on this example of Jonah and the fish, it might be the analogy of “the sign of Jonah” with Jesus’ immanent resurrection from the grave. He conceals His omniscience from His listeners, resisting telling them every detail of the Jonah event, so that some greater good might obtain; some greater good for them.

Therefore, Jesus may have referenced stories in the OT that used hyperbole, metaphor, or other literary devices, subsequently refraining from correcting them for facticity, and that for the sake of making sure that the same theological content taught through those OT narratives, and that was understood as such by his contemporary audience, is the same content that He is commenting on, and adapting, for his hearers.

Moreover, Jesus might further refrain from giving this one-to-one, detailed account of a historical event because to do so could have some detrimental or opposite affect on human agents already depraved by sin. Or, if not a detrimental affect, an insufficient affect (i.e. something that does not effect in the agent that which they would need in order to come to know God). From a secular standpoint it is often thought that more propositional knowledge is always a good for us as human beings; however, if the chief end of man is to come into an eternal loving relationship with God, it is not obvious that merely more factual data will actually aid in that goal. In fact, it could hinder it.

Finally, this concealment of knowledge is already implied in the NT when Jesus tells parables so that some who hear them may, in fact, not understand their meaning. Thus, we should conclude that if God does hide certain facts from us, He does so for our benefit, and not to our detriment.

Of course, there is one other option that I am more than willing to entertain, namely, that these OT stories are presented as history, because they actually were historical. That said, Jesus refers to events in the OT as historical true simply because they were so.