Tuesday, 26 April 2011
This series is an atheist's review of an important skeptical anthology critical of Christian beliefs called, "The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails" (TCD), that is likely to be popularly discussed across the web. I'll be reviewing the book in light of just about every other response to TCD on the web (pros and cons) and responding to new Christian objections as I find them. I think this will be the best that I personally can contribute to improving the online dialogue between Christians and non-believers on popular battleground issues.
Mainstream Scholarship Vs. Evangelical Scholarship?
Paul Tobin, author of the 6th chapter of TCD, claims:A “Consensus” among evangelicals however, comes not from the result of arguments and evidence but from their “statements of faith.” In other words, such “consensuses” among evangelicals come from the unquestioned presuppositional biases. So when Hays cites his “authorities” on the reliability of the Bible, all he is saying to the skeptic is, ‘Hey, see how all these apologists with PhD’s are using ingenious methods to defend beliefs which cannot be held without a presuppositionary belief in Biblical inerrancy!”
I noted the disadvantage that conservatives have when it comes to this topic in my previous post and tried to explain where I thought Tobin was coming from with his chapter. The Triabloggers have come up with a number of weaker arguments in response (which we'll get to in a moment), but Jason Engwer, for example, admits:
Saying that an Evangelical position is a minority view today has some significance...
Because basically that means as far as the popular literature goes, that scholars need to work out their issues amongst themselves and leave us out of it. If that puts "God's people" in an inconvenient position, maybe the Christian god should have thought of that before decreeing or allowing otherwise.
...Tobin's atheism or Price's view that Jesus didn't exist. If modern unpopularity is bad, how much worse is an unpopularity that's lasted even longer?
A. Humans are not experts on metaphysics and so an unqualified human consensus on the god question is irrelevant (should we ask humanity at large and throughout history about multiverses, too?).
B. Price's views that Jesus didn't exist are not the topic of TCD and surely he'd admit that he has a job to do in terms of attempting to convince the scholarly community his position is correct.
C. That one heavily mythologized historical figure was slightly more mythical is a much smaller qualitative deviation from the mainstream than trying to defend that Jesus was actually a god and had superpowers and that the Bible is inerrant.
D. The duration isn't necessarily as important as the plausibility of a quality consensus. Historical tools have vastly improved in just the last 50 years and we can say much the same for the sciences in general in the last 200. A modern consensus on the shape of cosmology is going to count a lot more in just the last few years than anything said 500 years ago even if that view lasted for 3,000 years. We have satellites. They lose.
Richard Carrier's view of the genre of Mark's gospel, for instance, has been unpopular in Biblical scholarship...
In that link, Engwer cites Charles Talbert who is actually a scholar that Carrier often cites to support his views on the genre of the gospels. The gospels can be mythological biographies. Carrier doesn't dispute that. I didn't realize we needed a century or so of conservative scholarship to tell us that the gospels narrate the life of Jesus, but okay...
I wonder how long it will take before it is admitted by evangelicals they narrate obvious mythical elements as well. **holds breath**
...it's even more significant that his view was unpopular among the ancient sources who addressed the subject. Similarly, Tobin makes much of modern scholarship's doubts about Luke's census, yet the census account seems to have been widely accepted in antiquity. (For a discussion of the significance of those ancient sources, see my series of posts here.) Or when both the ancient Christian and the ancient Jewish sources seem to agree that Jesus' tomb was found empty after His body had been placed there, why do critics like Tobin reject that ancient consensus? Why should we think the sort of highly speculative objections they propose weigh as much as or more than the agreed testimony of ancient Christian and non-Christian sources, who were much closer to the event in question?
Ancient people weren't necessarily in a position to know better than we do and sometimes we know a lot more than they did. I can Google more ancient documents in a second than most ancient people would ever even know existed. Any given early Christian may not have even been aware of the entire NT and so on. When you don't know any better, you are bound to take arbitrary premises for granted if they didn't have any particular reason to challenge them. That doesn't really mean anything.
And in fact, skeptical anthologies like "The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave" are still doing that today. Though you'll find apologists like Steve Hays continually baffled throughout his book long review that skeptics are arguing through layers of ambiguity with various types of provisional conclusions that don't necessarily have to all go together.
I feel compelled to go so far as to say (in my unqualified opinion) that in all likelihood all skeptical theories are wrong. I certainly haven't read everything, but from what I have read I get the distinct impression that everyone is arguing in a vacuum of ignorance. I don't think we do know what happened at the origin of the Christian religion. It seems likely that most scholars are taking for granted various premises that they don't have a good reason to challenge (out of ignorance) and applying their methods as consistently as they can from there. The problem is that pretty much none of the source material is that trustworthy and trivial "naturalistic" things are just as easy to invent as mythical things. I can tell you that I'm holding a ray gun and a baseball bat. Incidentally both claims are false even though baseball bats exist and I own some. History isn't necessarily obligated to put a big red arrow over every mundane thing that seems plausible at face value but is nonetheless wholesale invention for who knows what reason. There may also be some unknown chunk of significant information we don't have. Who knows. I can easily quote Steve Hays jumping at any chance to point out the likelihood of a Jewish cover up of certain Christian evidences to save face. Of course, earlyish Christians would NEVER have any similar motive to do the same. *eyeroll*
We don't know what we don't know and even the best "most probable" skeptical case from our vantage point may well be incorrect.
Tobin keeps criticizing Steve's citation of Evangelical scholars, but Steve hasn't just cited Evangelicals. Since Steve cited C.E.B. Cranfield, who wasn't an Evangelical, Tobin responded by categorizing him as a "theologian". Apparently, that's Tobin's way of trying to lessen the significance of a non-Evangelical scholar. If he can't dismiss that scholar as an Evangelical, an "apologist", etc., he labels him as a "theologian". But how often has Tobin referred to his own sources that way? He dismisses Cranfield as somebody "whose understanding of the historical method is suspect". Compare Cranfield's credentials to Tobin's. And what about other non-Evangelical scholars who disagree with Tobin? I cited the example of Raymond Brown in my response to Tobin in chapter 6 of The Infidel Delusion. Other non-Evangelicals have disagreed with Tobin's view of the infancy narratives as well, such as Ethelbert Stauffer (Jesus And His Story [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960]), Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, and Joseph Kelly. In fact, as I pointed out in The Infidel Delusion, Tobin's skepticism about the infancy narratives is so radical as to place him in disagreement with the vast majority of modern scholars. If you go to Tobin's web site, you can find more examples of his disagreements with many non-Evangelical scholars.
I'm assuming that most of Tobin's positions represent the mainstream conclusions and so it would appear that these oddball instances (assuming Engwer is correct) really don't matter. If Tobin was smarter, he'd have simply ran the ball right down the middle aiming purely at public education of what properly represents modern scholarship (similar to what Bart Ehrman seems to do) rather than bothering with pet theories he doesn't seem qualified to defend. Oh well. We'll see how that goes later in this series on chapter six as we sort through all the details.
Tobin frequently claims that a position is held by a majority or represents "mainstream critical scholars", for example, without presenting any documentation for that conclusion.
That is a problem. *shrug* Tobin could certainly have exercised more care with his "scholarly majority heuristic." It seems his case is still stronger here.
Engwer seems only to have waived a bit of dust up in the air. Not that impressive. If I'm an average Christian or nonbeliever there's really no reason to be confident about the conclusions of conservative scholarship (over the mainstream) I'm never going to have a chance to dive into and rigorously sort out.
Steve Hays is up to bat next on the same issue.