June 2007

Miracle  uh, Whip!Further to my first post about miracles (wow that was almost a year ago) the following thoughts came to mind today as I was reading In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Actions in History, which examines the concept of the miraculous in light of Hume's essay "Of Miracles" (and later works which expanded upon that essay).

The idea that science disproves the possibility of miracles is, IMHO, extremely misguided. Science is able to confirm that certain things are testable and repeatable, that is, empirically verifiable in the present. Miracles, by nature, are none of these things. For example, today as I rode home on the bus I glanced out the window as the bus came to a stop. To my surprise I saw a rabbit sitting on the grass beside the road. I had never seen a rabbit here before (a fairly built-up area along a heavily trafficked road). This event is still not testable (you'll have to take my word for it that I observed a rabbit earlier today) and not repeatable (even if we were to get on the same bus, drive along the same road, etc, the circumstances could never be exactly the same) and yet the event really did occur. There is no reason to claim that this was a miraculous event, but even here science cannot test whether this mundane event occurred.

Therefore it's no surprise that science has not (cannot) confirm (or disprove) the miraculous. Richard R. Purtill notes in his essay "Defining Miracles" (also part of the aforementioned book) that scientists "tend to confine their investigations to the ordinary course of nature and to ignore such exceptions as might be made to the course of nature by God, since exceptions brought about by personal agency cannot be predicted from a study of what normally happens".

Trying to test whether a supposed miraculous event occurred in history using the scientific method is sort of like trying to determine whether a banana is tasty by sticking it in your ear and listening to it. It's inappropriate methodology. There's nothing wrong with the scientific method for testing natural phenomenon. However a miracle is not natural, and therefore it is misguided to dismiss, say, the resurrection by appealing to science that shows that people rising from the dead is impossible. Of course we observe that dead people stay dead, and that's entirely the point. This wasn't lost on first century people either: Jesus' resurrection was a big deal because people knew that dead people are supposed to stay dead.

This does not mean that science has no part in examining the truth claims of miracles, but only that as unique events in history, a miracle claim is more properly investigated as history rather than science.

Further reading: The Facts Concerning the Resurrection: Don't believe the New Testament is a reliable historical source? I'd argue that the NT is historically reliable, but try let's throwing out most of what it contains, and only focus on facts agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars, Christian or not. What we find might surprise you!

Back to the Dawkins & McGrath interview. Around the twenty-six minute mark of the interview, Dr. Dawkins says:

Richard Dawkins… the evidence for the life of Jesus and what he did, historically speaking, is remarkably thin, I think, modern theologians surely agree about that don't they?

In reply, Dr. McGrath begins by noting the remarkably early dating of the New Testament texts … but then within a few seconds leaves the argument about the historical reliability of the New Testament starts talking again about the explanatory power and significance of the events the New Testament records. When I heard this, I thought, "No! Don't let this issue go unchallenged!" While I think the explanatory power of Christianity is an important topic, this was a fantastic opportunity for McGrath to lay out the positive case for the reliability of the New Testament, because certainly many modern theologians (and historians, for that matter, whose primary concern is history after all) don't agree that the evidence is "remarkably thin". (See Gary Habermas' article Recent Perspectives on the Reliability of the Gospels for an outline and commentary on the approach of modern scholarship.)

Firstly, here are some of the salient points regarding the historicity of the New Testament:

  • The New Testament texts are extremely early. They can be dated closely to the events that they record, much closer than other historical documents from ancient history. The earliest was written approximately 20 years after the crucifixion (compared with hundreds of years for many other political and religious figures whose historicity is not in doubt) and the documents also contain church creeds which date even earlier. The most important of these creeds, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, is usually dated to within 5 years of Jesus' crucifixion! This is, historically speaking, the equivalent of a newsflash.
  • These early documents are the result of eyewitness testimony. Richard Bauckham's recent book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses persuasively argues this point from both internal and external evidence. (Bauckham's interview with Christianity Today, "They Really Saw Him" touches on a few of the points from the book. Note that the link may break after June 2007, I'm not sure how CT's online article posting works.)
  • There are in existence approximately 5,686 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament (full copies, books, portions, and fragments). Compared to all other ancient writings, this is virtually a mountain of manuscripts. Having so many copies makes it possible to cross-check them against one another to ensure that the text we use today matches extremely closely to the original text. And it does.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, there are several references to Jesus in non-Christian sources. See for example the online version of Habermas' chapter Ancient Non-Christian Sources from his book The Historical Jesus.

For more on these issues, one site to check out is Jesus: Fact or Fiction … which includes lots of video clips, which surely beats my boring prose, eh? (Hey, you made it this far, I must be doing okay!)

Secondly, even if we take a much more critical stance, and (somewhat arbitrarily) throw out most of what the New Testament contains, a case can still be built that the resurrection (the most central and important event in Christian history) actually did occur. This is called the "minimal facts" approach, and is built upon only facts considered historical by the vast majority of scholars (both Christian and secular, liberal and conservative). Actually, although Habermas' survey of hundreds of sources yielded 12 agreed-upon facts, the case can be built using only four of those twelve!

For an excellent overview of the "minimal facts" approach, see Habermas' article The Facts Concerning the Resurrection.

Just for fun, you can also watch a rather one-sided dialog between Habermas and skeptic Tim Callahan on the resurrection: Part 1 & Part 2 (WMV files). In fairness, Callahan does not provide some of the most sophisticated arguments a critic may use, but nevertheless this dialog demonstrates the power and effectiveness of the minimal facts approach.

(Note: I originally posted this blog entry on TheLife.com's Talk Blog, and it's a bit outside the usual scope of my blog here, but felt it was important enough to post here anyways. I've also made some edits to the post for my own blog … have to be a bit more non-partisan on the Talk Blog …)

Planned Parenthood (whose services include "family planning, gynecological care, STI/STD testing and treatment, pregnancy testing, and abortion") reported some shocking figures for their 2005-2006 fiscal year:

Total abortions performed: 264,943
Total income: $902.8 million
Total profit: $55.8 million

Of that $902.8 million gross income, $305.3 million came from taxpayer dollars, an increase of $32.6 million from the previous year.1

The glaring number of 264,943 abortions (roughly equivalent to the number of people who live in the city of Buffalo, New York) should encourage us to take a calm but serious look at the issue of abortion.

That, of course, is the big question: What is the unborn? As Greg Koukl says, "If the unborn are not human, no justification for elective abortion is necessary. But if the unborn are human, no justification for elective abortion is adequate." Irregardless of my Christian faith it is my contention that abortion is morally wrong and therefore should no more be allowed than any other crime. Of course, this doesn't make the issues surrounding abortion any easier, but moral decisions are rarely easy.

Related reading:

Alister McGrathDuring the Richard Dawkins / Alister McGrath interview, Dawkins asks McGrath how a person goes from being a deist to being a Christian. (This exchange begins around the 24 minute mark.) Dawkins lists several things Christianity "adds on" to belief in God in general (including atonement, prayer, forgiveness, etc) which Dawkins says "seem to have no substantiating basis at all," and then remarks that he is tempted to say that these things were grafted on "for no better reason than that's the way that you happen to have been brought up".

McGrath begins his reply by saying that the foundation for his belief is in the person of Jesus, and that for Christians their beliefs are not just abstract musings about "a god" but instead Jesus and His resurrection are key to "understand everything". One of the main reasons that Christians believe in God, says McGrath, is Jesus. He notes that the ideas of sin, atonement, etc are not "added on" but rather are core beliefs that have explanatory power. He concludes by saying that "Christianity is not so much about explanation but about salvation".

Here McGrath takes a different stance than I do. First, I would have made reference to Dawkins' last point, that McGrath believes because it's the way he was brought up. Dawkins is aware that McGrath was an atheist early in his life, so that comment does not apply to him. Nor does it apply to me, since I was brought up in an intentionally non-religious environment. Of course, even if McGrath DID believe just because it's the way he was brought up, that says nothing about the truthfulness of those beliefs. (See: Genetic fallacy)

My journey from agnosticism to Christian faith went something like this:

  1. Does God exist?
    • Yes.
  2. What would God be like? What attributes would this God have?
    • One God … creative … omniscient … omnipotent … good …
  3. Which, if any, of the gods of the world religions comply with these attributes?
    • Some: Judaism, Islam, Christianity. (And Christian splinters like Mormonism.)
  4. After investigating these faiths, which seems to be worthy of further investigation?
    • Christianity, for what have become my "big three" reasons (among others): Historical reliability, the person of Jesus, and salvation by grace. (And by extension, greatest "explanatory power" as McGrath says.)
  5. After studying Christianity in more depth, do I have good reason to think it is true?
    • Yes.

Of course, as you can read in more detail in my personal story, even after I had come to that point of intellectual acceptance it took awhile for me to take the step of "faith". This faith is not blind … see my post Faith & Evidence.

Again, like the miracles issue, I agree wholeheartedly with what Dr. McGrath is saying. However, I would have attempted to point out what makes Christianity uniquely different from other faiths and naming the reasons why belief in Jesus is warranted in the first place. These things are, I think, the "substantiating basis" that Dawkins is asking for. Christianity must be about both explanation and salvation.

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