As a Matter of Fact

The entire discussion of Christian apologetics would be greatly served if there was a clearer appreciation of a critical distinction: that of (1) facts and (2) contentions.

  1. Fact: A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually the case. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is whether it can be proven to correspond to experience. (ref)
  2. Contention: a point contended for or affirmed in controversy. (ref)

The subtle trick of apologetics is get that rubber stamp out: labelling contentions as facts is job one. We do not like doubt. When in doubt, stamp it!

A Recent Comment

One of my commenters recently posted the following:

The foundation of the Christian religion is not in fuzzy emotions or the logical coherence of its theology, but in a historical event: the resurrection; that it occurred, that there were many eyewitnesses to it, and that many of those eyewitnesses died attesting to it.

I formerly believe and said exactly the same thing. But is the resurrection a fact, or a contention? That would be a contention. In scholarly circles, among those who are most well versed in the relevant information and fields of study, affirming the resurrection is most decidedly done “in controversy”.

Care must be taken: it all rests in how carefully we cast our nets.

But what about there being eyewitnesses to it? Surely we can say that there were eyewitnesses. Actually, no. That would be a contention too. When Luke says that he is passing on an organized account, but fails to specify where the various threads of information came from, we only have the word of a single author. And he is an author who was not present for the events recorded. Nor does he tell us who actually was present; i.e., which eyewitnesses does his gospel represent? Seems important, but why dwell… When Paul tells us that he heard, second hand, about five hundred people seeing Jesus, we have hearsay of an event at second or third remove – and again, without any specifics as to who those people were, where they were, or when it happened. The testimony of a single author, who wasn’t there. In point of fact, none of the gospel accounts states that the writer is an eyewitness. But what if they had? If they had, which they did not, analogy could be drawn to the Mormon witnesses that affirm the existence of the Golden Tablets… Yet nobody outside Mormon circles was witness to their existence, and only Mormons take this claim seriously. Eyewitness testimony by religious zealots about their religious leaders has a history of being anything but objective. Thin. Very thin. That is why only corroboration from sources outside a religion could be considered “verification.”

OK, but surely the eyewitnesses died attesting; i.e., the martyrs were real. That must surely be a fact. Sorry, but no. Historians are by no means contention free here either. The book of Acts speaks of martyrs, and so does Josephus. But not the same martyrs. No martyr is “multiply attested” by both pagan and Christian sources. Nor does Josephus (or other pagan sources) affirm that these followers of Jesus actually died as martyrs. We have no confirmation whatever of either (1) why or (2) how they met their deaths “as martyrs.” The trail actually goes cold for nearly every claimed martyr, with not a word penned about them for centuries. Yet in almost supernatural form, Foxes Book of Martyrs provides vivid traditions about all of the apostles and their martyrdoms: in the middle ages.

Lift the rocks, and keep lifting. There’s nothing there.

Facts? No, just a long series of contentions. One contention upon another. And we call the constellation of these unconfirmed suppositions a “foundation” upon which to erect what William Lane Craig terms, “reasonable faith.”

What Facts Look Like

So, what do actual facts look like?

Actual facts will be affirmed by people without need for a particular religious pre-commitment. For example, a six-day creation is not a fact in any proper sense, because it is a highly contentious claim, and no one makes such a claim from the evidence… unless, if and only if, they have a religious text informing them as such. A spherical earth, by contrast, is (1) verifiable and (2) does not require a particular faith commitment to be accepted.

Concerning the gospels:

  • Fact: they were written anonymously.
  • Contention: they are eyewitness accounts.

Concerning Genesis:

  • Fact: it was written anonymously.
  • Fact: it is written in a language too recent for the time of Moses.
  • Contention: Moses wrote it.

Concerning Jesus:

  • Fact: pagan sources feature god-men with virginal conceptions centuries before Jesus.
  • Fact: these sources predate any analogue in Jewish writings.
  • Fact: Roman imperial theology featured savior titles for Caesar decades before the exact same titles were applied to Jesus.
  • Contention: Christian authors were not borrowing the titles and divine identity of Jesus from pagan sources.

Always ask: is this verifiable? Within the realm of religion, I am sorry to say that “verification” requires an outside source. Verification by others seeking to affirm the same specific supernatural claims simply isn’t satisfactory. Why? We need look no further than miracle claims or textual authority claims from religions of opposition to see. Verification must come from outside the given faith “bubble.” Otherwise, affirmation would be a far better word choice.

Summary

As Christians, we anchor our “reasonable faith” in an unfortunate selection of contentions. We stamp those contentions as “fact”, even though they are not verifiable and are made in the face of notable scholarly controversy.

There is a game being run, and its the same game played by Muslims and Mormons. Our faith – like theirs – is entirely reasonable given the backdrop of “facts” we maintain. Our reasonable faith is a blind faith, and what we are blind to is our incremental, bit-by-bit, parceling out of the blind leap, one small “fact” at a time. And we are indeed blind to the fact that this is what we are doing. The back-check is simple: Christians do not accept Muslim facts, nor vice versa. That’s because they aren’t facts; they are contentions. Even liberal Christians do not accept the facts of conservative Christians.  We would be better off to admit of our elastic definition of “fact.” But a reasonable faith anchored on contentions, well, that doesn’t sell many books, does it?

Once again, we do not like doubt, but certainty. Certainty is what sells apologetics books. When in doubt, we stamp it “fact.”

Comments

  1. Am not sure that fellow has read any material question the resurrection leave alone the historicity of the Jesus fellow. He wouldn’t be so confident.

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    • Makagutu,

      Well, the commenter was actually a very sharp and pretty well read attorney. I’m sorry to say that I know precisely how folks like him – and me – came to believe things like that. The engine of Christian apologetics is an unfortunately effective one a high percentage of the time. Some of us, and him too, have read thick books on evidences for the resurrection. Just as I read thick books from Stephen Meyer on intelligent design. When you get done with a volume like that, you’re left with the sense of having read quite deeply on the subject. It all lies in what presuppositions you’ve been subtly talked into. William Lane Craig is a master of this sort of thing.

      Its obvious to me now – and painfully so – where I went wrong for about three and a half decades. Its obvious that my readings were all inside the bubble. Its obvious that CS Lewis trafficked heavily in non sequiturs, that Lee Stroebel is a charlatan, and that WLC is the same type of clever disinformation artist that Glenn Beck is.

      Its obvious to me at this point. But something has to crack the egg. Apologetics is a booming business. As I tell my kids: religion isn’t dumb; its very clever. The most important thing is to be able to wield a clean razor and demonstrate precisely where the con lies. 🙂

      So in the end, you’re entirely right. If folks like him and me were better read on both sides, we wouldn’t be so confident. Absolutely true. I’m just trying to help crack the odd egg here and there, if I can.

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      • Thanks for your very insightful response.

        WLC and his clones are a very curious lot, one is not sure what and in which way one can get them to think that there is a chance they could be wrong, even just once!

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        • Yeah, you’re right. I’ve taken to asking people about their disconfirmation criterion. What evidence or information would, if located, demonstrate that your position is false?

          I had a friend ask me in conversation the other day, “could you be entirely wrong about this?”

          I said yes. Yes I could. I could be entirely mistaken from the first line. And I know at least in part what would demonstrate that.

          I then reversed the question and asked if he could be wrong about Jesus. It was funny, but he immediately sensed the weakness of stolidly maintaining the faith position that will never admit of this possibility. We’re all people, and we can all be wrong. That makes holding faith claims that admit of no such possibility a real problem. It puts certainty and humility in a tremendous tension with each other.

          Science and reason are ever subject to revision, and that is their strength, not their weakness. He was a bit more receptive to this notion after coming up empty on what would prove his own position wrong. Maybe a glimmer got through. Hard to say.

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          • To admit one could be wrong is a sure way to look for information, not just what will confirm what we believe but even what will challenge it.

            I like to say that doubt is the beginning of knowledge and whoever can doubt has the chance of learning.

            You think deeply Brisancian!

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  2. I’m a hopeless fan of your steady hand and eye.

    I’m continually astounded at just how little Christians actually know about the gospels “authenticity.” The “fact” that someone would say there were eyewitnesses to the resurrection is a testament to that. But then again, i saw a recent poll where 12% of US adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, so one really shouldn’t be surprised by what lunacy comes out of the US Christian camp.

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    • John,

      Well, thanks yet again.

      I too am astounded, and indeed this extends to myself, since I gazed through the same rosy but foggy lenses 18 months ago. We are taught the Bible by pastors, Sunday School teachers, professors, and apologists. And after a few years of sitting under such tutelage, we tend to think “we know our Bible.” One of the hard parts of emergence is the pride angle. It hurts like an SOB to find out that you’re ignorant. It hurts to see clear issues with the text illuminated, when you’ve read those texts for years, sometimes decades, and never saw it. The sense of chagrin remains acute.

      But if you ever need a snapshot of the Christian mind, just thumb through Lee Strobel’s CFC again. Every Christian I’ve known for the past 15 years would take its assertions as, pardon the pun, gospel truth. Christians are deluded for good reason: its been engineered that way.

      Then again, your Joan of Arc stat was hilarious. I think that represents an educational bracket down from my friends and neighbors though. Most of my friends know their Sunday school facts, their Constitution facts, and their Republican facts. 🙂

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  3. On your standards there are precious few facts going round. Not to mention that a leap of faith is needed to get outside your own mind. Especially if you believe (as some of your brethren preach) that mind and consciousness are neurological illusions. Your own existence is then not a fact. You cannot say that, at the very least, I know I exist because I am thinking about it. There might be no I, no thinking — just matter randomly doing what matter does. Very smart people believe this. And then think their thoughts are so true that we should think like they do.

    Even assuming her own existence, an evolutionist has no reason to trust her own perceptions, believing as she does that her brain is evolved not for perceiving truth but for optimizing gene propagation. (Not the same thing, mind you, unless you acknowledge that our genetic predisposition to belief then validates the belief.) The very few facts then available to us would be logical truths, such as that the Earth is Earth-shaped. Not spherical, by the way.

    But assuming that you and I are not figments of my mind, and assuming that my mind is not just a mechanic figment of my brain, and assuming the same for yourself, and assuming that there is an actual reality outside our minds, and assuming that this actual reality is common to us both, what facts about Jesus Christ do you admit?

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    • Hi Jack (my firstborn has that name, incidentally, as my wife and I have both been long time fans of CS Lewis),

      Whipsaw
      Overall, I have seen this kind of epistemological whip-saw before. When I suggest that we are overreaching on our designation of facts, those that want to claim them as facts quite often start down the road of epistemological nihilism to create a bookending extreme. Deciding that such an extreme is not a functional outlook then becomes a sort of basis for whipping the other end and maintaining that overreaching fact claims are as good as any other. Subjectivism and nihilism become sculpting forces for defending a subjective faith claim… but faith claims never want to stop there. Once granted, objective claims are trickled out of the sponge.

      To give you a sense about my perspective, I’m a research engineer by profession, which puts one of my feet in the theoretical and the other anchored in the practical. Here I will happily admit that the earth is not a perfect sphere, by the way, but it remains “spherical” as compared to the ancestrally proposed flat disk.

      There is no disproving the proposition that all of life is an internally-consistent illusion (just as, I may say, there is no disproving that an undetectable god exists). But I do not believe either to be the case. If the illusion hypothesis were true, then the answer to any query would be the trivial solution. Sometimes trivial solutions are true. But if true, nobody would need Jesus either… And this assumption, that the illusion hypothesis is untrue (certainly, it is undemonstrated), is one that Bible believers must make as well. The content of your comment seems to imply that you don’t embrace the illusion proposition. Epistemological nihilism is fun to play with. But since neither person in the conversation actually embraces this view, this is a conversation disruptor, not a catalyst. We could simply talk about the issues assuming that an external reality exists, since we both do, and noting that nobody advancing the illusion hypothesis has provided supporting evidence for it. So, moving ahead with our shared assumption that the other exists…

      Standards
      The definitions that I provided above are not mine, and they are referenced. If you propose that these are not good definitions, by all means, please say how.

      Trusting the Brain
      “…an evolutionist has no reason to trust her own perceptions, believing as she does that her brain is evolved not for perceiving truth but for optimizing gene propagation.”

      This argument unfortunately has more gum than teeth. Optimization for gene propagation means optimization for survival, and that means optimization for navigating the external reality of our environment. Logic is derivative of external object rules. If a hominid stashed some nuts behind tree A, he did not stash those nuts behind tree B. Finding his food caches, tracking animals, etc., are all skills that arise from a correctly functioning decision and memory engine.

      However, we should be wary of trusting our perceptions, and scientists trust something else entirely. Perceptions can be wrong, specifically because they did develop for survival. We perceive a flat earth, and we only know different because we have accumulated knowledge and verification and education about it. We also do not perceive any of the conclusions of higher physics, of microbial disease, etc. Our perceptions fall down on all of these. That’s why evolutionists and other scientists depend upon observation, but they only know they are right when they use their conjectures to make good and reliable *predictions*. A good hypothesis or theory will be one that explains all existing data and makes predictions about data we do not have. A theory is a treasure map. “Go to this place and dig here, and I can tell you what you will find buried there.”

      This is the categorical difference between Creationism and Evolutionary Theory. They *both* give explanations. Their explanations are not equal. Only one of these frameworks has made repeated and accurate crystal-ball predictions. Only one treasure map actually finds things buried where they are claimed in advance to be. The other spends its time trying to explain things (poorly) once found.

      So, there are good objective reasons why a highly evolved brain would have decent logic circuits. But any “trust” of the brain remains provisional and demands corroboration. Good explanations will extend well beyond the knowledge in hand and make verifiable predictions about the future.

      Jesus
      I am willing to embrace all the nominal historical facts about Jesus. He was a Jewish teacher. He lived in the first century. He had followers. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. His followers continued to believe in him after his death. Christianity is descended from the beliefs of those followers, etc.

      However, I am also willing to embrace the additional nominal facts about Jesus. The primary texts that we have describing Jesus’ life are religious documents (gospels), not disinterested historical accounts. This class of documents has overwhelming precedent throughout history for being prone to exaggeration, misrepresentation, and delusion. Further, these texts differ both in little and large ways from one another in how they represent Jesus and the extent of the claims they make concerning him. The claims about his birth, divinity, and cosmic function are far more amplified and grander in some gospels than others. They do not make the same historical and theological claims regarding the person of Jesus.

      These facts are acknowledged by non-Christian and Christian scholars alike, with one sectarian exception: the conservative/fundamentalist/inerrantist subset of New Testament scholars. And this latter category of claimants comes too cheaply: the Muslims and Mormons can happily boast of their own analogous groups. For this reason, religious claims of textual perfection must be backed with external (not internal) evidences, and in the case of the New Testament, they cannot and have not been.

      Anyway, hopefully that helps.

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  4. Perhaps perceiving truth is a by-product of gene propagation.optimization.

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    • Yep, I would agree. If we had entirely misplaced perceptions of external reality, fact, etc., there wouldn’t be any people left at this point. And it is easy to see a stair-stepping increase in such abilities as one moves up the cognitive complexity ladder of the animal kingdom.

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  1. […] there were about 500 witnesses to the resurrection but we only have his word and no one else and as Brisancian has elucidated it eloquently in his blog, I will not belabour the […]

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