Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Almost But Not Quite Circular

Claims are not proof. But nobody looks for proof unless some kind of claim has first been made.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Andy Stanley’s assertion that the Genesis account of Adam and Eve is history, not just spiritually valuable mythology. For Andy, it is how Jesus spoke about Adam and Eve that is definitive.

I agree with him on at least two things: first, that Genesis is historical, and second, that the words of Christ are of vital importance to the believer. They are there to be pored over, memorized, analyzed with all the faculties God has given us, meditated upon and lived out wherever they apply to our lives.

Good so far. And then, me being me, I have to lob a monkey wrench into the machinery.

The Monkey Wrench

This is what I wrote:
“Stop and consider: how did we get these words in the first place? The fact is, we only know what Jesus said because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John recorded his words for us, and we believe they got it right because John tells us that Jesus promised they would:

‘But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ ”
There’s a certain circularity to this that may at first seem disconcerting, though it’s really nothing remarkable, and we are better to confront it than gloss over it. Let me just map it out:
  • Andy believes in Adam and Eve because Jesus spoke about them as if they were real people.
  • I believe in Jesus because Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and others wrote about him.
  • I believe what these men said about Jesus is accurate because Jesus promised in the upper room discourse that the Holy Spirit would teach the apostles all things and bring to their remembrance all he had said to them.
Almost but not quite circular, and look where it leaves us. Now we’re depending on John to have accurately reported the Lord’s promise about accuracy. What if what John wrote about the Holy Spirit wasn’t exactly what Jesus said? How would we know? What if he just concocted the promise to invest his writing and that of his fellow apostles with greater authority?

John the Religious Fraud

I will avoid the obvious comeback: that assuming John was a religious fraud doesn’t help us explain why he was telling his story almost 40 years after the original events took place, in the face of ongoing persecution, exile and the same sort of mixed success in discipling and church planting that we often see today. John’s gospel, his epistles and Revelation were among the last books of the New Testament to be written and circulated. If there had been anything chimerical or false about the words and events that were the foundation of John’s faith, he and others in-the-know would almost surely have recanted or at least shut up by then.

But let’s leave that minor problem out of our reckoning for now. What we have in John’s history (and more explicitly in Paul’s and Peter’s epistles) are claims.

Now, a claim is not in itself proof, but neither is it nothing at all. Claims may be tested over time, and then we all get to see how they stand up in the face of lived experience. Everything that has been eventually demonstrated to my satisfaction and yours in this life was once nothing more than a claim, a theory or a hypothesis. Claims are what the scientific method feeds on, demonstrating the truth of one claim here and debunking another over there.

Claims vs. Historical Data

First, a claim to historical truth may be tested against available historical data, at least insofar as that data may enable us to quickly falsify it.

This is admittedly a bit tough to do from our perch fully two millennia down the road, but it was a lot easier 25-30 years after the original events when Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s gospels were first circulated, especially since they were almost surely being regularly read, heard and copied in the immediate area of the events they describe, and read and heard by people who either experienced those events themselves or had been hearing stories about them for years.

For me, thirty years ago is Elvis Costello’s Spike album, a move to a big city, my first $16/hour job, living in a friend’s basement, a new home church and a nasty accident making a left turn in my new Ford Tempo, give or take a few months.

Even with my now-spotty memory, if today I were to come across a popular new book claiming that in 1987 there had appeared in my then-neighbourhood a Bible teacher of such unique skill that thousands would gather in public in the middle of the workweek to hear him teach; that he had performed miracles, healed the sick, driven out demons and given sight to the blind; that after teaching for three years throughout my home province he had been publicly executed by the powers-that-be and that hundreds of his followers at that time had claimed he had shortly thereafter risen from the dead, well …

Duh. Of course I’d remember. More importantly, I’d CERTAINLY remember if it hadn’t happened at all; such a thing would be utterly impossible to forget. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of other people would also remember it hadn’t happened. Public rebuttals would be written by the dozens saying, “Wait, this NEVER OCCURRED!” The author of the book would either respond to these rebuttals by doubling down with a new flurry of evidence, or else he would run away and hide and never be heard from again.

The Acid Test of Contemporary Criticism

Well, the gospel accounts were given exactly that sort of acid test, even if it was a very long time ago. Now, the absence of evidence of contemporary written rebuttals to the historical facts laid out in the gospels doesn’t prove anything, of course. Such rejoinders, even if they came from rabbis or Jewish historians, would probably not have been considered sufficiently valuable or important to preserve for posterity much past the immediate flurry of controversy. If they were ever written, they may well have been buried in the shifting sands of the Middle East.

On the other hand, the absence of evidence of any response at all from the writers of the New Testament to pushback about the very basic facts they were laying out with respect to the life and teaching of Christ strongly suggests to me that no massive public resistance to at least the core factual elements of their story occurred at the time (their interpretation, of course, being another story entirely). Had it done so, at least one or two of the apostles’ responses to the fact-debunkers would almost surely have been preserved for us by exactly the same means as the gospels themselves have been preserved.

As the apostle Paul confidently said to King Agrippa, “This has not been done in a corner.”

Of course none of this constitutes proof, let alone irrefutable proof. But at least I am able to say to my own satisfaction that the available historical data from the period in which the Lord Jesus is alleged to have lived does not appear to clash irreconcilably with the broader historical strokes of the gospel writers’ accounts.

That’s all anyone would really expect to be able to say with confidence from this distance. Inconclusive, but not completely useless.

Spiritual Truth vs. Reality

Much more importantly, though, claims to spiritual truth may be tested against the evidence of our own eyes and hearts, and the great thing is that no historians are required for the exercise:
  • Jesus said, “The light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Hey, we’re looking at darkness all around us these days. Our culture constantly redefines morality so it can hide in plain sight. But it hates being exposed all the same. Next time you run across an abortion proponent, try using the phrase “pro-death” or “anti-life” to describe their position. Truth hurts.
  • More personally, Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” I’ve been getting my spiritual sustenance from him for over thirty years now, and he’s never let me down yet. Moreover, to my complete shock, I’m still repeatedly being told that the truths I’ve shared with others from the Bible have made their lives better, sometimes decades after the fact. Living water indeed!
  • Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I know the Lord had a specific truth in mind here, but this statement even works at the level of truism. Whenever I hear the truth or tell it, big ‘T’ or small, I find myself liberated from ignorance, manipulation, politics, self-indulgence, slavery to false narratives, and fear of what other people think. What a great thing!
  • Finally, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Guess what? I came to him and he did. I found relief from anger, guilt, anxiety and the frantic exertion of trying in my own energy or from my own strength of will to be the person I thought I should be. I found genuine rest for my soul. I’ve yet to come across a philosophy, an ideology or a political or religious system that can do the same.
Jesus said lots of other things too, and I can’t even come close to listing them all here. But neither can I find any I disagree with. Jesus accurately depicted the human condition precisely as I observe it, diagnosed my own needs, failings and the desires of my heart with greater precision than the most skilled physician, and offered me a solution that still works: himself.

Subjective it may be, yes. But to me it remains evidence more convincing than anything else I’ve encountered.

Either / Or

Claims are not proof. But when I properly understand what the Bible is claiming, I find it perfectly describes both what I see in the world around me and what I find in the murky depths of my own heart.

Moreover, nothing but total inspiration really helps us, and this is exactly what we’ve been given: men “carried along by the Holy Spirit”, not men using their own best human judgment and memory supplemented with the occasional burst of divine understanding.

Words like “all” and “everything” are pretty binary. If Jesus had told his disciples, “I’ll send the Holy Spirit to give your memories a bit of a nudge from time to time,” that would’ve been a promise of limited utility to their readers today. We’d be left guessing which bits got the spiritual boost and which bits didn’t.

But that’s not the claim being made. So either the Holy Spirit taught the disciples all things or he didn’t. Either he brought to their remembrance everything Jesus had said to them or he didn’t. Either we believe it or we don’t. There really is no good position halfway in between the two.

The Bible claims it. Faith accepts it. And it’s still holding me up.

The evidence for some claims may look circular to us. But if the claim turns out to have been true, our perception of its shape doesn’t matter much, does it?

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