History and faith

A commenter on the previous post raised an interesting point that leads me into something I’ve been wanting to explore here. He wrote:

I don’t see why it would be logically necessary that [the Bible] is 100% true. However, if we allow that it isn’t, then how are we to determine which parts are true? There is no way of knowing, which is damning [for the whole book]. An empirical test would be nice, but as we all know there is no such thing.

How we “determine which parts are true” is especially important in regard to the Bible’s supernatural claims. Being natural and living in a natural world, we find these claims almost impossible to evaluate. Hence, we tend to allow the truth of the spiritual claims of Scripture to piggy-back on the verifiable claims: typically, as the verifiable claims fare, so confidence in the unverifiable fares. This is obviously inductive reasoning, and not a very robust form of it either: conceivably, one could read a set of verifiable events in a newspaper, create out of whole cloth any number of stories detailing supernatural events supposedly related to those newspaper events, and publish a book integrating both the newspaper and the manufactured fantasy stories. Obviously, no one need seriously entertain the bogus claims’ truthfulness simply because of the truthfulness of the verifiable claims.

Now, I don’t think that the supernatural and other unverifiable events of Scripture were all created out of whole cloth. My point is that a healthy dose of humility in our bibliology is warranted: for instance, even if we find out that the Khirbet Qeiyafa fragment establishes that Hebrew writing and even specific content from Jewish scriptures date further back than scholars now suppose, it doesn’t necessarily follow, as some have apparently concluded, that “extreme liberal biblical criticism” has ceded territory specifically over to “conservative” forms of criticism. Doubtless, there are versions of “extreme liberal biblical criticism” that will take evidence like this (if it proves valid) in stride. The fact is, even if proof for the resurrection of Jesus were uncovered, there would be possible explanations other than those given by the writers of the New Testament.

When the conclusions of certain biblical critics is characterized as “extreme” or “liberal”, it has already been judged from a confessional standpoint. Is this fair? I happen to think that our confessions should be sufficiently grounded by evidence before allowed to sit in judgment of contrary evidence. This leads me to muse: those who approach a particular ancient text from the same position as everyone throughout history except some Jews and Christians and who seek to verify what they can using the carefully honed skills of historical and textual criticism are “liberal”, and those who posit an unnatural (“supernatural”) influence that throws out all other humanity’s understanding of the text are the ones called “conservative”? What in heaven’s name do “liberal” and “conservative” even mean anymore?

An excellent introduction to the nature and importance of historical studies for biblical interpretation is a short (142 pp.) and readable book called The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith by Dr. James F. McGrath. In this book, McGrath uses a critical examination of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial and resurrection coupled with our extra-biblical knowledge of first century Palestinian burial practices as an example of the kind of conclusions that an historian not committed to affirming inerrancy might draw. While the preponderance of his suggestions are not as scandalous as evangelicals might fear, many of the ideas he as an historian must entertain will certainly not sit comfortably with even more liberal evangelicals. But importantly, this is not his only point: he also seeks to present an explication of and apologetic for using the tools of historical study on our beloved Bible. Most evangelicals are skeptical of using these tools except when it is expected to not affect or to bolster their already formed conclusions; they tend to view historians who come to non-evangelical conclusions about Scripture as atheists seeking to undermine faith. This skepticism is understandable, but somewhat misplaced, since “…there is much evidence that there are many people working in the fields of history and Biblical studies as an expression of their faith rather than because of opposition to it” [emphasis original]. Moreover, engaging the findings of historical study should be a crucial part of our interpretive process. His book undertakes to explain how:

…the very common approach of taking Biblical stories uncritically at face value, and using them as a reason for dismissing evidence not only from history but from science and other sources of knowledge, is fundamentally misguided. Historical study provides us with the only tools available to us for knowing about the past. (p. 8 )

The historical data in Scripture is examined like we examine any other ancient text purporting to record historical events. Because first-hand observation is naturally precluded, empirical tests are never exactly conclusive when dealing with certain types of historical data; this means that most attempts to determine historicity are inevitably indeterminate. An historian gathers an idea of the likelihood of certain events but, as long as he is working as an academic, he must remain ultimately agnostic, no matter what his hunch might be.

At some point though, people generally aren’t content with accepting indeterminacy about such events: they will generally come to their own, ultimately untestable, personal conclusions one way or another. Some will consider errors in the Bible’s depiction of demonstrable events and then look askance particularly at the indemonstrable events, concluding, “None of it’s true.” Others like myself find that the supposition that the Bible testifies to certain fundamental transcendent truths explains more than it causes trouble for, especially when taking into account the experiences of ourselves and others we know and love. So, without contradictory evidence, but also without proof, we believe; the problem I’m critiquing is that not all of us recognize that it is in fact without proof that we believe. But as McGrath also argues, excessive dependence upon empirical proof can be just as misguided.

While most conservative Christian readers might think he goes too far in revealing the weaknesses of their fideism, McGrath also critiques those overconfident that the only thing worth believing is what’s empirically verifiable. In a passage of Burial representative of a theme recurring throughout, he reminds us, “Doubt, on the other hand, taken to its extreme, becomes a kind of faith.” To substantiate this surprising claim, he appeals to that hallmark postmodern critique of modernism: a dependence on empiricism that breeds “excessive skepticism” is itself based upon implicit trust in our senses and our understanding of our experiences. This unprovable trust lacks requisite humility and a sober recognition of our finitude, and it’s problematized by the common observation that “seeing is believing” must always be tempered by “appearances can be deceiving”. But somehow, as I have observed multiple times on this blog, we seem to get by anyway.
There are many questions that we cannot answer with absolute certainty, and yet we find ourselves willing to accept some things in the absence of absolute proof. Most of us consider this world that we inhabit to be real. Sometimes, we must take reason as far as it can take us, and then keep moving forward beyond what we can prove. (p. 12)
So while the destruction of the paper-mâché bulwark of inerrancy means that there is no surefire way of knowing which parts of Scripture are certainly true, it bears repeating that observation I made earlier cuts both ways. Unverified claims of Scripture in no way necessarily share the same fate as the verifiable claims: no one seriously expects that nothing the ancient pagan historians tell us is credible just because we find them making reference to their gods. Errors in the Bible are “damning” for provability, but not “damning for the whole book” in that they do not remove its usefulness as an historical testimony to the faith of people of old, the core of which has been passed down to us and still makes a difference in people’s lives today. It seems both believers and unbelievers need to recognize the Bible for what it is, not what believers expect and want it to be.
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