Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Historical Apologetics

Philosophy and The Need for A Revelation

In the previous section of this series, I discussed the first category of Christian Apologetics: Philosophical Apologetics, or Philosophy as applied to religious beliefs. Philosophical Apologetics can also be referred to as Natural Theology, and overlaps significantly with Philosophical Theology, which is more restricted in scope. While there are nuances to each of these terms, the essential thrust of any kind of Philosophical Apologetic is to give a theoretical account of how Christianity as a worldview is rationally coherent, intellectually cogent, and existentially relevant. More particularly, Philosophical Theology deals with direct claims of the Christian faith, seeking to clarify how we might think about specific Christian doctrines, e.g. the Incarnation, or Biblical Inspiration. Philosophical Theology, unlike Natural Theology, addresses issues internal to the Christian faith, issues that emerge from its exclusive sources: the Bible, the Creeds, and maybe in some cases, the traditions of the Church. Natural Theology, alternatively, only draws from the natural world, i.e. the creation, as its source of theological speculation.

However, one thing is clear to anyone who has wrestled with Philosophy more broadly, or with any depth, and that is that there is no consensus about any philosophical view, or even any consensus about what philosophy is. As one Christian philosopher points out:

“Why is it the case that philosophical disagreements are never finally resolved? Why is it that the history of philosophy reads like a never-ending argument between enduring worldviews? From the ancient world to the contemporary world we find disputes between materialists and idealists, empiricists and rationalists, theists and atheists. I think that at least part of the answer lies in the fact that the answers provided to the questions of philosophy ultimately lead, as the Greeks saw so clearly, to different ways life must be lived. One reason people disagree about philosophical questions is that they want to live their lives in different ways. A commitment to a philosophical view (at least on the deepest questions) is not merely assenting to a set of propositions, but a decision as to who I am and who I want to become.”

C. Stephen Evans, A History of Western Philosophy (579-580)

Evans goes on:

“From my perspective, the lesson to draw from this is that we must give up the quest for an absolute, objective certainty that would eliminate philosophical disagreement.” (580)

In short, if Philosophy, understood as the use of human reason to draw conclusions about existence, still leaves us, after more than 2500 years of philosophizing, clueless about questions like “What is real?” and “How do I know anything?”; and if we are driven by underlying instincts that themselves are arational or subrational, then it is not wrong, and perhaps even necessary, to look elsewhere to make sense of things.

If humankind really is in a cycle of endless speculation, then the only other kind of thing that might make sense of our reality is something like Revelation; or the belief that something, or Someone has broken into our sphere of existence to disclose some truth to us about the way things really are. This is where Historical Studies and Historical Apologetics becomes vital to the life of the Church and the claims of Christian Faith. For without a historical revelation, Christianity is not really a religious faith, but yet another philosophical speculation about reality.

When it comes to the need for a Revelation from “outside,” i.e. knowledge that originates external to the human mind and that is not caused solely by the physical constituents of the universe, there is one primary source of Revelation that the Christian will be required to defend: the Bible. It has, after all, been the claim from the Church’s origins that the Bible is not just a set of abstract theological reflections, but a series of historical narratives, many of which refer to real events in time and space. An additional meta-claim about the Bible that can be made, especially if one already holds to God’s existence, is that the Bible is divinely inspired by God. Thus, it could be argued that if one believes that God exists, and the Bible is inspired by God, then not only does the Bible reference actual historical events, but it references them reliably.

Historical Apologetics and Biblical Theology

That Christian belief is bound to historical claims is, however, itself controversial. Since the emergence of Higher Biblical Criticism in the late 17th century, and the Enlightenment critiques of the supernatural that shortly followed (e.g. David Hume), there have been attempts by scholars and churchmen to separate Christian faith from its historical claims. Existentialists like the 20th century New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann were skeptical about grounding Christian faith in historical events that included supernatural elements. While the Christian faith was about the testimony of real people, in real places, and in real times; those testimonies were about less than real events.

Bultmann, and many who followed him, sought instead to seek out the existential core of the Christian Revelation as it applied to the individual’s experience (in itself not an unimportant task). However, on this kind of existentialist view, it was the historical proclamation, or kerygma, of the Apostles that “Jesus is Risen” which itself just is the resurrection. In other words, “resurrection” does not refer to an actual dead man coming out of a tomb in or around 33AD, but to an inspired faith in the message of “the Lord Jesus.” The resurrection is not more than a myth, even if a universal one with profound application to the life of the person who appropriates it to him or herself.

Much of this ahistorical, skeptical Christianity however led to the slow demise of seeing the Bible as a revelatory, and supra-mundane Word from God. The consequences of these views, whether direct or indirect, was a Christianity that, again, was more like mere philosophical speculation about God by historically and culturally situated authors than a revealed religion. Christianity was true, in a metaphorical or mystical sense, but not true in a way that it would be if its fundamental claims were grounded in real history. This resulted in what is commonly referred to as Liberal Protestantism,1Actually Liberal Protestantism had its roots far earlier than the late 19th century and Bultmann, but the existentialism of Bultmann and his successors is usually considered a kind of Liberal Protestantism. or the Social Gospel (see Walter Rauschenbusch)2Rauschenbusch was the grandfather of Richard Rorty, the prominent 20th century post-modern philosopher..

Other 20th century theologians like Karl Barth resisted this anti-realist trend however, suggesting that even if there could not be certainty about the historical facts of Christianity, this did not mean there was not a real, supernatural Revelation from God that is contained in the Bible. The knowledge of the resurrected Christ could only come through personal revelation however, and therefore it was not important to demonstrate the historicity of its key events (even if Barth did believe in an actual resurrection, of some sort)3I admit I am no Barth scholar, and to me his view on the historicity of the Resurrection is very hard to understand, sometimes appearing incoherent.. As such, Christian theologians should presuppose the Bible as true, and then just do the more focused work of doctrinal deduction through careful exegesis. Again, in itself not an unimportant task.

However, views like this often came under the harsh lens of the emerging scientism in the West, and were often found wanting in the cold light of the overly stringent verificationism and empiricism of the mid- 20th century. As such, liberal Protestantism in the West withered away under the scrutiny of analytical philosophy, and scientific triumphalism, not to mention the catastrophes of WWI and WWII.4This older Liberal Protestantism that was highly rationalistic has been replaced by a highly emotion-driven Progressive Evangelicalism that takes its philosophical cues from post-modernism and critical theory. This battle however, between contemporary neo-modernists who place total faith in science (e.g. Dawkins, Dennett) and conservative Evangelical apologists still rages today, although the contours of this debate have also morphed, primarily due to the dominance of post-modern epistemologies and movements like critical theory.

However, as existentialist views of the Bible were reaching their apex, a new thrust of academic, historical apologetics led by the “Fundamentalists” (e.g. B.B. Warfield, J Gresham Machen, and later E.J. Carnell) emerged to answer questions surrounding both the general reliability of the Bible as historical documents, and, more specifically, questions about the historical Jesus. These Fundamentalists, not to be confused or conflated with the term often applied to some flavor of religious fanatics, saw the importance of recapturing the historicity of the Christian proclamation, and, as such, the essential role of supernatural acts of God in that history. This particularly American movement, and to some degree British, provided a bulwark against more corrosive forms of historical criticism, and has sought to put the Bible firmly back on its historical foundations.

Today, Historical Apologetics is a vibrant field, and New Testament scholars like N.T. Wright, Craig Evans, Gary Habermas, Richard Bauckham, James Dunn, Craig Keener, and Old Testament scholars like John Walton, Tremper Longmann, Gordon Wenham, Daniel Block, and Michael Heiser have provided historical frameworks to defend many of the core claims of historical Christianity, especially the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact the New Testament scholarship of the last 30 years, in particular the so-called “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus, has exploded in comparison to what was being done in the mid-20th century. As such, there has been a serious revival of Historical Apologetics at the popular level as well.

Two Lines of Defense: Higher and Lower Criticism

There are two subareas of biblical history, both of which require careful study and argumentation to show the Bible as reliable, and, if God exists and Jesus is God, authoritative. These two subareas often go under the terms Higher and Lower criticism.

Higher Biblical Criticism (or HBC) primarily deals with the background of the biblical content: When were the books of the Bible, or their parts, actually written? By whom? Under what historical and cultural circumstances were they composed? In what literary style or genre were they written? And, especially in regard to the Old Testament books, was there a series of redactions to older texts that produced the texts we have now? These are the questions that most historical apologists try to answer as they look at authorship, sources, and context of the books of the Bible. To do HBC well, one really needs to know the original languages of the Bible, and also the historical circumstances surrounding its production. Most OT scholars will not only know Hebrew therefore, but also other ancient Near Eastern languages (like Akkadian, Ugaritic, etc). New Testament scholars, on the other hand, will know Greek and Aramaic, and have to be very familiar with Greco-Roman history and culture.

Lower criticism alternatively, has to do with the recovery and study of the biblical manuscripts themselves. This is often referred to, in clearer terms, as textual criticism, since it has to do with physical texts (i.e. the extant, hand written copies of biblical books), and whether or not we can reconstitute the original words of the Old and New Testaments (if there are “original” words to reconstruct). Bart Ehrman is the most popular contemporary non-theistic textual critic, although his mentor, Bruce Metzger, was a devout Christian. For more on textual criticism, one can check out Dan Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts here. Textual Criticism is a fascinating area of study, and it does matter in the defense of certain Christian doctrines about the Bible, in particular its inspiration, and inerrancy. While there is good evidence from textual criticism to support the authenticity of our contemporary New Testament, difficulties surrounding the Old Testament texts are manifold. However, I will discuss this in a later post about more general problems with the Old Testament manuscripts.

Three Objects of Defense: Old Testament, New Testament, and Church History

When it comes to defending historical claims, there are three historical objects in view that require defense: the Old and New Testaments, and the broader history of the catholic (small “c”) Church. Some might argue that it is not necessary to defend the Church’s history, but I think it actually quite important to give a defense, not an excuse mind you, of the Church’s emergence and spread throughout the world. To be fair, that history is not one that should be whitewashed, but must be presented fairly and accurately, warts and all. However, that the Church has been foundational to the development of Western Civilization, to include all of its major cultural forms and institutions, is undeniable. To neglect so great a history, again ugly parts included, would be a disservice to humanity. However, this is exactly what some anti-theists are keen on doing, and the Religion-Science conflict myth has been part of American academic culture since at least Andrew Dickson White in 19th century.

The Old Testament

The most significant problem with any attempt at a comprehensive defense of the Old Testament is the sheer lack of evidence. But, that means evidence either way, and a logical fallacy that should not be made in relation to the historical narratives of the Old Testament is lack of evidence being treated as evidence of absence. For many of the Old Testament events narrated in books like Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, etc., natural processes, war, and the sands of time have simply eroded what might have been evidence for their historicity. That said, certain philosophical presuppositions will obviously come into play with any investigation of biblical historicity.

Thus, while some evidence may still be forthcoming as archaeologists continue to dig, the simple fact remains: we do not know with certainty. Nevertheless, there have been discoveries in the last century, most prominently the Dead Sea Scrolls, that have given some additional hope that more can be found, even more documentary evidence. Also, recent archaeological digs have turned up some concrete remnants that point to at least some fundamental OT history being true, like David being an actual king of Israel, or Hezekiah’s water tunnel in Jerusalem. These are not insignificant, and the trend is definitely in the direction of greater confirmation of the OT historical books.

However, in the last few years apologists have been forced to turn their attention from the defense of the historicity of the Old Testament, to the defense of the moral character of the Old Testament. This more aggressive and visceral anti-theistic attack (as an attack on the Old Testament God would entail an attack on orthodox Judaism as well), directly targets the moral character of Yahweh in the Old Testament. This attack has even influenced many Christians to abandon the idea of trying to “rescue” the God of the Old Testament, in what could be called a kind of neo-Marcionite turn in Christian theology. In either case the kind of violence that not only seems to be allowed by Yahweh, but actively endorsed by Him in the pages of the Old Testament, is a topic of apologetical debate that cannot be easily resolved.

As such, there are two main lines to defend regarding the Old Testament: the facticity of the historical narratives, and the moral character of God as presented in the Old Testament. A third line, alluded to above, is the reconstitution of the original texts, a problem which seems effectively unsolvable.

The New Testament

For several years, roughly 1,800 of them, the Church has had to wrestle with two big questions about the New Testament: “why four, distinct stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection?” and “why so many discrepancies between them, especially between John and the other three (the Synopotics)?” Perhaps a third question might be “Why were the Gospels written so much later after the purported events?”

Early Church Fathers, like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen were not overly concerned about the fact of their being four Gospels, or their apparent lateness, although they were concerned about the existence of other writings about Jesus that seemed to be unorthodox, and wildly contradictory to the accepted Four. Thus, one of the first apologetical issues addressed by the ante-Nicene fathers especially, was the nature and scope of the biblical Canon.

However, even having four “official” accounts of the life of Jesus inevitably led to fundamental questions about each account’s independent historicity, the historicity of the larger story they all point to, and whether or not the accounts can be properly harmonized, if they even need to be. How reliably each Gospel attests to the events they purport, how well their independent data cohere, and even to what degree they affirm the same moral and theological views, is axiomatic to the Church’s witness to and exclusive claims about the truth.

The Reliability of the Gospels has therefore been, and continues to be the main line of defense for Christian New Testament scholars doing apologetical work. From the time of Origen (184-253 AD), it was clear that only these four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were widely accepted by the Church as divinely inspired. Other, later works like the Didache may have been seen as useful or helpful to the Church, while still others, like the Gospel of Thomas, less so. Nevertheless only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the earliest moments of the Church’s life were considered uniquely inspired texts:

1. Now, in the New Testament also, ‘many have tried’ to write gospels, but not all have found acceptance. You should know that not only four Gospels but ver many were composed. The Gospels we have were chosen from these gospels and passed on to the churches. We can know this from Luke’s own prologue, which begins this way: ‘Because many have tried to compose an account.’ The words ‘have tried’ imply an accusation against those who rushed into writing gospels without the grace of the Holy Spirit. Matthew, Mark, John and Luke did not ‘try’ to write; they wrote their Gospels when they were filled with the Holy Spirit….

2. The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many. One of them is entitled According to the Egyptians, another According to the Twelve Apostles. Basilides, too, dared to write a gospel and give it his own name. ‘Many have tried’ to write, but only four Gospels have been approved. Our doctrines about the Person of our Lord and Savior should be drawn from these approved Gospels….We have read many others, too, lest we appear ignorant of anything, because of those people who think they know something if they have examined these gospels. But in all these questions we approve of nothing but what the Church approves of, namely only four canonical Gospels.

Origen, Homily on Luke (trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., 1996)

Of course the most pressing reason to defend the reliability of the New Testament is to place the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on firm historical ground. For without a bodily resurrection, the Apostle Paul himself makes it clear we are in serious trouble:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[b] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

That said, it seems almost a moot issue in the early church that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, with the notable exception that around the mid 2nd-century Gnostic Christians, heavily influenced by Platonic dualism, began to reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus, in favor of a more spiritualized account. However, this account by no means rejected Jesus’ divinity, but rather sought to undermine a bodily resurrection because the escape from the body was the summum bonum of their platonized Christianity. As such the idea that Jesus would rise bodily from the grave was utterly distasteful. This hyper-spiritualized view occasioned early apologetical work by Church fathers like Athenagoras (133-190), Justin Martyr (100-165), and Ignatius (35-108) defending a bodily resurrection.

That Jesus rose from death in the early church is however simply taken for granted. It is only after the advent of HBC and the Enlightenment take on miracles however, the historicity of the Resurrection event became the central issue of Historical Apologetics, and still is today.

Church History

It might seem that once a reasoned defense of the Bible itself has been provided that the task of historical apologetics is largely complete. And, in fact, this is probably true. A robust defense of the Bible’s historical reliability and textual authenticity should at least suffice to compel the skeptic to consider the Bible’s claims. However, the Church that emerges out of the Jesus movement of the 1st century AD is also important to defend, as it is not irrelevant to learn how the purported revelation knowledge of the Bible motivated and shaped the communities that considered it to be true . For how the lives of those who accepted that knowledge as true played out in history also has some bearing on the truthfulness of that knowledge.5However, this is not to make the genetic fallacy, whereby we would judge the truth of Christian claims based on the behavior of those who purport to believe them. The claims themselves would still have to be adjudicated on other grounds.

Therefore, it is of enduring value to the Church to have historians capable of recapitulating not only the Church’s history for its own sake (as any historical recapitulation is), but also for the sake of correcting the historical record when false charges are made or accusations levied against the people of God. One prominent scholar who has done much to correct the historical record of the Church’s historical activity is Rodney Stark, who has written much on several eras of the Church’s history, as well as the influences the Church has had on Western culture, for good, and for ill.

Some apologetical issues related to the Church’s history that continually arise in popular debate are: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the Galileo incident, the early debates on Darwinian Evolution and Creationism, and of course the Church’s role during WWII. A good understanding of these apparently ignominious chapters in the Church’s history can help to dispel many myths about the Church’s role in the world, while also validating legitimate critiques by skeptics.

Conclusion: Christianity Is Historical

Unlike philosophical apologetics, historical apologetics must, in virtue of the Christian claim that God has revealed Himself concretely in history, deal with historical evidence and argument. Most of this evidence comes either from documents or other kinds of archaeological evidence, e.g. coins, monuments, engravings. As such, historians have a more focused data set to work with than philosophers, and a degree of uncertainty about what can be proven to be historically accurate is unavoidable due to that limited data. However, this applies to all of human history, especially ancient history. It will matter therefore with what underlying metaphysical and theological commitments one approaches such historical evidence. Historians firmly entrenched in naturalism, or even theists who desire to hold to methodological naturalism, will inevitably have to find non-supernatural conclusions about at least many of the claims of both the Old and New Testaments and maybe even Church History, e.g. post-Biblical miracle reports.

Nevertheless, there is also good reason to believe that testimonial evidence, which is what most historical evidence is, is actually quite a reliable source of knowledge. Moreover, it has been shown that most of our beliefs are developed through the acceptance of some kind of personal or public testimony. Even the scientist must rely on the testimony of several others who have gone before him, lest he grope in the dark about where, and how, to begin his experiments. Further, recent work in fields like Social Epistemology has shown how significant testimony really is to the justification of our beliefs, especially when observers as sources of information are multiplied, and a communal effort made to get at truth; something many NT historians have also pointed out with regard to the Gospel events.

When it comes to the objects of historical investigation Apologetics must address, those are clear: the canon of scripture, the content of those scriptures, and the public history of the catholic (universal, orthodox, historical) Church. Above all, there is one event that stands out as decisive to understanding the Christian faith either as fundamentally subjective, existential, and private, or as objective, forensic, and universal. That, of course, is the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. While Bultmann et al., thought that Christianity could be sustained in an existential mode, separate from an actual, historical Resurrection; others, like the German systematic theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, saw that project as entirely hopeless, arguing instead that not only could the Resurrection be rationally investigated, but that ultimately it had to be for Christianity to make any sense:

Whether or not a particular event happened two thousand years ago is not made certain by faith but only by historical research, to the extent that certainty can be attained at all about questions of this kind.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus- God and Man

In conclusion then, a robust program of Historical Apologetics will seek to defend the factual nature of Christian claims about God’s divine activity in this space-time reality, even if it cannot show with epistemic certainty that those events happened. But, as with any belief about any thing, even a belief about “What is real”, a certain degree of faith is required.

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