The Metaphysical Hurdle and The Miminal Facts Argument

Anyone who has been involved in the apologetic endeavor is familiar with what is called the “minimal facts” argument. The main proponents for this argument are Gary Habermas and Mile Licona. The five well-evidenced facts granted by virtually all scholars who study the historical Jesus: (see See Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus) are 1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion 2. Jesus’ followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead 3. Early eyewitness testimony to belief in Jesus’ resurrection 4. The conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother, James 5. Paul, once an enemy of the early faith, became a commited follower of Jesus the Messiah

Who are some of these critical scholars that Habermas mentions? To read more about this see: http://preventingtruthdecay.org/jesusresurrection.shtml. I list some more of them here.

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

In his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach , Licona discusses what is called “The Historical Bedrock.” These three facts about the Historical Jesus are held by most critical scholars and historians and they are part of the minimal acts argument.

1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion

2. Very Shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Licona is more than aware that just because there is a list of agreed upon facts that is agreed upon by historians and Biblical scholars will not make it true. If so, that would be what is called a “consensus gentium fallacy” which is the fallacy of arguing that an idea is true because most people believe it. As Licona says, “Something doesn’t become a “fact” just because the majority of scholars believe it.” (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, pg 279).

However, as Gary Habermas says, “Certainly one of the strongest methodological indications of historicity occurs when a case can be built on accepted data that are recognized as well established by a wide range of otherwise diverse historians.” (see Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman, Why I Am A Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks, 2001), 152.

Historian Christopher Blake refers to this as the “very considerable part of history which is acceptable to the community of professional historians.” (See Christopher Blake, “Can History be Objective?” in Theories of History, Ed. Patrick Gardiner (New York: Macmillan, 1959), pp. 331-333; cited in Geisler and Hoffman, 152.

I have listed elsewhere some of those that agree with the minimal facts or historical bedrock. Even Bart Ehrman agrees with these three points:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion: Ehrman says: “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate” (see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 261-262).

2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them: Ehrman says: “Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19).” ( see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 282).

3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him: Ehrman says: “There is no doubt that [Paul] believed that he saw Jesus’ real but glorified body raised from the dead.” (see see see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 301).

So as you can see, it really boils down to what accounts for the post mortem resurrection appearances. And what do skeptics generally punt to account for the appearances? Subjective visions or hallucinations. I discuss this issue in greater detail in  my post called “What Did the Disciples See?”  Licona and others have responded to it as well. This shouldn’t be a shock given that the biggest hurdle in the minimal facts argument is the issue of metaphysics (i.e., the study of being, reality). Granted, there have been many books written about the issue of miracles and it would seem that Hume’s dogmatism that many atheists seem to repeat isn’t as strong as it once was.

But in the end, the debate over the resurrection is always going to be about metaphysics. One approach is what it called the a priori  approach while the other is called the a posteriori approach. Deductive reasoning is called a priori (prior to looking at the facts) and inductive reasoning is called a posteriori (after seeing the evidence). If one has decided that many of the events in the New Testament are not possible (because of an a priori commitment to naturalism), it will impact how they interpret the evidence (after examining it). Some scholars may say they are open to taking an a posteriori approach to the resurrection, when it comes time to actually examine the evidence. However, in many cases, they set the bar so high that no amount of evidence will ever convince them. So in many cases, if one is just utterly convinced that the natural world is all there is than we are back to natural theology and whether naturalism can explain reality better than theism.

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2 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Hurdle and The Miminal Facts Argument

  1. Ed Atkinson November 5, 2014 / 9:35 am

    Good stuff Chab. From our previous exchanges you’ll know that I am largely on board with this. I agree that the minimal facts are likely to be correct, I agree that an a priori commitment to naturalism is unjustified. I agree that it comes down to how high the metaphysical hurdle is set.

    There are two issues: (1) hurdle height and (2) how high the hurdler (i.e. the evidence) can jump.

    On (1), the height is not just a function of how good a case can be made using natural theology. Even if I was 100% convinced that a God must exist, he could be the Deist God having no interest in events on earth. The metaphysical hurdle is still massively high. So you must show me that God is interested in and active in the world. Even then the bar is high, because why should He be interested in Jesus? You need arguments to show that the Judaism of the time is likely to be the true religion and that Jesus was special among the other Messiah claimants. Now the hurdle is jumpable. Finally, imagine that I have religious experiences myself which I believe to be of Jesus, or I grew up in a Christian home and my faith has always been real to me, now the metaphysical hurdle is so low that no jump is needed as I run over it.

    My actual view is that the metaphysical hurdle is pretty high and I would need my mind changing on arguments from natural theology, Judaism etc before it was jumpable by the kind of historical evidence that the ancient world can provide.

    On (2) please refer to our discussion on the “What did the Disciples See?…” post you referenced
    https://chab123.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/what-did-the-disciples-see-a-closer-look-at-the-resurrection-appearances/

    Applying the discussion to the Minimal Facts, it seems that a few visions and other religious experiences explain them well, and that the golden evidence we have from 1Cor15 strongly supports that explanation. Visions and religious experiences are not unusual and so the hurdler (i.e. the evidence) actually can make only a very small jump.

    While this comment is obviously slanted to my own conclusions, I hope it helps in putting the metaphysical hurdle that you discussed in its context.

    Cheers Ed

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