The “We Now Know That” Tactic

Have you ever been talking to a skeptic when they say “ Yeh, but we now know that.” What I mean is that you can be talking about a variety of issues about the existence of God such as:

  • The Origin of the Universe
  • The Mathematical Fine-Tuning of the Universe
  • The Terrestrial Fine-Tuning of Planet Earth
  • The Biological Fine-Tuning of Complex Life on Earth
  • The Informational Fine-Tuning of the DNA molecule
  • The Origin of Mathematical Laws
  • The Origin of Physical/Natural Laws
  • The Origin of the First Cell
  • The Origin of Human Reason
  • The Human Consciousness
  • The origin of Objective Morality
  • Miracles
  • The Resurrection of Jesus
  • The Reliability of the Bible

In many cases, skeptics will say, “Yeh, we now know that there are many universes out there, or we now know that David Hume showed miracles aren’t possible.” Or, “we know that evolution can explain the complexity of life and why humans are moral creatures.” I could go on and on.

Remember, a belief is said to be justified when a person fulfills his or her duties in acquiring  and maintaining a belief. Or, a belief is said to be justified when it is based on a good reason/reasons or has the right grounds or foundation.

But the problem with the “we know that” tactic is a similar way of saying the individual has some sort of airtight proof for their position. In other words, they’re making a knowledge claim and in many cases, they think there are no defeaters to their claim. Remember that there are two kinds of defeaters: rationality defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the rationality of a basing a belief on certain grounds) and knowledge defeaters (that provide grounds that undermine the legitimacy of a claim to knowledge on behalf of a belief based on certain grounds- see The Waning of Materialism, edited by Robert C. Koons and George Bealer, OUP, 2009).  Or, let me put it another way: in order for the individual to have certitude,  it must meet the following criteria:

(1)  It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

(2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.

Hence, a judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

Guess what? Most of our claims (both theists and skeptics) never reach the level of certitude. Now  this doesn’t mean that there is no justification for Christian theism. But in most cases our judgments are not indubitable, or beyond doubt.The same goes with the claims of most skeptics. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that many people don’t have a background in epistemology which is the study of knowledge. In the end, in many cases, rather than clinging to the ‘we know that” tactic, skeptics are better off saying “Let me offer some reasons for why I’m not a theist.”

Just some food for thought.

Three Models for How Christians Can Engage Culture

Given the current cultural climate, the hot topics that always being talked about are issues such as the same sex marriage and abortion debate. But what I have noticed over the years is that Christians are still struggling to figure out how to exactly engage the culture around them. In other words, should a Christian care about governmental laws? Should they be involved with politics? Should they be trying to impact legislation? Should Christians just pray and let God fight the battles around them? As for myself,  I have invested plenty of time trying to engage the university. Allow me to go ahead and expand on this topic with three models for cultural engagement:

1. The Withdrawal Model: In this model, many Christians are just so disgusted with the evil in the culture that they have decided to separate from it completely. When I say ‘separate’  I mean that these Christians only socialize with other Christians and generally won’t engage the dangerous places like universities. Thus, they tend to always expect non Christians to behave like Christians and  are convinced America will eventually return to its Christian foundations.

Let me tell a quick story: I once participated in an Interfaith panel on a university campus (e.g, we had a Muslim, a Jewish rabbi, a Buddhist, along with myself). Sadly, one of my Christian friends rebuked me for participating in such as event. Hence, he said I should never sit on a panel with people who were from different faiths. When I challenged him on being salt and light (Matt. 5: 13-14) and that we need to engage the dark areas of our culture, he only got more defensive.  In many cases people who adhere to the withdrawal model forget that judgment comes to the household of God first (1 Pet. 4: 16-17). We can’t keep expecting non Christians to adhere to our values and beliefs. This ends up making the Gospel into the moral Gospel rather than a supernatural message. , I often think of a statement made by well-known Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. Ravi says, “Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but dead people alive.”

2. The Culture Changes Us: In this model, Christians desperately want to be popular and relevant. So in response, they end up becoming so much like the culture  that there is very little difference between them and the people they surround themselves with. This model won’t work because it it can’t be justified by the Bible. Jesus calls his disciples to be “salt and light” (Matt 5:13-14). Also, as Paul says,

 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

I see the biggest drawback of this model is that Christians tend to forget they don’t answer to the culture. Instead, they answer to the Lord for what they say and teach in the public square (1 Cor 3: 10-15).

3. The Counter-Cultural Model:  This is the model that matches up with the Bible. In this model, Christians don’t withdrawal nor are they  absorbed by the culture. Instead, they work diligently on trying to transform culture. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and are willing to go into the dark places. For myself, even though I do think the state of the world will get darker and perhaps wickedness may abound, I will work hard to be an agent of truth, light, justice, and love.

Golgotha

 

“And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “- Luke 9: 23

The cross may be viewed as a symbol of love. But when we look at the first century context, it is clear that to a Jewish person the cross was not a badge of honor but instead a sign of rejection and embarrassment. When the disciples heard Jesus talk about the cross and self denial here, they knew to make Jesus the Lord of their lives was going to be a life of  commitment and abandonment of autonomy.

To live counter culturally means to be willing to be open to shame, embarrassment, and misunderstanding.

I hope these models provoke some  further thought.

 

Lecture on Jewish Eschatology/Jewish Messianism

For anyone that is interested, here is a lecture and ppt from the Xenos Summer Institute here in Columbus, Ohio. It took place last week (July 15-17th)  and Mike Licona, myself and others were some of the speakers there. I had alot of material packed in here. But the good news is there is a ppt with it.  Here is an explanation about the title:

The Bible is a Jewish book that speaks of the coming of the Jewish Messiah for the benefit of his people and the entire world. What did the Jewish people believe about eschatology at the time of Jesus? What was the role of the Jewish Messiah and the end of the world? What does the Old Testament teach about eschatology? How should these issues impact a Christian’s view of eschatology today?

I was happy to see there was alot of interest in this topic.

Here is the link for the material. 

Why the discovery of ‘oldest’ Quran fragments is no big deal

Most recently, there have been several articles about the discovery of a possible ‘oldest’ Quran fragment. CNN has an article here called Discovery of ‘oldest’ Quran fragments could resolve history of holy text. In it, the article says,

Two Quran fragments unknowingly held since 1936 in the University of Birmingham’s manuscript collection have been definitively dated to the era of Mohammed’s life or a little later.

The writing of the two folios (with text corresponding to chapters 18-20 in the modern Quran) has been placed somewhere between 568 and 645 CE, which is very close to the conventional dating offered for the Prophet’s ministry, 610-632 CE. Given the more than 95% accuracy of the carbon dating involved, carried out at the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, this discovery indicates that these fragments are in all probability contemporary with the Prophet himself. No wonder that the University of Birmingham, and the city as a whole, has welcomed the news with excitement and pride.

There seems some poetic justice in the fact that a city that is home to one of the most multicultural communities in the world (described without irony on Fox News as a “no-go area”for non-Muslims) should now, as it surely will, become a veritable Mecca for both non-Muslims and Muslims eager to examine for themselves these almost 1,400 year old pages, which are offered in a clear, legible, even beautiful hand.

Just recently, textual expert and skeptic Bart Ehrman said the following about the discovery on his own blog: He says:

 “If Muslim scholars over the centuries – from the very beginning – made dead sure that when they copied their sacred text they didn’t change anything, why didn’t Christian scribes do the same thing???   Here I should stress that within Judaism as well, at least in the Middle Ages, there was exorbitant care taken to ensure that every page, every sentence, every word, every letter of the Torah was copied with complete and resolute accuracy (that’s not true for an earlier period of Judaism, to be sure; but it became true in Judaism in a way that never, ever was true in Christianity).  Christian scribes did not do the same thing.   We have many thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament.  They all have mistakes in them.   Lots of accidental mistakes (hundreds of thousands) from times that scribes were inept, inattentive, sleepy, or otherwise careless; and even lots of mistakes that appear to be places that scribes altered the text to make them say something other than what it originally said.

You don’t appear to get that with the Qur’an.  And so my historical question.  Why was that?  For Christians the New Testament was a sacred book, the Word of God.  Why didn’t they *make sure* that it never got changed?  I can understand on one level why they didn’t.  The scribes who copied it, especially in the early period, were not professionals.  In the early centuries, the copyists were simply the local people who happened to be literate who could do a decent job.  And they made lots of mistakes and changed the text in places intentionally.  But why didn’t anyone go to the trouble of making sure that didn’t happen?  It’s a genuine question.

the local people who happened to be literate who could do a decent job.  And they made lots of mistakes and changed the text in places intentionally.  But why didn’t anyone go to the trouble of making sure that didn’t happen?  It’s a genuine question.

My second point has to do with modern attempts to defend the truth of Christianity.  I hear a certain perspective expressed a LOT by Christian apologists who are determined to show that Christianity is true (and that, as a result, not just non-belief but all other religions are flat-out wrong).  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this view I would buy a summer home in Provence.  It is this:  since the New Testament is the best attested book from the ancient world, we can trust it.

There are so many problems with this view that it’s hard to know even where to begin in addressing it.   But let me just say two things about it.   The first is that even though it is absolutely true (as I’ve been emphasizing in my posts over the past week or two) that we have more manuscripts of the New Testament than for any other book from Greek and Roman antiquity – far, far more – these manuscripts all differ fromThat may not be the case with the Qur’an.

And that raises my second point, which is really THE SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT ONE.  The fact that you do (or do not) know what a book originally said, has no bearing – no bearing at all, not a single bearing – on the question of whether you can trust it or not.  It is completely irrelevant to the question.  An absolute non sequitur.   I wish Christian apologists would learn this, instead of continuously filling people’s heads with nonsense.  Being the best-attested book from antiquity has no bearing on the question of whether the things that are said in the New Testament are true.  No bearing at all.

I can prove that.   Take a Christian fundamentalist apologist and ask him whether Mein Kampf (Hitler’s autobiography) or The Communist Manifesto (a writing of a very different order indeed!) or … well, take your pick of a modern book – whether there are serious textual problems with such writings so that you do not know what the author wrote.   The answer is NO.   There is not a huge question about how well these books are attested.  They are extraordinarily well attested.  And here’s the point:  Does the fact these books are well attested prove that you can trust them?  That what they say is true?   Of course not.  It’s completely irrelevant.  Whether you can trust a writing and accept its views as true is unrelated to the question of how well it is attested.

The New Testament is well attested.  Does that mean you can trust that what it says is true?  Of course not.  You have to make that judgment on *OTHER* grounds.

And now we appear to have evidence – better evidence than, say, for the Gospel of Matthew, or  Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the epistle to the Hebrews – that the Qur’an was (at least by some scribes) very accurately copied over the centuries from the time it was produced.  Does that “prove” that you can trust what it has to say?  Of course not.   But for historians it is an absolutely stunning, marvelous, and wonderful discovery nonetheless. 

Now hopefully we know by now there have been many responses to Bart’s skepticism about the New Testament. To see a couple of responses, see here and here. Or, see his debate with Dan Wallace.

But does Ehrman actually say something that has a grain of truth here? Yes he does! Note he says:

Does the fact these books are well attested prove that you can trust them?  That what they say is true?   Of course not.  It’s completely irrelevant.  Whether you can trust a writing and accept its views as true is unrelated to the question of how well it is attested. The New Testament is well attested.  Does that mean you can trust that what it says is true?  Of course not.  You have to make that judgment on *OTHER* grounds. And now we appear to have evidence – better evidence than, say, for the Gospel of Matthew, or  Paul’s letter to the Romans, or the epistle to the Hebrews – that the Qur’an was (at least by some scribes) very accurately copied over the centuries from the time it was produced.  Does that “prove” that you can trust what it has to say?  Of course not.

So I will expand on Ehrman’s comment’s here: In the end, even if we have one or several early manuscripts of the Quran, it doesn’t mean the actual content of the Quran is true. If anything, textual preservation may be one test for the trustworthiness. But just like all history, we would have to take other tests in account to determine the reliability of the text. That’s why with the Quran discovery, I don’t ‘see it as being that important. Allow me to give another illustration : Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelations from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). Therefore, if we had 60,000 early manuscripts recording this event, this by no means makes Mormonism true. As we know, there is barely any external evidence for The Book of Mormon.  

Now I know many Muslims already think that the Quran is perfect and without error, so this discovery really won’t make a lot of difference to them. Most Muslims think that Muhammad’s claim that the angel Gabriel visited him and that it was during these angelic visitations that the angel purportedly revealed to Muhammad the words of Allah. These dictated revelations compose the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book. Therefore, that settles it. If a perfect dictation! Sadly, some Christians view inspiration of the Bible as perfect verbal dictation as well. But that’s not what we mean when we say the Bible is inspired.  Anyway, I am looking forward to Keith Small’s response to this. If you have never seen his lecture on textual criticism and the Quran, you can watch it here.