Evidentialism, Testimony & Inferior Witnesses

This post by Steve, formally at Triablogue, resurfaced recently. I’ll interact with three excerpts that were in the spirit of Steve’s eclectic approach to apologetics, which included at least mild affinity to Evidentialism.

One thing that’s often lost sight of in debates over the Bible is that testimony is prima facie evidential in its own right unless we have reason to doubt it. You don’t need corroborative evidence before testimony can have evidential value.

It is true that one needn’t always have direct corroborating evidence in order to be justified in believing the testimony of a witness. For instance, if a man claims he saw three children board a yellow bus at 8:00 am on a Monday morning in October, I’d be perfectly justified in believing the witness without any direct evidence regarding his trustworthiness. That’s because, as a general rule, people don’t typically lie about common occurrences. So, although I might not know anything about the witness (directly), I do know something about what is normative, and it’s that which indirectly informs me of whether I may rationally believe a stranger’s testimony. The normativity in view pertains not merely to occurrences (school buses picking up children), but also about human nature as it relates to the reliability of innocuous claims.

To take things one step further, it would be irrational to disregard evidential value in such cases. It’s not merely that I shouldn’t disbelieve and try to remain agnostic about such claims. Rather, I should positively believe those sorts of claims. (I’m not giving a nod toward doxastic voluntarism.)

So, there is indirect evidence that pertains not to what is directly perceived about witnesses but rather to what is normative, which in turn informs us (along with other presuppositions) of whether a testimony is credible. That should become more plain once we consider an extraordinary claim.

Unless we have evidence that the witness is a chronic liar, or unless we have evidence that the witness was motivated to lie in this particular case, it’s irrational to discount testimonial evidence.

Really? Let’s continue with our first witness example. If the witness later claimed that the bus turned into a magic dragon and transported the children to a school made of clouds in the sky as they sang a familiar song by a less familiar trio, would it be “irrational to discount [that] testimonial evidence”? In other words, need I have “evidence that the witness is a chronic liar, or…was motivated to lie” in order to reject such testimony for its incredibility? Of course not. I have indirect evidence as it relates to life experiences. I have a worldview that filters out bogus testimony.

Peter, Paul and Mary sing Puff.

In that misogynistic culture, women were regarded as second-rate eyewitnesses. If the Gospels are pious fiction, why would the narrators invent inferior witnesses rather than more culturally credible witnesses?

That argument gets a bit of traction around Easter. One rejoinder is the narrators weren’t clever enough to recognize that they were inventing inferior witnesses. Another is that the narrators were extremely clever and did recognize that they were inventing inferior witnesses! After calculating the risk of using seemingly inferior witnesses, the narrators concluded that there is significant persuasive force in using such witnesses. The logic being that since inferior witnesses would not likely be invented intentionally, people would naturally conclude the witnesses were not invented and, therefore, are all the more credible. (I’m sure I must have seen such a tactic on a Columbo episode.)

In closing

Claims about flying school buses and raising the dead will always be sifted through one’s network of presuppositions (i.e. one’s worldview).

Our confidence in the Resurrection is not based in part upon directly knowing the eye-witnesses were not liars or there being no reason to doubt their testimony. Nor is it based in part upon a notion that makes inferior witnesses superior witnesses. Our confidence is tied to presuppositions that pertain to what we deem authoritative and possible, which in the case of Scripture relates to being awakened by grace to certain things we know by nature yet otherwise would continue to suppress in unrighteousness. Read on…

When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its soteriological context, the evidence for the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awakened to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel-centric. The good news of John 3:16 is reasonable only in the context of the bad news of Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.

Lastly, the usefulness of evidence is a matter of inductive inference. As isolated observations and testimonies are synthesized, we arrive at general principles. Since inferences consist of making generalizations based upon specific observations, the principle of induction isn’t terribly useful in trying to draw rational inferences about the miraculous. In other words, induction presupposes uniformity but at the heart of the Resurrection is suspended uniformity.

Of course, there is an apologetic that is aimed to unearth the preconditions for the possibility of induction, but that’s not the point of this blog entry. 😉

Evidence And The Resurrection

Induction, the basis for all scientific inference, presupposes the uniformity of nature, which is to say it operates under the expectation that the future will be like past. From a Christian perspective, it is ordinary providence that explains how the scientific method is possible. Therefore, to argue for the miracle of the resurrection according to evidence and human experience is “foolish” (Proverbs 26:4). Resurrection is a phenomenon that contemplates an exchange of ordinary providence for the miraculous, which pertains to God working without, above, or against ordinary providence (WCF 5.3).

The resurrection of Christ from the dead is contra-uniform. It does not comport with experience. Our experience is that people die and are not raised three days later. Also, we have all met plenty of liars and those deceived into embracing false beliefs (even dying for false beliefs!) but nobody living has ever observed a single resurrection of the body. Given the uniformity of nature coupled with personal experience without remainder, a more probable explanation for the empty tomb is a hoax put on by liars rather than a miracle put on by God. (The same reasoning applies even more to the virgin birth I would think.)

We do not come to know the Savior lives by examining evidence according to alleged neutral posture, for the facts do not demand the conclusion that Christ has risen. So, at the very least, Christians should not argue from evidence to resurrection lest we lie by implying that we know Christ lives because of evidence upon which our belief does not rest.

When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its soteriological context, the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awakened to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel-centric. The good news of John 3:16 is intelligible only in the context of the bad news of Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.

The place of evidence:

Evidence indeed corroborates the resurrection and is useful within a Christian context. We read in Scripture that a man named Saul who once opposed Christ became the chief apologist for the Christian faith. The way in which one will interpret the transformation of Saul to Paul will be consistent with one’s pre-commitment(s). Christians take the fanaticism of the apostle as corroborating what they already believe to be true about the resurrection; whereas naturalists will find an explanation for the apostle’s transformation and empty tomb outside the Christian resurrection interpretation. Similarly, the way in which one interprets Joseph Smith’s claims will be according to one’s pre-commitment(s). If one is committed to a closed canon, then the claims of Smith’s Mormonism will be deemed false.

There’s a vast difference between:

If resurrection, then evidence

and

If evidence, then resurrection

The first refers to evidence as something we would expect given the resurrection. Whereas the second construct employs evidence as sufficient for resurrection. The first is biblical – the second, fanciful.

Of course the tomb is empty, for Christ has risen. Of course the apostle Paul preached the resurrection of Christ with all his heart, soul and strength, for Christ has risen. Of course the Mormon religion is a cult, for Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the canon is closed. Do we come to believe these things by evaluating supposed brute-particulars in an alleged neutral fashion, or are our beliefs already marshaled according to our pre-commitment to God’s revelation of his love for condemned sinners? Do the “facts” speak for themselves or has God already exegeted the facts for us?

The only way one ever will savingly embrace Christ’s resurrection is if the Holy Spirit gives increase to the work of the cross as explicated in the context of God’s solution to man’s dilemma.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24

Evidence

Can it be proven that Christ is risen?

If Harry did not believe the Philadelphia Phillies won the 1980 world series, he would likely change his mind if it could be proven from Baseball Almanac. Similarly, if Harry did not believe Calvin Coolidge was the 30th President of the United States, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents would more than likely put the matter to rest for Harry. Similar examples could be given for state capitals, the location of famous rivers and so on. The point should be apparent. What one will accept as proof will depend upon what one accepts as authoritative.

The reason people are willing to change their minds on such matters after being confronted with a reliable, even an authoritative source, is because not much is at stake. It does not dramatically affect one’s worldview whether Calvin Coolidge rather than, say, Herbert Hoover was the 30th U.S. President. Just like it does not disrupt one’s worldview if one mistakes the winner of the 1980 World Series with the winner of the 1981 world series. Adjusting relatively inconsequential beliefs is not a matter of grave concern. Nothing major is at stake, other than perhaps a little pride.

In both cases, we may say that what was first in question by Harry was later proved true by a source worthy of acceptance. We may also say Harry became persuaded. Moving forward, we would do well to maintain a clear distinction between the objective nature of proof and the subjective nature of persuasion. The question before us is whether proof is ever dependent upon the result of persuasion.

Now what if Harry did not readily accept the testimony of a book on U.S. Presidents right off the bat? In other words, what if Harry was not immediately persuaded by an appeal to an authoritative book but then after further reflection realized the book must be correct. Obviously Harry’s disbelief would have given way to belief. Harry would have become persuaded by the proof for Calvin Coolidge as America’s 30th President. It is also noteworthy that the proof Harry would eventually be persuaded by never changed. Therefore, the proof itself did not become more persuasive. Rather, a valid proof with a reasonable premise (that such books are typically reliable) eventually persuaded. The variable was Harry. He changed. The proof remained constant. It did not change.

Lest we confound the objectivity of truth and what constitutes sound argumentation, we must maintain that Calvin Coolidge was objectively proven to be the 30th President of the United States prior to Harry becoming subjectively persuaded by the proof. If not, then objective proof would be dependent upon subjective results, in which case arguments could become sound (or go from weak to strong in the case of inductive arguments) after they are subjectively accepted, which would collapse proof into persuasion. It could not be proven to a philosophical skeptic that there is a tree outside the window or the cat is on the roof.

Putting this all together, if persuasion is a matter of what one will accept as authoritative and a sound proof is a matter of validly presented truth, then the resurrection of Jesus Christ can be proven from the Bible regardless whether the unbeliever rejects the authority of God’s word. If proving secular historical facts from fallible and potentially errant books is not dependent upon consensus, then how much more the case with facts contained in God’s infallible and inerrant Word? The issue at stake is what one will accept as authoritative.

Now obviously I would not expect an unbeliever to submit to the objective authority of God speaking in his Word without the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work of subjective persuasion, but neither should I expect a Christian to deny that the Christian worldview can be proven true from the Bible. Comparatively speaking (and whether one accepts it or not), we have it on greater authority that Christ is risen than Calvin Coolidge was the 30th U.S President (or the Phillies won the Series in 1980). Uninspired history books can err. God’s Word cannot.

At the heart of apologetic methodology is ultimate authority. How the authority of Scripture should shape the Christian’s defense of the faith is a matter of bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, (even as the Christian gives an answer for the hope that is in him, with meekness and fear.) How consistently the believer sanctifies the Lord God in his heart will determine his general apologetic methodology.