You Are Not A Bible Character 3: On Believing Without Proof

Father Stephen has graciously offered another reply to my challenges to him that he should apply to the Bible itself his excellent critique of contemporary figures who presumptuously interpret their experiences as though they are biblical characters.

Father Stephen’s reply:

I completely agree that Christ takes Scripture “out of context”.

Excellent, as this can help us shift the debate from whether the New Testament writers took the Old Testament texts out of context to what provides someone with authority to interpret events as of special, spiritual, and divinely revelatory meaning in the first place.  Both Sanford and Christ (or the New Testament writers who give us our accounts of him) refer to the Old Testament in ways that find or create meanings rather clearly not intended by the authors of the texts.

So now the questions are:  What makes Jesus (or the NT writers in general) special such that he can take texts out of their original context with hermeneutic impunity and what makes both Old and New Testament writers themselves accurate diviners of spiritual meanings in general such that Biblical stories (whether literal or figurative) and biblical claims about reality and salvation (whether literally or figuratively significant) should be taken to be truthful.

The hermeneutic of Christ is stated plainly by Him: “These (the OT Scriptures) are they which testify of me.” It’s a radical claim and only makes sense if He is in fact God incarnate. And that claim only becomes clear in His resurrection. The gospels themselves indicate that the disciples did not understand Christ’s interpretation of Scripture until after the resurrection (remembering, too, that the gospels are all written after the resurrection). Thus the heart of the matter is Christ’s resurrection. There may be any number of ways that someone comes to believe that Christ is risen from the dead – but I think that is where things begin. I do not come to His resurrection as the result of a syllogism or because I’ve “proven” from Scripture. I believe it because of the witness of the faithful who know Him.

But how do you know these alleged witnesses are reliable?  Where is the “witness of the faithful” apart from the claims of the New Testament text?  How can the two be distinguished?  I cannot say that I believe a fire happened because of the witness testimonies I read in the newspaper without implicitly granting credence to the newspaper.  Of course I believe witnesses not entirely on the authority of the middlemen from whom I learn their testimony but also through reference to competing sources and other knowledge.  So I might have reason to suspect testimony in newspaper accounts based on other information to which I have access.  If the newspaper witnesses claim things that are physically impossible then I have not only have a counterveiling reason to reject their testimony but to be suspicious of a newspaper which credulously passes it on to me.

And, of course, this is the case with the Old and New Testament books which make many scientifically and historically preposterous claims which I readily and rightly dismiss out of hand when made today.  What good grounds are there to exempt resurrection claims from long ago?

Your hermeneutics is also puzzling for several other reasons:  Does reading the OT genocides in light of the supposed resurrection of Christ mean that they are now morally not repellent the way all other genocides are?  Are those stories literally true or figuratively?  Did God literally command genocides?  Can we with any moral consistency claim such a God would be good?  Did the Old Testament authors misinterpret what a good God could command?  Did they misinterpret their genocidal actions as what God required?  How does that make them less deluded than contemporary war criminals who believe themselves inspired or sanctioned by God?

And why should we believe the Old Testament is inspired by God at all if its own interpretations of God’s will wind up radically revised in light of a hermeneutic that places “the resurrected Christ” at the center.  Was God somehow limited in what he could communicate to people?  I thought he was supposed to be omnipotent—how did he give people the wrong impression he advocated genocide?  It’s one thing to argue that he only gave people a portion of the picture of salvation in the sacrificial system as a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  While this is a baseless assertion with no rational plausibility as a truth claim, it is not morally so obviously false as either the claim that a good God commanded genocides or the interpretation that that was not what he really meant but was what he wanted people to think as part of preparing the way for his real explanation of himself in Christ.

Also, even were the completely implausible resurrection of Jesus to have happened, how would we know that that made him “God incarnate.”  By what criteria can someone assess such a thing?  There were numerous resurrection claims in the OT (or were those just figurative?) and in the general literature of the ancient world in general.  Were all those alleged resurrected persons God incarnate too?  Do all those people gain the right to read other texts out of context?  And why if God revealed truth in the OT and in the NT couldn’t he make it so that the OT could be interpreted in its own context and still clearly prefigure Christ?  Why does God require a situation in which the only way to read it correctly is to read it in a way which formally indistinguishable from rationalization by prejudiced people who want to discover in their Scriptures what they already think is true?

The Christian hermeneutic is not literalist – we are not “people of the book.” Such treatment of Scripture by Christians is a turning of the Bible into the Koran. The crucified and risen Christ is the hermeneutic of Scripture – both Old and New Testament – and even – I would say as a believer – He is the hermeneutic of all things. But of course this would only be true if He is indeed who He claimed to be.

And how do you know this without an inordinate amount of faith in the book and without a literalistic reading of the outrageous miracle claims (including the incarnation itself)?  You may not be literalist about Genesis 1 but as long as you’re still willing to be literalistic about mythic miracle claims and suspend all standards of evidence and rewrite all rules of reason to accommodate it, you commit all the same intellectual mistakes as creation literalists.

But there is nowhere to stand outside the living community of the Church and “objectively” argue these things. It’s like trying to prove the universe.

This is very vague and likely misleading.  Why is the word objectively in quotes? You make fact claims such that Jesus was God incarnate, he rose from the dead, the true meaning of the Old Testament and New Testament documents can only be understood if one accepts these claims, etc.  I cannot assess your claims and say they are likely false without being part of your community?  Are you unable to say that Mohammad was not God’s prophet or that the scientologists’ claims are false because you are neither a Muslim nor a Scientologist?  Is there no ability to assess anything objectively unless one is a Christian?   Do you have the market cornered on objectivity?  That sounds like a rather subjective and baseless assertion to me.

And what does it mean to “prove the universe?”  Prove what about the universe?  That it exists?  That its nature is not mind-dependent?  That its workings outside of what we perceive are the same as they appear within our perceptions and conceptions of it?  Obviously you believe we should in some sense accept the reality of the universe even though you don’t think one or several of these claims (or maybe another which I haven’t figured out) is provable.

Until you further clarify your question, I take your argument to be that from within the universe we cannot deny that there is a universe even though we cannot make any conclusive argument for its existence/mind-independence/isomorphism with our concepts.  I can agree that denying the univere’s existence in some sense is futile and unnecessary.  We might conceivably define it as mind-dependent in some fundamental way or we might be suspicious that our concepts may not be isomorphically connected to it.  But, nonetheless, as beings enmeshed in the universe necessarily we cannot practically deny it.  We may say we do not believe in it or make arguments that we misapprehend it, that it’s made of dream stuff or wholly unknowable “in itself” but insofar as we live in it we implicitly reveal we believe in it.  It may be a dream reality, but that’s still some kind of reality that we call “the universe.”

Accepting the universe is the precondition of all our particular actions.  And unless we define the universe narrowly as a specifiable feature of reality (for example, “the physical universe” or this universe but not the entire multiverse), the universe can be taken to encompass all that is at all (including conceptual relationships, the laws of logic, etc.) and therefore its reality is the precondition of all the particular things we think about.  In that sense we have reason to believe in the universe “without proof” in that it is the precondition of believing in any particular realities with relationships we can prove (logically, conceptually, scientifically, or in any other sense of “proof”, etc.)

So, how does this relate to believing in the claims that Jesus lived, died, rose again, is God incarnate, and is the hermeneutic for reading the OT and the NT for God’s revelation of himself?

I take your meaning to be that unless you take belief in the incarnation and resurrection of Christ as the precondition of all your thinking and unless you are living within the Christian community with its traditions rooted in this belief then nothing in the Bible will make any sense or be objectively demonstrable.  As the fish swims in the ocean and can neither deny the ocean’s existence or explain to a flying bird what it’s like to see with submerged fish eyes, the Christian cannot explain or justify Christian thinking to someone outside the Christian community.

I hope this is an accurate interpretation of your meaning and I hope you will correct me if it’s not.  Now I am going to turn to address why and how I do not accept your position as I understand it and as I see its implications.

First, just because the universe is in some sense “unprovable” and yet practically must be affirmed does not mean that just any other things which are “unprovable” are also acceptable subjects for belief.  No human being can so much as reason without a universe (if universe is taken to include all that is, including logical concpets and logical relationships) or at least to act (in the case where the universe only entails the physical universe but not concepts).  It is a necessity for all human activities and possibly all human thought that we posit some kind of universe (even if it is only a solipsistic universe of me and my thoughts).  Therefore, all humans must affirm, on pain of practical contradiction the existence of the universe.  And that’s why we are entitled to belief in it without other forms of “proof.”  Or, maybe, that is a proof of the universe which I just made, in which case there is no case of our needing to live with an unproven belief in the universe.

Epistemologically and practically must we similarly join the Christian community and accept its preconditions for thinking within its terms?  I must be a part of the universe, so I must implicitly accept the preconditions of thinking in the universe—including the existence of a universe (even if it’s only a dream one).  But I do not have to be a part of the Christian community, so I do not have to accept its beliefs which precondition the entire life of the Christian community or the Christian interpretation of texts and the world.

If I do not have to be a Christian and accept Christian assumptions for orienting the world, then I have to come up with a rational justification for why I should accept the controlling paradigms and beliefs of the Christian tradition.  If I have any concern for truth and for objectivity, I have to find reasons that are not idiosyncratic to a particular community which are incapable of generalizable appeal to outside communities.

If my community all decides that humans were created by aliens 1,000 years ago and accepting this belief is the only way to understand the rest of our beliefs, then I am not entitled to my beliefs.  I cannot say to the skeptic who demands proof of me that there is no such objectivity (or put the notion that the skeptic is objective in question by putting the word objectivity in scare quotes).  I cannot say that to prove that aliens put us here 1,000 years ago is as futile as trying to prove the universe—as though accepting without “proof” the precondition of our very being and acting is the same thing as accepting without proof my eminently specious claim that aliens created humans 1,000 years ago (or 57,000 years ago if we are being non-literalists who acknowledge at least some science but not enough to disturb our more central incredible, baseless assertions).

Unless you are outside the community of humans, you are not entitled to your own truths which are only demonstrable if you assert a controlling belief which is entirely disputable on scientific grounds (dead people stay dead) and even conceptual ones (divine being and human being are mutually exclusive logically and even were they “mixable” they could not constitute “full humanness” and “full divinity” with any logical intelligibility).

The claim of resurrection is not beyond objective refutation.  The belief in resurrection of an incarnate God is not exempt from demands from proof the way that the universe is (assuming it is).  To assert that it is epistemologically acceptable for a given community to believe whatever it takes to be the precondition of its way of life is to deny the existence of truth, the right to demand reasons from others, and the ability to call anything anyone outside one’s own community says as false.

And hence your epistemology leads straight to epistemological relativism, without even a good argument for it but rather as an assertion of exemption from epistemological responsibilities for reasons subjectively necessary for your own community.

Your Thoughts?

  • http://seventimesseven.wordpress.com/ Steve, Malta

    The need to have this conversation disappears entirely as soon as one understands that Christ was speaking under the authority of the Holy Spirit –it was the Father Himself speaking, through the Son of Man.

    This brings Christianity much closer to the OT (see Joel 2:32) and indeed the traditional rabbinical interpretation of Messiahship –the anointed one.

    *We should note that it is not for no reason that Christianity (not Christ but Christianity) has been plagued with schism and other scandals throughout it’s 2,000 year old history.

    May the God of Jesus be praised forevermore.

  • Dan Fincke

    Thank you for your reply. How does one come to understand “that Christ was speaking under the authority of the Holy Spirit…the Father Himself speaking through the Son of Man?”

    That’s the entire question. To say the need to have the conversation disappears when one adequately understands the truth of the claim you just made is tantamount to saying that the need for the conversation ends when one side concedes to the other the main point in contention. No one disputes that.

    The question is how can one know what “the Son of Man” is, how Christ is to be conclusively recognized as “the Son of Man”, what “the Father Himself” is, whether there is a “Father Himself”, why the traditional rabbinical interpretation of Messiahship is truth-conducive, and what the Holy Spirit is and what sorts of authority it has, how we can tell who speaks with its authority and who does not (and test particular claims).

    Answering all of those questions without appeals to assumptions is the minimum required for the conversation to “disappear entirely” as objectively settled. But we’re a long, long way from there and without adequate reasons one cannot simply wave away a conversation and posit dogmatic claims as thought that is any reason for ignoring substantive criticisms of one’s position.

    That’s not thinking, it’s closing one’s mind to challenge altogether. In a word—it’s faith.

  • Karen

    I think what Fr. Stephen and those of us who are Orthodox (and many other Christians) would say is that the truth about Jesus cannot be known definitively by external proof. We could never prove to you that Jesus Christ existed and that He is Who His witnesses claimed Him to be by some sort of foolproof rational argument. I suspect it would also be quite easy to demonstrate that not a single event of history–even those we would never think to question–can be proved in this way. I’m not a trained philosopher, so I won’t go there right now, but I think it would be more fruitful perhaps to discuss differing kinds of “knowledge” we take for granted and their bases in human experience, as a way of working down to the level of looking at our differing presuppositions and their relative merits.

    On the other hand, if Jesus was Who His followers claimed Him to be (this is clearly a presupposition), He is alive and present by His Spirit and can make Himself known to those who desire to know Him, (Here, there are many levels of desire to consider. I’m not talking about idle intellectual curiosity.) And we would expect some level of commonality in the experience of those who claim to know Him (as well as some uniqueness–none of us experiences the same person in exactly the same way). I think that there is reasonable evidence that the witnesses who wrote the Gospels and the rest of the NT have given reliable testimony about Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. (Not, of course, that someone whose presupposition is the philosophy of Scientific Naturalism, would allow that evidence as reasonable, but that doesn’t make it not so. This is simply the battle between two faiths, one which posits a Creator that transcends what we deem the natural world, and one which, a priori, rules this possibility out.) It seems to me all consideration of Christ’s teachings rightly begins with the truth of falsehood of these events. Evangelical pastor, Lee Stroebel, has written a number of books making this reasonable evidence accessible to the average lay person and skeptic (having been a former skeptic trained as an investigative journalist himself). On the other hand, knowledge of God is not attainable through rational empiricism (and neither are any of the events of history). Orthodox argue that knowledge of God is available for those who seek it, but it is knowledge of a personal nature, not that of empirical science. IOW, we come to know God in the same way that we come to know other persons, in a way that requires a level of personal trust. We can know a lot about someone, but not know them personally as well. It is when we know someone personally that we know them in the Christian sense. This is an intuitive process that has to do with love and trust. It is not divorced from rationality, but neither is it dependent upon it, and in fact it must transcend it. If we were to limit our lives to only acting on what we can rationally know with certitude (in the sense of Scientific Empiricism, another philosophy with presuppositions that are not themselves logically irrefutable), we would not be able to function in any of our relationships with others or with the rest of the world.

  • Karen

    Sorry, rather than “the philosophy of Scientific Naturalism,” I should have written “the philosophies of Naturalism and Materialism.” As I said, I’m not a trained philosopher! :-)

  • echidna

    if Jesus was Who His followers claimed Him to be (this is clearly a presupposition)

    This needs to be examined more closely. What exactly did his followers claim? It was Paul who made the more mystic claims, and he wrote that he had never met Jesus.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      He had more followers than just the ones who wrote the New Testament, of course.

    • echidna

      Sure, but Karen used the quoted phrase as if it was unambiguously clear what his followers claimed. I presume that she meant they claimed he was the son of god, but by leaving it unsaid, she has used the rhetorical trick of leaving it unarguable, because she didn’t explicitly claim anything.

      This is the very question that led me to atheism – I started researching Paul, and lost my faith in his writings. From there, it was an easy step to atheism, since so much of Christianity is built on Paul’s writings.