Science in Christian Perspective
Fails to Grasp Ontological Basis for Problem
(Response to Wykstra)
McMaster Divinity College
Hamilton, Ontario Canada
From: JASA 30
(June 1978): 158-159.
The biblical message is full of references to the mighty acts of God in history, and Christian apologetics has often sought to advance good reasons for believing in them. Wykstra has brought to our attention some aspects of the Humean critique of this apologetic effort, and urged on us the need to improve its cogency. It is irresponsible to go no repeating worn out arguments which seem to have been refuted without at least attempting to deal with the criticisms. His paper is somewhat limited in that it focuses narrowly on the work of one historical apologist, John W. Montgomery, leaving the impression that everyone argues exactly as he does. Had he referred to Norman L. Geisler's Christian Apologetics (Chapter 14) as well, he would have found, I believe, a more convincing answer to at least some of Flew's points.
In the historical apologetic based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, it is important to observe the full context of the putative event. If the occurrence he wrenched from its setting like a severed toe and held up to view, of course the Christian significance of it cannot he registered. It must he an anomaly, evidence of the greater versatility of nature, or more likely a fraudulent claim. If the apologist permits this to happen, all is lost. In fact no one ever comes to believe the sign of the resurrection of Jesus in this way, as an isolated and unrelated marvel. The resurrection event is part and parcel of a much longer narrative and belongs to the broader context of man's search for meaning and for God. It occurs at the end of an extended period of Israel's experience of God at work in her life and history. Its subject is Jesus of Nazareth who announced the coming of the kingdom of God and God's future vindication of him. It stands at the beginning of a history that still goes on in which Jesus is a living reality to millions. And furthermore it has to be seen in the wider context of the issues of life and death which confront us as humans In his allusion to the death problem, Montgomery is no doubt referring to this existential setting. The historical apologist should not allow himself to be lured into the position of defending the resurrection as a naked event. Unbelief cannot be overcome by the production of a single fact, any fact. lie must be prepared to argue for the resurrection on a wider front, such that the evidence for it is part of the evidential picture, not the whole of it. Neither Flew nor Jesus' first century sceptics are going to be converted by the resurrection as a hare event, barring some rare Damascus road illumination. Several of Wykstra's points are eased by this perspective. The obvious question is not, did God or nature do it, but rather did this happen or not, are the reports true or not? It helps to explain the validity of referring to the death problem and makes the Uri Geller parallel a little less interesting or relevant.
The most serious challenge which Flew makes to the possibility of developing a historical apologetic on behalf of a miraculous event is methodological and epistemological. It is not dogmatic prejudice which excludes rational belief in miracles, he holds, but simply the principles of historical knowledge. Our knowledge of the past, Flew claims, is governed by the assumption of the complete regularity of nature we have experienced. However this is worded, the impression is unmistakable that however strong the evidence for miracles may be, it cannot be sufficiently strong to overthrow Flew's invincible naturalism. He would sooner cast doubt on the integrity of the testimony, however credible, than believe in a miracle. Surely this is an odd variety of empiricism. A miracle is an event that can occur, but not one that can be known to have occurred! Indeed, any evidence for it can he dismissed without being examined. One wonders what could falsify Flew's conviction about nature. Evidently nothing factual could. Surely this is invincible naturalism, fideism without faith, Is it possible that Flew's belief in the ultimacy of nature is an unfalsifiable assertion?
Let us suppose a person was eyewitness to a genuine
On the basis of empiricism, the person would be justified, would he not, in
believing the evidence of his senses even though the event lacked
his ordinary experience? But if a person is justified in believing
that a miracle
occurred on the basis of his own experience, could lie not tell it to others,
and would they not be justified in believing it too, provided they judged his
Flew's naturalism is so strong that he is prepared even to sacrifice his empiricism for it. I fault Wykstra for not seeing through Flew's pretension to the real nature of his hesitation which is ontological as well as epistemological.
Unlike Wykstra, I believe Hume and Flew have been answered, The principles of
historical research do not require that we be imprisoned in a
that excludes any reference to transcendence. Just because we make
use of analogy
in evaluating phenomena strange to us, we are not committed to accepting
Flew's omnipotence of analogy which postulates the unchanging homogeneity of all reality and makes our ordinary experience the final norm for understanding everything. History is the realm of the unique, and the dogma of omnipotent analogy unduly restricts historical novelty within a frozen homogeneity and represents a closed minded attitude which ill-befits the historical observer. Flew has tied himself to the familiar, and refuses to allow God's intervention in history to burst through his analogies and open up for him the new creation.
As for the objection to a selective use of the principle of analogy in assessing the probability of Jesus' rising or the Roman soldiers bungling their job, Wykstra is right to notice an improper use of probability calculus. Again, it is a matter of the entire complex of happenings which constitute the event. Christians claim that what this complex points to is a resurrection reality which bursts through the expected and the ordinary, and their perspective on the whole is as plausible as any other, and I believe much more so. A more rationally convincing account of the origin of the church and her faith without the assumption of the resurrection event has not yet been provided, and it is the subtlety of Flew's logical move that he is able to avoid having to provide one. Behind Flew's methodological hesitation there lurks dogmatic naturalism, and the apologist's task is to get beyond admiring the gracefulness of his logical footwork and expose unbelief in its lair.