from the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1994, page 49. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Boston University philosopher Michael Martin's The Case Against Christianity was highly acclaimed in atheist circles as a book which "Christian theologians and philosophers must at least try to respond to...if they wish to be taken seriously by their peers" (Free Inquiry, Winter 1991/92). In the Spring 1993 CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL Christian philosopher Stephen Parrish (William Tyndale College) rose to this challenge with a two-and-one-half page Summary Critique of Martin's book.
Martin responded by sending the JOURNAL a rebuttal of Parrish's article. In the interest of fairness, and of advancing understanding of the debate, we here present Martin's reply, followed by Parrish's rejoinder.
Rebuttal by Michael Martin
In his review of my book, Stephen Parrish says: "It is encouraging if this is the best atheists can do." After reading Parrish's review, I am inclined to pay him a similar compliment: It is encouraging if this is the best Christians can do in defending their doctrines against my criticisms.
Parrish fails utterly to undermine the main thrust of my argument since he does not seem to realize what it is and attacks relatively minor points in my book. One of my book's basic themes is that the major doctrines of Christianity are based on miraculous historical events such as the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. Because miracle claims are initially incredible, belief in them requires very strong evidence. I show repeatedly in my book that this evidence is unavailable. Parrish doesn't even attempt to answer this criticism.
One-third of Parrish's review defends the historicity of Jesus. Yet I make it clear in my book that my argument against Jesus' historicity -- covered in a single chapter -- will play no further role in my critique of the doctrines of Christianity. Thus, a person can consistently reject my argument against Jesus' historicity and yet believe that Christianity's major doctrines are improbable. Indeed, many critics of Christianity do precisely this.
Another example of Parrish's inability to come to terms with the major thrust of my critique is his defense of the Resurrection. He raises seven criticisms -- most of them on minor matters -- but never addresses my argument that in order to believe in a miracle, extremely strong evidence is needed, which in the case of the Resurrection is not available.
In his second criticism relating to the Resurrection, it is clear that Parrish completely misunderstands my argument. Based on my standard, he says, "most historical writing would be ruled out." This is nonsense. Most historical writing does not postulate miracles. Stricter standards are required in evaluating historical claims about miracles than claims about ordinary historical events since such claims postulate initially improbable events. Thus I am not being hypercritical of Paul and other New Testament writers as Parrish claims. I am simply demanding that we have very strong evidence regarding the reliability of the witnesses if we are to take their word about seeing the resurrected Jesus.
Still another example of Parrish's failure to come to terms with what is crucial in my book is his defense of the Incarnation. Although I argue that the concept of the Incarnation is incoherent, I also argue that, even if it is not, in order to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, very strong evidence is needed concerning Jesus' miracle-working ability and his moral perfection. But the evidence for Jesus' miracle-working ability is weak and there is good reason to suppose that Jesus had moral faults. Yet Parrish ignores this argument and only tries to show that I have not demonstrated the incoherence of the Incarnation.
So, Parrish has failed to refute the main thrust of my argument. But is he correct on the relatively minor points he raises?
(1) Consider Parrish's defense of Jesus' historicity. He asserts that "the bulk of [Martin's] argument rests on the 'silence' of Paul." Of course it does not. Anyone who reads my book will know that it is not Paul's silence I am concerned with but his silence on crucial details of Jesus' life and teachings that would have been to Paul's advantage to relate, and that this silence is part of a larger pattern of evidence. This "pattern" includes the silence of other early Christian writers on these same details, the lack of independent evidence in pagan sources, and the lack of independent evidence in Jewish sources except for Josephus.
(2) Parrish makes much of my claim that the Gospels were "written very late." I suggest that the evidence indicates they were written between A.D. 70 and 125. He asserts, "If they were written earlier than Martin says they were, his thesis collapses." I could understand how someone might claim my argument concerning Jesus' historicity would be somewhat weakened if the Gospels were written considerably earlier than I claim. However, to suppose that my thesis would "collapse" if they were written any time earlier is surely unwarranted.
(3) Parrish misunderstands my point about the 500 witnesses despite my statement that if they had seen the resurrected Jesus, this would have constituted strong evidence for the Resurrection and it would likely have been cited far and wide. Since the 500 are mentioned only by Paul, doubt is cast both on the story and on Paul's reliability. If Gary Habermas accepts the evidence of the 500, he has a problem.
(4) Parrish maintains that because I have given no positive account of the Resurrection my case is undermined. I explain in my book, however, that we do not know enough about what happened to provide such an account. In any case, the onus is not on me to give an account about what happened after Jesus' death. It is enough to say that Jesus' resurrection is initially unlikely and that the evidence does not overcome this.
(5) Parrish says my criticism of Thomas Morris's "two minds theory" of the Incarnation misses the point. I argue that Morris's position is incoherent, for it entails a contradiction -- that is, one person (God the Son) is said to be both omniscient when operating through his divine mind and not omniscient when operating through his human mind. Have I missed the point or has Parrish?
The point is: what is the object of predication? If God the Son is one person, we must inconsistently predicate omniscience and its opposite to one entity. What Parrish says does not answer this problem and comes close to begging the question. Moreover, Parrish's counterargument presumes it makes sense to suppose that one person could have two minds. However, I show that this assumption is dubious. Parrish neglects to mention this part of my argument.
(6) I argue that Morris's theory fails to explain why, according to Morris, Jesus did not act like an omnipotent being. After all, his omnipotence could hardly be something that could be hidden and so would have been accidentally discovered. According to Parrish, I have again missed the point: Christians should not believe Jesus did not know he was omnipotent. They should believe he simply refrained from exercising his omnipotence.
But in the context of Morris's theory -- a theory Parrish seems to defend -- such a suggestion makes no sense. A person who knows he is omnipotent would also know he is at least potentially omniscient; that is, he would know he could become all-knowing by an act of the will. Put in terms of the two minds theory, Jesus' human mind could have immediate and complete access to his divine mind. In Morris's theory, however, there is an asymmetrical relation between the two minds: his human mind has only limited access to his divine mind. Again, one can only wonder who has missed the point.
Parrish concludes that my book offers critics a "target-rich environment." Perhaps. But critics had better be sure they have taken proper aim lest they end up shooting themselves. And they had better be sure that the "targets" they aim at are not illusions created by their own biases.
Counter-Rebuttal by Stephen Parrish
Martin attacks me for spending one-third of my review on his chapter dealing with Jesus' historicity. The historicity of Jesus is the foundation of all else in Christianity. If it is not defensible, then Christianity falls. If Martin doesn't stand by his chapter he should say so. If he does stand by it, then critiquing it is fair game.
Because of space limitations, I didn't deal with Martin's argument that miraculous events are initially incredible, and very strong evidence is therefore required to rationally believe in them. Nonetheless, I will deal with it now.
The antecedent probability of miracles is relative to different world views. On atheistic grounds, miracles are improbable at best; on theistic grounds, they are plausible. There is no universal plausibility structure for miracles. The Resurrection is essential to Christianity; that is, in the plausibility structure of Christianity the probability of the Resurrection is 100 percent. Martin begs the question in favor of atheism by presupposing its probability structure.
What is needed is a historical examination of the Resurrection. If the Resurrection has strong historical evidence, then it supports the Christian view and undermines the atheistic view. Martin's basic objection is philosophical, not historical. He presupposes the truth of atheism, and on that basis rejects the evidence.
Further, even on Martin's terms, being hyperskeptical of the writings that describe miracles is the wrong procedure. If one is investigating miraculous claims historically, the proper procedure is to objectively evaluate the documents to see if they meet whatever standard for confirming miraculous events one accepts.
Finally, the criticisms I made of Martin's attacks against the Bible are quite relevant. He argues that the Bible is unreliable and therefore does not support the truth of Christianity. I argue that his attacks can be refuted, and the historicity of the Bible stands. Does he really think the dates of the Gospels, the prophetic abilities of Jesus, and the early creedal evidence for the Resurrection, are minor points? If so, he has a strange idea of what is minor.
In response to Martin's numbered arguments, I offer the following brief replies.
(1) I meant that the bulk of Martin and George A. Wells's argument against Jesus' historicity rested on the silence of Paul about Jesus, including what Martin alleges is Paul's silence on Jesus' life and teachings that would have been advantageous for him to relate. I don't deny that Martin also argues from the "silence" of other sources, but Paul is clearly the most important witness.
In any case, if Paul did not cite Jesus when it could have been to his advantage, at most this shows he didn't know everything the Gospels relate of Jesus. It says nothing regarding whether he knew Him as a historical figure.
(2) If the Gospels were written a few years earlier than Martin thinks, one is back in with an earlier generation where eyewitnesses -- including hostile ones -- were still around. This would make the successful "fabrication" of Jesus very difficult.
(3) In his book Martin implied that Habermas was embarrassed by the story of the 500 witnesses, which is false. Furthermore, he once again ignores important evidence in support of 1 Corinthians 15:6, even after I pointed it out in my review. The account of Christ's appearance to the 500 is believed by virtually all scholars to be derived from early creedal material. Therefore, Paul cannot be identified as the lone narrator of that account.
(4) Because there are only a limited number of naturalistic explanations of the Resurrection, every one of which can be shot full of holes historically, Martin's inability to come up with an alternate theory is a major weakness. If there are only three theories -- A, B, and C -- to explain the belief in some alleged historical event, and A and B are shown to be impossible because of historical evidence while C is coherent with it, then C must be true.
(5) I disagree that Morris's "two minds" theory is incoherent. Jesus as God is omniscient and omnipotent at all times. But in the Incarnation He took on a human nature -- which necessarily involved taking on human limitations. Jesus usually "worked" with only that information available to Him as a human, though all the while retaining His omniscience as God. I see no incoherence.
(6) Jesus deliberately chose on occasion to use only His human knowledge and powers; it's not that He was unable to use such powers.
The critique stands.
End of document, CRJ0190A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The Case Against Christianity Revisited"
release A, December 1, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
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