Has the Minimal Facts Created a Monster?

Paulogia grinds the gears of resurrection apologists with his trademark “For the Bible tells me so” jingle. He has created several response videos to apologetic superstars like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona. Many people ask me why I don’t respond to more of his videos. 

There are many reasons not to respond to Paulogia, often because he can come across as unserious or trollish. But this is also because Paulogia and I both believe that the minimalist approach isn’t compelling enough to persuade skeptics. You might want to see my earlier post for more on that. 

I am afraid the popularity of the minimalist approach has helped create this monster called Paulogia and other counter apologists like him. Let me explain. Here is a troubling quote from William Lane Craig: “Evangelicals sometimes give lip service to the claim that the Gospels are historically reliable, even when examined by the canons of ordinary historical research; but I wonder if they really believe this.” Although I absolutely love Dr. Craig, this feels so odd. Who is he referring to? Craig Blomberg? Peter J. Williams? These scholars seem to be doing more than giving lip service. 

Minimizing approaches

Craig goes on to say: “So I almost never argue with an unbeliever about biblical inerrancy. I’ll concede for the sake of argument virtually all the errors and inconsistencies in the Old and New Testaments that he wants to bring up, while insisting that the documents collected into what was later called the New Testament are fundamentally reliable when it comes to the central facts undergirding the claims and fate of Jesus of Nazareth.”

I agree with Dr. Craig that we don’t need to (nor should we) argue for the inerrancy of the Gospels to win over an unbeliever. Notice however, that Craig is not only conceding inerrancy, but also the Gospels’ robust reliability. Craig says a few central facts will do the trick. But can the apologetic task of defending orthodox Christianity really survive if we grant “virtually all the errors and inconsistencies” that skeptics want to bring up? I’m not so sure. 

Craig’s most popular book, Reasonable Faith, provides a historical sketch of the resurrection approach advanced by 18th-century apologists, including William Paley. Paley advanced a trilemma that either the disciples were 1.) deceived, 2.) deceivers or 3.) telling the truth. Paley extensively argues for the latter conclusion. Though Paley’s argument can be tweaked and updated, Craig treats it as a fact that this kind of apologetic has been “rendered forever obsolete.” (Reasonable Faith, p. 328)Why? Well, in short it’s due to the rise of modern biblical criticism. This doesn’t seem to be based on objective evidence against the Gospels but our current sociological situation! 

Craig also recommends that we appeal to facts accepted by the majority of scholars, and use the tools of modern biblical criticism, such as embarrassment, dissimilarity, multiple attestation, and so forth, to mine out a set of facts from the Gospels. Most notably what can be “mined out” is that Jesus understood himself as the Son of Man as described in Daniel, that he was crucified, buried, that his tomb was found empty and the early belief in post-mortem appearances to his disciples. While these are important facts that even many skeptics will grant, that’s not exactly what I’d call strong reliability. 

Gary Habermas and Mike Licona take things a step further, choosing to use only data that the majority of scholars grant. That is how they determine what Licona calls “historical bedrock.” This requires a large number of scholars across the spectrum of ideologies, because they believe that it tells us that there must be strong evidence for the proposition and that it keeps our “horizons”  in check. Again, we see a sociological situation seemingly determining what we can say we know with much confidence.  

The Bandwagon Fallacy

But is this really right? Well, no. This seems to just be the bandwagon fallacy. For example, we could easily imagine a case where both a majority of Democrats and Republicans of various stripes support a certain law or tax measure that ends up doing much more harm than good. We could think of dozens of other situations like this. In his withering critique of modern biblical scholarship, CS Lewis wrote regarding his own discipline: 

“I have learned in other fields of study how transitory the ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ may be, how soon the scholarship ceases to be modern. The confident treatment to which the New Testament is subjected is no longer applied to profane texts. There used to be English scholars who were prepared to cut up Henry VI between half a dozen authors and assign his share to each. We don’t do that now. When I was a boy one would have been laughed at for supposing there had been a real Homer: the disintegrators seemed to have triumphed forever. But Homer seems to be creeping back. Even the belief of the ancient Greeks that the Mycenaeans were their ancestors and spoke Greek has been surprisingly supported. We may without disgrace believe in a historical Arthur. Everywhere, except in theology, there has been a vigorous growth of scepticism about scepticism itself. We can’t keep ourselves from muttering “many now in disuse will be revived.”

We are kidding ourselves to think that NT studies isn’t beset with its own set of quirks and prejudices that plague scholars who are given various labels on the scholarly spectrum. After all, this is the discipline that has a hard time deciding whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, an eccentric desert teacher, a cynic philosopher, a liberation theologian and so on. So any so-called scholarly consensus is worth way less than one might initially think. Speaking as someone on the inside, biblical scholar Richard Bauckham says “consensus often has as much to do with the sociology of knowledge as it has with the compelling nature of the hypothesis.” Bingo. (Bauckham, Are We Still Missing the Elephant?)

When Minimal Facts minimizes too much

But because of the constraints of this methodology, Mike Licona has said that we can’t treat the Gospel resurrection accounts as “historical bedrock” because of scholarly doubts about “unknowns, such as the amount of liberty the Evangelists may have taken in their reports.” The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, Kindle location 5568) In his big book on the resurrection he writes: 

“We may affirm with great confidence that Peter had such an experience in an individual setting, and we will see that the same may be said of an adversary of the church named Paul. We may likewise affirm that there was at least one occasion when a group of Jesus’ followers including “the Twelve” had such an experience. Did other experiences reported by the Gospels occur as well, such as the appearances to the women, Thomas, the Emmaus disciples, and the multiple group appearances reported by the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and John? Where did these experiences occur? Historians may be going beyond what the data warrants in assigning a verdict with much confidence to these questions.” The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, Kindle location 3758)

If we are willing to say that the appearances to the Emmaus disciples or Thomas are not really all that defensible, then there seems to be a problem. If there are embellishments, this would be exactly where one would expect to find them! It’s been argued that even if Luke invented the physical details in his narrative, this somehow doesn’t matter because he invented them in order to convey what the apostles really believed. Because after all, Luke was a companion of Paul. Paul believed in bodily resurrection, so the other apostles must have also. So supposedly it’s not a big deal if Luke made up an actual scene where Jesus appeared in a physical body.  But why not just tell us about the real appearances if they were so bodily? I’m afraid that skeptics see this for the mental gymnastics that it is. The apologist is working against himself here. 

And if we take minimalism to its logical conclusions, we end up admitting that we can’t know with a high degree of certainty about a lot of what Jesus really said and did in the Gospels from a historical perspective. For example, the prevailing view is that whoever wrote John, they felt free to invent entire speeches and put them in Jesus’ mouth. Several evangelical scholars accept this, so we have a consensus with scholars represented  across the spectrum. Would this count as “historical bedrock?” Are we really ok with that? Do we accept some of Jesus’ sayings as historical fact, but want to say that we accept the story of Thomas by *ahem* blind faith? On what grounds can I say with any confidence that Jesus said “I and my Father are one?” in arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness if I adopt this minimalist mindset? (Jn 10:30) When the evangelist says his testimony is true we have a decision to make. We had best believe based on good reasons. This is the cost of minimalism. 

Minimal Facts gives critics ammo

OK, so now back to my strange bedfellow Paulogia. In many ways, he already has the consensus on his side. And in the light of the minimalist concessions, completely fair or not, the skeptic hears: “The Biblical critics are right by saying gospels aren’t highly reliable and even the big league apologists admit it. Mine what you will out of those unreliable documents using the scholars’ tools. But the majority already used those tools and came to much different conclusions than you. You’re stepping outside of the box of scholarly consensus because of your bias, so I’m going to hit you with my “for the Bible tells me so” jingle.” 

Because Licona is admirably transparent about the fact that “scholars differ…on the perceived nature of the experiences“, (The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach, Kindle location 3765) any pop-level apologist making reference to appearances in the Gospels will be told that they’re naively breaking the rules laid down by the big-named resurrection apologists. Paulogia and other counterapologists see that there are scholars who accept the minimal facts but don’t think the bodily resurrection is the best explanation for the data. Because of the minimalist restrictions, any vague or fleeting experience they can come up with can easily explain away the resurrection appearances to the disciples. And any attempt to supplement the argument by the apologist goes beyond the minimal facts. 

The resurrection of the Paley Argument

I think it would be better to simply argue that the resurrection accounts in the gospels are what the disciples reported happened to them right up front. Enough of this end run approach. And I believe that this can be supported by arguments for the reliability of the Gospels. Rumors of the Paley-style argument’s death have been greatly exaggerated. I’ll show you how to make that argument in a future post. Just because something isn’t granted by liberal scholars doesn’t mean that it’s weakly supported by non-question begging evidence. Nor does it mean we are making a “for the Bible tells me so” argument based on inerrancy. 

Sady, I fear that this decades-long reliance on this minimal facts strategy has resulted in an apologetics community that is now full of people who cannot even argue this way, or who are unsure whether or not the evidence even supports it. In short, minimalism has fostered a lack of nerve. One of the main goals of my channel is to show how wrong-headed this idea is. 

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