Natural Theology and the Resurrection: Part 2

Dear Readers,

This is part 2 of a 2-part series from my guest contributor, Ken Mann. Click here to read Part 1

—MCT

In this second post considering the Resurrection as a topic of natural theology, we will consider the approach found in The Resurrection of Jesus. Because the history and the study of ancient manuscripts are not normally associated with topics in natural theology, we will look at Licona’s thesis in more depth.

The first chapter looks at the nature of history and how it is practiced outside of biblical scholarship. We learn that after a certain dalliance with post-modernism, historians as a group are overwhelmingly realist. That is to say, “They maintain that the past is knowable to a limited extent and that narratives constructed of the past correspond to the actual past to varying degrees.”[1] Because of the tenuous nature of the data historians use, this is an important conclusion. The study of the natural world that laid the foundations for modern science started with the belief that knowledge of the natural world was possible. In addition to the philosophy of history, the philosophical views held by the historian are also discussed in depth. Licona refers to this as a historian’s horizon, which he defines as, “how historians view things as a result of their knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview.”[2] This is by far the most significant recurring theme in any discussion related to natural theology or Christian apologetics. (Sadly, in the other fields of study, the “horizons” of physicists and evolutionary biologists are never discussed.)

Chapter 2 focuses on the question of whether or not a miracle can be the subject of an historical investigation. Licona defines a miracle as event that defies natural explanation and occurs in a context with religious significance. Miracles defined in this way are not generally the subject of natural theology (as the religious significance could only be supplied by special revelation). However, if we focus on the first part of the definition, a miracle is an event with a cause beyond nature, beyond the material universe, a cause that is super-natural. In other words, a miracle is an event where the best explanation is God. Clearly this is simply another way of describing what the origin of the universe or the origins of biological information point toward, a cause beyond the natural realm.[3]

Chapters 3 and 4 explore the historical evidence that is available for the resurrection. Licona surveys all of the ancient writings within an adequate timespan of Jesus’ life for any references to the crucifixion and the resurrection. He further assesses the various sources for their credibility (e.g. when were they written and did the authors have access to eye witnesses). In a similar manner, the effectiveness of natural theology arguments relies on selecting the most relevant and widely accepted data. Licona argues for three facts that “are acknowledged as facts by a nearly unanimous and heterogeneous consensus of scholars who have studied the subject.”[4] These are: (1) Jesus died by crucifixion, (2) the disciples had experiences that led them to believe that Jesus had been resurrected, and (3) Paul converted after experiencing that he believed was a post resurrection appearance of Jesus.[5]

Finally, in chapter 5 Licona discusses and evaluates six different hypotheses that are representative of what scholars offer to explain the accepted historical facts surround the death of Jesus. Each hypothesis is analyzed to determine which is the best explanation of the historical bedrock. Four of the criteria used: plausibility, explanatory power and scope, and least ad hoc, are perfectly at home in the discussion of any natural theology argument.[6] Under the scrutiny of these criteria, against five other theories, relying on only three facts the resurrection hypothesis stands out as the best explanation.

The powerful case Licona has created for the resurrection has a great deal in common with arguments for God’s existence in natural theology. There must be a sound method, which includes a deep understanding of the discipline in question, typically from the philosophy of that discipline. A sound method also includes an understanding how worldviews impinge on how any subject is approached. There must be solid evidence or data. If you are going to make an argument from within a discipline, whether in cosmology or history, you must use evidence or data that is accepted within that discipline. This is a crucial element of natural theology arguments. By using the knowledge accepted in a given field the argument becomes an explanation of what the discipline tells us about reality. Finally, an inference to the best explanation or abductive reasoning is the best way to argue from the evidence to a conclusion. Such arguments cannot yield the certainty of a deductive argument, but such limits are diminished when compared to the power of finding arguments for God in ostensibly secular domains of human knowledge.

Why is it important to portray a defense of the resurrection as a natural theology argument? Historically, when Christian doctrines are attacked, especially those derived directly from the Bible, the nominal response has been to either surrender or fight back. Arguably, there are ample reasons to push back against many criticisms. As Licona amply demonstrates, there are many fanciful interpretations of Bible based on mythical source documents or anti-supernatural bias that deserve to be discredited. However, Licona’s book also demonstrates that many of these have been discarded by peer review (by historical scholars and biblical scholars). This may lead us to another tact that relies more on our trust in Christian theism than our ability to dispatch the critics or their arguments. Given sound methodology, credible evidence, and a reasonable search for the best explanation, almost any field of human knowledge can be turned into a tool of apologetics. Rather than circling the wagons and defending every “jot and tittle” of God’s word or Christian doctrine as being perfect and beyond criticism, we can engage the skeptics in their own disciplines, on their own turf, and we can have confidence that God’s truth will be shown.

 

[1] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, Kindle Locations 6316–6317.

[2] Ibid., Kindle Location 420.

[3] While Licona’s discussion focuses on historical assessment of miracles, the subjects addressed, especially a discussion of Hume are also found in R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas, In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1997).

[4] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, Kindle Locations 6379–6380.

[5] Ibid., Kindle Locations 3036–3038.

[6] For that matter these criteria are equally comfortable in any scientific setting as well.

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