Thursday, 29 March 2007

The NT as an historical document

I noticed that in Derren Brown's video, Instant Conversion, he starts by saying (and I paraphrase here), "I used to be a happy, clappy Christian until, in my twenties, I realised that my beliefs were just as circular as the New Age claptrap I argued against. Then I read the New Testament as an historical document, and it cured me permanently of any vestiges of religion."

I encourage you to check the video to make sure my paraphrase doesn't misrepresent Brown's position.

Now, this position is clearly opposed to my own (a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, including the NT, see Why I believe in Biblical inerrancy. The funny thing is, my own reading of the NT as an historical document merely strengthens my belief in the tenets of Christianity.

How can two people read the same document and come to such diametrically opposed views? Am I stupid? Is Brown stupid? Are we both stupid? (I'm discounting the possibility that one or both of us is crazy or lying.) Or, most likely of all, did we come to the same document with radically different underlying assumptions?

The NT is pretty solid history, really. It gets so many geographical, political, and cultural details dead-on that it's very hard to dismiss it as a fabrication. Except for one thing. It contains some extraordinary claims about some of the things Jesus the Christ and his followers did. I'm talking about miracles.

Now, I don't know this for sure, but given the whole tone of Instant Conversion, it seems likely that Brown thinks that miracles (i.e. the supernatural intervention into the normal course of nature) are practically an impossibility. I, on the other hand, think that miracles are a natural result of the existence of a god like the Christian God (in other words, if the Christian God existed, then the type of miracles described in the NT would not be impossible).

But how does the NT treat miracles? Does it differentiate between miracles and normal events, or does it treat miracles as part of the everyday experience. If it did the latter, it would clearly not be grounded in our reality, where miracles are (even for Pentecostal, "happy clappy" Christians), not an everyday reality. It could, in fact, be fairly described as fantasy.

But the NT doesn't treat miracles that way. It treats them as "signs" and "wonders" and evidence of the supernatural creator god's intervention into the normal, everyday world. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect, were the NT's notion of God actually true. Not only that, but the NT records the miracles in a very matter-of-fact way -- now days we would probably say it records them "scientifically". The NT even differentiates between natural diseases that were healed and symptoms caused by demonic possession that were removed by exorcism. The NT writers show a very clear grasp of reality (much clearer than many writers in the last five or more centuries). It's just that their reality includes both nature and supernature.

So, reading the NT as an historical document, we're left with a quandary. Does its sober, historical documentation of these unusual miracles and their supernatural causes render it unhistorical?

We can only say that it does if we have other reasons for believing that there is no such thing as the supernatural.

Do we have other reasons? Valid ones, I mean? Well, no, we don't. All we have are biases.

Do we have valid reasons for believing that there really was something supernatural going on, as recorded by the NT? Well yes, we do.

Put very briefly, there is no plausible alternative explanation for the behavior of the disciples, post-resurrection, and for the formation of the undeniably real Christian church, or for the writing of the undeniably early gospels and epistles. The historical evidence for something extraordinary happening at the beginning of the first millennium AD, is simply too strong, and I have yet to see any other valid explanations for it other than that the NT's record is, in fact, historical -- miracles, supernatural events, and all.

I guess Brown has some warm, fuzzy explanation that has enough detail to stop his mind worrying at the loose ends too much. I certainly know many people in that situation. But that's not good enough for those of us who really care about the truth. We are forced, by the weight of evidence, to believe, no matter how much we may not want to.

1 comment:

Peter said...

His use of the word "circular" probably unlocks his meaning. Perhaps he used to think that the Bible is true because it's God's word, which is circular when you consider that we know about God through reading the bible. He probably thinks that coming to this realisation is a good reason to reject belief outright, leading to his euphemism for the atheistic stance: "I read the NT as an historical document."

Although this kind of circular reasoning is fallacious, in the broader sense it is not, that is, when reasoning from first principles. When it comes to our ultimate presuppositions, we are utterly constrained by them. We can only hope to justify them by beginning our reasoning from them. Since such reasoning leads to coherence, it may be regarded as not "viciously" or fallaciously circular.

And Derren (like us all) has adopted an ultimate presupposition. What is clear is that they constrain him to deny the miraculous in principle, and what is also clear is that he has made no attempt to justify them.