Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Robert Price/James White Debate, with Some Reservations about Apologetic Arguments

Yesterday, I watched a debate between Christian apologist James White and skeptic Robert Price.  The debate was over the question, “Is the Bible true?”  In this post, I will not get into all of the points and counter-points, but I will list my favorite parts.

1.  Robert Price’s opening speech was fantastic.  A lot of times, Christian apologists argue that we can trust what the New Testament says about Jesus because eyewitnesses to Jesus were around to correct any misconceptions.  These eyewitnesses were supposed to be like the Snopes of the day, Price said.  But Price disputed this argument by pointing to times in the New Testament when eyewitnesses, and even Jesus himself, were not able to control what was said about Jesus.  Jesus told people he healed not to tell anyone about the healing, but they went out and did so anyway.  Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying that he was, and the disciples listed all sorts of ideas that were circulating (and, as Price said, contra C.S. Lewis, not one of those ideas was that Jesus was God).  There were Judaizers who claimed that Jesus wanted Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the Torah to be saved, whereas Paul had a different viewpoint.  Price also asked how eyewitnesses could even refute that Jesus said something.  It’s not as if any of the eyewitnesses heard every single thing that Jesus said!

James White in his opening speech encouraged the audience to read Price’s books and to compare them with other books.  Ironically, one of the books that White recommended was Reinventing Jesus, which actually makes the eyewitness argument that Price was trying to refute.  (See my review of Reinventing Jesus here.)

Overall, I get joy when skeptics appeal to the Bible to refute Christian apologetics.  It shows that the Bible does not always fit into the predictable, air-tight mold into which Christian apologists try to consign it.  Price’s wit was also enjoyable to listen to.  In my opinion, Price did a better job in his debate with James White than he did in his debate with William Lane Craig.

2.  A lot of times, I hear Christian apologists argue that the resurrection of Jesus is as historically supportable as other events in history.  They may note that skeptics who dismiss the resurrection of Jesus have no problems accepting other events in history as historical, even though acceptance of those other events may be based on sources that were written long after the events that they purport to describe (longer than the time between Jesus and the Gospels).

That argument has long bothered me.  I am impressed when William Lane Craig uses the criteria of historicity that the Jesus Seminar uses as he supports his thesis that Jesus rose from the dead.  But I question whether something so contingent as history can give us guidance as to the absolute will of God.

In one of his speeches, Robert Price was saying that historians rely on probability, and that, the further one goes back in history, the harder it is to say what actually happened.  Sure, historians try to accurately conceptualize the past, but what they say is far from absolute, and it can even be revised in light of new evidence.

Consequently, when Christian apologists say people should become Christian because Jesus’ resurrection is as supported as any other event in history, I question that logic.  Why should anyone base his or her religious beliefs on something so tentative as conclusions about what happened in history?  Does that mean that I am a total skeptic about the past?  No, but I realize that what historians say is not necessarily absolute: that they are trying to make sense of what evidence they have, and they may not even have all of the data.

I think back to a time when I referred to one of N.T. Wright’s arguments for Jesus’ resurrection in a paper that I wrote.  Wright argued, as I understand his argument, that people in Jesus’ historical context did not believe that individuals bodily rose from the dead before the end times, and so something had to give rise to the early Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead; for Wright, and many Christian apologists and preachers who appeal to Wright, that something was Jesus’ actual resurrection.  But my professor was not convinced by that argument.  He said that we may some day find evidence that others believed one could rise from the dead before the end times.  Wright’s argument may make a degree of sense, but should one build one’s beliefs about religion on a historical argument like that, especially when we do not know if later evidence may undercut it?

3.  Robert Price holds many views that are not broadly accepted within scholarship.  He knows that.  In debates with Christians, when Christians say “most scholars say,” he regards that as an argument from authority, and he asks that they deal with the substance of his arguments rather than simply dismissing them with “most scholars say.”  I can understand his point-of-view on that.  At the same time, I would caution people that there may be good reasons that “most scholars say” something.
In any case, I loved that James White in his opening speech acknowledged that Price does not care for arguments from authority, and White said that he would try his best to deal with the substance of Price’s arguments rather than dismissing them with “most scholars say.”  My opinion of James White went up some notches when I heard him say that!

4.  The debate was moderated by Hank Hanegraaff, who hosts the radio program, “The Bible Answer Man.”  I used to listen to that program.  I really liked it.  I even called into it one time.  Hank has a soothing radio voice.

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