Come Again: Thomas Sheehan Deconstructs Christianity

Higher criticism — source criticism, form critism, redaction criticism, various contemporary amalgams — has been with us now for at least a century and a half. To the layman it can easily seem that higher critics disparage what they see as the naivety of the ordinary Christian’s belief in the events reported in the New Testament: Christ’s virgin birth, his miracles, his death, his (literal and physical) resurrection, his being seen by “more than 500 of the brethren,” his ascension into heaven, and the like. Thus David Strauss — author of The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, one of the earliest Higher Criticism salvos — in 1835: “Nay, if we would be candid with ourselves, that which was once sacred history for the Christian believer is, for the enlightened portion of our contemporaries, only fable.” To the layman it can also seem that the grounds for this disparagement are sometimes extremely slender — so gossamer as to be nearly nonexistent. There is much confident assertion but little compelling evidence, abundant speculation but next to nothing of real solidity.

Protestants have had to deal with “higher criticsm” for a good long time; but Catholic scholars have been discovering (or at any rate employing) it only over the last quarter century or so. The result has been a spate of books of biblical criticism by Catholic scholars, some of them, I am sorry to say, running to sizeable excess. Thomas Sheehan’s The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (Random House, 287 pp., $18.95) is a case in point. He begins by claiming that the Christian church is undergoing a crisis in what she thinks and believes about Jesus: “The crisis grows out of the fact now freely admitted by both Protestant and Catholic theologians and exegetes: that as far as can be discerned from the available historical data, Jesus of Nazareth did not think he was divine [and] did not assert any of the messianic claims that the New Testament attributes to him. . . .” Sheehan’s project is apparently fourfold: (1) to try once more to determine the actual content of Jesus’ preaching (as opposed to what Christians have thought it was); (2) to determine how the idea that Jesus arose from the dead developed in the early church; (3) to do the same for the idea that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the divine son of God; and (4) to discover what is the actual significance of the preaching and life and death of Jesus.

The project is to try to accomplish tasks (1)-(3) above “from below,” that is, without making such theological assumptions as, for example, that Jesus is the incarnate son of God, or that the Bible is in any special sense the word of God, or that there is such a thing as the testimony of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to grasp Scriptural truths we would otherwise miss. Sheehan hopes to accomplish this by using the sorts of methods that would be employed by a historian confronting any ancient text: “I adopt the viewpoint of the historian, not that of the believer. I take the word ‘history’ in the context of the original Greek verb that underlies it: historein, to search and inquire, using only the light of natural, empirical reason” (p. 9). The idea is to try to discover what Jesus preached, how belief in the resurrection developed, and how the early Christologies developed “using only the light of natural, empirical reason.”

On points (2) and (3) Sheehan adopts what is by now a very familiar line: none of the apparent testimony to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his being literally and physically seen by his disciples — “by more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time” (I Corinthians 15:6) — is to be taken seriously. According to Sheehan, the nature miracles are

simply legends which arose among early Christians and which were projected backward, under the impact of faith, into the life of the historical Jesus (p. 74).

The reason for the patent inconsistencies and the physical unrecordability of these miraculous “events” come down to one thing: The gospel stories about Easter are not historical accounts but religious myths (p. 97).

To counter the climate of doubt aroused by Jesus’ failure to return, some gospel accounts embellished the Easter experience with elaborate apocalyptic stories that concretized the “resurrection” of Jesus by providing him with a preternatural body that was physically seen, touched and elevated into heaven (p. 293).

The addition of mythical elements was due to a sort of failure of nerve on the part of Peter and others; as a result of this failure the early church developed these myths about angels at the tomb, Jesus being literally seen by many, and the like. Similarly for the development of Christology culminating in the Prologue to the gospel of John, the Philippians hymn, and Paul’s letter to the Colossians: Jesus himself made none of these claims for himself; they were in vented later on by a church intent on buttressing a theological point.

Now taken in its own terms, Sheehan’s case for such claims is at best tenuous, speculative, and fanciful. However, I shall mostly neglect what he says about points (2) and (3) and concentrate on what he says under rubrics (1) and (4). Then I’ll turn to a brief examination of the sorts of reasons scholars sometimes give for supposing that Christology “from below” — attempting to understand the relevant texts without recourse to theological beliefs about Christ or the Bible — is in fact correct and de rigueur for Scripture scholarship.

Well then, what does “natural, empirical reason” reveal about what Jesus actually preached? Sheehan’s answer may strike an ordinary Christian as indeed amazing, not to say preposterous. Jesus, for example, did not claim to be the Messiah or even a messiah, let alone the divine son of God:

What then [Sheehan asks] have the post-Bultmanian critics discovered about the historical Jesus . . . ? Negatively, they have established that Jesus did not express his self-understanding in any Christological titles — certainly not in the so-called higher titles (such as “God” or “Lord” in the full divine sense) and not even in the so-called lower titles (for example “messiah,”. . . and “Son of Man”) [p.25].

What did he claim then? What was his positive message? It isn’t easy to understand Sheehan’s answer. It all began, however, when Jesus came under the spell of John the Baptist; upon hearing the latter, says Sheehan, “Jesus, we may imagine, was pierced to the heart. He repented and was baptized.” (p. 53). “Jesus was impressed by the fact that John, unlike the apocalyptic preachers so popular in those days, preached no messiah, proclaimed no end of the world, and promised no future aeon of bliss” (p. 52). Following suit, Jesus too proclaimed no end of the world, preached neither that he nor some other was the messiah. He followed John in “the reduction of apocalypse to its existential core” (p. 55). This means, as far as I can make out, that Jesus had no apocalyptic message, but did enjoin justice and mercy. Sheehan writes:

The immediate presence of God as a loving Father is what Jesus meant by the “kingdom”. . . . As Jesus preached it, the kingdom of God had nothing to do with the fanciful geopolitics of the apocalyptist and messianists — a kingdom up above or up ahead. . . . Rather, it meant God’s act of reigning, and this meant — here lay the revolutionary force of Jesus’ message — that God, as God, had identified himself without remainder with his people [Sheehan’s emphasis]. The reign of God meant the incarnation of God (p. 60).

That is, Jesus destroyed the notion of “God-in-himself” and put in its place the experience of “God-with-mankind.” Henceforth, according to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven but was entirely identified with the cause of men and women. Jesus’ doctrine of the kingdom meant that God had become incarnate: He had poured himself out, had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there. . . . The doctrine of the kingdom meant that henceforth and forever God was present only in and as one’s neighbor. Jesus dissolved the fanciful speculations of apocalyptic eschatology into the call to justice and charity (p. 61).

[Jesus’] proclamation marked the death of religion and religion’s God and heralded the beginning of the postreligious experience: the abdication of “God” in favor of his hidden presence among human beings (pp. 61-62).

So Jesus did not proclaim that he was the messiah, let alone the Son of God; what he preached is not “Believe in me and thou shalt be saved,” but something of quite another stripe: “God has disappeared into mankind” But what could that mean? “God, as God, had identified himself without remainder with his people”; “God has disappeared into mankind”; “the abdication of ‘God’ in favor of his hidden presence among human beings”: how are we to understand these dark sayings?

It isn’t easy to tell, but I think what Sheehan means here is that according to Jesus, there simply is no all—powerful being who has (say) created the world and to whom we owe worship and obedience. There is nothing at all like the sort of being Christians and other theists believe in: a transcendent, all-powerful, all-knowing person who has created the heavens and earth and sustains them in being. And although Sheehan speaks of God’s disappearing into mankind, becoming incarnate without remainder, and the like, the idea is not, I gather, that previously there was such a being, but then later on he somehow disappeared into humanity: the idea is that there never was any such person at all. All there had ever been, to God, we might say, was his incarnation in his people: “All Jesus did was bring to light in a fresh way what had always been the case, but what had been forgotten or obscured by religion. His role was simply to end religion — that temporary governess who had turned into a tyrant….” (p. 68).

So Jesus’’ message, according to Sheehan, was that theism is false and there is no God. It isn’t that theism is at best approximately true (as with the nineteenth-century liberals with leanings towards absolute idealism); it isn’t true at all. Jesus was really an atheist; he preached the end of religion and religion’s God, dissolving all this into the recommendation of justice and mercy.

Among liberal theologians of a certain stripe there appears to be a kind of desperate quest for novelty; those who take part in this derby vie with each other to see who can make the most outrageous pronouncements. To understand Sheehan and his claims about Jesus, we must see him and them in their historical context. Twenty years ago, when “Death of God Theology” burst (or perhaps dribbled) upon the scene, many of us thought that heights of theological tomfoolery had been achieved which could never be exceeded. One of this number, Paul Van Buren, suggested that logical positivism with its “verifiability criterion of meaning” — according to which most of what Christians say about God is literally nonsense — was really the proper foundation of Christian theology. Another, Thomas Altizer, seems to have claimed that God died when Christ was born, that He died again in the nineteenth century, and that He has also died in human history generally. Altizer then went on to say that atheism is in fact the final flower and purest form of Christianity (neglecting to add the obvious corollaries that bigotry is the final flower and purest form of tolerance, and whoredom the final flower and purest form of chastity).

What we had here, many thought, was theological foolishness than which none greater could be conceived. And indeed, Altizer’s achievement along these lines is truly formidable. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Sheehan, it seems, has topped it. According to Altizer, the real Christian recognizes that atheism is the truth. Now Sheehan adds, in a spectacular burst of insight, that this is the gospel Jesus Christ himself brought! Colossal! There is only one way to go beyond this: to hold that God Himself, eternal, omnipotent and omniscient as He is, was an atheist even before Jesus and has suffered from a distressing inability to get the message across. (Using terminology in the confusing, vaguely dishonest way characteristic of such theology, one could support this view by pointing out that God worships no one and does not acknowledge a superior being, both of which are characteristic of the atheist.) But even this suggestion, logically impossible though it is, doesn’t have quite the sheer bite and panache of Sheehan’s preposterous claim.

Sheehan’s own message — what he sees as the real meaning of the empty tomb, as opposed to the meaning ascribed to it by Christians — is of a piece with the message he puts in the mouth of Jesus. (The tailless fox, as R. G. Collingwood says, preaches taillessness.) According to Sheehan, the real meaning:

As we peer into that emptiness [of the tomb, with no resurrection] the absence of the living Jesus and even of his dead body allows us to identify a unique form of seeking: the desire for that which can never be had. This unique kind of seeking is the experience that makes human beings different from any other kind of entity, and we see it exemplified in the women who actually found the tomb empty on that first Easter Sunday. Such seeking is not something we occasionally get caught up in; rather, it is what makes us human, constitutes us as the futile passion, the unfulfilled and presumably unfulfillable desire that we are (p. 172).

Taking Jesus as [sic] his word means understanding that he is what everyone else is: a finite, fallible, mortal act of interpretation. Every human being is just that and no more: a hermeneusis, a lived interpretation (in action, in play, in language and thought) of what one’s existence is and is about (p. 225).

All of us, including Jesus, are inevitably and forever a question to which there is no answer. Taking Jesus as his word means understanding and accepting that. (p. 226).

Taking Jesus as his word? This is already enough to make one a bit nervous; how are we to do a thing like that? Would it be to believe that Jesus (contrary to what we have always thought) was really a proposition or assertion? As I say, this is enough to make one a bit nervous; but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Easter, for the Christian, is a time of joy and celebration, a time of profound gratitude for the unthinkable splendor of God’s gift of salvation through the death and resurrection of his Son. But according to Sheehan, the real meaning of Easter, the real meaning of the empty tomb, is not the glad Easter cry “He is risen,” with the declaration that He is the first fruits, and the earnest of our own resurrection, so that death has been swallowed up in victory. No. It is rather that we are all futile and unfulfillable passions, questions to which there are no answers.

Being a question without an answer certainly sounds like a depressing condition, and no doubt something of a comedown; but what could it mean? What is it to be a futile passion or a question without an answer? You meet some unusual people nowadays, but hardly ever anyone who is a question, let alone a question without an answer. Shorn of excessive, bathetic rhetoric, what Sheehan means, I think, is that it is very hard to be sure of anything; no matter what you believe there are always equally satisfactory alternatives. This fits in with Sheehan’s claim in the introduction that

Christianity is a “hermeneusis,” or interpretation. Its beliefs and doctrines are but one of many possible and equally valid ways of understanding the universally available empirical data about Jesus of Nazareth. Christians may claim that their faith is based on revelation, but as far as one can tell empirically, such revelation is a name for the historically relative and culturally determined hermeneutical process in which Christians, confronting the humanly available information about Jesus of Nazareth, choose to interpret him as their savior who reigns with God in heaven (p. 7).

There is much to be said about this (most of it not flattering), but I won’t take the time to say it. The basic idea here seems to be the notion, familiar in some varieties of continental philosophy, that whatever we think or believe is only a hermeneusis, or interpretation, to which there are equally satisfactory alternatives. No matter what you believe on any important matter, there are alternatives to your belief which are quite as valid and acceptable. Indeed, for any belief you hold, its denial will be just as valid or satisfactory as the belief itself.

Of course if this is true, then Christianity, despite Sheehan’s confident pronouncements, is as good an interpretation as any other. Thus Sheehan winds up (p. 223) having to concede that Christianity is as acceptable an interpretation or hermeneusis as any other interpretation, and, indeed, as true as any other — Sheehan’s own interpretation, for example. (How are we to understand this is a bit puzzling, since Christianity and what Sheehan proposes are clearly inconsistent; but then Sheehan neither says nor suggests that ordinary logic is part of his interpretation.)

Self-referential problems loom here. The fundamental claim seems to be that all we can ever have are equally acceptable, even if conflicting, interpretations. But then, of course, if his claim is true, then it is itself just one more interpretation, and it is no better or closer to the truth than alternatives — for example, its denial. If all is interpretation, then this idea itself has no more to be said for it than the contrary idea that some interpretations are vastly preferable and vastly closer to the truth than others. If all is interpretation to which there are equally satisfactory alternatives, then this very claim is an interpretation to which there are equally satisfactory alternatives: one can take it or leave it. As for me and my house, I think we’ll leave it.

How does Sheehan reach these startling claims as to what Jesus taught? By starting from what he sees as the agreed upon results of New Testament scholarship and extrapolating: “I depend upon (and hope that I am faithful to) the scientifically controllable results of modern biblical scholarship; but then I go beyond that scholarship, by using its scientific results as data for my own theories” (p. 9). Sheehan draws upon source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and some hitherto unclassified similar criticisms; and his introduction contains a clear and readable account of some of these developments.

To the uninitiate it can easily seem that there is much that is tenuous at the very foundations of some of these methods. Thus, for example, Sheehan reports that the post-Bultmannian form critics

make use of at least four criteria for determining whether elements of the gospel material are authentically historical, that is, traceable to Jesus himself. First the criterion of dissimilarity allows the exegete to attribute to Jesus at least those sayings which can be shown to be probably unique to him insofar as they are notably dissimilar from sayings that are provably typical either of the early church or ancient Judaism. Secondly, the criterion of coherence allows these exegetes to attribute to Jesus those sayings that are coherent with the material that has already been established to be “unique because dissimilar.” Thirdly, the criterion of multiple attestation permits the exegete, within limits, to attribute to Jesus those deeds or kinds of behavior which are attested in all or many of the distinct gospel sources (for example, Mark and Q). Finally, according to the criterion of language and environment, any authentic saying of Jesus would have to reflect Aramaic speech and, in general, the cultural patterns of early Palestine — although it is possible that such characteristics might reflect only the earliest Palestinian churches (p. 25).

But there is a clear tension here between the first and the fourth criterion: only those sayings that are dissimilar from what was current will be certified by the first criterion, while if the saying does not reflect the cultural patterns of early Palestine then it will be de-certified by the fourth. (And of course if you think that Jesus is indeed the divine Son of God, you will no doubt hesitate to assume that any authentic saying of Jesus would have to reflect the cultural patterns of early Palestine.) Further, these methods seem to display an alarming degree of flexibility or flaccidity, permitting an astoundingly wide range of conclusions. Sheehan’s own conclusions require, as you can imagine, a good bit of picking and choosing among texts. Using these methods, this is always easy enough: you simply demote any text that doesn’t fit your interpretation; you claim that it is a later addition of the Christian community intent on making a theological point. Does Mark 14 or Matthew 26 say Jesus says he is the Son of God and will return in glory? No problem: simply declare that it was added later on and is not a report of anything Jesus actually said.

I shall leave it to the experts to decide how much of value there is in these methods; what concerns me here is Sheehan’s tendentious use of them. For example, he regularly speaks of what has been confirmed by these methods, or shown by them, or discovered by them, or established by them; in nearly all of these cases there is scholarly opinion on both sides of the question. (Of course, there is also the fact that from Sheehan’s perspective nothing can really be shown or established; all we have are interpretations to which there are always equally acceptable alternatives.) Further, there is a great deal of dogmatic and unsupported assertion. For example, speaking of John’s “leaping in the womb” when his mother Elizabeth met Mary, Sheehan remarks: “But that legend, like the inspiring but unhistorical story about the miraculous virginal conception of Jesus, is a theological interpretation created some decades after the death of Jesus to express Christianity’s faith in his special status” (p. 55). Again: “And in any case the words the Gospels put into Jesus’ mouth at his [Sanhedrin] hearing (for example, his claim to being the Messiah: Mark 14:62) are later theological interpolations of the early church and cannot be credited as historical statements” (p. 86). And: “. . . it is not true that the Jewish crowds shouted out that Jesus should be crucified (Mark 15:12) or that they took his blood upon themselves and their children (Matthew 27:25)…. These sentences, which were later written into the accounts of Jesus’ passion, are the product of a bitter polemic between early Christianity and Judaism . . .” (p. 87). Here one wonders at the source of Sheehan’s information, and here, as in many other places, the footnotes reveal that the matter in question is very much a topic of scholarly debate.

Frequently the text contains a bland assertion to the effect that such and such is the case, and a footnote contradicting the assertion. Thus Sheehan claims that “There is no evidence that Jesus himself forgave sinners in his own name”; in a footnote he gives the evidence, adding that while some take the saying in question to be authentic, others do not. Again: “Jesus had not fainted. He was dead. And in the spirit of the New Testament we may add: He never came back to life” (p. 101). Here there is a footnote, directing us, not as you might expect, to the New Testament, but to Thomas Aquinas — who, of course, does not say that Jesus never came back to life: what he does say is that upon his resurrection Jesus entered a life that was immortal and Godlike.

Sheehan also displays a certain distressing inability to distinguish the assertion “not-p” from the failure to assert “p.” Thus for example he says that according to Matthew, “He does not ascend into heaven” (p. 97), giving as a reference Matthew 28:16-20. But of course Matthew 28:16-20 does not say that Jesus did not ascend into heaven; it simply doesn’t say that he did. Again, there is often a certain lack of balance between the plausibility of a claim and the weight of its documentation. For example: “For Simon and the others,” he says, “ ‘resurrection’ was simply one way of articulating their conviction that God had vindicated Jesus and was coming soon to dwell among his people. And this interpretation would have held true for the early believers, even if an exhumation of Jesus’ grave had discovered his rotting flesh and bones” (p. 109). The evidence for this astonishing claim is that there is the fact that there is at least one Scripture scholar who says so. Finally, as Sheehan interprets I Corinthians 13:3-8, Paul did not mean to say that Christ had physically risen from the dead: “The raising of Jesus has nothing to do with a spatio-temporal resuscitation, a coming back to life….” (p. 112). But here he completely neglects the remainder of the chapter, where Paul relates Jesus’ resurrection to our own coming resurrection, which he clearly sees as literal, physical, and spatio-temporal.

The most interesting issues raised by this book, I think, have less to do with Sheehan’s dubious claims than with the enterprises of Christology “from below” and “objective” biblical scholarship — i.e. scholarship in which one does not assume or take for granted what one knows or believes by faith about (say) Jesus, but instead treats the Bible as one would any ancient text and Jesus as any character in such a text. The idea is to see what can be established (or at least made plausible) using only the light of “natural, empirical reason,” ignoring anything one may know by faith. The idea is that a proper Scripture scholar will be “objective.” Objectivity is sometimes represented as a matter of sticking to the objective facts, not bringing in any theological interpretation. What is really meant in this context, however, is that the objective scholar will not use any theological assumptions or knowledge in any attempt to determine what the objective facts are. Thus, for example, Barnabas Lindars, a well-known New Testament scholar, seems to suggest that it is somehow wrong or improper to rely on what one knows or believes by faith in biblical interpretation:

There are in fact two reasons why many scholars are cautious about miracle stories…. The second reason is historical. The religious literature of the ancient world is full of miracle stories, and we cannot believe them all. It is not open to a scholar to decide that, just because he is a believing Christian, he will accept all the Gospel miracles at their face value, but at the same time he will repudiate miracles attributed to Isis. All such accounts have to be scrutinized with equal detachment (Theology, March 1986, p. 91).

Why think this? Why isn’t it open to a scholar to accept the Gospel accounts of miracles but reject others? Because, thinks Lindars, proceeding that way wouldn’t be properly detached or objective; there would be something merely arbitrary about it. The real question here is this: is it legitimate for a Christian scholar — a Christian Scripture scholar, for example — to employ assumptions or beliefs the source of which is his Christian faith? Can one properly employ, in scholarship, assumptions that aren’t shared by all the members of the scholarly community? Can one properly employ what he knows by faith? Thus, for example, the Christian, thinking that Jesus is indeed the divine Son of God, might be inclined to credit certain miracle stories as sober historical accounts of what Jesus did (the raising of Lazarus, e.g., or his own resurrection). If you don’t think Jesus was divine, however, you would plausibly think it very unlikely that these are accounts of what actually happened, and it might be more plausible to see them as added by the church to make a theological point of one sort or another. So whether you think Christ was (is) in fact divine could certainly make a big difference to how you proceed in Scripture scholarship.

And isn’t it simple common sense to think that a Christian scholar (or the Christian scholarly community) should use everything she knows in pursuing her discipline? Suppose you (or the Christian community) do in fact believe that Jesus was divine. If what you want, in scholarship, is to reach the truth of the matters at hand, then why not use all that you know, regardless of its particular source? Isn’t it merely perverse to limit yourself to only some of what you know, or only some sources of knowledge, if your aim is to reach the truth about the phenomena in question? That would be like trying to do physics, say, without in any way relying on your own memory, or the memory of anyone else. (Any proposition accepted in part by virtue of reliance upon memory, you say, is not part of the evidence.) You might be able to do a bit of physics that way, but it would be pretty limited, a poor, paltry, truncated thing. And why would you want to do it? (Perhaps I could climb Devil’s Tower with my feet tied together but why would I want to?) If your aim is to reach as much as you can of the fullfledged truth of the matter at hand, then presumably the right way to proceed is to use all of one’s resources, everything you know, including what you know by faith.

But, says Lindars, isn’t it just arbitrary to treat miracle stories about Jesus differently from miracle stories about Isis? Well, no; for you think that Jesus was divine but Isis was not — or perhaps you think that “Isis,” in this use, doesn’t name anything at all, so that there simply wasn’t any such person or thing as Isis. So there is a great difference between the two, a difference which requires that they be treated differently. (Objectivity requires that we treat similar things similarly; it doesn’t require that we ignore important differences between things.)

But then isn’t it arbitrary to have that belief — that Jesus was Christ, and the Son of God, and hence special? What makes you think that is true? How could you sensibly come to that belief, except upon the basis of historical investigation — investigation which does not start by presupposing the truth of the belief in question? The suggestion is that any appropriately justified belief about Jesus must be based entirely upon ordinary historical investigation. But why should we believe a thing like that? Christians don’t typically come to their beliefs about Jesus in that way; and I know of no good reason to think that is the way that they would do it, if they did it properly. This claim — that one ought not to employ, in scholarship, the view that Jesus was (is) divine — rests on the assumption that the only way in which we could properly come to characteristically Christian beliefs, is by way of ordinary scientific or historical investigation. But this assumption is dubious in excelsis; it is part and parcel of Classical Foundationalism. (See, for example, my “Reason and Belief in God” in Faith and Rationality, ed. A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff [Notre Dame University Press, 1985].) And it shares the liabilities of the latter. Further, it fits poorly with Christian ideas as to the source of our Christian belief. Reformed Christians, for example, will be likely to follow John Calvin in holding that there is such a thing as the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit; and they will add that this testimony is, among other things, a source of reliable and perfectly acceptable beliefs about what is communicated in Scripture. Other Christians may have other suggestions for sources of belief which play the same role; but nearly all the major Christian traditions unite in rejecting the idea that the only acceptable source of beliefs about Jesus is ordinary scientific investigation. So why should we accept it?

What is really at issue here is a philosophical (epistemological) view about what constitutes correct or reasonable belief, about what constitutes proper or real knowledge. The objectivist thinks that the only sources of knowledge or acceptable scholarly belief are, e.g., perception, memory, mathematic-logical intuition and the like — i.e. “natural empirical reason”; he rejects any such sources of belief as the testimony of the Holy Spirit. But there is no good reason for the Christian to join him here; and of course objectivism is an entirely unnatural position for a Christian to adopt.

The natural position for a Christian is that if we employ all that we know (not just natural, empirical reason), we stand a much better chance of getting close to the actual full-orbed truth. And isn’t that what we are after in scholarship? So why should we handicap ourselves in the fashion suggested by the objectivist?

Alvin Plantinga

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Alvin Carl Plantinga (born 1932) is an American analytic philosopher, the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College.

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