Sunday, January 20, 2008

How Does One Come to Believe the Gospels?

How does one come to believe in the authority of the Bible? A comments thread here offers some remarkably helpful (for a comments thread, which is an undemanding measure) thoughts that match my own experience. We say Scripture attests to Jesus and Jesus attests to Scripture, which sounds circular. But it’s not, because the attestation works differently in the different steps of the argument. Three steps may be distinguished.

First one decides that the Biblical account is plausible; that is, that it is more or less reliable, the same way that Thucydides is more or less reliable on the Pelopennesian war or Teddy White on the election of 1960*. In this stage, one puts the source into the witness box, so to speak, and is not shy of cross-examining it for contradictions. On the other hand, as is pointed out by Clare** and Cooky642*** in the comments thread, multiple witnesses of a single event can actually be more convincing if they have slight discrepancies. Given the well-documented vagaries of eye-witness testimony (more here and here), two witnesses will probably produce exactly the same account only if they have gotten together to “get their story straight” before hand. In this stage then, small discrepancies can actually add to the reliability of the points the witnesses do agree on, particularly if these discrepancies stem from some obvious difference in background, temperament, or position of the witnesses. Human qualities in the witness are appreciated, not deprecated. Insisting on inerrancy in this stage is not only unnecessary, but actually hampers belief, because an inerrant witness is too unusual to be believed in, and would need a separate witness himself, and so on in infinite regress. Moreover the marks of inerrancy are too similar to the marks of a coached and cooked up witness’s story not to be suspicious.

The second stage comes when one realizes that these ordinary, prosaic, all-too-human witnesses are describing something truly beyond ordinary human experience. Four ordinary men are testifying to a man who was/is God. The stories of the four witnesses vary according to their to their backgrounds, temperaments, and points of view, but what they agree on is that He did miracles while alive, that the tomb was empty, and that He rose from the dead. A finite witness is encompassing an infinite reality. And this infinite reality asks for belief from you.

The third stage comes when one realizes that the witnesses themselves are playing a part in this divine reality’s plan to come to you. At this point one wants to know as much as possible about the Man to whom they are testifying. The clearer their testimony the clearer one comes to know Him to Whom they testify. And one of the things that the witnesses consistently testify to (in their different ways) is that they have been chosen by Him to bear witness to Him, and that their testimony will be trustworthy. Suddenly, we have a plausible witness making a plausible statement that they heard the divine Man designate these witnesses as men of unquestionable authority. And if that’s the case, then they are more than just human witnesses, rather they are divinely commissioned Apostles. The Apostles as witnesses gave plausible testimony to Jesus as Son of God, and now the Son of God gives irrefragable testimony to the Apostles as inerrant teachers. The authority of the New Testament is thus established.

This is how it happened for me. From my first acquaintance in my teenage years, the four Gospels seemed to be a fairly plausible account of what happened in the life of Jesus, far more plausible than the Dan Brown-style accounts vying with it, all of which reeked of ex post facto hagiography, special pleading, and cooked-up testimony. But I never believed them as the Word of God, until I came to grips at age thirty with the Man that they bear witness to. From then on, the Gospels were not just plausible, but the guide to life, the inerrant witness to the Man we all must know as well as ever we can.

The problem though is, what to do with those small discrepancies that had previously been helpful in establishing the untampered-with authenticity of the four witnesses? If the witnesses are indeed divinely commissioned, they shouldn’t make any errors, right? And couldn’t one bring people to believe in Jesus more rapidly if you could start from the beginning by asserting divine authority for these four witnesses?

That is of course the way many in the church have taken. It is the origin of the idea of harmonizing the four Gospels. In the churches of the Roman Empire, the four Gospels were always read separately, but in the Church of the East in the Persian Empire, from AD 170 to later than 350, the standard Bible was the Syriac translation made by Tatian called the Diatessaron, and arranged not as four Gospels, but as a read straight-through harmony. Even in the Greco-Roman churches, centuries of harmonization have made it very difficult for us to read, for example, Luke’s account of the angels announcing the nativity to the shepherds apart from Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi.

At the same time the Church has resisted canonizing any one harmonizing scheme. The Church of the East eventually gave up the Diatessaron in favor of the four separate Gospels. So the cleansing of the Temple in the beginning of Jesus’s public preaching career according to John and the cleansing at the end of it in the Synoptics have been just left side by side, for Christians who confess the inerrancy of Scripture to solve as they will. Luther preached on John 2:13-16 thus (in part):

In John’s Gospel the cleansing of the Temple appears to come directly after the baptism of Christ, whereas in Matthew’s Gospel it comes after the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It is not important to settle this question. It may be that John has jumped over the entire interval from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry to the last Passover because less interested in the deeds than in the words of Christ. Be that as it may. If you cannot contrive a reconciliation of John and Matthew, let it go, You won’t be damned on that account. (See Roland H. Bainton, Luther’s Meditations on the Gospels, p. 93).

It seems to me there is wisdom in thus keeping the Word both open to those outside and to those inside. To those outside, the Gospels must remain plausible historical documents. The outsider cannot believe (yet) in inerrant witnesses, because he has never met any. But he can believe in reliable witnesses because he has come across such in his living experience. Let the Gospels be that for him then. Do not try to harmonize them, do not try to “get our story straight” and then stubbornly tell the world, “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.“ But do insist that the Gospels are a reliable guide to the life of Jesus of Nazareth and that Acts tells the story of the Church at least as well as Herodotus tells the story of Thermopylae.

But to those inside, the Church must confess the Word as the norm, as the guide of spiritual life, and also as the accurate exposition of the knowledge of the life of Jesus and how the Spirit founded the Church. And if it is wrong, then it would be a blind guide. So to us inside, we have to confess the Scriptures are the infallible words of divinely commissioned Apostles teaching us of Jesus. If you prove to me the Gospels say this or that, then I have to believe this or that or be a disobedient son. And when will we prove to the outsiders that the Bible is indeed inerrant and that the solution to the problem of the different dates of the cleansing of the Temple -- the solution Luther didn’t have and I don’t think anyone else has either -- was obvious all along? When the world is the Church and the Church is the world.

(To be continued)

*Randy Gritter in the comments thread referred to above puts it this way (with a Catholic spin):
Catholics make 2 passes at scripture when they try and provide the rational basis for their faith. The first pass just requires scripture to be generally historically accurate. Then you can conclude that Jesus lived. That he taught certain things. He did miracles. He died. He rose again. He established His church.

Then once you have all those historical events established you can look at the church as the body of Christ and conclude that it must be right when it defined the cannon of scripture. So Mark is right. At this point in the argument you don't need to show scripture is inerrant. You just need to show it provides solid reasons for believing the events described.

**Speaking as a lawyer, a story can actually be more believable when the witnesses don't totally agree on every single tiny detail. If you get a bunch of eyewitnesses to an event that corroborate each other 100%, it's suspicious, since it looks like they've all been coached. When you get a group of honest human beings together, and ask them to recall something that happened, their answers are naturally bound to vary a little bit. But it's only when they vary on the most basic points--"yes, it happened," vs. "no, it didn't"--that the event is called into question.

***Has anyone ever had the experience of witnessing a disaster or even just a traffic accident? If so, you'll know that the police who respond question everybody who witnessed the event. Why? I asked, once. The answer was that everybody who saw what happened saw it from a different angle, and with differing levels of attention. The job of the policeman is to take down all the stories and then evaluate them to see where they agree. Then that's what probably actually happened. Among the divergent memories may be clues to solve the mystery of why it happened.

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