I was recently sent an article by Matthew Ferguson of Adversus Apologetica where he attempts to knock down the minimal facts approach. Looking through the article, I was largely unimpressed. For those interested, it can be found here:
The minimal facts approach is used by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. This strategy take facts that even liberal scholarship acknowledges and argues from there that the best conclusion that can be reached from what we know is that Jesus rose from the dead.
Much of this is done to avoid going to the gospels. As Habermas has said, the gospels were written, by liberal standards, 40-70 years after the facts. The minimal facts approach is also used to avoid “The Bible says it happened, therefore it did,” approach, as Habermas and Licona use facts that are agreed upon by non-Christian scholars in the field.
So what does Ferguson say?
When investigating virtually every other past event outside of the origins of Christianity, historians operate under the principle of methodological naturalism…If they did not responsibly limit the historical method to a purely secular epistemology, as I have discussed before, supernatural events such as witchcraft at Salem in the late 17th century would be fair game for being considered “historical” and we would have far greater evidence to support such miracles than the resurrection of Jesus. We can all see the absurdity of the former example and yet apologists (who exercise the same skepticism towards supernatural events outside of their religion) consider it an unfair bias to bracket Jesus’ resurrection as a religious, rather than historical, matter.
The problem is that I don’t see the absurdity of the former. I happen to know people who have been involved in the occult and I have no reason to discount a number of claims that I hear from them. Also, even if we had greater evidence for Salem, so what? That means the evidence for the resurrection is not reliable? Does any historical claim become false if we have more evidence for another claim along the same lines? If we have more evidence for Hitler, does that mean that Napoleon is a myth? If we have more evidence for Napoleon, does that mean Alexander the Great is a myth?
Ferguson also assumes that all Christians are anathema to miracles in other religions. Licona himself asked me about this once in discussing miracles and said “What about miracles outside of Christianity like Apollonius and Vespasian?” My reply was “What about them?” If these people did miracles, so what. Questions need to be asked.
“Is there any particular religious message that is to be conveyed if the miracle is true?” “What is the evidence for the claim?” “Who reports the claim?” “How close to the time is it?”
Personally, I would welcome a strong case for Vespasian or Apollonius doing miracles. Why? Because doing miracles is not anathema to my worldview but it is so to a worldview that is rooted in naturalistic thinking. Acknowledging miracles outside of Christianity simply increases the possibility that Jesus rose from the dead. We could then say “We have clear evidence of a miracle in this case. Why not the other?”
Of course, Craig Keener has written a massive tour de force demonstrating the veracity of modern miracle claims. These have eyewitness testimony and often have medical reports to support them.
So if someone claims a miracle happened, why should we ipso facto disregard it? While most atheists tell me that we shouldn’t let bias influence the data, it is the atheists who are biased here. If all of Keener’s miracles were shown to be false I’d think it was a shame, but it would not disprove the resurrection of Jesus. If just one of the hundreds of miracles Keener writes about is an accurate account, then atheism needs to come up with a better explanation.
So I do not see a good reason to accept methodological naturalism. When I look at history, I want to know what really happened and I cannot do that if I immediately rule out explanations that I disagree with. If a miraculous event happened in history, we must be open to it, and if we are not open to it when a miracle had in fact occurred, then we can never know true history.
Ferguson goes on to say:
I have, on the other hand, met several apologists who converted for personal reasons and later sought rational and evidential justifications when they were trying to convert other people who do not share such personal experience.
Of course, people come to Christianity for various reasons and then when looking into their belief system, find there are rational reasons for believing it. There are many of us who would prefer that apologists not use personal experience as an argument. I cringe every time Bill Craig uses his fifth way for instance. It’s way too much like Mormonism.
On the other hand, there are some people who start out critical and investigate the evidence and come away Christians. Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, and Frank Morison come to mind. What really matters is the evidence that each side presents. If one comes to Christianity first and finds the reasons later, they cannot help that. Their arguments should not be discounted for that reason.
Going on, Ferguson tells us:
Such apologists, seeking to hijack the field of ancient history, are desperate to slap the label “historical” onto the resurrection. This goal is derived in no sense whatsoever from legitimate academic concerns, but instead is one born purely out of the desire to evangelize. Once Jesus’ resurrection is considered “historical,” you just have to accept it and apologists can cram their religion down people’s throats. It was to avoid such non-academic agendas that historians bracketed such religious questions in the first place. I myself was originally content with letting the resurrection be a religious, rather than historical question, but apologists have fired the first shot in attempting to invade the field of ancient history. Since they are now targeting a lay audience with a variety of oversimplified slogans aimed at converting the public rather than seriously engaging historical issues, my duty here on Κέλσος is to correct their misconceptions.
How does Ferguson have this great insight into the mind of everyone who has written on the resurrection from an evangelical perspective? Do I wish to share my view? Of course! Who doesn’t? Can I force someone to accept the resurrection? Not at all! I can present the evidence that I see and let them decide and if they disagree, let them disagree with me on historical grounds.
I hope that Ferguson is also going after the new atheists who are targeting the lay audience with simplified slogans and even worse, not doing real research into philosophy and theology at all! This is evidenced by P.Z. Myers’s “Courtier’s Reply.”
I also do not see how he could look at a work like Licona’s “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” which is actually Licona’s Ph.D. with a few updates and say that that it has oversimplified slogans and does not seriously engage historical issues. Could he say the same about a work like N.T. Wright’s “The Resurrection of the Son of God”?
To be fair, I will not dispute that there is much out there that is garbage. There are works by Christian apologists that I myself have taken to task for being so light and fluffy. One such work even cited Wikipedia as a source.
But then Ferguson says:
One such slogan is the so-called “minimal facts” apologetic, spawned by the likes of Gary Habermas and William Craig.
Immediately, I can tell that the author has not done his research. Craig’s approach is not the minimal facts approach of Habermas. In fact, Habermas himself says that some of he would not use some of Craig’s material, which relies heavily on the gospels. Habermas’ (And Licona’s) does not.
In part two of this series, I will describe and defend the minimal facts approach, and continue my critique of Ferguson’s work.