(The following note originated as a response on Facebook, written to someone who was asking in the CAA for technical help in an argument he had gotten into about the use of Bayes’s Theorem in arguments regarding the historical Jesus. In the subsequent comments thread I clarified what I was saying, and I have added some of those clarifications to the note here.)
I’m going to ask a very important question here, and I want you to know that I’m doing it only because I take your question seriously. So here’s mine:
If you don’t already know the answer to this question, why are you involved in a discussion of these matters?
There might be a good reason here. Perhaps a close friend or a family member has brought the matter up and, because of the personal relationships involved, there’s no way you can “outsource” the discussion to someone with more expertise. I understand that.
But many people dive into apologetics as an online version of a full-contact sport, getting into arguments they don’t even understand with people they’ve never met and then asking their friends to bail them out. That’s better, I suppose, than trusting to Wikipedia. But I think it has the cart and the horse reversed.
People who routinely get involved in discussions about issues and arguments they do not understand should not try to continue those discussions. They should, whenever possible, hand them off to others who have actual knowledge and expertise in those areas. Instead, too often, people ask their friends (or ask Google) for instant answers and then reappear in the discussions as if they were, themselves, suddenly experts. This is not good.
If you want to be the representative of Christianity and you don’t want to say, constantly, “I don’t know; let me see if Steve or Bill or one of my other more knowledgeable friends would like to chip in here,” then you need to put in your study time. Lots of study time. And even when you do, you’ll still have to say that sometimes. This is fine. What I’m urgently asking people to do is to stop and consider whether they’ve fallen into “instant expert” syndrome in their apologetic engagements.
In the online environment where these sorts of issues are being discussed, I have found that many people on both sides are frequently bluffing. The temptation to appear as an expert oneself is particularly strong when one can tell that the guy on the other side is bluffing. Socially perceived asymmetries are brutal and unfair: “A is confident and condescending, while B is tentative and modest; therefore A knows what he’s talking about.” So it is very hard to pull back in a contest like this.
And there are grey areas. If I know something about the history of science already but need someone who is a specialist to double-check a particular historical example before I use it, that’s not necessarily a case of overreaching. But if I knew absolutely nothing about quantum gravity last night, then this afternoon is not a time for me to be pontificating on the subject, no matter where I got my information. This cannot be, in the long run, the best way to advance the kingdom.
If that’s you, then my serious advice would be that you drop the online arguing (I know, it’s fun, it’s a rush, etc., so it’s hard to stop, but really, seriously, stop) and plunge into a decade or so of serious reading and study and perhaps even coursework before you go back. And even then, go only sparingly. There’s a huge difference between the big-hearted kid who wants to stand up to the playground bullies – and this is most of what one encounters online – and the special forces operative who has the knowledge and skills to take down a heavily guarded enemy fortification.
Decide now what you want to be. If it’s the former, you’ll win some battles, but sometimes you’ll get your nose bloodied. If it’s the latter, then commit now and invest in the years of training required.
This will require learning technical tools. If you want to wade into disputes about the interpretation of the Bible, learn Greek and maybe Hebrew too. If you want to engage in philosophical arguments, learn formal logic through quantified modal logic and study the way that questions in philosophical theology can be illuminated by careful formal reconstruction. If you want to apply probability theory to historical issues, take the time to learn how Bayes’s Theorem works, when it can be applied, and where those probabilities come from.
If you want to defend historic Christianity, study the Gospels intensively. Study the argument from prophecy. Study the early church fathers. Learn about the Jewish background to the New Testament. Read small books by Birger Gerhardsson and fat ones by E. P. Sanders and James D. G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham and Craig Keener and Craig Evans and N. T. Wright.
If you want to make scientific arguments, put in your time studying the science itself. There is a limit to what you can learn about science from books alone. Take some classes in areas that interest you, whether that be biology or psychology or physics. Master the necessary mathematics to understand these areas. Do not aim merely to pass these courses: aim to understand the material thoroughly.
If you want to understand historical apologetics, make a thorough study of classics by Thomas Sherlock and James Foster and Joseph Butler and John Leland and John Douglas and George Campbell and William Paley and Richard Watson and Richard Whately and Simon Greenleaf and John James Blunt and Thomas Chalmers and Henry Rogers and Stanley Leathes and James Orr and John Kennedy and J. B. Lightfoot and B. F. Westcott and G. K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn and C. E. M. Joad and C. S. Lewis and J. N. D. Anderson and John Warwick Montgomery.
If you want to engage with people who argue against your faith, read the works of the enemies of Christianity, closely: Celsus and Porphyry and Julian the Apostate and Rabbi Troki and John Toland and Anthony Collins and Matthew Tindal and Voltaire and David Hume and Baron d’Holbach and Thomas Paine and Richard Carlile and D. F. Strauss and Ernst Renan and T. H. Huxley and Robert Ingersoll and J. B. S. Haldane and Antony Flew and J. L. Mackie and Jordan Howard Sobel and Graham Oppy and Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Study both their arguments and their rhetoric. Do not rest content until you are confident that you can make their case as effectively as they can make it themselves.
Pay special attention to reconverts like William Hone and Frederic Rowland Young and Thomas Cooper and John Henry Gordon and Joseph Barker and John Bagnall Bebbington and George Sexton and George John Romanes – men who explained clearly both why they left Christianity to fight against it and why, upon serious reflection, they came back. Do not neglect Timothy Larsen’s brilliant historical study of these reconverts, Crisis of Doubt.
Where to begin? Start small. For example, if you want to learn some Greek, the best way is to take a class. But if you aren’t able to do that, then learn the Greek alphabet and a few key words – how they are pronounced and what they mean. If you want a bit more, learn how one distinguishes nouns from verbs, present tense from past. That’s the work of a day or two. It won’t enable you to sit down and read the Greek NT, but it will enable you to read any commentary you need to without skipping over the Greek. Later, you can come back and do more.
Does this sound like a lot of work? It should. It is. This is a lifetime’s work and more. The lists above are not complete. No one has mastered it all. Few people will choose to invest years of their life in it. Perhaps few people should. But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.