Sunday, October 12, 2014
Gary Habermas: A Generation of Skeptics Are Open To The Resurrection
A Presuppositionalist Responds
I live in Charlotte, NC, not far from Southern Evangelical Seminary. In fact, I took my very first course in Christian Apologetics at SES when Norman Geisler, the founder of SES, was the professor, back in the early days. Every year, SES sponsors a large conference on apologetics right here in the Charlotte area. That time has recently come and gone with the usual program designed to help Christians defend the beliefs of Christianity. Apparently, one of those lectures was put on by Dr. Gary Habermas, not a newcomer to the conference by any stretch of the imagination. Dr. Habermas has distinguished himself over the years in his focus on evidential apologetics, specifically around the resurrection of Christ. He has so distinguished himself that the article by the Christian Post that I am about to spend some time referencing, called him an “expert” in the resurrection event. I cannot help but wonder what credentials one has to possess in order to be an acknowledged expert on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. At any rate, the Christian Post has given us a glimpse into Habermas’ approach to the defense of the resurrection and I wanted to share my response with you in the hope that it may help you see some of the problems that I think Habermas’ approach presents.
Habermas believes that a generation of skeptics is now open to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Habermas’ method is interesting. He apparently uses only the evidence that his critics will allow in order to make the strongest possible case for the resurrection. Habermas throws out the evidence that the critics reject. In other words, if a critic denies the authenticity of a Pauline letter or a gospel account, Habermas concedes and allows the critic to set the parameters for the discussion. In fact, in the Christian Post article here we see that Habermas has tossed out nearly 50% of the Pauline corpus. We have to ask if this is a good strategy and whether it is in keeping with Christian principles.
Should Christian apologists allow the critic to set the standards for what evidence is acceptable and what evidence is not? Is it ever okay for the Christian to “pretend” that the unbelieving skeptic is right in their view of epistemic justification? Can we dismiss Isaiah or Job, or Genesis 1-11 even to pretend with the critic that they are not what they claim to be?
Christians are bound to defend the entire corpus of Christian teachings, not just one aspect of it. If we permit the critic to dismantle or disallow any of the biblical evidence, why would we think they would stop at any point along the way until they have destroyed or disallowed all of it?
There are many problems with Habermas’ method but I only want to talk about the two that I think are most obvious. The first is the underlying presupposition that facts are neutral, even and especially the historical fact of the resurrection. The second is that Christians somehow have the luxury of defending Christian theism piecemeal. Christian theism is a very broad system and must be defended as a whole from the foundation up. The teachings of Christianity are part of a system that makes sweeping claims about reality, epistemology, and ethics and those claims are interdependent on one another and as such they must be defended within the entire system of which they are a part. In other words, Christians are not to defend the historical event of the resurrection apart from its theological implications. And without the theological implications, the resurrection is nothing more than a fascinating story of how the atoms worked differently in the case of this fellow known as Jesus Christ.
To begin with, Habermas’ appeal to historical evidence assumes that both skeptics and Christians operate under the same philosophy of fact and that assumption is categorically false. Under Habermas’ assumption, we all interpret the resurrection of Christ the same. And that is simply not the case. It does not follow that if there was something like a resurrection that that event must be interpreted the way Christian theism interprets it. And if it is possible for there to exist more than one interpretation of that agreed on historical event, then we end up with the possibility of a resurrection outside of its theological context. And what good will such a resurrection do the skeptic or the critic? For that matter, what good will it do anyone other than the curious scientist bent on trying to develop a naturalistic explanation for it? John Frame says as much when he writes, “For theistic proofs will not, any more than historical evidences, accomplish their purpose without the presupposition of a biblical worldview. As I mentioned in my reply to Craig, without the biblical God there is no reason to suppose that there is a rational, causal order leading to a first cause.” [Five Views, 133]
The resurrection is only meaningful within the framework of its Christian theistic interpretation. Habermas seems to think that critics espousing a non-theistic framework will be forced to cry uncle and abandon their worldview for Christianity. Such a view assumes there is no ethical component in the unbeliever’s outright rejection of the Christian gospel. And that is precisely the objection that we seem to ignore in these conversations, and it matters more than any of the ancillary objections we hear from the skeptic and the critic alike.
Second, we have to grapple with the ethical aspect of Habermas’ approach. At the end of the day, there can be only one ultimate reference point for human predication. We have a choice to make and it is the choice that confronted our first parents in the Garden: either man will serve as the ultimate reference point for what passes as true knowledge or God will serve as the ultimate reference point. Since Christian theism teaches that man is a creature, created in the image of God, and that God is the absolute, independent, self-contained being and source of all that is, we cannot possibly entertain the notion that finite man could ever sit in judgment of the nature God’s revelation. Man could NEVER come up with a standard by which to measure the claims and demands of God placed upon him. Imagine what God’s response to Adam would have been if Adam, in response to God informing him that he is a created man, said, well hang on and let me test your definition of me using the scientific method to make sure that I am what you say I am: a man created in your image. It is precisely this attitude that we are grappling with when we are preaching and declaring to the sinner the gospel of God. Fallen man insists on interpreting the facts according to his philosophy of fact, which places man in the center, as the autonomous and ultimate reference point for what counts as a fact and how any fact should be interpreted. Until we deal with this disagreement, we shall not have dealt with the critic’s objection to any fact of Christian theism, to include the fact of the resurrected Christ.
In summary then we must ask what makes for a strong case? Allowing the critic to outline what evidence will be permitted and what evidence will be rejected? This places the critic in the driver’s seat as the ultimate reference point, as the final authority for what should be believed and what should be rejected. Essentially, this contradicts Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 1. Paul tells us that the word of the cross is foolish to the debater, the pagan philosopher, and the experts. Habermas seems to think it is right for us to remove the thing that makes the gospel foolish so that it will be more acceptable. However, the very thing that make the gospel foolish is also the thing that makes it powerful: the supernatural work of God on the heart and mind. The gospel is infused with the power of light and it enlightens all those whom God opens their eyes to see. As a result, our faith stands in the power of God, not in the sophisticated philosophical arguments or the rational evidences as a result of the cleverness of men.
The Christian must communicate the gospel in a way that the demands of the Creator are felt rather than allowing the creature to lighten the load by serving as their own reference point for what should be believed even when it comes to “this saith the Lord.”
Cornelius Van Til wrote, “It is only to be expected that, in matters of ultimate commitment, the intended conclusion of one’s line of argumentation will also be the presuppositional standard that governs one’s matter of argumentation for that conclusion – or else the intended conclusion is not his ultimate commitment after all.
It seems to me that Habermas’ ultimate commitment is not to the inscripturated revelation of God as it is. Otherwise he would be unwilling to pretend that some of “thus says the Lord” is not really “thus says the Lord” for argument’s sake. It is never a stronger argument to throw out evidence just because it is evidence the skeptic rejects. Think about that and let it sink in. Habermas has unwittingly said that if we cut out parts of evidence derived directly from divine revelation we actually strengthen our argument. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is God, not man, who determines what passes for evidence. We never strengthen our arguments when we pretend that some parts of God’s evidence is not actually good evidence. We only compromise the evidence and the truth it reveals when we do that. And we lesson the demands of a sovereign and holy God upon the lives of fallen, rebellious, and arrogant man. Essentially, we weaken and downgrade the thunderous message of “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”