Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Principle of Credulity

She dipped her fingers in the water bowl and made the sign of the cross again, leaving a bead of the holy Water on the forehead of her mask. 'You're an ignorant, credulous fool,' she snapped at me. I did not pursue the argument. The different faiths always insulted each other thus. Many pagans accused the Christians of similar behaviour at their so called ‘love-feasts', and many country people believed that the Christians kidnapped, killed and ate children. 'Arthur's also a fool,' Morgan growled, 'for trusting Guinevere.’ She gave me an unfriendly look with her one eye.

Bernard Cornwell. Enemy of God: a novel of Arthur. (New York, NY: St Martin’s Griffin, 1996), 224

I have been teaching this idea of the Principle of Credulity to my theology students for almost a decade. I first encountered the idea in a book by David K. Clark, To know and love God.  Clark is  a professor of philosophy at Bethel Seminary in Minnesota, USA.

Clark borrowed this idea from Richard Swinburne, who was a well known British Christian philosopher.  The idea itself is rather simple, though it has huge implications.

Clark quotes Swinburne:

When something seems to someone to be true, it probably is true, and he may take it as true, unless he knows of some special disqualifying circumstances or evidence to show that what seems true is not actually true.

Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979).

This can be put perhaps more simply by saying, “You may believe anything which seems true to you until someone challenges you.”

What Swinburne and Clark have in mind is that we all start thinking from “somewhere,” to use a Postmodern phrase. We all have our foundational beliefs.  We can’t do otherwise.  You have to think, and you will think, and you will think according to beliefs you think are true.

In other words you are entitled start where you are, to think as you do.  However, you may not continue to believe something that has been challenged.  To cite again Swinburne, “unless he knows of some special disqualifying circumstances or evidence to show that what seems true is not actually true.”

The point is that it is irrational to believe something which you know to be false. It is incredible (same root word as credulity - credo - I believe) to believe the moon is made of green cheese.  We have no problem with accepting that that sort of belief is incredible, not worthy of belief or trust.

The rub comes when someone challenges a belief which we hold most dear.  Notice Swinburne’s book is entitled The existence of God.  Swinburne wants to (and many believe he does) defend belief in God.

When a cherished belief is challenged we must give evidence for our belief.  If we do not or will not, we become guilty of fideism or blind belief.  If a person believes that some well beloved pastor is an honorable person, and then evidence comes out that that pastor has been involved in extramarital affairs, to refuse to believe credible (trustworthy, believable) reports (say a court conviction) is fideism.  It is blind belief, not based on evidence.

If someone were, for instance, to question the historicity of the Gospels, we must then produce evidence to show that it is trustworthy.  We could turn to articles on For example, the article by Gary Habermas, “Why I Believe The New Testament Is Historically Reliable” We could also turn to the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics by Norman L. Geisler et alia.  We could turn to a brief, somewhat dated book The New Testament Documents: Are they reliable?” by F.F. Bruce, a New Testament scholar at the University of Manchester, UK.  Or we could turn to Craig Blomberg’s magisterial study, The historicity of the Gospels. 

We can introduce the “bibliographic test.” I briefly mention only two factors: the number of manuscripts and the distance between writing and the events.  We can say that the New Testament has more manuscripts (copies) than any other ancient book (say Cesar’s Gallic Wars) and has a closer time period between events and the age of the copies (probably in some cases less than 100 - 150 years). 

I cite a section of Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics:

     More Manuscripts. Catalogued Greek texts include eighty-eight papyri manuscripts, 274 uncial manuscripts, and 245 uncial lectionaries. Those early uncial manuscript witnesses are extremely valuable in establishing the original text of the New Testament. The other 2795 manuscripts and 1964 lectionaries are minuscule.

     This is an astounding number and variety. It is not uncommon for classics from antiquity to survive in only a handful of manuscript copies. According to F. F. Bruce , nine or ten good copies of Julius Caesar’s Gallic War survive, twenty copies of Livy’s Roman History, two copies of Tacitus’ Annals , and eight manuscripts of Thucydides’ History (Bruce, 16). The most documented ancient secular work is Homer’s Iliad, surviving in 643 manuscript copies. Counting Greek copies alone, the New Testament text is preserved in some 5686 partial and complete manuscript portions that were copied by hand from the second (possibly even the first) through the fifteenth centuries (see Geisler, chap. 26).

Norman L. Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995, 24.

The point here is to say that we can give positive evidence, bibliographic evidence, scientific evidence to show that the Gospel and New Testament are trustworthy documents, trustworthy eyewitness records.  We do not believe them because we want to or because they are something we have inherited.  We believe them because we have evidence to refute false claims leveled against them.

I think it is worth citing Geisler’s Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics again.  This time I cite the section which speaks of the gap between writing and the events.
     Earlier Manuscripts. One mark of a good manuscript is its age. Generally, the older the copy, the closer to the original composition and the fewer copyist errors. Most ancient books survive in manuscripts that were copied about 1000 years after they were composed. It is rare to have, as the Odyssey [of Homer] does, a copy made only 500 years after the original. Most of the New Testament is preserved in manuscripts less than two hundred years from the original (P45, P46, P47), some books of the New Testament dating from little over one hundred years after their composition (P66), and one fragment (P52) comes within a generation of the first century. The New Testament, by contrast, survives in complete books from a little over 100 years after the New Testament was completed. Fragments are available from only decades later. One fragment, the John Ryland papyri (P52), is dated 117–138. See the article NEW TESTAMENT, DATING OF .

Norman L. Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995, 24.

The reason that the gap between copies and originals is important is that some suppose that myths arose around the teacher Jesus after his death.  They speculate that his followers invested him with supernatural powers and even rising from the dead.  Some scholars have advanced the idea of the “demythologization” of the Gospels, for instance Rudolph Bultmann.

Must we as believers in the Gospels simply roll over and accept this thinking?  We believe the Gospels tell us the truth about Jesus and his resurrection.  Must we give up our faith in the face of this attack or must we simply believe in spite of this challenge to our faith?

If all we do is to hang on stubbornly to our belief despite this attack, we are fideists. We believe blindly, without evidence in an “incredible” set of ideas.

But this is not the only option.  We can produce evidence like that above to show that we have the original events recorded better than in some secular books of that period and our copies are more close to the time of these events.

Because the gap between the copies and the originals is so small, there was no time for legends to develop.  That normally takes hundreds of years, not 50 - 100 years.  Paul adjures his hearers saying, “After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” 1 Corinthians 15:6  Jesus appeared to more than 500 people “most of whom are still living,” If people didn’t trust Paul, they could ask these eyewitnesses.

The Apostle Peter speaks similarly before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council, “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 5:32  The Apostle John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” 1 John 1:1

The Apostles urged their hearers to check out the facts.  They didn’t just imagine these things.  They can be attested to by people still alive who witnessed them.

So there was no time for a gap large enough to allow the development of a myth.

Let me return to the Principle of Credulity. I will cite it again:

When something seems to someone to be true, it probably is true, and he may take it as true, unless he knows of some special disqualifying circumstances or evidence to show that what seems true is not actually true.

Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979). (Clark 66)

When should we believe something which seems to be true to us? Unless or until we are challenged and told that that belief is incredible, untrustworthy.  Then we have an option: either produce evidence for our belief or retreat to fideism, blind belief. The first is a wise and honorable route. The second is either born of sheer laziness, ignorance or fear.

Not everyone is a Christian apologist.  Not everyone can answer these questions. This is why we have people who study and work to be able to answer them.

We trust Christian scholars who answer these questions for us.  Just as I trust the doctor who says, “You have a flu virus. Take these antibiotics, drink plenty of fluids and rest.” I am not an MD.  I am a PhD.  If you want to know about medicine you must talk to either of my friends Dr. Mark or Dr. Robert.  Dr. Robert in fact is a researcher in immunology!

I would trust Dr. Robert’s word about any virus over mine. If you want a clear explanation (I hope) of the Credulity Principle, I can do that.  If you want proof about a virus, you should look to Dr. Robert.

I have moved now from one version of Swinburne’s Credulity Principle to another.  The second form has to do with the trustworthiness of a specialist or scholar.  I will deal with it in the next edition of this treatment of the Principle of Credulity.

Before I finish, though, I want to add one thought.  We sometimes say, “That’s incredible!” When I was younger and Nadia Comaneci got a 10 in the Olympics, that was “incredible!”

However, sometimes “incredible” has another connotation, another nuanced meaning, “stupid.” There are still people who believe the Earth is flat.  That seems “incredible,” that is stupid.  We all know that’s not true.

Christians don’t want to be stupid or incredible in that sense.  That Jesus rose from the dead is incredible, but it’s not stupid or unbelievable.  We can believe it because we have eyewitness accounts which are historically trustworthy.  We are not fideists.  We do not believe because we are gullible.  We believe because we have good evidence for what we believe.

If we are unwilling to entertain any attacks on our beliefs, we retreat into fideism, blind belief.  As one of my beloved professors, Dr. Gleason Archer, said, “If nothing counts against your faith, nothing can count for it.”  This may seem counterintuitive, but his point was that if you would not allow your beliefs to be challenged, then you would be a fideist, you would believe blindly.  When challenged we have an opportunity to rise to the occasion and learn enough facts to defend our faith or we can fall into blind belief.  The choice is ours.

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