July 15, 2007
Leaping Lessing’s Ugly, Broad Ditch
In my book I have a chapter where I argue that if God revealed himself in the historical past (rather than in present day history), then he chose a very poor medium to do so. I also argue that if God chose to reveal himself in the pre-scientific superstitious era of the past, he chose a poor era to do so. It seems as though almost anything can be rationally denied in history, even if the event happened, especially in the superstitious past when it concerns supernatural beings and their purported miracles. As evidence to this there are now many rational people claiming Jesus was never a historical person of the past, even though I still think he did. While I have learned a great deal from you in your classes and from your writings, and while I can almost anticipate your reply, have you ever really felt the force of Gotthold Lessing's “ugly broad ditch,” which he said he could not cross over no matter how hard he tried? Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) argued, “Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But...I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles ....[they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.”
Nice to hear from you, John! You ask if I’ve ever really felt the force of Lessing’s ugly, broad ditch which he said he could not leap. The answer is “Yes, depending on how you interpret this metaphor.” I first became acquainted with Lessing’s ditch in theology classes at Wheaton and have tried to offer an adequate response to it.
For the benefit of those who aren’t acquainted with Lessing’s “On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power” (1777), let me briefly explain his challenge. Lessing accepted the classification of truths as either truths of reason (necessary truths, which are demonstrable by reason alone) or truths of fact (contingent truths, known only empirically). His fundamental claim is that contingent truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason. The rub is that Lessing thought that truths of religion belong or should belong among the truths of reason. Therefore, religious truths can never be proved by historical inquiry. This rupture between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of religion is the ugly, broad ditch that Lessing claims he cannot get across. If he is right, historical apologetics for Christianity is a worthless and misguided endeavor.
Lessing’s argument is so confused that it’s easy at one level to poke holes in it:
(1). It is incorrect that contingent truths cannot serve as proof of necessary truths. Lessing reflects the thinking of Leibniz, Kant, and others of his day that necessary truths, whether these were analytic or synthetic, were known a priori, that is, not on the basis of experience. But one of the insights of Saul Kripke in our day is that there are also necessary truths which are known a posteriori, for example, that Gold has the atomic number 79. This is not a truth that we could know by reason alone, but having once become familiar with the element gold, we can see that an element which had a different atomic number than 79, no matter how much it resembled gold, just is not gold.
Lessing, moreover, conflates necessity with certainty. He thinks necessary truths are more certain than contingent truths. This is manifestly false, as the unsolved problems of mathematics like Goldbach’s Conjecture, which is either necessarily true or necessarily false, though no one knows which, shows. By contrast I have tremendous certainty that George Washington was once the President of the United States, though this is a contingent historical truth. There is no reason a contingent truth which is known with confidence might not serve as evidence for a less obvious necessary truth.
(2). The identification of religious truths with necessary truths is mistaken. Certainly some religious truths, such as God exists, may be necessary, but there is no reason whatsoever to think that all religious truths are necessary truths. This is especially evident in the case of a historical religion like Christianity. Why think that the truths of the incarnation of Jesus, his virgin birth, his miracles and exorcisms, his crucifixion, burial, and resurrection are not religious truths just because they are contingent, historical claims? Lessing’s cultural prejudice for Deism is showing at this point.
(3). Historical truths can serve as proof of at least the historical claims of religion. Consider what Christians confess about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed:
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
This creed is a mixture of historically verifiable and non-verifiable claims, all of them confessed as truths of the Christian religion. Even if historical evidence cannot serve to establish truths like the virginal conception or the descent into hell, there is no reason that historical evidence will be irrelevant to other claims made by the Christian faith, for example, the wonderfully down-to-earth, worldly line “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
So, as I say, it is superficially easy to refute Lessing’s poorly thought through assertions. But that would be to miss the deeper problem lurking here. That problem is not, as you suggest, that “almost anything can be rationally denied in history.” That claim is patently false, John, and I’m sure you would retract it if you thought about it further. I’m currently revising my chapter in Reasonable Faith on the objectivity of historical knowledge, which has drawn me back into debates in the philosophy of history. Claims by post-modernist philosophers of history that knowledge of the past is impossible have been almost universally rejected by professional historians. C. Behan McCullagh, for example, responding to post-modernist claims that everything is interpretation, complains, “They ignore the fact that many interpretations of observable evidence, many statements of particular historical facts, are so strongly supported as to be virtually certain” (“What Do Historians Argue About?” History and Theory 43 : 22). I’m reminded of the remark by Isaiah Berlin that if someone were to claim that the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare were actually written in the court of Genghis Kahn in Outer Mongolia, we would say not that he was merely wrong but that he was out of his mind!
With regard to Jesus of Nazareth, according to E. P. Sanders, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity” (The Historical Figure of Jesus [Penguin Books, 1993], p. 10). The idea that we can rationally deny the existence of Jesus is not one that reputable historians would endorse, however rational the persons you refer to may otherwise be. I find it ironic, John, that people who have left the Christian faith like Robert Price sometimes swing so far in the opposite direction that they have become more gullible and embrace positions more extreme than the fundamentalist views they once held. Don’t let this happen to you.
Nor do I think that Lessing’s insight is that miracles cannot be subject to historical proof. Hume’s argument against the identification of miracles has been exploded by philosophers like John Earman in his Hume’s Abject Failure (Oxford University Press, 2000). There is no a priori argument against establishing a miracle historically; you’re going to have to assess the evidence on a case by case basis. With respect to the resurrection of Jesus, one needn’t go so far as N. T. Wright when he esteems the historical probability of the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus to be so high as to be “virtually certain, like the death of Augustus in A.D. 14 or the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70” (The Resurrection of the Son of God [Fortress: 2003], p. 710) in order to recognize that the evidence is strong enough to establish those facts, as the wide majority of New Testament scholars agree. Whether you accept a miraculous explanation of those facts is apt to depend more on your openness to supernatural explanations than on strictly historical considerations.
So what is the problem with basing religious beliefs on historical proofs? The problem, it seems to me, is the relativity of the historical evidence as well as one’s ability to grasp it. We have both the manuscript evidence and the evaluative historical tools to provide a good foundation for belief in Jesus as the Gospels describe him. But what about earlier generations which lacked the evidence and the tools we enjoy? The fact is that the vast majority of people throughout history and in the world today have had neither the training, the time, nor the resources to conduct a historical investigation of the evidence for Jesus. If we insist on a historical, evidential foundation for faith, then we consign most of the world’s population to unbelief and thus deny them the privilege and joy of knowing God in Christ. To me this is unconscionable. This, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which confronts us: the gap between people’s historically conditioned epistemic situation and the evidence required to warrant Christian belief.
It was the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who, I believe, provided the correct response to Lessing. Through an existential encounter with God Himself every generation can be made contemporaneous with the first generation. We are therefore not dependent on historical proofs for knowledge of Christianity’s truth. Rather through the immediate, inner witness of God’s Holy Spirit every person can come to know the truth of the Gospel once he hears it. This approach has come to be known, rather misleadingly, as Reformed epistemology. Alvin Plantinga has masterfully explicated this approach in his marvelous Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press: 2000). This is not the place to defend this approach, but you may want to look at my chapter on Religious Epistemology in my and J. P. Moreland’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Inter-Varsity, 2003).
So that’s how I leap Lessing’s ditch. Christian belief is confirmed by the historical evidence for those of us fortunate enough to be epistemically so situated as to be able to appraise it correctly; but Christian belief is not based on the historical evidence.