05 / 06
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An Objection to the Minimal Facts Argument

May 06, 2018     Time: 23:23


A fellow scholar questions Dr. Craig's alleged use of the 'minimal facts' approach to the Resurrection

KEVIN HARRIS: Hey! Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. A few years ago Dr. Craig and I were cruising around downtown Atlanta with the car windows down because it was one of those splendid sunny Georgia days, and I remember that in spite of all the wind blowing in Dr. Craig's hair stayed perfect; mine on the other hand looked like President Trump in a tornado. I also remember that that was the first time we discussed Tim and Lydia McGrew. Dr. Craig was telling me how much he admired them as people and as scholars. They were already on my list of authors to read but I hadn't gotten to them yet. But this discussion with Dr. Craig sped me up and I became a full-fledged McGrewpie. In fact, there are a bunch of McGrewpies who follow the work of Tim and Lydia. Being that they are a married couple and both brilliant philosophers I've often imagined what their dinner conversations are like. Can you imagine? Rather than giving a long introduction, I invite you to just look them up – Tim and Lydia McGrew.

Lydia has blogged about the so-called minimal facts approach, and that critique has included Dr. Craig. So I've been anxious to run these criticisms past him. And Tim and Lydia – please have me over for dinner so I can just sit there and listen!

Bill, one thing I've noticed about you scholars – even though you're good friends, you sometimes kind of go after each other a little bit in print and in public speaking. That's kind of part of it, isn't it? Part of the academic mode and procedure to – well, for one thing, you keep each other sharp. But if you disagree you offer corrections and read each other's works even though you’re colleagues and friends.

DR. CRAIG: That's absolutely right. One scholar remarked that the academic life is inherently an agonistic life, and by agonistic he meant it’s combative – it involves the struggle of ideas, arguments, and counter-arguments, but it doesn't become personal. People who are good friends can disagree honestly with each other. For example, Scott Smith, my colleague at Biola, and I disagree on the existence of abstract objects. A student recently sent me a message where he said, I saw you in the Biola cafeteria and Scott and you were shaking hands and talking and having such a good friendly conversation. This student was so amazed he said it made him feel so good that two people could disagree and yet be collegial, and I didn't even think twice about it. I thought, well, of course! Does he think that we would have animosity toward each other? Of course not! So it is important to understand that when academics disagree with one another that's not a sign of animosity or ill-will.

KEVIN HARRIS: We're looking at an article by Lydia McGrew where she expresses some of her concerns about something that we've talked about many times and that is the “minimal facts” presentation of, for example, the resurrection.


KEVIN HARRIS: Something that Gary Habermas and Michael Licona and others are known for. She has a few problems, according to some of the blog, that the minimal facts doesn't go far enough perhaps or leaves too many things unsaid. She puts you in that camp, as well, Bill – that you use the minimal facts.

DR. CRAIG: I was surprised at that, and I want to deal with this topic today not because I want to get into a debate with Lydia. I don't. But what I would like to do is correct a very widespread misimpression that is simply exemplified in her blog that I'm an adherent of the minimal facts approach. You'll never find in anything I've written or said any endorsement of the minimal facts approach or the use of that expression. This is an approach popularized by Gary Habermas which says that in arguing for the resurrection of Jesus we should appeal only to facts which have a near consensus among New Testament scholars; otherwise we don't appeal to these facts in arguing for Jesus’ resurrection.[1] That is not the approach that I take to the resurrection of Jesus as anyone who's familiar with my written work would know. I think that the impression arises to the contrary because folks are familiar only with my debates in which I've debated the resurrection of Jesus, and what I offer there will be these three-and-a-half minute attempts to justify belief in the resurrection by saying there are three facts that undergird the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus (the discovery of his empty tomb, his postmortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ faith) and that these are agreed to by the wide majority of New Testament scholars. All of which is true. I had hoped that these YouTube videos of my debates would lead people beyond these superficial debate snippets into my written scholarly work. But unfortunately that doesn't seem to have been the case. Instead they've simply stopped with the YouTube video and thought that this is the whole approach. If you will look at my scholarly work on the resurrection of Jesus, and I'm thinking principally of the book Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, I defend the full reliability of the New Testament narratives concerning the resurrection and argue for such things as the empty tomb of Jesus, which Gary Habermas does not include among the minimal facts to which he appeals (the empty tomb is not to be found there). Instead the appeal is primarily made to the resurrection appearances listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. In my work on the resurrection, the section on Paul is introductory to take you then over to the resurrection narratives in the Gospels. I examine in some detail the burial narrative, the empty tomb narrative, and then the various appearance narratives in the Gospels and offer defenses of their historical reliability. Moreover, with respect to the appearances, the minimal facts approach interprets the appearances to be at least visionary experiences on the part of the disciples if not physical, bodily appearances. At the very least, most scholars are unanimous that after the crucifixion the earliest disciples in groups and individuals on various occasions under different circumstances experienced these visual appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. That's what Gerd Lüdemann is talking about when he says it's virtually certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences of seeing the risen Christ. In my work on the resurrection appearance narratives, I go to some lengths to defend the physical, corporeal nature of the resurrection appearances. I give two arguments from Paul and I give two arguments from the Gospels to show that the resurrection appearances were physical, corporeal appearances. So this idea that I am an advocate of the minimal facts approach to the evidence for the resurrection is simply based on unfamiliarity with my written work on this subject.

KEVIN HARRIS: You have an evangelistic heart, as well, and that comes through not only in the debates – in your closing statement quite often – and when you speak. So that's what's going on with the way you present the resurrection.

DR. CRAIG: That's absolutely right. I think that Lydia fails to understand my evangelist’s heart in presenting the evidence for the resurrection. I want to bring people to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, and so I want to make it as easy as possible for a person to become a Christian. I don't want to make them have to jump through the hoop of believing, say, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem or that there were two cleansings of the temple, or that Jesus was born of a virgin. I want to give them evidence which is adequate to justify the conclusion that Jesus made radical personal claims whereby he put himself in the place of God and that those radical claims were vindicated dramatically and publicly by God by raising him from the dead.[2] If we can show that, then that is sufficient for a person to become a Christian. He can leave this other stuff until later to examine at his leisure. But we shouldn't make a person come to believe in the reliability of the Gospels first in order to become a Christian.

If you can show that the burial narrative is fundamentally accurate in its core, that Jesus was buried in a tomb by a Sanhedrist named Joseph of Arimathea, if you can show that that tomb was discovered empty on the first day of the week after the crucifixion by a group of Jesus’ women followers, if you can then show that the early disciples (both individuals and groups) experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death under various circumstances and occasions, and if you can show that the earliest disciples came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite every predisposition to the contrary, that is sufficient to justify placing your faith in Jesus Christ on the basis of his radical claims and God's raising him from the dead. You don't have to prove first that he cleansed the temple twice or that he was born in Bethlehem in order to justify that belief in the resurrection. So understand that with the heart of an evangelist I want to set the bar low in order for a person to become a Christian and then I'll load on such additional evidence to confirm the case as is necessary. But you don't need to demonstrate those things in order to justify belief in the risen Lord.

It's rather like a lawyer's case, I think. The lawyer will present a kind of cumulative case for the guilt of the accused. Some of that evidence may be eyewitness testimony which is really at the heart of his case, but in addition to that there can be circumstantial evidence as well. That circumstantial evidence probably won't be essential to the case if he's got good core eyewitness testimony. The eyewitness testimony alone is going to be enough to convict. You don't need the circumstantial evidence as well, but it's there. That's similar to my approach to the resurrection of Jesus. There are certain core facts that we can demonstrate to be historical. Whether they're the near consensus of scholarship or not, the evidence supports them. That's the key thing. And on the basis of that evidence it is justified in thinking that God raised Jesus from the dead and therefore he was who he claimed to be. The additional evidence is just icing on the cake, so to speak.

If you understand this evangelistic approach to apologetics, I think you can see that justifying those essential steps to belief in the resurrection of Jesus in no way undermines the reliability or the credibility of other evidence and facts that would support the resurrection.

KEVIN HARRIS: You mentioned the temple cleansing – there are characterizations of that as being fictionalization.

DR. CRAIG: Right. I disagree with the way that Lydia characterizes this. What I've said is that I don't think by the standards of that day for John to move the cleansing of the temple to early in Jesus’ ministry rather than during Passion Week is an error. This by the standards of that day would be permitted by ancient standards of historiography and therefore this is not incompatible with the reliability of the Gospels. It's not fictionalization, and it's not the admission the Gospels are unreliable. It's to say that by the standards of ancient historiography a reliable author could chronologically shift things around. Similarly, with respect to Luke's resurrection appearance narrative, there he compresses everything to such a degree that it appears that it all takes place on Easter Sunday when in fact we know from the opening chapter of Acts that that’s not the case.[3] Luke knew that Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days before he gave them the command to stay in Jerusalem until they were imbued with power from on high. But by compressing the narrative or telescoping it, like pushing the elements of a telescope into a shorter tube, in the Gospel it looks as if he gave the command to stay in the city on Easter evening when in fact that's on the far end of the telescope. That's in the book of Acts, but it gets compressed in the narrative. Now, again, I think that's quite consistent with standards of ancient history (and, frankly, even modern history) to compress things in that way.

Lydia responds to this by saying that I have committed a bad habit here of certain New Testament scholars of not making crucial distinctions. She says there is a distinction that needs to be made between narrating something achronologically and dischronologically. That is to say, to narrate something achronologically is not to indicate a chronology. You just tell the story but you don't indicate the chronology. On the other hand, to narrate dischronologically is, she says, deliberately implying or even stating a false chronology. I'll accept her distinction here between narrating achronologically and dischronologically, but I don't think that this helps with the examples that I gave. The cleansing of the temple in John is placed early in the ministry of Jesus, not during Passion Week. So this isn't achronologically. Chronologically it's put early in the ministry. This would be what she calls dischronology. Similarly, if you look at Luke's resurrection narrative in Luke 24, it's filled with repeated chronological markers. In 24:1 he says, “But on the first day of the week at early dawn they came to the tomb.” Then in verse 13, “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus.” And then in the Emmaus story they say to Jesus, “Stay with us because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” Then they run back to Jerusalem and find the disciples gathered together saying “The Lord is risen indeed.” Then in verse 36, “while they were talking about this Jesus stood among them and said . . .”. So the whole thing is narrated in such a way as to look chronologically as though this is all happening on Easter and even the Ascension occurring at night which certainly Luke didn't intend. I don't think the distinction between narrating achronologically or dischronologically is going to be enough here. Rather, I think what we should say is that when judged by the standards of ancient historiography devices like compression and chronological displacement were not regarded as errors and that therefore these do not impugn the reliability of the Gospels. So I'm affirming with Lydia the reliability of the Gospels.

KEVIN HARRIS: So her concern is with minimal facts and you’re declaring not guilty in your body of work – in all work (especially that big book on Assessing the New Testament, boy, that is a big book) you go to all the other available data.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. And in that book I even suggest harmonizations of how we might understand these narratives that apparently conflict. I give a sequence of resurrection appearance narratives that I think is completely consistent and historically plausible as well as certain other descriptions of the course of events that would be available.[4] Now, some harmonizations are strained and implausible, but not all are that way. In fact, funnily enough, this book was originally part of my doctoral dissertation written under Pannenberg. It was so conservative that he wouldn't accept it! He made me cut it out, and I wound up turning in for my doctoral dissertation simply a history of historical apologetics for the resurrection focusing on the deist controversy – that era that Tim and Lydia are so interested in, a kind of Golden Age of historical apologetics. But Pannenberg said to me – I can remember this so well – when I met with him he said, Herr Craig, you have a certain inclination toward fundamentalism. And he said, You haven't uttered a single critical verdict on the historicity of the Gospels in your work. Well, that was true, and then he said, The guard at the tomb? Please, Herr Craig! Because I had even offered arguments that the guard at the tomb in Matthew shouldn't be dismissed as historical despite the consensus of New Testament critics that this is an apologetic legend. So I think Lydia just doesn't understand my heart here in offering these criticisms. I do believe in and defend the reliability of the Gospels with respect to the resurrection, but I don't think it's necessary in order for the non-believer to make a rational and justifiable decision to follow Christ.

KEVIN HARRIS: Tim and Lydia have expressed that they just don't want to give any ground to unnecessary criticisms of the Bible. They don’t want to throw the Scriptures to Bart Ehrman and let him just go free reign.

DR. CRAIG: I certainly agree with that. And, you know, I've given lectures on Ehrman’s criticisms where I respond to his misuse of the criteria of authenticity and his denial of certain aspects of the Gospels. But I would see that as kind of defensive apologetics. You're replying to objections there, but in terms of offering your offensive case that kind of evidence is great but it's not necessary in order for the non-believer to become justifiably a devoted follower of Jesus.[5]


[1]          5:05

[2]          10:20

[3]          15:18

[4]          20:04

[5]          Total Running Time: 23:22 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)