With the case against miracles and their identification thoroughly undermined, it is pertinent to ask whether the methodological naturalism (MN) that has underpinned so much of historical Jesus studies is necessary. I do this in part three of this series on miracles. At the end I add some conclusions and recommendations.
With the case against miracles and their identification thoroughly undermined, it is pertinent to ask whether the methodological naturalism (MN) that has underpinned so much of historical Jesus studies is necessary. Many historians (and scientists likewise) today feel they are not At liberty in their professions to provide supernatural explanations. Instead they are obliged to remain agnostic, even if a supernatural explanation is the best explanation. They’re free to accept the supernatural explanation when they go home, but so long as they’re at work it is de rigueur to refrain from making it. But if the historian cannot conclude the supernatural explanation, surely their portrait of the historical Jesus will be diminished and inferior (if, indeed, Jesus was divine), as if a painter were asked to paint a picture of the cloudless sky and ocean waves, but barred from using blue.
What MN does is constrain the evidentiary base. Thus the conclusion may be negative with respect to Christianity, yet not be a defeater (even a partial defeater) for Christianity, for one need only broaden the evidence base to include all that he has reason to believe.
Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923), the influential German Protestant theologian laid out three principles in his 1912 book Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kiren und Gruppen. Alvin Plantinga writes that they are “multiply ambiguous” and have a “noncontroversial, indeed, platitudinous interpretation,” with the possible exception of the principle of analogy, which states “historical knowledge is possible because all events are similar in principle. We must assume that the laws of nature in biblical times were the same as now.” Higher Biblical Criticism has adopted this Troeltschean principle thus ruling out a priori direct divine action in the world.
There is a sense in which MN is acceptable. One does not want to endorse gullibility or wild speculation. However, as C. Stephen Evans notes, miracles do not occur in voids but with a context or attached to a narrative. Given these, it not altogether obvious that withholding a supernatural explanation is always the best. Where M is any miracle, just as Pr(M | E) increases with supplementary supporting data, so to Pr(M | B) increases with relevant contextual considerations.
The necessity of MN has been sharply criticized. Why should a scholar’s modus operandi imply atheism (or at least deism)? Since we cannot prove that everything can be explained naturally, and given all the things we cannot explain, it should be permissible to at least leave the possibility open for the supernatural. To rule otherwise is a sort of “secular, antitheological faith,” and insofar as the arguments against miracles are erroneous, weak or absent, abandonment of MN will be justified.
One suspects MN is supported by the philosophical naturalism driving the project of skeptical criticism in the search for the historical Jesus. McGrew and McGrew note,
“The role of such naturalism as a motivating factor in the work of the form critics is often explicit, but as an argument against a more traditional position it suffers from the obvious drawback of circularity.”
This makes the practice difficult to rationally sustain
If it remains the case that miracles and hypotheses that include supernatural entities are unnacceptable in historography, then we may ammend our hypothesis from “God raised Jesus from the dead” to “Jesus rose from the dead.”
We can be reasonably sure that such an event occurred, and need not posit a cause of the event. There is nothing inherently supernatural about the three historical claims necessary to derive this amended hypothesis, namely, (1) that a man was alive, (2) that the same man was dead, and (3) that afterward he was found alive.
It is however preferable in an apologetic to provide the cause. For this reason I recommend if time allows establishing a context. Argue that the existence of a personal, powerful and loving God should be included in our background information when assessing miracle claims. Argue that Jesus believed the radical claims he made about himself. It is important to note that it is not just anyone that came back from the dead, but it was Jesus Christ who rose from the dead. Crucified on the basis of claiming to be the equal to the God of the Israel, his resurrection can be seen as divine approval of those claims and vindication that what he taught and believed about himself during his ministry was true.