Over at Evangelical Realism, I’m having an interesting conversation with one Kevin Harris, who gives his web site as William Lane Craig’s reasonablefaith.org, on the topic of “The 7th Criterion.” If you’ve read the post, you may recall that I proposed a 7th criterion for historical authenticity, in addition to the 6 Craig provides: to be historically authentic, a report must be consistent with real-world truth. Kevin originally criticized the 7th criterion for having an anti-supernatural bias, but I pointed out that it’s really a bias against falsehood, and that if a bias against falsehood is an anti-supernatural bias, that in itself tells you something about the supernatural. Kevin agreed that we want to avoid falsehood, but told me not to equivocate “falsehood” with “the supernatural,” which was ironic. My reply led to Kevin’s latest response to me, which is, shall we say, interesting.
The problem, I think, is that I’m holding up a perfectly fair and reasonable and even fundamental criterion. A true report, by definition, is one that is consistent with the real-world truth. Before we accept an ancient story as historically authentic, therefore, we should first examine whether or not it is consistent with real-world truth. If it isn’t, then by definition it’s a false story, and it wouldn’t do to designate false stories as historically authentic!
For some reason, Kevin appears reluctant to commit himself to agreeing to measure the Gospel according to that standard. I’ll give you a sample below the fold.
(Note: DD is me, KH is Kevin)
[DD] “Well, I’m not the one equating a bias against falsehood with an anti-supernatural bias. But I assume you’re not intending to do so either. So let’s just agree that to be historically authentic, a report needs to meet the 7th criterion and be consistent with real-world truth. Does that sound fair?”
KH> Obviously, any investigation, historical or otherwise would hope to discover real-world truth. You can clarify for me whether you consider a divine miracle or supernatural event possible. If they are, then they are open to historical investigation.
Notice, my question was whether he agreed that a report needs to be consistent with real-world truth to be historically authentic. His reply was evasive: he claims that any investigation would hope to discover real world truth (which is not a true statement, by the way), but leaves entirely open the question of whether they would use the 7th criterion as an essential means of doing so. In particular, he conspicuously fails to agree that the 7th criterion is a fair criterion, and tries instead to shift the burden onto me by asking whether I consider a magical event possible. In other words, he wants me to base my historical investigation on the assumption that magic is possible.
That, clearly, is a bias. We shouldn’t be conducting such an investigation with either the assumption that magic is possible, or with the assumption that magic is not possible. We should be trying to determine whether magic is possible, by examining reports of magical events, and seeing whether or not they meet the criterion of being consistent with real-world truth, among other principles.
[KH] And to call an event wherein God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead a falsehood begs the question.
[DD] “Does it not also beg the question to call it an actual event (as opposed to identifying it as a report or claim about an event)? The point is not to beg the question, but to answer it, and that means that we should examine the relevant possibilities and select the alternative that is most consistent with real-world truth. Does that sound like the correct approach to you?”
KH> It’s tautological for one to say that something can happen only if it conforms to reality. All the investigation in the world is not going to discover a married bachelor, or a woman that exists but never existed. Those things are contradictory and thus not reality.
But if you mean that an historical investigation should rule out an event a priori because it is unique, or rare, or possibly divine, then I disagree. Historical investigation can determine an event by exploring the best explanations the evidence offers.
If you go through the conversation as a whole, you’ll notice that I’ve never suggested ruling out any events just because they are unique or rare. The 7th criterion merely points out that we should not accept false stories as historically authentic: we should rule out reports that fail to be consistent with real-world truth. In a way, Kevin almost seems to agree: he says it’s tautological to say that a thing can only happen if it conforms to reality.
But notice once again how he shifts the topic away from what I’m saying to something entirely different. The 7th criterion is not about a tautology, it’s about investigating reports—stories told by men that might be either true or false. If we want to investigate a story, it’s essential that we determine, first and foremost, whether or not this story is consistent with real-world truth, because that’s the definition of a true story versus a false one. Kevin makes the broad statement that history has to “explore the best explanations,” but fails to answer the question of whether or not he agrees that the best explanations are those which are most consistent with real-world truth.
I don’t know if the conversation with Kevin is going to go anywhere, because real-world truth is—or should be—the one standard that believers have in common by which they can agree to evaluate the historical evidence. If he will not agree with real-world truth as the main criterion for judging the Gospel, if he insists on conducting his investigations under the assumption that magic is possible, then we’re probably not going to be able to agree because I can’t (and shouldn’t) accept such an obvious bias. And yet I can’t see him making either choice. He can’t seem to accept the 7th criterion, but he can’t outright reject it either. Damned if he do and damned if he don’t.