The Role of Evidence in Christian Belief

Recently I was asked how evidence fits into my overall argument in favor of a standard sacred text of Scripture for the English-speaking believing community. First, I will try to be as succinct and clear as possible then I will go onto offer an explanation for my view.

Yes, use evidence. Use as much as is relevant to your case. Use evidence with mouse. Use evidence with a house. Use evidence here and there. Use evidence everywhere. Use evidence with a fox. Use evidence with box. Use evidence in a train, in the rain, and on a plane.

The issue, as I see it, concerns the priority of evidence. Evidence is not the foundation of Christian belief. The Holy Spirit speaking in and through the Scriptures is the foundation of Christian belief. Evidence is secondary, supporting, and servant to the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the word of God. In other words, there is an order of belief, and it begins with the Spirit of God, not evidence.

First, the Spirit of God speaks through His words to His people and His people accept those words by the spiritual gift of faith. This is how people come to believe Jesus is the Son of God and their Savior. This is how people come to believe any teaching of the Holy Spirit in Holy Scripture.

Second, once the Christian comes to hold a given belief, they then go on to amass evidence, arguments, extra-biblical examples, artifacts, testimony, etc. All of these are then used to support the belief already held. Support is the key word here. Supports are not the foundation. They are only there to assist in what is already firmly founded and grounded in the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the word of God.

Third, such a stance is not “Presuppositional”. It is Christian. When you observe your pastor preaching on being a godly husband by saying the Bible says you are supposed to nourish and cherish your wife do you respond, “Oh, there the pastor goes again on his Presuppositional hobby horse”? No, you see the words in the text and observe that what the pastor is saying is in accordance with the words in the text, the Holy Spirit bear witness with your spirit, and you are either encouraged in being a good husband or you are convicted for being a bad one.

The source of Christian belief is not evidence it is faith and faith comes by hearing the word of God. As such, the Christian’s belief in his Bible as the word of God is first founded by faith and that faith comes by the word of God. Only after this firm founding of one’s believe does evidence come to support that belief. Should the evidence supplant the Christian’s faith-founded belief then we have a significant moral and theological dilemma because whatsoever is not of faith is sin [Romans 14:23] and faith depends on nothing for its existence or efficacy except God and His word.

22 thoughts on “The Role of Evidence in Christian Belief

  1. So what happens when the evidence fails to support the belief? Does one entertain the possibility that one’s belief is false and needs to be jettisoned? Presuming we are intending to be honest as opposed to propping up a tradition.

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    1. Well of course the answer to your first question is multifarious at this point. If an abductive argument, the best explanation of the evidence may be to declare an innocent man, guilty. In such cases the interpretation of the evidence must be resisted. If the interpretation of the evidence fails to support belief, then it is the subjective human interpretation which questions the belief and not the evidence. In such cases the interpretation can easily be rejected on various grounds. Evidence by its nature must be interpreted, and that interpretation must be done with robust Christian precommitments intact. All other methods of interpretation are a kind of will-worship. It is puzzling why you left out the interpretation part in your question. It makes me think that you assume evidence to be inherently truth bearing, that it is its own kind of truth-maker which of course is silly and false. Watch one trial in western courts and you will see that everyone gets the same evidence but both sides interpret, evaluate, and conclude differently concerning that evidence. Evidence in and of itself is neither capable of supporting belief nor is it capable of failing to support belief. So perhaps you would like to rephrase your question.

      As to the defeasibility of belief, it is important to note that many Christian beliefs are properly basic. Scripture beliefs being one of them. Second it is important to note that so long as a Christian’s belief is held with properly functioning faculties, in a conducive environment, according to a design plan which is aimed at truth and reliably so aimed, then the Christian’s belief is warranted and rational. And unless there exists an undefeated defeater about that Christian belief then the Christian is warranted and rational in holding to that belief. So of course, defeasibility is possible regarding our Scripture beliefs but there would need to be an unanswered and interesting defeater which modern evangelical text-critics have been unable to conjure.

      As such there is no need to doubt my belief nor is there necessarily a reason for anyone holding my position to doubt their belief. The CT position on the other hand, according to Wasserman and Gurry, assume doubt as a de facto element of the CBGM method. So, it is not my position that needs to address threats of defeasibility but the CT advocates and their Scripture beliefs as to whether they are rational and warranted.

      Thanks again for the interactions. It is always a joy.

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      1. Of course, “interpretation must be done with robust Christian precommitments intact”!

        Some evidence may need to be interpreted but a lot can be so obvious as to be moot. For example, if a window is broken out, no body has to labor over interpreting the fact that the window is broken,
        ( And I am not siding with modern Evangelical critics.)

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      2. Indeed, some evidence is that obvious but I’m not sure any manuscript evidence is of that species on the point of what is or is not God’s word, so I am unsure what your specific point is in this regard.

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      3. My point is that there are differences in the manuscripts and one will have to make a judgment as to what is to be in one’s copy or not. A theological commitment does not spare us from that dilemma.

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      4. True, a theological commitment does not spare us from the dilemma, but it points us and guides us in the right direction. Without that precommitment we are lost wanderers like the editors of the CBGM. Again, we agree. Perhaps you don’t understand our position. If you were to run with any of today’s observations, negatively directed toward our position, you would have only presented a strawman and missed the fact that we agree on much. That would have been an unfortunate and unnecessary mistake on your part.

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      5. Well, I am appreciating that with which we agree. But I am distressed also by that which your position does not seem to directly address which implies a desire to avoid the difficulty. I am afraid it is a kind of self deception or distancing in order to stay squarely in the comfort zone. I hope that does not come across too harshly as that is not what is intended to be sure. I am not sure how to describe it other than the appearance of a mythological view of the evidence. Because I am not convinced in the least that your theology is actually addressing that issue. Rather theology is serving to avoid the issue.

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      6. Honestly Ross I think the shoe is on the other foot. We have offered here historical arguments, theological arguments, exegetical arguments, and philosophical arguments, but somehow, we are the ones avoiding the issue? Such a positive conclusion is preposterous on its face. I suspect the reason why you think us to be avoiding the issue is because we refuse to respect textual criticism, its methods, and its conclusions to the extent that you think we should. We are not avoiding the issue; we simply refuse to play by modern text-critic’s rather tired and ineffective rules for locating the original words of the NT. And this is not my conclusion but the conclusion of the editors of the CBGM as well as leading text-critical professionals in France and the US as they now search for the “initial text” a term which Mink himself admits has several referents. The quest for the original text in textual criticism is mostly dead and there are few marginalized leftover evangelicals trying to still make it work. Why would I or those of my position jump ship to one that is dead in the water and sinking?

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      7. Well, now you are “making an unfortunate and unnecessary mistake” and so I will repeat that I am not siding with the modern Evangelical critics! You have indeed offered historical arguments, theological arguments, exegetical arguments, and philosophical arguments all of which are very pious (in a good way) but none of which have answered the question in the least! That is why you appear to be avoiding giving a real and straightforward answer of some kind (I am willing to see one of any kind in order to understand your thinking)! So I am begging you, please, please, give a straightforward and direct answer because I still have not seen it! If someone were to ask me what your position is on the question, I still do not have a clue as to what I would tell them is an answer. I could say you have many types of arguments but I could not say how and as to what relevance they have to the question. I am asking for help from you to understand your position and I am thinking you want to simply talk much with out giving me something I and anyone else can connect the dots with. Respecting textual criticism has nothing whatsoever to do with it since neither one of us is looking to it for answers. So please, once again, have you a simple, direct, straightforward answer that I or anyone else might say: “Ah! OK! Now I know why they think that way!” I am presuming you care to help people understand.

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      8. Thanks, Ross. Yes, I was mistaken. I am getting the sense that you are not of the modern evangelical text-critical position. To your point, give me your question plainly stated and I will give you an answer plainly stated. Blessings.

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      9. 1. Scriptural support for a textform or print edition does not occur in Scripture. One does not find a verse that says “Thou shalt use the TR.” Support for a particular form of the text is going to be of another nature. But what speaks to me is the fact that the Byzantine Textform is the historical NT text of the church. Despite whatever problems there have been with the church through history, it is enough to use the same text of God’s Word that they did through out history.

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  2. Every Christian has an opinion on what the HS taught them is truth. If you take a selection from across the country and put 1,000 in an auditorium and take a survey, you are going to get 1,500 opinions. That is why the evidence is far more important than what you are assigning to it. If I put you and Peter Gurry in a room and ask you to show me what the original form of the New Testament is, I am going to get two different answers! So how do I determine who is getting better reception of the HS? I could employ a number of methods none of which is going to give me a sure answer. But then you are both going to present evidence to support your claim and that is something I can honestly evaluate on its own merit. You present historical arguments, theological arguments, exegetical arguments, and philosophical arguments but there is one problem with that, I see it supporting a different position far, far more than it supports your own. In fact, it looks to me to be taking support away from your position. You have claimed the TR is the ecclesiastical text of history but the evidence says it is a corrupted derivative of that text. It remains a far better text than what Peter G. believes in but still inferior nevertheless. You go to the old Reformers to bolster your case but they did not have anywhere near the access we have today to the evidence, not by a fraction. What may have been “all” the manuscripts to them is a mere handful of entries in am extensive list of mss I can look up on line in a few minutes, while Turretin would have had to make months long journeys across thousands of miles to see only a few. He would be only able to look at a few pages over a very short period of time and maybe make a few notes on a passage here and there and then leave them. While I can bring them up on my computer, save them, compare them, identify their variants in several apparatuses assembled by a host of scholars spending hundreds of thousands of man hours putting them together. Then there are loads of commentaries analyzing said variants giving one insight as to the character of the manuscript evidence. Now the fact of the matter is this: Peter G. has a far, far broader horizon and far, far deeper ocean of evidence greater than all the Reformers put together, as well as, non- Reformers ever could have imagined or dreamed about. Yet no one has to agree with Peter’s interpretation and given the advantage we have today by magnitudes over the Reformers, we see they did pretty good, but not perfectly. Their TR has obvious deviations from the historical text of the church. The evidence does not support the TR as the best representation of the NT. The evidence demonstrates that the Byzantine Textform is the historical Text of the church. How? You can take any manuscript and compare it to the Byzantine Textform and see that it matches up best with it in 99% of the cases. Better than the critical text by far and better than the TR as well. Now that you know the evidence does not support your belief (even if it did support it against the critical text), what are you going to do? Because now all your historical arguments, theological arguments, exegetical arguments, and philosophical arguments actually testify against the TR and for the Byzantine Textform. Not that all that argumentation is even needed given the overwhelming strength of the mundane evidence. So again, what are going to do when the evidence does not support your belief?

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    1. 1.) Every Christian does have an opinion but that opinion needs to be matched against Scripture. So, Dr. Purdy, what Scriptural support do you have to say the Holy Spirit has led you to hold to the Byzantine Text-From as God’s word for God’s people?

      2.) You can decide between Gurry and I by how well our belief comports with Scripture. Gurry doesn’t hold to his Christian precommitments while doing textual criticism while I do. Gurry hasn’t a single verse of Scripture to defend his understanding of preservation. I do. Gurry doesn’t have a single verse to defend his text-critical method. I do. Therefore, my side wins. Then after I win, I am going to use all the evidence that Gurry uses and I am going to show where it is consistent with my position. Gurry has no Scripture to back up his method and conclusions but he does have evidence. My position is driven by the teaching of Scripture and then I use all the evidence Gurry has to support my position. My position has far more explanatory scope and force and is distinctively Christian to boot. Don’t believe me? Give me a piece of evidence you don’t think supports my position, and I’ll show you.

      3.) The following line is both problematic for the current argument and for Christianity as a whole. You wrote, “ You have claimed the TR is the ecclesiastical text of history but the evidence says it is a corrupted derivative of that text.” Use this formula with any Christian belief. Consider the following hypotheticals, your opponent says, “You have claimed the resurrection of Jesus, but the evidence of countless graves proves it is false.” or “You have claimed that God parted the Red Sea, but the evidence of all water from the Pacific to that in a tea cup proves the Red Sea cannot part.” Furthermore, your argument for evidence is based on abduction or an inference to the best explanation which is the least compelling form of logic argumentation. You going to have to muster more than that if you want to overcome Pre-Critical Bibliology.

      4.) How do you know what evidence the Reformers had access to? Where is the list? How do you know the list is authoritative? How many degrees of separation are allowable between physically having the text in hand verses someone you trust telling you about the text? Since when did number of manuscripts [i.e., deeper and wider] become relevant to textual criticism? You have made a common assertion that is largely unsubstantiated. So, until you have considerable proof I think you should employ your own evidential rubric and stop passing on this assertion until you do have sufficient evidence.

      5.) This fanatical emphasis on evidence is appalling. What other Christian belief do you hold that is so dependent upon evidence? And seeing that the Scriptures are the source of your Christian beliefs, then currently all of your beliefs are as dependent upon evidence as your belief in Scripture is via warrant transfer.

      6.) Listen if you think the best Bible is not a Bible [i.e., the Byzantine Text-Form] fine. How you get the Byzantine Text-Form down to a text for the people in the pew, that I am unclear on.

      7.) The evidence doesn’t support my belief? We have talked about this already. Evidence does nothing. Evidence must be interpreted. I interpret the evidence differently than Gurry and apparently differently than you do. The evidence does support my position, but Scripture does not support Gurry’s. Do you understand that Text-From does not equal Text? You seem to use these interchangeably. A text-form is no more a text than collection of Ferraris is a Ferrari. As it currently stands you have failed to make a proper one vs. many distinction. Perhaps what you mean by text-form is a hypothetical text. In which case you will again fail to support that position by Scripture unless of course you can prove that Christ meant to give His Bride a hypothetical text. Then of course there is the problem that the Byzantine Text-From is mostly composed of documents from the 9th century and later. Good luck saying the Byzantine Text-Form has been the “text” of the Church for the preceding 800 years at least as the evidence goes.

      8.) Can you find anywhere among the Reformers that argued that Text-Form = the Text of the Church? Can you make even the slightest exegetical argument that Text-From = Text? Can you make a philosophical argument somehow bypassing the one vs. many distinction? I don’t think you can, but I’d love to see you try. Until then, your argument fails terminologically, philosophically, exegetically, and historically. I hope you can see now why I don’t find your case remotely compelling. Still, I agree that if we are going to stick with text-types, I’m a Byzantine guys myself. As far as the argument goes, I don’t think it goes far enough, but I believe it could, and that is the direction I am trying to point toward.

      9.) In answering the question, how do you know which Bible should be the standard sacred text of the English-speaking Church? I answer, the same way you know that you are saved – by the Spirit of God speaking through the word of God to you [one of the people of God] and receiving that witness by faith. Was my faith perfect at salvation? Nope, that is why I must be sanctified so that I can grow in faith. Was Tyndale’s First Edition perfect when printed? Not as it was in the KJV that is why there must be iterations between the Tyndale and the KJV. Could there be iterations beyond the KJV? Theoretically, but it would be the Spirit of God moving through the word of God to the people of God by faith that would make that determination, not Wasserman, Wallace, Gurry, Hixon, and the like. What is the role of evidence? The role of evidence is only to support our theological Pre-Commitments and not to dictate them. That is the best summary of my answer to the question as I stated it. I hope it helps.

      Thanks again Dr Purdy. Clearly we don’t see eye-to-eye, but I believe we are close in our positions – closer than most.

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  3. 2. I guess I do not believe you and I am actually closer to Gurry in his view of dealing with the state of the issue than you.

    So here is the test for you: You believe the TR and the KJV is the bible supported by Scripture for use. Facts: the TR you espouse has differences in it compared to other editions of the TR, it has greater differences when compared to the manuscripts that were used by the historical church. And the KJV does not agree with the TR in any edition. How do you resolve those deficiencies. Anything that you can come up with is going to support the Byzantine Textform by far. The KJV does not comport close enough with the historical text of the NT to justify retaining it.

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  4. 3. You are trying to lump apples in with oranges. The facts still stand and there is still no verse in the KJV stating that one shpuld not use the NASB against the KJV. Again, any theological argument you come up with is going to support the historical text of the church over against the novelty of the TR.

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  5. 5. I don’t see why that is a problem for me. I believe Christians of all people should handle the evidence with honesty and not as an afterthought.

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  6. 7. Umm, the analogy is better off put as this: If you have one Model T or a dozen Model T’s, you got a Model T. The Byzantine Textform is so absolutely uniform that it is virtually a text. As far as the evidence of the preceding 800 years, everyone is in the same boat. So the point is moot. But the TR is closer to an exotic text than the Byzantine.

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  7. 8. What the Reformers said or thought is of no concern to determine what is or is not the text. Again, the Byzantine Textform is so uniform as to be a text in its own right. I and most everyone today has access to a thousand times more evidence than any Reformer ever dreamed of. I do not put them on a pedestal as if they had some arcane knowledge that we do not have and the evidence bears that out.

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  8. 9. “The role of evidence is only to support our theological Pre-Commitments and not to dictate them.” Then why does the evidence support the Byzantine Textform at the expense of the TR? The answer is there must be a flaw in your Pre-commitments or you have not seriously handled the evidence which simply does not support said commitments.

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