Bayes’ Theorem, The Resurrection, and the Textus Receptus

Recently James White compared me to an atheist for offering an argument in our debate that I had not yet publicly offered, which of course makes total sense. While in the midst of a debate, if you make an argument that JW has never heard before then you are obviously like an atheist he once knew. That specific argument which JW is referencing was the employment of Bayes’ probability calculus to argue that the probability that the TR is equal to the Autographs is high.

Seeing that JW both has a doctors degree and is an accomplished apologist I found it hard to believe that he was wholly unaware of the use of Bayes in the Christian apologetic enterprise. As a result, I expected JW to know at least the broad outlines of how Bayes works and then to employ some counter argument, but alas he simply declared the argument irrelevant which is unbecoming of someone who claims to have a doctors degree and to be a paragon of Christian apologetics via his debate experience.

Still, I recognize that math is not often used among the faithful as a means of defending the Christian worldview and specifically the text of Scripture. If you would like to know more about how Bayes works Dr. Jeff Riddle has some great resources over on his Twitter page as well as his website Stylos. I have included that content below.

4 thoughts on “Bayes’ Theorem, The Resurrection, and the Textus Receptus

  1. Thanks for doing the debate, especially given that you chose to engage James White on your very first.

    I get the sense that your employment of Bayes’ theorem was a lark, perhaps even a way of standing the evidentiary approach of biblical textual criticism on its head. Either way, it’s a joke. I’d rather be laughing with you than at you, so please concede that the Bayesian schtick was a ruse (perhaps Sun Tzu inspired) to pounce from the penumbra. Otherwise, the joke is your arbitrary P(B).

    I think that in preparing for this debate you dwelt in “impenetrable darkness” too long. You and James White are not enemies, nor should you characterize yourselves as such rhetorically:

    “Second, Sun Tzu further says that if you desire to prevail in every conflict you must know yourself and your enemy. I offered new arguments in an attempt to show that JW did not know his enemy. If JW knew my arguments well enough he should have been able to address my arguments on debate night. He was not able, and therefore did not know my argument well enough and the first step was achieved. As a result, he did not prevail.”

    You and your arguments should come into the light. You and they may well be right and should be able to stand the scrutiny, especially if they are going to involve probability theory! Leave the mathematical sophistry and obfuscatory tactics. Worry less about winning the debate than serving your argument. You were at your best when presenting confessional bibliology without artifice or pseudoscientific adornment. I don’t know that any amount of talking will ever bring the confessional and the evidentiary together, but, to borrow from another, it’s good to know where the dividing line is.

    This post-debate flurry of animus is amusing, but I’m definitely questioning my own motives for my interest. Maybe for the sake of setting a good example, you and James White could have a good, old-fashioned conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, CR Maron. Using Bayes was something I was familiar with in philosophy which is why I reference Richard Swinburne. I also engaged the use of Bayes when reading Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief. Neither of these men can rightly be charged with sophistry and obfuscation simply because of their use of Bayes. As such, I did not see it as a lark. I saw it as a compromise with JW seeing that almost his entire argument is evidential and therefore concerned with probabilities. In light of that truth, I presented another way of construing probabilities with regard to believing whether reading X was the word of God or not. By presenting this argument I was able to do multiple things:

      1.) I was able to present a place of common ground by employing probabilities just like JW did and does. As I said, I found this argument to be something of a compromise with JW.
      2.) I was able to give myself some wiggle room with a 98% probability rather than arguing for certainty which of course dismantles JW’s argument that I prefer certainty over truth in that I offered a probabilistic argument rather than an argument from certainty.
      3.) I was able to show that probabilities could be computed in more than one way. That is, “oldest, shortest, and hardest” are not the only way to come to a belief based on probability.
      4.) As such, my argument was fresh and philosophically interesting rather than tired, old, and stale. My aim with this was to appeal to the next generation of Bible defenders who are looking for more than the same old same old.
      5.) I was able to test a new argument which is always beneficial.
      6.) Because of #5 I was able to present an argument JW was unprepared for.
      7.) I was able to show to those who cared that the debate about text and translation can venture into philosophical and mathematical spheres.

      As for the accusation that P(T|E) is arbitrary, such a claim is simply false. Indeed, it was an estimate, but that is not the same as being arbitrary. Primarily because P(T|E) was based on highly probable evidence: Background, Prior Historical, and Posterior Historical. And given that the debate took place in the midst of a Christian audience between two Christians it seemed to me that P(E) was very high if not certain. And seeing that JW would say that 98% or so of the Autographs are contained in the TR I find the claim that P(T|E) is arbitrarily high, to be quite puzzling.

      I very much agree with you that a cordial conversation between myself and JW would be very profitable. Perhaps one day we’ll see that happen.



  2. Thank you kindly for your response.

    I say that your prior probability is arbitrary because you give no basis for it. You simply assert that the probability of T given E is high, “Let’s say, .9”. “Let’s say” sounds arbitrary to me. You say that the number is an estimate. Fine. How is it derived? Bayes’ theorem is indeed prone to this looseness or absence of constraints on prior probability. But it is meant to test inductive assertions with new data, and that data should be quantifiable to have anything approaching a valid result. Your conditionalized probabilities are based on a quantification of your prior probability of the assertion that the TR as the Word of God is equal to the NT autographs given the posterior, background, and prior evidence mentioned. How do you quantify that?

    You say, “Few if any of our Christian beliefs are based primarily on evidential grounds.” Your defense of the proposition that the TR is equivalent to the NT autographs eschews White’s historical evidential approach in favor of a confessional statement of faith that the Holy Sprit acts on and through His people to preserve His Word. Then you make a sudden reversal and appeal to evidence and probability theory. That’s why I thought that you were poking the textual critical bear with pseudoscientific quantification.

    I think that your use of Bayes’ theorem in the debate was silly. I think that it is silly when William Lane Craig and Stephen Unwin use it in defense of the Christian faith. I think that it is silly when Richard Carrier uses it to attack faith in Christ. But, let be. I still assert that you were having a bit of fun with mathematical perplexification, the high probability of which I could demonstrate using Bayes’ theorem.

    All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks again for the comment. I quantified it by asserting that the TR was regarded by the Protestant Scholastics as the authentic word of God quoad verba. In my second argument I had multiple attestation (Posterior Historical Evidence) that the TR was the authentic word of God quoad verba. And this multiple attestation was anchored in my distinctly Christian Background and Prior evidence. As a result, my assertion that T was high had multiple attestation anchored in widely accepted Christian truths regarding God, His Church, and His word.

      I would not say that my use of Bayes was a sudden reversal but it was indeed an attempt to poke the text-critical bear. I wanted to show my evidentially steeped brothers that two can play at the probability game.

      You think the use of Bayes is silly, fine. It is not my go to argument and I am aware of many of its pitfalls or its “looseness” as you put it. Still I think Bayes is no looser than the standard “assumptions” or “estimations” made by textual critics when arguing from the probability of some reading X because of Aleph or B.

      As for “mathematical perplexification,” that is relative. You do not seem to be perplexed. I think it was fair to assume that JW would not be perplexed. For those who were perplexed I hope that Bayes helped them look beyond their text-critical evidentialist nose. What is more, Bayes was only one of my arguments. I also argued from the words of Scripture and from historic Reformed Bibliology. In sum, I think there was plenty to chew on no matter one’s academic training.

      Thanks for your assessment. I wish I would have gotten the same in the debate. This is certainly the most robust discussion I’ve had on the topic since the debate.

      Best regards to you as well.


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