Confession of an Incurable Evidentialist

I am an evidentialist. Having said that, I can sense that I am about to be surrounded by a host of theologians who will gladly lower their heavenly weapons at me. But before you classify me with David Hume and Bertrand Russell, let me explain what I mean. I believe that all humans apprehend truth in part through evidence (what some would call “hard evidence”). Dr. Bauder’s articles on Subjectivity and Objectivity have aroused my interest to write on the same subject. This is not meant as a contradiction of what he has said. I hope, likewise not to take anything away from what he is planning to write. Dr. Bauder was my faculty advisor, and pushed me to develop intellectually in ways I had not anticipated. I owe him a great deal for instructing me how to better tackle theology. So consider this as part of a conversation he started. I simply am entering the conversation with a different perspective.

I am an evidentialist by the definition I have given for two reasons (I would say “common sense” is one, but I know that would create more arguments than it is worth). Here are the reasons:

1. God created us to apprehend reality and thus arrive at truth (while not all truth) through the senses.

We are fascinated by scientific measuring devices and their ability to bring us knowledge: say a thermometer or a compass. Scientific measuring devices are basically (often crude) imitations of measuring apparatuses in humans, animals and plants. In humans, these measuring devices make up part of our sensory organs. For example, the rods and cones (over 100 million of them) in the retina of the eye are photoreceptors. Each registers the smallest particle of light, a photon, when it comes in the visual pathway. The incredibly high sensitivity of the retina is the reason you should not look directly at the sun.

Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the statement, “All men naturally desire knowledge. An indication of this is our esteem for the senses; for apart from their use we esteem them for their own sake, and most of all the sense of sight…. The reason of this is that of all the senses sight best helps us to know things.” Through the senses we perceive reality quite correctly, and, combined with our current knowledge, arrive at new truth.

David’s actively measuring retinas helped him perceive the glistening reality of the night sky. Sensory experience combined with David’s knowledge of God as creator, plus the aid of the Holy Spirit caused him to produce a profound sacred statement: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). David knew about God’s visitations to humans recorded in salvation history. It was David’s sensory experience that got him thinking and filled him with wonder at God’s condescension.

The ancient philosophers debated about what was real (or more real): sensible things or the ideal. Plato and Pythagoras believed it was the ideal. What we see in the world is the apparent, not the ultimate reality. Aristotle does a credible job of debunking their arguments, saying that they were really talking about another universe than the one we know (Metaphysics 14.3.1-4). But this debate is alien to the Bible. The Bible presents every sense as being necessary at some time to know reality and even spiritual truth: hearing (Rev. 1:10-15), smelling (Exod. 30:34-38), touching (1 John 1:1) and tasting (John 2:7-10).

Pascal said, “The senses deceive reason through false appearances, and, just as they trick the soul, they are tricked by it in their turn: it takes revenge. The senses are disturbed by passions, which produce false impressions. They both compete in lies and deception.” (Pensees, 83). His evaluation needs no defense. But the senses—which function through highly sophisticated, God-ordained measuring devices in the body—do not primarily get in the way of truth. They get us at the truth. Even subjective functions of the sense organs together with the brain are necessary to get us at truth. In Revelation 1:10, John says that he heard the voice (of Christ) behind him. Hearing direction demands a subjective function of the brain, as a sound passes to the brain at slightly different times through two different pathways (directly at the ear drum and angularly via the ear lobe). The senses are indispensable for comprehending God’s truth because their employment is necessary to read or hear God’s word. We exercise enormous trust in our senses. Anyone who is reading this page, whether in agreement or disagreement, places a trust in his sight reaching near infallibility.

2. The second reason I am an evidentialist is because the Bible expects us, even exhorts us, to be such.

Elijah told the people of Israel, “the God who answers by fire, he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). When the fire came down from heaven and burned up Elijah’s drenched sacrifice—an event involving the senses of sight, sound, and smell for the observers—the Israelites not only worshiped and confessed that Yahweh, not Baal is God, they formed a second judgment in their hearts and killed the false prophets in obedience to the Law of Moses. If Immanuel Kant had been in the audience on that day, the prophets of Baal no doubt would have pled for an hour’s instruction on perception, reality and critical faculty before anyone did something rash. Unfortunately for the false prophets, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was written more than two millennia too late. But the biblical perspective (the God who answered by fire was the true God) remains internally without contradiction, and Elijah the evidentialist remains a man of faith.

The senses are involved in faith, as Jesus pointed out time and again, saying that His miracles were a “witness” to who He was. The Messiah was to be known by His signs. On the night of His betrayal, Jesus said to His disciples, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11).

As a corollary to this point, the Bible condemns those who, though they perceive reality and are confronted by the truth through the senses, reject the truth (Rom. 1:18-20). Note that sinful man’s problem is not one of never recognizing truth, but of suppressing truth. When he observes creation, his critical faculties tell him the logical conclusion is “an almighty creator has done this.” It is this judgment in his own mind that he rejects and suppresses. Because of his sinful heart, unregenerate man (and even a regenerate theologian or two) denies what he knows most certainly to be true. He then looks for alternative explanations. And just to make God’s condemnation that much more just, plenty of unregenerate people have formed the right conclusion that the order of creation demands an intelligent creator (see, for example Cicero’s The Nature of the Gods, II)

In his Paradise Lost, John Milton presents the newly created Adam as a brilliant but uninformed thinker. Thirsting after knowledge, he humbly asks the angel Rafael questions about God, heaven, virtue, angels good and evil, the forces of nature and creation (and for the 21st Century reader, to some extent the story line breaks down when Rafael takes a pass on explaining celestial mechanics). Adam’s is a blissful world where one only has to obey, think and explore to find life continually fulfilling on an ever higher plain.

What a tragic disfigurement sin has produced in man and his world! His senses are imperfect, his mind is darkened, his environment is hostile. But above all sin corrupted his heart. The heart deceives its own owner (Jer. 17:9). Since it is the heart which is the source of our thoughts, desires and motivations (Prov. 4:23), it is the heart which gets in the way of truth and causes our perceptions and judgments to be all askew. This is the point that a philosophy of Pythagoras, Descartes, Hume or Kant never really comprehends. Of these Jesus would say, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.”

So if you want to experience reality and get at truth, take a walk in the woods, the fields, or on the beach. Humble your heart before God; trust His Spirit and give thanks to your Creator for your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, fingers, and toes.

(In the second part of this contribution to the conversation, I want to take up Kant, Augustine, Science and Christianity)

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There are 13 Comments

Paul Henebury's picture

I am no evidentialist, although I certainly appeal to evidences. This series shows real promise. It seeks to be anchored in Scripture and reasoning by faith. I refrain from mounting any criticisms. I may disagree with evidentialism but I think I will benefit from Jeff's thoughts.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm especially looking forward to the next part. I've been slowly trying to sort out what to make of Kant and Kevin's particular brand of anti-modernism... and implications for how we view science.

Ed Vasicek's picture

I think Jeff's point #2 resonates. If we follow the logic of the appeals in Scripture to evidence, we will end up, I believe, where Jeff is.

So far, I am with him!

"The Midrash Detective"

Mike Harding's picture

The believer’s certainty regarding the truthfulness and authority of the Bible can only come by appealing to the self-authenticating nature of Scripture in conjunction with the internal witness of the Spirit. The Scriptures are self-authenticating in that they claim divine authority for themselves. Paul, for example, claimed that his words were taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:13). Scripture cannot appeal to some higher authority outside itself for authentication. God is the author of Scripture; there is no greater authority to which one may appeal. The Holy Spirit is not revealing anything to believers in this regard, only illuminating their minds to see the truth, which has already been revealed as to its certainty and significance. A systematic study of all sixty-six books of the Bible will lead genuine Christian believers to the conclusion that those books form an organic whole—the canon of Scripture.

The basic Christian presupposition is that the one living and true God has self-attestingly revealed Himself in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Why is it necessary for a true Christian to hold this presupposition? Because all discussion and argumentation by necessity come down to a primitive starting point, a truth that is accepted as self-evident, an authority for which no greater evidence can be given. Consequently, all facts must be tested and interpreted in light of that authority ― the Bible.

Unregenerate man, on the other hand, assumes that his intellect is the final authority for truth. An unregenerate mind, however, cannot approach any subject neutrally. The Scriptures affirm that the “carnal mind is enmity (hostile) against God” (Rom. 8:7). Man in his fallen condition does not welcome the truth of God for the simple reason that the natural man does not possess the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:14). Consequently, the unbeliever suppresses the certainty, importance, and personal implications of God’s truth upon his life by his unrighteousness in thought and deed (Rom 1:18). Unless the Holy Spirit illumines the mind of the individual he will never understand [or grasp ] the true nature of the Word of God, which is self-evidencing, self-attesting, and self-authenticating. The true believer’s faith rests in the Spirit’s power to open his eyes, enlighten his mind, and convinces him of the Scriptures’ truthfulness and significance to his life (1 Cor 2:4–5; Eph 1:18; 1 John 2:20).

Pastor Mike Harding

Paul Henebury's picture

Though I enjoyed the article, I cannot agree with Ed's remark above, even though I use appeals to evidences. But employing evidences does not mean that one is an "evidentialist" (as doubtless Ed & Jeff know). If we start our "search for God" from the human vantage point and just look at the evidence, we will not arrive at the God who reveals Himself. We will arrive at a god of our own making (and we might talk about the possibility of this god); ergo, we shall arrive at an idol.

The Scriptures Jeff cited refer to the God who reveals Himself in nature and Word. The Word (e.g. through Elijah or Christ) is needed to correctly identify the meaning of the evidence and lead to the true God. But God is not a possibility. He is the greatest fact which confronts man. This is Paul's point in Romans 1.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think those speaking of probability, etc., are talking more about how the use of evidence functions. That is, Paul here says "though I use appeals to evidence." The question that raises is why?
I think Ed and Mike's point--if I understand them--is that evidence is a means God uses to point in a direction and reveal the likelihood of a powerful, wise and good God. But the evidence is not sufficient to produce that conclusion by itself. It supports that conclusion but can't prove to us what we are not willing or able, as sinners, to accept.

I'm not sure why Jeff uses the term "evidentialist" here other than to say that evidence and the senses have a role... but I'm pretty sure just about everybody accepts that they have a role. How could we read Rom.1 or Psalm 19 etc. any other way? So I think Jeff is trying to take a path that understands human beings as having a stronger ability to perceive reality directly. It's more about metaphysics than apologetics. That being the case, I wouldn't use the term 'evidentialist,' myself.

Mike Harding's picture

Aaron,

Thank you for your observation. The nature of evidences alone can point to a conclusion "beyond a reasonable doubt" as long as the jury is not hostile to the proper conclusion beforehand. Absolute certainty, however, is a work of the Spirit. The danger with evidentialism is that we cast aside our necessary presuppostion and adopt the presupposition of the unregenerate mind. I must use a biblical presupposition to properly interpret the evidences. Facts are not ultimately self-interpreting. Take a 10 day trip down the Colorado river in the Grand Canyon with Terry Mortenson as your guide and you will hear a completely different interpretation of the evidences than you would from a secular, unregenerate scientist. The raw data will not convince the secularist that God is the Creator, the Judge of the whole earth, and the one and only Savior of mankind. The data certainly can be used, but it must be used from a presuppositional standpoint.

Pastor Mike Harding

Jeff Brown's picture

Hi Mike!

It may surprise you that I am as much of a presuppositionalist as you are. I have really no disagreement with anything you wrote, except the caption. Evidences do more than suggest probability. For the Jews in Jesus' day, the signs he did were important to accepting Him as Messiah. The Messiah was expected to authenticate himself through these signs (which are evidences) One could only accept Jesus as Messiah by faith (Matthew 16:16-17). Note the following:

John 7:31 And many of the people believed in Him, and said, "When the Christ comes, will He do more signs than these which this Man has done?"

To this day, this factor is important for Jews who come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Evidences are important for non-Jews as well, when it comes to faith. The proof of that is simple: hypocrites make lousy soul-winners.

I am takling about something different than you are talking about. I am not explaining what is necessary for saving faith. I am not talking about on what basis we accept the Bible as God's truth. I am talking about how we know what we know. I am merely arguing that we truly know reality; even unbelievers know reality. We experience reality, in part through the senses (perhaps mostly through the senses - certainly so in the case of unbelievers). God made us this way.

Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown's picture

Paul,

You are correct. I am being purposely provocative with the term, and anticipate and accept disagreement and criticism. If I lead someone to think they can attain salvation by just hearing and seeing enough evidence, then I will ceartainly repent of using the term in the way I have done it. Theologians tend to create systems and fit the Bible into their systems. Sometimes we talk and write like we are in mid-air. My point is that we can percieve reality. Indeed, people are continually admonished by God to admit the reality they see and hear.

Jeff Brown

Paul Henebury's picture

Jeff, I'm fully on board with that last sentence! Smile

Look forward to reading more...

God bless you and yours.

Paul

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Interesting and solid points. I the whole idea of looking at what God commands His creatures to conclude based on what they sense and using that as an argument for a biblical epistemology is compelling.
How about if we start with Scripture then figure out where the Greeks fit in rather than starting with the Greeks and figuring out where Scripture fits in.
I know one answer to that is "But we don't really ever start with Scripture. We come to it with ideas already in mind." There's truth to that, of course, but if we reason that "We come to Scripture with some beliefs already, therefore we cannot derive beliefs from Scripture"--well the problems with that are obvious.

The Bible seems to assume that whatever notions we come to it with, we can learn to correct those notions from the Book itself or perceive the teaching accurately in spite of those notions (when other conditions are met).
That is, the Book assumes that it can be understood... and if that's the case, we can build epistemology from it.

FredK's picture

Mike Harding wrote:
The believer’s certainty regarding the truthfulness and authority of the Bible can only come by appealing to the self-authenticating nature of Scripture in conjunction with the internal witness of the Spirit. The Scriptures are self-authenticating in that they claim divine authority for themselves. Paul, for example, claimed that his words were taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:13). Scripture cannot appeal to some higher authority outside itself for authentication. God is the author of Scripture; there is no greater authority to which one may appeal. The Holy Spirit is not revealing anything to believers in this regard, only illuminating their minds to see the truth, which has already been revealed as to its certainty and significance. A systematic study of all sixty-six books of the Bible will lead genuine Christian believers to the conclusion that those books form an organic whole—the canon of Scripture.

The basic Christian presupposition is that the one living and true God has self-attestingly revealed Himself in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Why is it necessary for a true Christian to hold this presupposition? Because all discussion and argumentation by necessity come down to a primitive starting point, a truth that is accepted as self-evident, an authority for which no greater evidence can be given. Consequently, all facts must be tested and interpreted in light of that authority ― the Bible.

Well said Mike.
Is not evidential a lot like counting on human reasoning? Where does Prov 3.5-6 come into play?

Unregenerate man, on the other hand, assumes that his intellect is the final authority for truth. An unregenerate mind, however, cannot approach any subject neutrally. The Scriptures affirm that the “carnal mind is enmity (hostile) against God” (Rom. 8:7). Man in his fallen condition does not welcome the truth of God for the simple reason that the natural man does not possess the Spirit of God (1 Cor 2:14). Consequently, the unbeliever suppresses the certainty, importance, and personal implications of God’s truth upon his life by his unrighteousness in thought and deed (Rom 1:18). Unless the Holy Spirit illumines the mind of the individual he will never understand [or grasp ] the true nature of the Word of God, which is self-evidencing, self-attesting, and self-authenticating. The true believer’s faith rests in the Spirit’s power to open his eyes, enlighten his mind, and convinces him of the Scriptures’ truthfulness and significance to his life (1 Cor 2:4–5; Eph 1:18; 1 John 2:20).

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"Lean not on your own understanding" has been widely misunderstood.
The understanding in view there as "your own," is understanding that is not yielded to God's will and word. Since Proverbs frequently calls us to think (e.g., Prov. 4:26, 14:15, 24:32, 20:5) , it can't mean "don't do your own thinking." It's a warning against thinking outside God's box, so to speak.

Prov. 24:32, in particular, is another passage that calls us to look on evidence, consider and learn.

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