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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Monday, June 23, 2003

The burden of proof?

A foundational principle of Anglo-American democracy and law is that one is “innocent until proven guilty”. Burden of proof in our criminal legal system falls to the prosecution not to the defence. The question is, does such a principle have any bearing upon, or relevance to, the handling of historical claims? Does the application of a principle such as “benefit of the doubt” somehow undermines the whole foundation of objectivity and rational enquiry in history? There are, of course, other schools of Law. The Napoleonic Code, holds that the individual is guilty until proven innocent. This view is accepted in many parts of the world, but would you rather be tried under such a system or under the English common law one?

“… there are many I have met who believe that a similar law [guilty until proven innocent] exists in the realm of History. ‘Prove to me that they did…,’ is the usual way their challenge runs. At that point I usually give up on them, for clearly we have very different ideas about History.”
David W. Rickman

It is my thesis that it is both commonsense and historical etiquette that claims not be pre-judged. Historian Edgar Rents notes in The Historical Method (Fortress, 1977, p 43): “Historical sources are like witnesses in a court of law; they must be interrogated and their answers evaluated". In other words the normal means of historical investigation can and should be applied even to the New Testament documents. Is this method unable to result in the uncovering of “the truth” even resulting in the finding that the party may in fact be guilty, his case found wanting and unconvincing, when it has been fully set forth and all the evidence presented, interrogated and evaluated? If so, such a perspective would seem to be a very rigid and dogmatic outlook, a mirror image of the kind of religious dogmatism that “freethinkers” (sic) claim to be opposed to...

The automatic dismissal of the possibility of any extraordinary or unusual event is a worldview presumption, it is not a historical principle. If you “know” the answer beforehand then you can hardly be considered an objective investigator of the historical evidence. I do not know whether “benefit of the doubt” is one of the canons of historiography but it certainly seems a fair thing to say that it should be.

There is no disputing that extraordinary and unusual events elicit skepticism both in the contemporary world and in the ancient world, and that includes the Biblical accounts – consider Joseph’s attitude when he heard of Mary’s pregnancy, “Doubting” Thomas’ demands to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands the risen Jesus; the disciples themselves frequently surprised, skeptical and unbelieving of what they actually see. As for the study of history, good historians are skeptical but open, bad historians are dogmatic and closed-minded. There is a difference. And deciding on the answer before one investigates is hardly the mark of a good historian. Surely no one is advancing the argument that only dogmatic skeptics can truly judge the veracity or accuracy of a particular claim while dogmatic believers are always imprisoned by deception and falsehood? And that there is no mediating position between the extremes of naïve credulity and dogmatic skepticism?

Skeptics often ask the following question:
“So, what are the qualifications that have to be met before the benefit of the doubt applies?”

This seems a rather illogical question. Benefit of the doubt/innocence until proven guilty is the starting point of enquiry; it is not something that occurs after certain qualifications have been met. One is not innocent until proven guilty only after one meets certain criteria, one just is…

If an individual chooses either to reject the historicity of the New Testament or to accept it as a valid source of historical information, this is a personal call based hopefully on honest investigation and examination of the relevant evidence, it is not an invitation to bludgeon those who have come to a different conclusion.

Ultimately historians can only arrive at probabilities; they cannot prove things one way or the other. Historians certainly cannot pronounce upon the meaning inherent in matters of faith or belief. No historian can “prove” the virgin birth or the resurrection or the deity of Christ, or, incidentally, that any particular non-controversial “ordinary” event actually occurred at a particular time and place. Historians can and do assert that it is most probable that a historical person such as Jesus existed and said and did a number of things which resulted in his execution by the Romans, but also that his tomb was plausibly empty and that a new and vital movement was born that believed this Jesus who had died had risen again to a new order of life. Whether one chooses to believe or disbelieve in the historical reality of any particular event is a personal choice based upon the presuppositions and assumptions that undergird one’s worldview. There is no way to replicate the past or to test it or to experiment upon it. Though it cannot be humanly avoided I think there is far too much dependence on the common informal fallacy of "chronological snobbery" - anything old is bad; anything new is good- a belief in the natural superiority of one's own contemporary worldview with the inevitable imposition of one's own philosophical presuppositions and assumptions onto those from a different era and outlook. In truth, things, events, people, testimony, and evidence are good or bad on their own merits, whether new or old.

Isn’t the real source of much antipathy towards Christianity based on a worldview supposition and an ideological position that says virgin births or resurrections from the dead cannot happen under any circumstances, anytime anywhere and therefore any reports of such events, no matter how reliably attested must be immediately dismissed out of hand? Is dismissing things out of hand before one investigates representative of good practice?

1:39:00 pm