Evidence for the Incarnation

It will be recalled that one of the three main difficulties which the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate found with classical Christology was the paucity of historical evidence for so extravagant a doctrine. Applying the methods of historical criticism to the Christian scriptures, the only substantial records available, New Testament scholars have often been led to the conclusion that ascriptions of divinity to Jesus Christ are few and late, and intelligible in terms that fall far short of credal orthodoxy. But the question arises whether this issue can properly be settled by purely historical enquiry. The main contribution of philosophers of religion to discussion of this problem has been to show, in the first place, how much one's assessment of the historical evidence is affected by the system of beliefs one brings to its scrutiny, and, in the second place, the inevitable limits to the scope of purely historical investigation, where incarnational Christology is in question.

Thus Michael Dummett argues: 'Estimates of probability depend crucially on background assumptions. Without some background beliefs, no judgement of probability can be made.'44 Similarly, Alvin Plantinga argues that the presuppositions about the uniformity of history (to be found especially in the writings of Ernst Troeltsch) represent no threat to Christianity with its quite different framework of basic beliefs.45 David Brown, with much greater sensitivity to historical development than we get from either Dummett or Plantinga, shows how the divinity of Christ was a conclusion which the Church, with its convictions about God, was bound to draw from what was implicit in the story ofJesus and its aftermath and in the Christian community's experience of worship. Swinburne, more than any other philosopher of religion, has shown how assessments of probability differ in relation to background evidence. How one weighs historical evidence depends crucially on what one's background beliefs lead one to

expect.

Purely empirical considerations do play a role in the matter of evidence. There are historical truth conditions of the truth of Christianity, both negative and positive. If it were proved that Jesus never existed or was himself a malefactor, Christian doctrine would be falsified. Also, the character and life ofJesus had to be of such manifest goodness as to suggest and support the doctrines that emerged. Other purely historical factors to which justice has to be done include the transformation of the disciples from disillusioned men into preachers of a new age, their conviction of Christ's resurrection and their claimed experience of his presence in their worshipping communities. All this constitutes relevant evidence. But its interpretation depends on background beliefs and expectations, and, one has to add, on experiential confirmation through participation in Christian life and worship today.

This latter factor is not easy to handle in relation to the cumulative case for Christian incarnational belief. But among the many contributions to philosophical theology by Austin Farrer, this matter of'experiential verification' was given a key role in his apologetic, both in its own right and in relation to the spelling out of the inner rationale of Christian doctrine.48

Returning to the public case for incarnational belief, we now have to reckon with the role of the Resurrection in substantiating conviction of the divinity of Christ. Evidence for the Resurrection is closely bound up with evidence for the Incarnation, as both Brown and Swinburne make clear. For one of the factors that gave rise to high Christologies was conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Appeal to the Resurrection, like appeal to Christ's sacramental presence and saving power is a trans-historical appeal, but it includes empirical components: the empty tomb tradition and the claimed Resurrection appearances. How one evaluates these again depends on one's prior beliefs and prior expectations. Considered purely historically, one may get no further than the historian E. P. Sanders's frank conclusion: 'That Jesus' followers had resurrection experiences is, in my judgement, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.'50 Philosophers will observe that that agnosticism reflects an agnostic perspective. A theistic perspective, and a fortiori an incarnational perspective, will contain different expectations, and thus different evaluations of the evidence.

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