Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Review of C. Stephen Evans' The Historical Christ and Jesus of Faith
Dennis Ingolfsland

Evans, a philosopher from Calvin College, approached the study of the historical Jesus from a distinctly philosophical perspective. Most of the book was devoted to clearing away the numerous philosophic presuppositions that had hindered some from accepting a traditional understanding of Jesus. For example, Evans discussed the enlightenment epistemolology of Immanuel Kant and David Hume, arguing that the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the enlightenment had collapsed. Evans argued that much of modern critical scholarship was based on outdated philosophical assumptions, and that the time had come to rethink the problem of the historical Jesus from a more modern perspective (Evans 1996, 14-26).

Evans analyzed the idea of gospels as myth focusing on Kierkegaard, C.S. Lewis and Bultmann. According to Evans, Bultmann had uncritically adopted the enlightenment mindset and demythologizing of Bultmann was simply an attempt to get people to view the gospel stories as unhistorical. According to Evans, Kierkegaard and Lewis also viewed the gospels as having the form and function of myth, though they disagreed on the definition. For Kierkegaard, myth was a product of human imagination. For Lewis, myth was a story that discussed abstract and universal truth in a concrete way. While Lewis believed the gospels were myth in this sense, he denied that the gospels had any resemblance to other ancient romances, legends or myths. Evans argued that the gospels could be understood as mythological only in the sense that did not exclude the historical (Evans 1996, 53-79).

Evans discussed whether the various logical or philosophical attacks on the atonement and incarnation doctrines were valid. Evans argued that most arguments against the historical nature of the incarnational narrative rested on modern epistemologies that had been discredited. After examining various theories of atonement and incarnation, Evans concluded that there were no good reasons to think that the incarnational narrative was logically or philosophically impossible (Evans 1996, 80-97; 116-137).

Evans then argued at some length that there was no good reason why accounts containing references to miracles should have been dismissed simply due to the supernatural elements. Evans interacted with Lessing, Kant, Witgenstein, Hegel, Frei, and Troeltsch, concluding that it was improper to dismiss a narrative as unhistorical simply due to the presence of miracles (Evans 1996, 135-202).

Evans continued by evaluating various epistemological systems. Skepticism was simply dismissed on the assumption that people had genuine knowledge. One reason Evans dismissed Classical Foundationalsim[1] was because it was doubtful that there existed an adequate body of foundational facts that could be known with certainty (Evans 1996, 208-210). Evans simply bypassed the entire anti-realism[2] philosophy of Wittgenstein by saying that Wittgenstein’s philosophy was not relevant to the kind of truth Evans was pursuing (Evans 1996, 212).

Evans dismissed coherentism because, among other reasons, there may be several belief systems that were equally coherent and that belief depended upon ones relation to the real world and not simply on the coherence of ones beliefs (Evans 1996, 223-224). Evans then seemed to argue for a view of a modified form of foundationalism, holding that some beliefs were basic, though fallible, in the sense of not being grounded in other beliefs. These basis beliefs were then to be defended, modified or possibly given up, upon reflection and analysis on the attacks of others (Evans 1996, 225-130).

Evans then proceeded to discuss first, the strengths and weaknesses of evidential apologetics, and then the strengths and weaknesses of a reformed apologetics that relied heavily on the witness of the Holy Spirit. Evans argued that the two were not mutually exclusive. The reformed view was how Christians actually gained their religious knowledge. The evidentialist view was how Christians attempted to convince others (Evans 1996, 283-284). Evans concluded the book with a hypothetical case study of how a Christian layman might come to know the truth of Christianty.

There was much helpful in Evans’ presentation. For example, Evans made a good case for reexamining the foundations of Enlightenment epistemologies on which much historical Jesus research was based, on the basis that modern science has made the epistemologies outdated. Evans also did a good job showing how the incarnation, atonement and miracles were not philosophically illogical or impossible.

Nevertheless, there was something lacking in Evans’ own epistemology. Evans’ dismissal of skepticism on the basis that people really do have knowledge, seemed simplistic. His appeal to a body of basic, though fallible, beliefs was something less than convincing. Much more convincing was the critical realism epistemology of N.T. Wright. Critical realism involved a spiraling interaction between the knower and the thing known (Wright 1992, 32-37). Evans’ book was an excellent introduction to the philosophical issues surrounding the historical study of Jesus, but the book had very little to do with a historical reconstruction of Jesus himself.

[1] Classical foundationalism as described by Evans, was the view that all beliefs needed to be based on evidence and that the firmness of belief was to be based on the quality of the evidence (Evans 1996, 208-209).
[2] Anti-realism philosophies, according to Evans, rejected the idea that truth was determined by how the world actually was (Evans 1996, 211).