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8. The claims of Christianity are based on historical experience.

8.1 It should be noted first of all that the propositions of Christianity, as of any other world view, should be believed in, if at all, based on knowledge. I shall seek to demonstrate that historical knowledge is the only reliable source of Christian knowledge. I shall then consider whether this knowledge is sufficient to establish Christianity's claims.

8.1.1 Hence, the propositions of Christianity should be believed in, if at all, based on experience interpreted by reason. Some Christians will immediately react to the above statement as betraying a rationalistic bias. A basic assumption of this paper is that the claims of Christianity should be evaluated in exactly the same way as those of any other ideology. This contention will be discussed in a later section. Also in a later section I will consider how the allegedly self-validating claims of Christianity (ie. the workings of the Holy Spirit and of faith) should be evaluated.

8.2 Reason is relevant to Christian belief because any system of beliefs must be internally consistent to be true.

8.2.1 In evaluating the self-consistency of Christianity, it is necessary to note that Christianity is not necessarily a monolithic system. Christianity as a whole is not simply "true or false". Some of its statements may be true while others may be false. While we leave the analysis of the statements of Christianity until later, we note that an option open to us (if necessary) is to attempt a reduction of Christianity until we arrive at an internally consistent kernel that accurately mirrors the world. However, we must pause in this exercise if the residue of Christianity so reduced is less than the minimalist subset suggested in the previous section. To reduce Christianity to less than this subset is fundamentally to change the subject.

8.3 As has been demonstrated, no substantive statement about the world can be known based on reason alone, but only on experience interpreted by reason. This fact applies equally to the statements of Christianity.

8.3.1 Experience is, therefore, seen to be the basis of a reasonable belief in the propositions of Christianity.

8.4 The experience forming the basis of Christian belief may be either personal or received at second (or more remote) hand from others who have had personal experiences.

8.4.1 It is to be noted that I am making the assumption here (that will be further elaborated later) that, whereas scientific theories are based on experience (singular & general), Christianity is based on experiences (plural & particular). This distinction is necessary because, while an individual scientific experiment results in a particular experience for the experimenter involved, the repeatability of experiments means that particular experiences pass over into general experience as the results are thoroughly validated. However, Christianity rests on particular experiences that are not repeatable. This is because these experiences are either historic one-offs (eg. the experience of the empty tomb) or are personal (and private) experiences that cannot be repeated at the behest of the original experiencer or by others. Regular ability of some individual or group to perform miracles would, of course, form part of general experience that could be validated. Unfortunately, no such gifted individual or group appears to be around today.

8.4.2 Christianity must, therefore, be rooted in a chain of transmission of experience that is ultimately grounded in personal experience. With respect to the experiences of Christianity, as for experience generally, the longer the chain of transmission, the less likely the experiences are to have been transmitted reliably.

8.5 Personal experience is therefore seen to be the basis of Christian belief.

8.5.1 By using the term personal I mean to stress that the experience should be at first hand rather than that it should be private. Many personal experiences are private, ie. they relate to events that were not observed by others at the time. Others, however, are shared and may be denoted as public experiences.

8.5.2 It is important that Christianity be founded on at least some public experiences, and that these experiences be related to events external to the observers. Christianity claims this to be the case. Christianity is founded on the historic experiences of Israel, from the Exodus onwards, and on the historical person and acts of Jesus of Nazareth, pre-eminently on his death & resurrection. It stands or falls by the historicity of such public experiences.

8.6 There are no personal experiences available today that would form the basis of a reasonable belief in Christianity.

8.6.1 There is much debate in current Christian circles about the validity of present experiences of a presumed supernatural nature. Since such experiences are often private, or take place in obscure parts of the world, or are capable of more than one explanation, or are of doubtful veracity, or are taken as evidence for mutually contradictory propositions, they are to be rejected as insufficient testimony on which to establish any system of beliefs of such far-reaching consequences as Christianity. The above is a contention related matters of fact, rather than to a matter of principle. I am not stating a priori that Christianity could not be founded on present supernatural experience. This would be the optimum state of affairs, making Christianity as verifiable or falsifiable as any scientific theory. What I am saying is that present so-called "supernatural" experience cannot, as a contingent fact, be demonstrated to be supernatural and is, therefore, not valid evidence for anything substantial.

8.6.2 So-called numinous experience, which forms the bulk of Christian experience, is even more nebulous & unreliable. That is, the experience of closeness to God, and of communion with him in prayer & worship (even including the experience of conversion itself) can all be explained psychologically. They are insufficiently concrete to form the basis of reasonable belief. It has been argued that religious experience is ubiquitous in human society and civilisation and is, therefore, a fact of the world that any analysis of the world must reckon with. While it is true that religious experience is an almost universal fact of the world, any so-called higher reality allegedly underlying this experience is not demonstrable from that experience itself, though it may, in some way, be confirmed by it. In other words, while it is true that numinous experiences are genuine experiences, it is far from clear what they are experiences of, and, therefore, what they are evidence for. Again, I am not meaning to deny the importance of numinous experience in the Christian life. It is only its evidential value that I am critical of.

8.7 The experiences on which Christianity is founded are of a historical nature.

8.7.1 The above statement is consistent with Christianity's own self-image, which is of God revealing himself to man in a sequence of acts in history. While there would be a consensus amongst all Christians agreeing with the above with respect to God's main saving acts, Catholic Christianity has always maintained that evidential miracles have continued from Patristic times up until the present day (eg. as evidence for the sanctity of particular individuals or as evidence for particular doctrines). Orthodox Protestantism has tended to reject such claims, mainly because it is out of sympathy with the claims such miracles are supposed to be evidence for.

8.8 The above may not be taken to imply that present day Christian experience is unimportant. It is clearly central to a normal Christian life. What I am suggesting is that these experiences cannot bear the weight that some might like to place upon them. These experiences are insufficiently certain to form the basis of belief.

8.8.1 The above statement is true both for those who have experienced contemporary so-called supernatural or numinous experiences and for those who have not.

8.9 The above contention, that Christianity is based on historic, not present experience, requires an explanation as to why the situation of today differs from that of certain other historical epochs.

8.9.1 On the assumption that relevant historical experiences have, in fact, occurred, the traditional explanation for the changed expectation of supernatural events is probably the best; namely, that the periods of "evidential" experience were foundational and, therefore, atypical.

8.9.2 It is, however, one of the contentions of Acts 28 Dispensationalism to explain this difference, which is a straightforward deduction from its basic premises. While Acts 28 Dispensationalism (which itself has many varieties) is more likely to be correct than other versions of dispensationalism, the whole dispensationalist scheme is basically an attempt to maintain the full integrity of Scripture in the face of the evidence to the contrary. Since this attempt involves believing too many improbabilities, the scheme fails, as does any deduction from it. For those unfamiliar with Acts 28 Dispensationalism, a summary is given in an Appendix to this paper, together with my reasons for rejecting its proposals.

© Theo Todman 1992 - 2000.
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