Evidence, Rhetorical Style, and Testimony

To the question “what would you do if you died and found yourself in front of God”, Bertrand Russell answered “I’d say there wasn’t enough evidence.” John Loftus  develops this line of argument with more than one evidentialist objection, but I was struck by this one:

Someone could’ve made a monument to Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden that still exists and is scientifically dated to the dawn of time. There would be overwhelming evidence for a universal flood covering “all” mountains. Noah’s ark would be found exactly where the Bible says, and it would be exactly as described in the Bible. The location of Lot’s wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt, would still be miraculously preserved and known by scientific testing to have traces of human DNA in it. There would be non-controversial evidence that the Israelites lived as slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, conclusive evidence that they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and convincing evidence that they conquered the land of Canaan exactly as the Bible depicts…

Reading this, I’m reminded of St. Augustine’s great early objection to Christianity, namely, he couldn’t believe scriptures that were written in a low and vulgar style. Surely if God were the author of these things he could have spoken more like Cicero. Augustine treats his objection with great respect, and he resolves it only when Ambrose explains to him that the scriptures have a (hidden) genius through their allegorical meanings. Those who read Augustine usually dispense with his objection far more quickly and with far less care. It simply doesn’t strike us as reasonable (whether theists or atheists) that the style of the scripture is crucial to its claims to inspiration. But when your culture values rhetorical style to an extreme degree and has achieved truly immortal feats of rhetorical excellence, it counts against the Scriptures that they do not speak with eloquence.

Our culture, however, doesn’t value rhetoric but scientific discourse, and so our version of Augustine’s objection is that we can’t believe scriptures that show such little interest for scientific method. Scripture, if it were really divine, would carefully catalogue evidence for its claims, take affidavits, leave monuments, etc. all with an eye to being able to present the best possible evidentialist case for all times and forever.

Some good apologetics might come out of a response to all this, but I wonder if it isn’t also reasonable just  to say “But the author of scripture isn’t an evidentialist!” Collecting evidence is one thing, setting down an evidence based case is another, and scripture doesn’t strike anyone as the single-minded attempt to construct an evidence based case.

So what is scripture trying to construct? It seems more of a testimony – a testimony of a priestly people who are giving witness to divine things that were shown to their community. Testimony is like evidence (and like rhetorical persuasion, FWIW)  but it is clearly not the same. One hearing the testimony might sift through it, reject it, accept it, question it, etc. but the one testifying simply wants to give his witness. Christ, for one, was chiefly interested in making sure that he would have continual witnesses on earth, not that there would be any careful documentation of what he did or incontrovertible evidence that he did it.  He wanted to build an institution and people, and not a case or even a flawless rhetorical masterpiece. True, all these things are compatible, but only one of them can be the foundation and primary motive of belief, and Christ wanted to place personal testimony as the primary motive of belief: Faith cometh by hearing. Our faith is always founded on a living witness – on a person who traces his mission back to the first ones that Christ sent forth as witnesses. It is not obvious that founding everything on a monument, a DNA finding, a more meticulous Hebrew census-taking, etc. would be a better way to go.



  1. Brandon said,

    February 6, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    I like the parallel with Augustine’s objection here; I think it has quite a bit of force.

  2. February 6, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    “Our culture, however, doesn’t value rhetoric but scientific discourse, and so our version of Augustine’s objection is that we can’t believe scriptures that show such little interest for scientific method.”

    It certainly appears that way.

    I wonder how common this actually is as something our culture values? Even among the educated emotions appear to be the first principles of any argument even vaguely religious in nature. We may have technical gadgets, but our cultural formation is via lower appetite driven mass marketing and conspicuous consumption.

    Further, the problem isn’t scientific method but the fitting of the evidence to the expectations of technical specialists, which is what we have with rare exception, who want the evidence to fit within their science’s preconceived notions of what can be accepted as true. An expectation which has more the character of magic or occult than scientific method.

    And so while I think your overall insight is very good, I wonder if the cultural expectation and error is what you say it is. We live in the land of Oz. That scientific lion is just blowing smoke to hide the lower appetites getting what they want behind the curtain.

  3. February 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Great points, James.
    The thought that comes to my mind is that ‘”founding everything on a monument, a DNA finding, a more meticulous Hebrew census-taking, etc.” would smack of a God who only wanted to be revealed to modern post-enlightenment rationalists; where as founding it on the testimony of the euangelion ‘evidences’ a God who wanted to be revealed to anyone and everyone.

  4. G. Kyle Essary said,

    February 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I am still figuring out how a pillar of “salt” is supposed to have human DNA. I’m pretty sure that someone becoming a pillar of salt would mean that they had no DNA at all. Maybe he thinks God should have only partially completed the miracle and only turned part of her into a pillar of salt so that some of the human DNA remained, but then it would just be an “incomplete” miracle, right, haha?

  5. Brock said,

    February 8, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I’ve always wondered how the scientific evidentialists think God should have picked his evidential timeframe. If He put in details that were exactly what we would find comprehensible and confirmable now, then many of these details would have been incomprehensible for 2000 years (and many would have been technologically unconfirmable), and may well look either childlike or apparently superseded in a few more decades or centuries.

    Alternatively, God could have dictated a really long science textbook with all the science we’d ever be able to comprehend – which goes back to your point that scripture doesn’t look like an attempt to construct an evidence-based case.

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