The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

One Man’s Common Sense is another Man’s Nonsense

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We saw in yesterday’s article “Whose Common Sense?” that the call for a Common Sense approach to apologetics is naïve and counterproductive. Competing worldviews are not “willing to work inductively, from particular facts to general conclusions” unless both sides agree (maybe) on the starting point of inquiry. Of course, establishing the starting point is the fundamental problem, the very thing that is up for debate. To begin any place other than the starting point gives credibility to the false notion of common ground between believers and unbelievers, a point that is made in Thinking Straight in a Crooked World and Pushing the Antithesis.

While facts and evidences are important and essential to any defense of the Christian faith, there are always underlying presuppositions that govern what constitutes factuality. And even when there is agreement on the facts, there remains the interpretation of those facts. When oil companies report on earnings, there is general agreement on the amount, but there is wholesale disagreement on how the profits should be dispersed. The following is an example of how most Christians would argue for the historical reliability of the gospels using Horton’s call for “arguing on the grounds of Common Sense Realism.” Keep in mind that there is nothing factually in dispute of what the NT as we have it today actually states. The quarrel is found is found in other areas:

Luke investigates the claims and interviews witnesses (Luke 1:1–4). John, who spent three years with Jesus, in his first epistle presents similar eyewitness testimony: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life” (1 John 1:1). Paul writes that Jesus “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:4–8).

The gospels and the other NT books (letters) follow standard historical methods of investigation and empirical inquiry that would pass any modern set of analytical standards and therefore should be taken as reliable and authoritative if Common Sense Realism was an objective standard. Since the gospels were written during the generation that witnessed the life and work of Jesus, the burden of proof is on the skeptic to prove that the gospels are not authentic history. But those who dismiss the clear written testimony of the NT have a different understanding of Common Sense based on naturalistic presuppositions.

Thomas Jefferson was an early critic of the New Testament. He rejected the miraculous elements in the gospels based on his perception of what he believed to be Common Sense. Consider this from a letter he wrote to John Adams on January 24, 1814:

The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.

How does Jefferson know this? Of course, he doesn’t. What standard of investigation did Jefferson use to determine separate dung and from diamonds? Does he offer contrary facts? He doesn’t. I suspect that Jefferson might claim that he was using some version of Common Sense Realism that he defined for himself. We know that Jefferson removed “from the Gospels the supernaturalism that he was convinced was added by later corruptors of the simple moral teachings of Jesus” and only included in his book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (aka The Jefferson Bible) “what he regarded as Jesus’ authentic words.”[1] I could just as easily claim that the pyramids were built with alien technology because no earthly people had the engineering ability to accomplish such at feat. It’s nothing I have to prove; I only need to construct a paradigm that dismisses ancient engineering proficiency.

Jefferson is begging the question by arguing in a circle. Since miracles cannot happen, and there are claims of the miraculous in the gospels, therefore the gospels cannot be giving authentic history because they include reports of the supernatural. John Warwick Montgomery writes in History and Christianity on this point:

[N]o historian can legitimately rule out documentary evidence simply on the ground that it records remarkable events; if the documents are sufficiently reliable, the remarkable events must be accepted even if they cannot be successfully explained by analogy with other events or by an a priori scheme of natural causation.[2]

Of course, skeptics do rule out evidence because it is a record of remarkable events. Their prior commitment to naturalism is their governing principle in their understanding of Common Sense Realism. This is the issue. 

[1] Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 257.
[2]
John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, [1965] 1974), 21.

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