Monday, July 07, 2008

A Brief Response to R. Douglas Geivett's Article: "The Epistemology of Resurrection Belief"

R. Douglas Geivett is, by all accounts, a respected philosophy professor at Biola University in California, and his body of work, among other things, covers the philosophy of religion and epistemology. Epistemology, in lay terms, is the study of the foundation, nature, and validity of human knowledge. Applied to religion, epistemology studies what we can know about God and the stories of the Bible, and how our knowledge of the world impacts our religious views. Geivett is, by his own assertion, a Christian and a theist in the classical sense of those terms. In regards to the resurrection, he states: “As I see it, the best causal explanation for a bodily resurrection is a miracle – an act of God.”

In the book “The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N.T. Wright in Dialogue,” edited by Robert B. Stewart and including not only a dialogue between the two historians in the title, but also a series of essays by various religious scholars, Geivett presents an article discussing the epistemology of beliefs about the resurrection. In this article, Geivett discusses the merits of Wright and Crossan’s individual methods and conclusions, and makes the argument that while Wright appears to approach his scholarship with a “worldview neutral” approach, Crossan’s approach is somewhat biased by his own beliefs – that is, Crossan’s work is not entirely “metaphysically neutral.”

To put this in perspective, we must first take a very brief look at who Wright and Crossan are, and what Geivett means by “metaphysically neutral.”

N.T. Wright is the current Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Church, and is a very well-respected and noted New Testament scholar. He is also, as might be imagined considering his professional position, a classical theist.

In regards to the resurrection, Wright believes that the best conclusion to draw from the available historical evidence is that Jesus really was resurrected bodily from the dead. No other conclusion can best explain the available evidence. As Geivett points out, however, Wright resists the urge to attribute this resurrection necessarily to God – even though Wright, as a theist, no doubt believes God was responsible. In Geivett’s opinion, Wright refrains from attributing the resurrection to God because the answer to the question of how Jesus came to be resurrected requires adherence to a specific worldview – in this case, classical theism. Obviously, if one believes in God, then the clear assumption would be that God was responsible for Jesus’ resurrection. But since, in Geivett’s opinion, Wright’s resurrection scholarship strives for “worldview neutrality” (that is, he attempts to keep his own theistic beliefs out of his professional scholarship), Wright does not ever make this “God raised Jesus bodily” assertion directly, and instead ends his arguments at what can be known from the objective evidence at our disposal. Thus, he believes the evidence suggests Jesus was raised physically from the dead, but does not openly assert that God was necessarily responsible for it, because the objective historical evidence, by itself, cannot support this otherwise subjective assertion.

John Dominic Crossan, like N.T. Wright, is a very well-respected New Testament scholar who has published dozens of books and articles, and is an Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University, having spent most of his professional career there. Unlike Wright, Crossan is not a classical theist, and is probably better described as a “progressive non-theist Christian” – that is, he considers himself a Christian in that he follows and attempts to emulate the life of Christ, but does not believe in a theistic god, or in the divinity of Jesus.

Crossan’s conclusions about the resurrection follow a groundbreaking method of using not only canonical and non-canonical textual evidence, but also the evidence of 1st century secular history, anthropology, archaeology, geography, and human psychology. In other words, Crossan’s method employs contextual background as well as textual evidence. Using these methods, Crossan asserts that the resurrection was naturalistic in origin, resulting from the firm conviction of the earliest Christians that they had experienced the resurrected Jesus. Crossan believes these early Christians experienced apparitions, or visions, of Jesus similar to visions of dead friends and relatives that many people, even in modern times, experience. These early Christians interpreted these apparitions the only way that a 1st century person could interpret them – as literal appearances by a resurrected Jesus. In other words, they did not have post-Enlightenment understandings of the world to help them see that these were just manifestations of their grieving minds. An empty tomb may also have contributed to their mistaken interpretation (although Crossan only “concedes” an empty tomb for the sake of argument – his own belief is that Jesus was not likely buried in a tomb).

In Geivett’s opinion, however, Crossan’s methodology is not worldview neutral (that is, his method is biased), because Crossan himself is not a theist. For Geivett, it stands to reason that Crossan, as a non-theist, would ultimately conclude non-theistic origins for the resurrection of Jesus. He states this quite explicitly in his article:

No wonder Crossan disagrees with Wright about the nature of the resurrection. No wonder he concludes that Jesus did not literally rise bodily from the dead. For what is denied by his metaphysical commitments precludes the possibility of a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus by God…[Crossan’s] verdict as a New Testament historian does not [diverge] from his worldview commitments at all. It is not metaphysically neutral.
There are two problems that I have with Geivett’s criticism of Crossan (although, in his defense, Geivett claims that his assertions are “by no means a criticism of Crossan’s methods,” since historians have no choice but to sometimes allow their own beliefs to “inform their historical judgment” when the evidence has gaps).

My first issue should already be obvious to anyone who has been following my train of thought in this essay. How is it that Crossan, as a non-theist, is biased in his non-theistic interpretations of the resurrection, but Wright, as a theist, is somehow not biased in his theistic interpretations of the resurrection? It would seem that Geivett is applying a double standard to Crossan – which may stand to reason since Geivett, as a classical theist, naturally disagrees with Crossan’s conclusions. Geivett attempts to reconcile this problem by the argument I illustrated above in regards to Wright’s resurrection theology: Wright, despite being a theist, does not go so far as to assert that God must have been responsible for raising Jesus bodily from the dead. In the name of neutrality, Wright leaves such an assertion – which requires subjective belief rather than objective evidence – out of his conclusion. Regardless of that (because it is beside the point, in my opinion), I am by no means convinced that the “best” explanation of the available data is that Jesus was physically and literally raised from the dead (which is what Wright concludes). Therefore, I would argue with Geivett that Wright’s conclusion is, in fact, informed by his own theistic beliefs, inasmuch as Crossan’s conclusion is informed by his own non-theistic beliefs.

The problem here, in addition to being an apparent double standard on the part of Geivett, is that Geivett’s entire argument is philosophical in nature, and therefore is not grounded in reasonable reality. If Crossan’s conclusions are biased by his non-theistic beliefs, then the same argument could be made to suggest that non-goblinists are biased when they conclude there are no goblins in their garden. Is there such a thing as a theistic Christian who denies the divine aspects of the resurrection, or a non-theist who affirms the divine aspects of the resurrection? I certainly do not know of any, because such positions would be contradictory by their very nature. Even Geivett seems to agree with this when he says, “But what else could explain the phenomenon of a bodily resurrection [other than God]? I can’t think of a single other plausible explanation.” Then later, “Suppose you don’t believe in God. What’s the likelihood that you would…conclude that Jesus had risen bodily…? I’d say not likely at all.”

My second issue with Geivett’s criticism of Crossan’s method is that he seems to be putting the cart before the horse, or, to use another silly metaphor, placing the chicken before the egg. Geivett seems to assume that Crossan is, and always has been, a non-theist, and that his conclusions, therefore, are biased by those non-theistic worldviews. This might be a reasonable argument, if it were true that Crossan had always been a non-theist. I do not claim to know every detail of Crossan’s personal spiritual journey, but I do know that it is very common within religious scholarship for scholars to enter the field as traditionally-believing Christians, and to end up becoming, after looking at the evidence neutrally, non-theists, agnostics, or progressive Christians. I have made the argument before that this sort of biblical scholar – the kind that starts off as a traditional believer, follows the evidence where it leads, and ends up rejecting traditional belief – is by definition the most “unbiased” type of scholar. Of course, the reverse would also be true – a scholar who starts off as an agnostic or non-theist, follows the evidence where it leads, and then becomes a traditional believer, would also be “unbiased.” However, I do not personally know of a single religious scholar that this path applies to.

In regards to Crossan, I do know that he began his career as a theologian – a priest in the Anglican Church. He later left the priesthood and began developing his aforementioned non-theistic conclusions about the nature of Jesus and God. This would imply, then, that Crossan began his career as a classical theist, ended up rejecting this position after careful, unbiased study, and became the non-theist progressive that he is today. If this is true – and I think it is – then Geivett’s assertion that Crossan’s methods are biased by his non-theism is completely without merit. Crossan’s methods were and are unbiased, which is why he ended up rejecting the traditional beliefs of his younger years, and now accepts a more naturalistic explanation for the resurrection.

I agree with Geivett when he says that we should “take care to recognize, as far as possible, the real limits of our knowledge and understanding.” I also agree with him when he acknowledges that any historian must sometimes apply personal worldviews when evaluating historical data. What this means, in the end, is that no historical conclusion – especially in the field of New Testament scholarship – is ever completely without personal bias. We all bring our own beliefs and ideas to the table when we begin to study the available evidence for the stories of Jesus. Recognizing this inherent human non-neutrality is, I believe, one of the most important steps in opening the door to meaningful and mutually valuable dialogue in the field of religion.


GP said...


I've only read this post (and not the book), but from the passages you cite it sounds like Geivett is simply arguing that Wright's methodology allows for either a theistic or non-theistic explanation of the Resurrection (and hence is neutral on that metaphysical issue), whereas Crossan's methodology only allows for a non-theistic explanation of whatever actually happened (and hence is not neutral). For Crossan's view to be metaphysically neutral, he would have to allow for the possibility of divine involvement; but (apparently) he doesn't, so his view isn't neutral in the way Wright's is. If I understand his argument right, then there's no double standard—notice that the argument would apply whether or not Wright (or Crossan) is a Christian.

Also, this claim about methodology seems to me independent of where either Crossan or Wright started from; it would apply whether or not Crossan or Wright started out as theists (or even are theists currently).

Finally, I think Geivett would acknowledge your main point, which is a good one: we all bring our own biases to the table when evaluating philosophical or religious claims.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and posting, GP. You've made a good point that gives me something to consider. I can completely see your point of view, and from that point of view, what you've said is true.

But, of course, Geivett has simply discovered a nice little philosophical loophole. Anyone who asserts the traditional doctrine that Jesus was raised bodily will still be able to maintain metaphysical neutrality as long as they don't openly say God did it. But anyone who does not say Jesus was raised bodily has automatically closed the door on a theistic hand in the matter. Therefore, by this argument, only a scholar who has reached a traditional conclusion can possibly be neutral! It's a little philosophical mind-bender that works on semantics.

I haven't read Wright's book where he discusses in depth his resurrection theology, but if what Geivett said is true, then he doesn't ever openly say God resurrected Jesus. However, it is significant that the title of Wright's book is "The Resurrection of the Son of God." Bearing that title in mind, I don't think there can be any doubt as to how Wright supposes that Jesus was raised.

Unknown said...

Nice article! I just want to clarify that Crossan was a Roman Catholic, not Anglican, priest.

Scott said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Jim. You're right that Crossan was a Roman Catholic priest. I couldn't find where I called Crossan an Anglican priest in the article...although I did note that Wright is an Anglican bishop. Either way, thanks for the clarification.

Scott said...

Never mind, Jim. I finally found the part you were talking about. Yes, indeed, Crossan was Roman Catholic, not Anglican.

Dan said...


I think you misunderstood Doug Geivett's argument in this article. Geivett was not saying that Crossan was biased and that Wright was not; rather the point that Geivett was trying to make was that historians should use every reasonable line of evidence that is available to them when making historical verdicts.
Geivett actually critiques Wright on his conclusion that the historical data alone could justify that Jesus actually rose bodily from the grave, because that is not the kind of verdict that can be made from only historical data. In fact, Geivett argues that anything that would justify Jesus rising from the dead would also justify belief that God was the causal explanation, because there doesn't seem to be any other possible explanation. And so, it does not make sense for Wright to claim that there is justification for belief in a bodily resurrection but not the proposition that it was God who did it.
So ultimately, Geivett concludes that neither Wright nor Crossan were metaphysically neutral in their conclusions.

Scott said...

Thanks for commenting, Dan. It's been a long time since I read the essay in question and wrote this response to it, but what you've said here certainly seems to make sense. Perhaps I initially read Geivett's point incorrectly.