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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Exclusive Interiew | Dr. Timothy McGrew, PhD

Dr. Timothy McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He specializes in theory of knowledge, logic, probability theory, and the history and philosophy of science, and he has published in numerous journals including Mind, The Monist, Analysis, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Philosophia Christi. His most recent publications include the article on “Evidence” in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (forthcoming), a co-authored anthology in The Philosophy of Science (Blackwell, 2009), and a paper (with Lydia McGrew) on the the argument from miracles in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009).

Please read the entire interview below:
Nathan: What is your view on the authorship of Gospels?
Dr. McGrew: I am persuaded that they were written, in more or less the form in which we have them today, by their traditional authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Nearly every piece of external evidence we have indicates that this has always been the view of the church. Contrary to what Bart Ehrman likes to say, there is no evidence that any of the Gospels ever circulated anonymously. And there is very strong internal evidence for the authorship of John, as well.

There are of course some difficulties with any view of the authorship of the Gospels. But that is true with almost any interesting historical investigation. The question is not whether there is some view that is free from all difficulties; it is which view suffers from the least difficulties, which view is open to the fewest objections. And I am firmly persuaded that the traditional attributions of authorship are open to the fewest objections.

Nathan: Why aren’t the Gnostic gospels considered to be historically reliable sources by most biblical scholars as well as theologians?
Dr. McGrew: The simple reason that the Gnostic “gospels” are not generally considered to be historically reliable sources is that we know they were written much later than the four canonical Gospels, that their authors had no firsthand or even secondhand knowledge of Jesus, and their content shows them to be works fabricated for the purpose of promoting gnostic teaching, which did not become popular until the second century.
Take the Gospel of Thomas, for example. It is a string of unconnected aphorisms: “Jesus said ...; Jesus said ...; Jesus said ...; His disciples questioned him and said ...; Jesus said ...; Jesus said ...” Some of these sayings are drawn or adapted from the canonical gospels; some are just gnostic weirdness. There is no context, no setting, no detail, no realism. The only geographical reference in the entire work is a vague mention of Judea in verse 60.

Open the Gospel of John almost anywhere and the contrast will be stark. In John 4, for example, Jesus is sitting at Jacob’s well talking to the Samaritan woman; he speaks to her of living water. She points out that her forefathers worshiped in “this mountain”—and Mt. Gerizim is, in fact, visible from Jacob’s well. When she goes back to town to tell her fellow Samaritans about Jesus, the disciples marvel that he was talking to a woman; he tells them to lift up their eyes to see the harvest; and grain fields are in fact visible to anyone sitting at that well. The integration of teaching and context is pervasive.

The prepositions built into the Greek verbs show us that the authors of the four Gospels were familiar with the geography of Palestine: Jesus goes down to Capernaum (John 4:46, 49, 51); he goes up to Jerusalem (John 5:1); in a parable he has a man going down to Jericho (Luke 10:30).

The cumulative effect of evidence like this—and there is much, much more of it—is overwhelming. As sources for the life and teaching of Jesus, the Gnostic “gospels” simply aren’t in the same league as the four canonical Gospels.

Nathan: Why don’t the Gospels cover the youth of Jesus Christ?
Dr. McGrew: I think some people, both Christians and non-Christians, have the mistaken idea that the four Gospels were intended to be complete accounts of Jesus’ life. That obviously wasn’t the point. They focus on his life and actions during a span of a little over three years, the years from the beginning of his public ministry until his resurrection. And even there, they are not complete records, as the authors themselves admit—look at John 21:25!

Nathan: What is your view on the historical reliability of the Gospels?
Dr. McGrew: I am persuaded by the evidence that they are very reliable historical sources. No, the disciples didn’t have digital recording devices, but they did a remarkably good job of giving us a picture of Jesus’ ministry and teaching. There are numerous ways in which this comes out, both in the Gospels taken separately and in the cross-comparison of them. For example, the Gospel of Mark reports many things that must have been quite embarrassing to the apostles. They are represented as boastful (Mark 14:31), stupid (Mark 6:52), incompetent (Mark 9:18), impertinent (Mark 8:32), cowardly (Mark 14:50), and absent without leave on the morning of the resurrection (Mark 16:1-8).

As far as the interconnections among the Gospels, one of my favorite arguments is the argument from undesigned coincidences. Take Matthew 14:1-2; how should Matthew know what Herod Antipas is saying to his servants in the privacy of his own dwelling? Luke 8:3 provides a plausible answer. Or consider Luke’s account of Jesus’ first trial before Pilate in Luke 23:1-4. Why does Pilate try to release Jesus after receiving that reply to his question about whether Jesus was a king? The fuller account of that interview in John 18 provides the explanation. In Luke 22:27, Jesus tells the disciples pointedly that he is among them as one who serves. What could he be referring to? The opening scene in John 13, where Jesus does a servant’s work in washing their feet, supplies the answer. But why did he do that? What prompted his action? Look back earlier in Luke 22 for the answer. These interconnections criss-cross the Gospels, providing strong evidence that they are giving us portraits drawn from life and not theological fantasies invented by people who were unfettered by the need to stay true to something that had actually happened.

Nathan: In this age of modern technology and ample of scientific evidence, why do you believe that God exists? In this regard, how do you define ‘God’?
Dr. Tim McGrew: I would define “God” as “a conscious, personal being without a body who is eternal, free, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, and the creator of all other things.”

The idea that modern scientific evidence undermines belief in God is a curious one. I think it must be connected to the idea that those who believe in God do so because they attribute every gap in their understanding of the universe to the direct agency of God. But does anyone really do this? Science is good at closing some gaps (say, in molecular biology, where the problems are very difficult but some of them are tractable) and not so good at closing others (for example, the problem of the relation between matter and consciousness). So yes, it can be reasonable to entertain the idea that the existence of God may be the best explanation for something, and doing so does not commit one to invoking direct divine action to answer every unsolved problem in every field.

I believe in the existence of God because I think that the existence of God is, on the whole, the best explanation for all of our evidence, scientific, historical, and experiential. As you might imagine, unpacking that case gets one into a great deal of detail very quickly!

Nathan: What do you have to say about God and the existence of Universe? What do you think relationship between the proper name ‘God’ and the definite description ‘The cause of the universe’ is?
Dr. Tim McGrew: I should describe the universe as the totality of all physical reality, and as you might infer from my definition, I think that God created the universe and may therefore properly be described as its cause.

Nathan: “If God does not exist, then there is no prudential reason to behave morally.” What do you think of this statement?
Dr. Tim McGrew: That is difficult to say, because I would need to know what “prudential” means. Even Machiavelli saw that it is useful to a “Prince” if people think that he is merciful, faithful, humane, and religious—though of course his point is that one need not actually be that way. I think that even someone who did not believe in God’s existence might act in a relatively decent fashion simply in order to avoid the disapprobation of his peers. So that might be a prudential motive to behave morally.

Whether that is ultimately a satisfactory ground for morality, whether it makes certain actions moral, is another question altogether. I am quite sure that it does not. Real, objective morality requires some other ground than the desire to have one’s neighbors and friends think well of one.

Nathan: If God exists, why won’t he heal amputees?
Dr. Tim McGrew: Because he’s too busy raising the dead.
Seriously, the point of the question is supposed to be that modern day miracle claims are for things that are not dramatically, incontestably miraculous even to the casual gaze, like the restoration of a lost limb would be.

For one thing, I’m not at all sure this is true; I haven't yet had a chance to read through Craig Keener’s two-volume “footnote” on miracles, but it would not completely surprise me if he has some such cases documented there.

Second, this quip has always struck me as a rhetorical variant on Herod Antipas’s objection from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar: “Prove to me that you’re no fool; Walk across my swimming pool!”

There are many things that God could do today for me and for others that we would recognize as indisputable evidence of His intervention, but He doesn’t. And that’s okay. If the evidence we do have is sufficient, we are not entitled to complain because it is not the particular kind of evidence we wish we had.

So the complaint is really misplaced; it is a rhetorically clever attempt to focus attention on a sort of evidence that we (perhaps) do not have for miracles today rather than grappling with the evidence we actually do have for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the make-or-break event for Christianity.

Nathan: Is God imaginary? If not, what is the evidence of God’s existence?
Dr. Tim McGrew: Some people may have a concept of what they call “God” that doesn’t correspond to anything real. But I certainly believe that God exists and is not imaginary.

There are many different lines of evidence for the existence of God. Here are five: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, the origin of morality, and the origin of Christianity.

Nathan: A popular skeptical question is, “Who made God?” What would you say in response?
Dr. Tim McGrew: No one made God. God never began to exist, so there is no causal question about his being made.
The physical universe, on the other hand, has not been around forever; our best physical science tells us that it began to exist a finite time ago. So for the universe, unlike for God, the question of why it came into existence is rather urgent. Professor Krauss’s attempt to answer this question in his recent book A Universe from Nothing shows a spectacular failure to engage with the actual question, as Krauss himself admits that what he is offering is an account of how the material world as we know it came about from a quantum vacuum with nonzero energy. That’s not a universe from Nothing.

Additional question:

Nathan: In one of your lectures, “Who wrote Gospels,” you mentioned “Prepare your kids for a war.” Why do you think being a Christian has to be prepared? What are the forces arrayed against Christianity today, and how can they be harmful to unprepared Christians?
Dr. McGrew: I was echoing there something that my friend Bill Craig says in his book Reasonable Faith. I think that on the whole, our churches have failed to prepare young people (or anyone, for that matter) to encounter intellectual challenges to their faith. We are now reaping the bitter fruit of that failure, as students raised in churches are walking away from their faith in record numbers in the first two years after highschool. We desperately need calm, informed discussion of the objections that they will hear once they go to college or start surfing the internet without parental controls. And we need to show them that Christianity is supported by evidence that commends it to the rational mind. That is not a substitute for a vital, living relationship with God. But today, some training in apologetics is an indispensable prerequisite for a healthy, well-rounded Christian life.
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To learn more about Dr. Timothy McGrew, please click here.
To download audio lectures by Dr. McGrew and to read the published articles by him click here

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