Is it rational to believe - based in part on the written testimony of others - that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Testimony that comes to us by way a collection of texts, which Christians know to be holy scripture?
Why This Question Matters
It matters because some contemporary unbelievers have challenged the very idea of the reliability of testimony. Their reasons vary, but the general stance is that testimony is too susceptible to error to be reliable. And, so the argument goes, if testimony of any sort is unreliable, then so is biblical testimony. Now, as I wish to show briefly below, this is plainly bad thinking and should be rejected by followers of Christ (let alone any right thinking person). Another preliminary remark: it is really important for Christians to keep squarely in mind that our final grounds of assurance for the veracity of scripture is the fact that it is the very word of God (and therefore wholly trustworthy) and that the Holy Spirit bears witness to its veracity (and therefore wholly assures us of its truth).
What I want to do in what follows is challenge the idea that testimony as such is unreliable. In Part II I will look more specifically at reasons for believing scripture’s testimony concerning Jesus’ resurrection (reasons in addition to the ones cited in the paragraph above).
Much of what we believe to be the case in the regular course of life is taken on testimony, and only on testimony – learning from what someone else tells us. Your name and birthplace; the name of your state capital; the circumference of the earth; scientific theories (at least to non-specialists); and much more. David Hume helpfully points out testimony’s widespread currency: “there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eyewitnesses and spectators.” What is more, much - perhaps most or even all - of what we believe by way of testimony cannot be ascertained by any other mode of knowing, whether personal experience, argument, a priori reasoning, or our own personal memory. It would be practicably impossible for each of us to verify independently each and every claim we learn first by way of testimony and some purported facts are simply too difficult to be ascertained except by way of expert testimony. So, testimony, for everybody, is a common way of coming to know vast stretches of information.
But is believing on the basis of testimony – what others tell us – reasonable? At first blush it might not seem so. Who is to say that the source is accurate or that the original grounds for his belief are reliable? And testimony at best gives second-hand access to purported facts, whereas sense experience and introspection, for example, provide first-hand access, and first-hand access appears to be the most reliable way of knowing what is the case.
But testimony is in important respects like perception (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste), which most people agree is a highly reliable means of knowing. When we see something, for instance, we normally take it to be the case that what we see is really there, even though we most likely cannot provide a non-circular reason for thinking our sight is reliable (as William Alston argues in The Reliability of Sense Perception). Similarly, a principle of right thinking as good as any would seem to be that we don’t have to have reasons for taking someone at their word, only an absence of reasons not to believe that person (so argues C. A. J. Coady in Testimony: A Philosophical Study).
An additional three principles of the rationality of testimony are probably worth keeping in plain view. The principle of credulity: we naturally have “a disposition to confide in the veracity of others, and to believe what they tell us” (Thomas Reid). The principle of veracity: most people have “a propensity to speak the truth” (Reid again). And the principle of innocence: a belief that is arrived at by way of testimony should be taken to be true unless it can be shown convincingly to be false. Alvin Plantinga provides a helpful point of view: “in trying to understand the utterances of another human being, we must make the assumption that most of what she says is true; otherwise we will have no way at all of beginning the task of trying to understand her” (Warrant and Proper Function, 79). You tell me your name is Laura. Should I believe you? With no reason not to, of course I should, as dictated by the ethics of conversation – I assume you are telling the truth and you assume I am listening credulously.
This doesn't mean that everything we believe by way of testimony is true, just as not everything we believe by way of perception is true. Almost daily we are confronted with the dubious claims of salespeople, politicians, and editorialists, and we would be foolish to believe every claim they make. But what it does mean is that it is reasonable to think that beliefs arrived at by way of reliable testimony may be taken as true unless the testifier can be shown to be unreliable or the claims can be shown to be false, misleading, ambiguous, or suffer some similar fate. Back to you telling me your name is Laura. When shouldn’t I believe you? When I learn that you or your sources are compromised – when I discover you’re a trickster or a chronic liar or that after all this time it is discovered your name (much even to your surprise) isn’t actually Laura but Libby (named in honor of your aunt but your parents really liked the name Laura best and hence it stuck. Only after you chanced a glance at your birth certificate did you discover the truth.).
Why should we accept the testimony of scripture? Because God is its ultimate author, we have the very best reason to take scripture as true and utterly reliable, because he is perfectly trustworthy and the very source of everything that is true. In my next post, we will look at additional reasons for thinking the testimony of scripture is true with respect to the resurrection of Jesus.
Mr. Geoff Sackett
Dean of Students
Guest Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.