Neil has already discussed Jonathan Bernier’s post, “Critical Realism and the New Testament,” here (The Poverty of Jesus Historicism (sorry, Popper)) and here (Some Very Funny and Some Very Serious History), but I’m just now catching up. I knew we were in for a bumpy ride as soon as I found out Dr. McGrath had awarded his seal of approval.
Honestly, my first reaction was my second, as well as my third, reaction: Despair — and not only the despair of realizing how bad things have gotten, but also the grim recognition that we have not yet hit bottom. McGrath writes:
What Bernier writes really is a great example of the kind of balanced perspective on the matter that is all but universal among mainstream historians and scholars in related fields.
Oh, goody. What wonderful things did Bernier write? Well, buckle up. Here we go!
All historical argumentation is probabilistic. This is also to say that any and all historical hypotheses are subject to revision or dispute.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, he has left too much unsaid. He doesn’t give us a working definition of the term historical hypothesis, nor does he explain what sorts of evidence would lead to revisions or disputes of such hypotheses. Given what follows, we have reason to believe Bernier has a peculiar understanding of the term.
Hypotheses subject to revision are hypotheses whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0 that we can treat them as virtually certain.
I must be reading this wrong. In the preceding sentence, Bernier wrote that all hypotheses are subject to revision. But then he implies that the subset of hypotheses that are subject to revision are ones “whose probability sufficiently approaches 1.0.” I don’t understand this sentence, but I can set it aside for now — except to say that Bernier doesn’t really explain how and why revision should occur nor how we calculate the probability of a hypothesis. We have everything we need but the what, the how, and the why.
Such hypotheses include the hypothesis that Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, or that Jesus of Nazareth existed.