Again waylaid by life experiences so surfacing here another post begun way back. The first post in this series is Addressing James McGrath’s Arguments Against Mythicism — 1
This time we are addressing
- McGrath, James F. 2011. “Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). October 18, 2011. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2011/10/mythicism-and-pauls-claims-to-supernatural-revelation.html.
Mythicists regularly claim (as one commenter on this blog recently did) regarding Paul that “Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation.”
Since the subject has come up once again, in the same form in which it always seems to, let me devote a blog post solely to this topic, in the hope that any mythicists who desire not to be like creationists (who are notorious for repeating the exact same arguments even though they have been addressed adequately on countless other occasions) may at least show a willingness to consider the evidence and respond.
Here are the main relevant points that need to be considered.
First, in Galatians 1:15-17, Paul claims not to have consulted with anyone before starting to proclaim the Gospel.
That “first main relevant point” that McGrath informs readers needs to be addressed simply avoids the problematic verse that the commenter was addressing. McGrath begins with Galatians 1:15 but fails to acknowledge that the commenter, Vinny, was referring to Galatians 1:11-12. Vinny’s comment that McGrath claims to be addressing is:
Our earliest Christian source claimed to have learned nothing from the Christians who came before him. He claimed to know what he knew by divine revelation. He didn’t tell us why he persecuted the Christians who preceded him. Most of the communities he addressed were communities that he founded. The only evidence we have for what those communities knew and understood about Jesus is what we find in Paul’s letters. It is not unreasonable suppose that they knew other things but any declarations concerning what those things actually were are little more than conjecture and speculation. How much of his message came from those who preceded him and how much was the product of his own imagination and creativity is also a matter of conjecture and speculation. Those are pieces of the puzzle that we don’t possess.
The passage to which Vinny was referring was Galatians 1:11-12 (I am using the same NIV translation as McGrath is using):
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
But let’s see how McGrath addresses the comment. As we just noted, he glosses over the above verses and begins at verse 15:
Here is how the New International Version renders it:
But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Important things to note are
(1) that Paul had previously persecuted the church (Neil: The persecution reference is two verses earlier), and so was not entirely unaware of what Christians had to say,
(2) his aim here is to emphasize that his authority is not dependent on the apostles in Jerusalem,
(3) he does not in fact say that he received everything he knew about Jesus or the Gospel by supernatural revelation, and finally
(4) if he did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe him, since there is obviously a more mundane explanation available for how Paul knew the things that he did.
I think we can all agree with the first three of McGrath’s four things to note. Concerning #4, historians have no problem “believing” that mystics and visionaries claim to have visions and revelations from spirit realms. Historians acknowledge that Joan of Arc heard voices without believing that a heavenly saint really was speaking to her, that Saint Francis had visions without believing God was really communicating with him, and that people speak in tongues without believing that a real “holy spirit” is doing the work. I learned through an article by Stephen Young that “the now classic analysis” explaining the difference was set out by Wayne Proudfoot in 1987 in Religious Experience:
Descriptive and Explanatory Reduction
We are now in a position to distinguish two different kinds of reduction. Descriptive reduction is the failure to identify an emotion, practice, or experience under the description by which the subject identifies it. This is indeed unacceptable. To describe an experience in nonreligious terms when the subject himself describes it in religious terms is to misidentify the experience, or to attend to another experience altogether. To describe Bradley’s experience as simply a vision of a human shape, and that of Mrs. Edwards as a lively warm sense that seemed to glow like a pencil of light, is to lose the identifying characteristics of those experiences. To describe the experience of a mystic by reference only to alpha waves, altered heart rate, and changes in bodily temperature is to misdescribe it. To characterize the experience of a Hindu mystic in terms drawn from the Christian tradition is to misidentify it. In each of these instances, the subject’s identifying experience has been reduced to something other than that experienced by the subject. This might properly be called reductionism. In any case, it precludes an accurate identification of the subject’s experience.
Explanatory reduction consists in offering an explanation of an experience in terms that are not those of the subject and that might not meet with his approval. This is perfectly justifiable and is, in fact, normal procedure. The explanandum is set in a new context, whether that be one of covering laws and initial conditions, narrative structure, or some other explanatory model. The terms of the explanation need not be familiar or acceptable to the subject. Historians offer explanations of past events by employing such concepts as socialization, ideology, means of production, and feudal economy. Seldom can these concepts properly be ascribed to the people whose behavior is the object of the historian’s study. But that poses no problem. The explanation stands or falls according to how well it can account for all the available evidence.
(Proudfoot, 196f. bolded emphasis mine)
Thus McGrath’s suggestion that Paul’s claim to have received by revelation his gospel of Jesus is implausible confuses acceptance of Paul’s claim with belief in Paul’s own beliefs about his claim. Historians can and should explain Paul’s words without themselves personally believing Paul’s interpretations. It is absurd to suggest that they should reject Paul’s words because they themselves don’t believe his account.
So we can correct #4 to say that “if Paul did mean to claim that everything that he knew was by supernatural revelation, no historian would believe his visions were genuinely from another realm; historians would be quite content to accept that he claimed to have had a direct revelation by whatever means.”
McGrath Does Make a Serious Point
It is too easy to dismiss everything McGrath writes after we read the above lapses where he fails to address the verse Vinny was discussing and confuses the historian’s choices of descriptive and explanatory interpretations. McGrath does, in fact, make a serious point in the next section of his post. Continue reading “Mythicism and Paul’s Claims to Supernatural Revelation (Engaging with McGrath — 2)”