The crucial question for a Christian in the second chapter is the relationship between testimony, belief, and knowledge. How important is historical testimony to your beliefs as a Christian? What about contemporary testimony, for example, claims of a miracle?
In the second chapter of his book Philosophy for Believers Edward Vick reviews and clarifies some very complex questions about what it means to believe something. More importantly, he explores how we go about validating these beliefs. A lot of this we simply take for granted without realizing the distinctions and differences Vick points out.
A key question is the importance of historical testimony to Christian beliefs. I happen to think they are very important. For example, it is common today to hear people claim that all religions are alike, they are all based on faith, and there is no real basis for choosing between them.
If this were true, we would be left to pick a faith with no way to know if we were correct until after we had died, and it was too late, unless reincarnation turns out to be correct. I do not believe this is the case. The simple fact is that various faiths have various means of support. Christianity and Judaism are historical faiths in the fact that in addition to their theology they also involve certain beliefs about history and make certain historical claims, claims that can be tested.
For example, Mormons differ from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christianity in that they make different claims about Scripture. The historical Christian view is that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Mormons believe that the Old and New Testaments, while the word of God, have been corrupted. They also believe that the Book of Mormon was preserved and given to Joseph Smith. These are competing and contradictory claims. While both could be wrong, both cannot be correct.
This is not an issue of “you pay your nickel and you take your chances.” The evidence for and against these claims can be examined and tested. When this is done, the evidence is pretty clear.
There are thousands of ancient manuscripts and tens of thousands of early translations that support the text of the Bible. Not only does this support the reliability of the transmission of the text, it stands in stark contrast to Joseph Smith’s claims about what the text of the Bible was supposed to be. On the other hand there is not a single ancient manuscript or translation of the Book of Mormon, not one.
In addition there is other evidence as well. Many of the countries, places, people and events mentioned in the Bible are known to have existed. We do not have to wonder about the existence of Egypt, Jerusalem, King David, or the Babylonian exile. As for the Book of Mormon and its corresponding description of the new world, not a single country, place, person or event has been found, not one.
So when it comes to the evidence, there is simply no comparison. While one may argue about whether the evidence for the Bible is strong enough to warrant acceptance of its claims, there is certainly a vast array of evidence that is simply non-existent when it comes to the Book of Mormon.
A Mormon I once talked to was unconcerned about this. In fact for him the lack of evidence was a big plus. As he put it, the less evidence there was, and the harder it was to accept Mormonism as true, the more faith he must have to believe it! Since having faith was a good thing, this must be a good thing. This claim is based, I believe on a misunderstanding of the nature of faith, something Vick touches on, but I believe will address more fully later on, and so I will postpone my discussion of faith till then.
The key point here is that I believe that evidence is important, and that the evidence for the various religions and religious views is not equal. Some views have more evidence than others, and some views run contrary to the evidence.
Where the issue of evidence becomes problematic is when it comes to miracles. Despite claims of relying on evidence and reason, many skeptics simply side step this with claims that miracles are impossible. I find such views suspect, not only in their reasoning but because they ultimately cast doubt the entire process.
If miracles are impossible, then the accounts of them, such as those in the Bible, must be wrong. If the biblical accounts are wrong, then they were either written by eyewitnesses who were dishonest and lied, or more likely by people who did not really know what happened. Either way, the accounts are unreliable. So when we encounter skeptics who claim the Bible is unreliable, is that a position based on a careful analysis of the evidence, or one driven by the presupposition that miracles are impossible? Often it is the latter. After all. why waste time on an in-depth examination of the evidence supporting the reliability of something you already “know” to be unreliable?
Nor does this simply involve ancient events or just skeptics. Religious claims continue to be made today. It is easy for people to dismiss accounts of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, if one believes they ceased after the 1st century. Correspondingly it is easy to accept claims about the gifts of the Holy Spirit if you believe they are wide spread. Paul wrote in 1 Thess 5:21 “Instead, test everything. Hold on to what is good” (ISV). That remains excellent advice today.