Last Monday was Covenant Theological Society’s first Conference. A mixture of students and professors gave half hour presentations on whatever interested them. The talk that struck me most was given by Dan Robbins entitled “The New Testament Concept of Witness and Some Epistemological Implications for Belief.” I went into the session assuming he was going to talk about how to be a good witness, which in hindsight was dumb given the title, but I’m still not used to factoring words like “epistemological” into my thinking process.
The thrust of the talk was that most of what we believe doesn’t come from empirical evidence but from trusted witnesses. This is true when you think about it. We typically believe our parents when they tell us how old we are. We don’t remember being born. When someone tells us what time it is, we generally believe them. We don’t fly to Greenwich, England to check. We generally believe people like Napoleon or Julius Caesar lived even though we, nor the people who told us about them, ever met these people. We believe doctors and scientists when they tell us about our bodies or the laws of nature.
This idea has very interesting implications for the Christian faith. The Christian faith was established almost two thousand years ago in a place we have probably never seen. It was founded by about a hundred people who announced the resurrection and reign of a Jewish man who was crucified by the Romans. The first witnesses to this were women who at that time weren’t considered credible witnesses. The rest of the witnesses were mostly poor and uneducated. On the plus side, some of them could do incredible acts of power. And they were willing to die for the statement “Jesus is the risen Lord.” If they were making it up, why would so many die for it? It’s one thing to accidently believe something that is false and be willing to die for it. Lots of people do that. But to lie about something and then to be willing to die for that lie doesn’t seem likely.
Before coming to seminary I was an engineer. Engineers tend to be very black and white sort of people. If something can’t be proven we don’t want to believe it. This led to some very interesting discussions about religion in the office. Saying “I won’t believe until I can prove it” appears noble, but it’s very misguided. As I said above almost everything we believe is based on trust in the witness of others. And secondly, even if we want to prove something for ourselves, we can’t do so. All we can do is make educated guesses based on our experiences. The idea that atheists believe in science while Christians believe in faith is wrong. All knowledge is founded on faith in something. This is understood in philosophical and top scientific circles, but this understanding hasn’t trickled down to the popular level.
We have to believe things just because people tell us. The question is “how credible is the witness?” We can believe that Jesus is the resurrected Lord of the world based on the testimony of the people who saw him after he was raised and were willing to die for that belief. And we can believe based on the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and the works that God still does today. Or we can believe the guess of people who say there is no God, because they don’t want there to be one.