Christian Faith: An Outsider versus An Insider View

As we concluded last week, we cannot move from mere theism into Christian faith by reasoning from the phenomena of nature to their metaphysical cause or from the inner world of our minds and their ideas to necessary truths about God. At best, these routes can take us to theism as a reasonable—and for some people even compelling—explanation for our experience. Though Christianity shares many background beliefs in common with theism, it appeals to specific events within human history as the basis for its identifying truth claims. In an interesting and controversial move that I will need to defend in future posts, Christianity sees revealed in these unique and non-repeating historical events truths of universal significance and application: truths about the identity and purposes of God, truths about the human condition in relation to God, and truths about ultimate human destiny. Today, however, we will address a question preliminary to this issue.

Where do we learn about these historical events and truth claims? I am not asking the question of how we know these events really happened and these claims are true. It’s too early to talk about this issue. I am asking a prior question: how do we get into the position of needing to evaluate and decide about the reports of the events and the truth claims derived from them? The simple answer is that we read about them in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. True. However, we are not looking for the simplest answer but for the most accurate and persuasive description of the move from not believing to believing Christianity. And this means that we must distinguish between insider and outsider views of these reports.

For Christian believers, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are authoritative for their faith and practice of Christianity. The scriptures contain extensive teaching beyond the basic and decisive gospel message. When people come to believe the foundational message about Jesus Christ and decide to follow the Christian way, they commit themselves to listen to the scriptures’ detailed instructions about how to believe and live as a Christian. In other words, in their decision to become Christians they place themselves under the authority of the scriptures. The authority of the Holy Scripture is a doctrine of faith and makes sense only from an insider perspective.

But things look different from an outsider’s perspective. If you have not yet come to believe the basic gospel of Jesus Christ, you have not yet placed yourself under the authority of the scriptures. In other words, as an outsider you don’t feel an obligation to conform to Scripture simply because of its authority. It is important to keep the two perspectives distinct. In my view, we should not urge non-believers to accept the Christian faith simply because of the authority of Scripture. In so doing we are asking them to view the scriptures from an insider angle before they come to faith. Additionally, this strategy would require the apologist to offer evidence for the authority and inspiration of the scriptures and defend them from attacks—all apart from a decision about the basic gospel message of Jesus Christ. Such an approach would lead to interminable debates and would delay the decision about Jesus indefinitely. The proper order is to confront the basic message about Jesus Christ as witnessed to by the reports recorded in the New Testament writings, examine them as one would examine other historical claims, and make a decision to believe or not. If we come to faith in Jesus Christ through the testimony of the apostles, then we will acknowledge the unique placement of those who witnessed these events and gladly put ourselves under their authority as our teachers to whom we look for detailed instruction in Christian faith and life.

What is the gospel? What is the fundamental and decisive message about which one must decide in order to transition from not possessing Christian faith to possessing it? For the Apostles, the core of the Christian message is that Jesus is Lord and Christ, and they offer as evidence for that assertion their witness to resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In future posts I hope to clarify the meaning of this claim and present evidence that puts us in a position to make a rational and responsible decision to embrace this faith.

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7 thoughts on “Christian Faith: An Outsider versus An Insider View

  1. Michael Summers

    Excellent. A weakness of many evangelistic programs is that they assume prior acceptance of biblical authority. As you describe, such approaches fail to reach those who do not yet accept that authority.

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  2. nokareon

    It frequently amazes me how often atheist interlocutors, whether at a scholarly and debate level or at a lay level, will not grasp what is meant by looking at the gospel accounts as ordinary historical documents. First, when presented with a historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection, they often object, “your only source for that is the New Testament, and you’re presupposing the truth of the Bible to argue for the Bible!” If one objects that one is only looking at the gospels as four separate and ordinary historical documents, they press the point, “calling the gospels a ‘historical document’ presupposes that they are historically true! Why should we consider them as ‘history’ in that sense?”

    It likewise surprises me that sceptics routinely emphasize that the gospel documents were written “30-70 years after the fact,” as if that should appall us and discredit any claims the gospels have to historicity. When confronted with the fact that almost every other historical document we know of is either more weakly attested or written centuries after the fact—and yet we still firmly believe that the core of the events described took place—many protest, “see, this is why we can’t trust History to tell us about reality! This is why we must entrust our discovery of knowledge entirely to science, which can be verified by experiment and repeated!” While I have nothing at all against the virtues of science as a method of knowing, their demand essentially to dissolve the entirely discipline of History always strikes me as premature.

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  3. ifaqtheology Post author

    I share your amazement. It is self-deceptive to think science is not also historical knowledge. Even if the subject matter is not not about human events in the past, science is published as the findings of a community’s past discoveries. No one individual discovers or replicates all scientific knowledge. What we call scientific knowledge, especially of the non expert, is trust in this community.

    This is only one problem with the ahistorical view you describe above. So much of the knowledge we need is historical in nature! Not to acknowledge that is to show one’s ignorance and not to demonstrate one’s rationality.

    We shall see if readers follow my argument and keep the distinction between insider and outsider views in mind. Actually, I was assuming that I needed to make the distinction more for the sake of believers than for nonbelievers. Believers often cannot let go of the insider view even for the sake of argument.

    I am assuming that the real issue will be the Humean one of requiring impossible amounts of evidence to substantiate a miracle…since miracles are so uncommon. We shall see.

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    1. nokareon

      Hume’s argument tends to be the biggest issue among lay atheists and atheist philosophers alike. It all seems to come down to Bayes’ Theorem and the interpretation of that theorem. Atheists claim that Bayes’ Theorem entails that the astronomically low prior probability of a miracle occurring means we should disbelieve a miracle report unless the report being mistaken would be more improbable than the miracle itself (Hume’s argument). However, I’ve heard/read several Theists claim that Bayes’ Theorem, when properly interpreted, entails that the low prior probability of a miracle can be overcome by other factors in our background information, such as independent testimony of the miracle, the failure of non-miraculous alternative explanations, or postulating the existence of an omnipotent God. For my part, I only just barely understand how Bayes’ Theorem works, much less which of these views truly is entailed by the theorem. But I do know that Hume never studied Bayes’ Theorem, despite being a contemporary of Bayes’, so his argument has had to be updated in order to be consistent with Bayes’ Theorem.

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