Friday, May 13, 2011

appeal to authority

I first read the post "Why Do You Believe Jesus Rose from the Dead?" by John Piper in A Godward Life, entry #60, which is a bit fuller than what follows.  He wrote this previously to his church on Easter in March 1988.  

What I appreciate here is the validation of an appeal to authority, if the authority is in fact reliable.  When people have asked about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead I've felt I must always begin to enumerate historical evidences, and there's certainly a place for that.  

The answer, "because the Bible says so" sounds so naive, whereas a phrase like "science has shown" sounds so authoritative.  But, as Piper shows, both are appeals to authority.  Read on...

The odd thing about this question [Why do you believe Jesus rose from the dead?] is that I usually have to sit and ponder a while to remember some answers that begin to sound compelling to non-Christian seekers. At first this seems phony: If I believe it, why do I have to study-up to support it?

But when you think about it a little longer it’s not phony at all. If I can’t remember how I met my wife, it doesn’t mean I’m not married. And if I can’t find words to account for the affection in my heart, it doesn’t mean there is no such thing as love. Memory lags. Words fail. But neither means I have no basis for love.

But still, shouldn’t we be able to give a simple answer right off the bat? I mean, if we deal with Jesus as living every day, shouldn’t we be able to say why in the world we do that? Yes, I suppose we should.

What kind of answer might that be? Well, we might say, “I believe Jesus rose from the dead because the Bible says so.” Someone will object: “That’s just an appeal to authority.” So it is. But that’s the way most people answer questions about why they believe things they can’t see.

Ask the typical secular American why he believes in viruses or radiation or pulsars or evolution. Virtually everyone will say something like this: “Because science has shown…”

What they mean is that they don’t know how to demonstrate why certain unseen realities exist. So they are willing to base their belief on the testimony of an authority—in this case a group of scientists. This is especially true if the belief helps make sense out of the world.

The reason that saying, “Because the Bible tells me so,” sounds unacceptable while “Because the scientists tell me so” sounds acceptable is that more people appeal to scientific authority than to biblical authority. And large majorities always make opinions sound normative and obvious. But in principle you are both doing the same thing.

Are the men who wrote the New Testament a good authority on the resurrection of Jesus? Are the scientists who tell about unseen viruses a good authority? That question must be answered. But now we see that we are playing fair. Most of us are more at home telling others why we trust a witness than we are at demonstrating resurrections or radiation.

At least for myself, I find Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude to be the sort of men I would trust with my life more quickly than a host of secular authorities. And when it comes to making sense out of the world (of guilt and fear and pain), the incarnation and the cross and the resurrection of Christ go a lot farther than viruses.

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