How Do You Know???

Written by Victor Stanley Jr.
Historical Criticism as an Apology for Christian Truth

In Confessions VI, 5, 7 St. Augustine briefly addresses an epistemological issue dealing with truth. Augustine points out that some of the teachings of the Catholic Church “were not demonstrated rationally,”[1] but makes the point that the Church did not practice the deceit of the Manicheans when it came to requiring belief in things that lacked substantial empirical evidence; for the Manicheans “promised knowledge and derided credulity, but then went on to demand belief in… absurd myths which certainly could not be demonstrated.” What follows this understanding is a great apology for accepting the claims of scripture, and being able to, in a sense, know truth.

St. Augustine points out that a great deal of what a person knows about history, the world around him, and even his own past is based off of the testimony and writings of people he has never met about places he has have never been, and events he never saw take place. Augustine even makes the point that a person will believe that she was born of her parents despite having no recollection of her birth. With regard to our acceptance of these truths about history and our past he states that, “indeed, unless we did believe them we should be unable to do anything in this life.” What Augustine posits here is that truth can be known without an individual having to personally experience said truth through his or her own physical senses.

Take into account that although there is no one alive that witnessed the American Revolution or spoke with the people involved, a person generally will accept as true the facts surrounding the American Revolution. People believe that the war actually happened, and accept as fact the testimonies of those who wrote about it at the time, despite they themselves never being there or having seen those events transpire.

What Augustine presents is an apology that leans on the field of historical criticism and how facts about the past are established. If modern historians accept that the historical Jesus existed, and was, at the least, a Jewish rabbi, then they have to give some credence to the testimonies of his followers when it comes to His claims of being God, and the resurrection. Furthermore, if historians accept that the biblical writers accurately detailed generally accepted historical events, then they have to question why these writers would be truthful in the one instance, but lie when it came to the things concerning Jesus. When the evidence is gathered there sits eyewitness testimony and extra-biblical accounts of Christ as well as a great deal of other events told and foretold throughout Scripture.

St. Augustine shows that man will, and does, easily accept as true many facts that have the support of much less evidence, and thus one can know that the claims of Scripture are true without having to suspend their intelligence. This stands in contrast to the beliefs of the Manicheans and other religions/cults who put forth absurdities, as Augustine calls them, that lack any evidence or coherence.

[1] All quotes are taken from: Maria Boulding, trans., The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century; The Confessions, ed. John E. Rotelle (New York: New City Press, 1997)

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