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It's my understanding that most Christians have never had an overtly spectacular, extraordinary, supernatural experience themselves, yet they find no problem in holding very specific supernatural beliefs (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus) based on the eyewitness accounts of others (e.g. the apostles, as recorded in the gospels). However, doctrines such Continuationism can find support on the basis of eyewitness accounts as well, yet Cessationists would object to those as unreliable. Latter-day Saints also appeal to the first-hand accounts of 3 & 8 witnesses as supportive evidence for the supernatural origin of the book of Mormon (see this answer for an eloquent presentation of this argument), yet non-LDS Christians would object to those as unreliable as well.

When it comes to assessing the reliability of eyewitness accounts as supportive evidence for specific supernatural beliefs, is there anything close to a consensus on how to make these kinds of judgments? Has any denomination or Christian scholar published a set of principles on how to judge the credibility of eyewitness accounts and applied them to concrete cases, such as the apostles (in the case of the resurrection of Jesus) or the eyewitnesses to the golden plates (in the case of Joseph Smith and the book of Mormon)?

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    most Christians have never had spectacular, extraordinary, supernatural experiences themselves Do you mean apart from the baptism of repentance (which is likened to being filled with water to the brim) and apart from being born again and apart from the profound experience of knowing that their sins are forgiven them and apart from the profound spiritual experience of receiving the holy presence of God the Holy Spirit into union with their spirit ?
    – Nigel J
    Aug 17, 2021 at 18:37
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    @NigelJ - I see, so others would witness from the outside the person's dramatic change in behavior and this would count as evidence of the inner transformation (the supernatural spiritual re-birth, as you indicate). Using this same line of reasoning, if someone is slain in the Spirit and speaks in tongues at a revival meeting, and as a consequence their life is dramatically transformed and they become "on fire for the Lord", would you count that as evidence for the gift of tongues as well? (Suppose that multiple people witnessed the transformation in this person.)
    – user50422
    Aug 17, 2021 at 18:59
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    Well, when I write of the baptism of repentance and the remission of sins and the knowledge of justification and the receiving of the Holy Spirit (because of justification) I am writing of things which I have personally experienced. And these spiritual experiences far outweigh any outward supernatural demonstrations that could be witnessed with eye and ear, so that I have no interest in these outward matters. And it is the reason that I believe they are a distraction : it appears to me that some have not experienced the realities and they fill the gap with outward 'signs'. So it seems.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 17, 2021 at 20:31
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    @NigelJ - I don't think the two are mutually exclusive though. Many of the testimonies I've watched/read of people who experienced outward manifestations also include very profound inner experiences and transformations at the same time. And this shouldn't be a surprise, the book of Acts is full of examples of both inner transformation and outward manifestations.
    – user50422
    Aug 17, 2021 at 20:37
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    Mr Spirit, I get what you mean - OVERTLY supernatural is distinctly different from "a guy dunked me in water and I felt an overwhelming emotionally connection" - the latter might be a supernatural experience, but it also might not be. I think this is a fantastic question, for what it's worth.
    – TKoL
    Aug 18, 2021 at 8:10

3 Answers 3

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See this book for an examination of the testimony of the Gospel writers according to the rules of American jurisprudence regarding eyewitness accounts.

The Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice is an 1846 Christian apologetic work by Simon Greenleaf, a principal founder of the Harvard Law School.

Greenleaf's Treatise on the Law of Evidence, published in three volumes between 1842 and 1853, forms the basis for his study of the Gospels. Greenleaf came to the conclusion that the witnesses were reliable, and the resurrection of Jesus occurred.

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    Awesome. Do you know if the same set of principles has been applied to the testimonies of the witnesses of Joseph Smith's golden plates, or any other testimonies of miracles in general?
    – user50422
    Aug 18, 2021 at 13:52
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    Not as such, that I have found. This book, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormonism:_Shadow_or_Reality%3F, written by two former LDS is perhaps the closest but it is not without it's critics. Aug 19, 2021 at 12:47
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator the question asks if there's a consensus about how to approach the question. This answer just gives a singles source for one persons opinion on how to approach the question.
    – TKoL
    Aug 20, 2021 at 11:41
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    @TKoL - You have a point. But I'm not sure if you can find anything better than the rules of evidence administered in Courts of Justice. Maybe historians could have different and more sensible standards when studying and cross-checking multiple ancient documents supposedly containing eyewitness accounts about a past event? I don't know.
    – user50422
    Aug 20, 2021 at 14:06
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    @TKoL - at some point, if you have enough independent and very descriptive eyewitness accounts confirming the same events, and if you have enough evidence to believe these eyewitnesses truly believed what they said, then I think we would have to admit that the testimonial evidence is quite compelling, whether we like it or not.
    – user50422
    Aug 20, 2021 at 14:42
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In general, we come to know truths through God.

7 ¶ Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?
Matt 7:7-11

So if you ask God concerning a miracle, he will not "give you a stone", but rather you will receive knowledge from God concerning the matter.

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Consensus The word, consensus needs to be defined as used in this Question in order to adequately answer it. If total agreement is meant, there will never ever be consensus. But if a majority, or even large minority is meant, then there is a possibility of providing a reasonable Aswer.

For instance, Mike Bordon provided an excellent resource dealing with this Question! The Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice by Simon Greenleaf. (Law School expert on Testimony) If a large number of believers and scholars from many different denominations agree with his findings, or endorse his book, that would seem to be a consensus. Eh?

Along the lines of this question, the writings of David Hume come to mind. If there were ever a thorough skeptic concerning miracles, this would be he! But he did academia a favor by listing what he thought were universal criteria for witnesses. So if a Christian response in favor of miracles (supernatural events/beliefs) were given that fit these universal criteria then that would serve as a type of consensus. Right? It would be a universal obligation to accept them.

Summary Norman Geisler framed Hume's argument into four questions (Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 120):

  1. Do the witnesses contradict each other?
  2. Are there a sufficient number of witnesses?
  3. Were the witnesses truthful?
  4. Were they nonprejudicial?

(See Norman Geisler, Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Baker Books, 1999) Dare we say that it would be considered a consensus among scholars if they agreed to these criteria, since they are not the result of a compilation by prejudiced, pro-miraculous theologians?

[By the way, Mr. Geisler presented a scholarly Christian answer to each of these questions, supporting the Testimony of the Apostles to the miraculous ministry of Jesus!]

Perhaps, a general consensus could still be maintained even if we added a few more universal criteria. Such as:

  • How close were the witnesses to the supernatural event(s)?
  • How literate, rational, communicable, were the witness?
  • Were the supernatural events public and open for examination?
  • How long was the observation seen/experienced; and was it repeated?
  • Did unfriendly antagonists admit verification to some degree?

Short of a United Nations Council being convened to establish a Subcommittee on Definitive Definition of Witnesses to deal with this matter, these Criteria come close to a listing of what would be an academic, theological Consensus concerning the witnesses of supranatural events/beliefs.

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