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Preliminaries

From the Wikipedia article on Epistemology:

Epistemology [...] is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemologists study the nature, origin, and scope of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. [...] In these debates and others, epistemology aims to answer questions such as "What do we know?", "What does it mean to say that we know something?", "What makes justified beliefs justified?", and "How do we know that we know?"

For the purposes of this question, I will be using the word 'epistemology' more colloquially to mean the way a given individual processes and filters information in order to update their beliefs about reality. How do they know what they know (or claim to know)? Why do they believe what they believe? What kind of evidence do they find convincing, strong or compelling? What kind of evidence do they find unconvincing or weak?


Continuationists

Broadly speaking, Continuationists are Christians who believe that the supernatural gifts of the spirit (e.g. tongues, prophecies, words of knowledge, miracles, healings) are still operative and available to the body of Christ, just like they were in the first century of the Church.

The primary source of evidence for Continuationism is testimonies.

Epistemologically speaking:

  1. Continuationists find contemporary testimonies of miracles and supernatural spiritual gifts to be convincing and thus they accept them as justification for the belief in their continuation.
  2. Continuationists find preserved manuscripts with eyewitness testimonies from the 1st century of Christianity to be convincing as well (thus supporting their belief in the resurrection of Jesus as attested in the gospels, all the miracles attested in the book of Acts, the epistles, etc.).

A continuationist would see both pieces of testimonial evidence as complementing each other and supporting each other, making each other much more believable.

Examples of notable continuationists:


Cessationists

Broadly speaking, Cessationists are Christians who believe that the supernatural gifts of the spirit were only meant for authenticating the authority of the 1st century apostles and establishing the foundation of the Church. Thus, with the end of the apostolic age and the closing of the canon of scripture, the supernatural gifts of the spirit accomplished their purpose and ceased.

Epistemologically speaking:

  1. Cessationists find contemporary testimonies of miracles and supernatural spiritual gifts to be unconvincing and thus they reject them as justification for the belief in their continuation.
  2. In contrast, Cessationists find preserved manuscripts with eyewitness testimonies from the 1st century of Christianity to be convincing (thus supporting their belief in the resurrection of Jesus as attested in the gospels, all the miracles attested in the book of Acts, the epistles, etc.).

In other words, a Cessationist has an easier time accepting claims of miracles from the 1st century, but a much harder time accepting claims of miracles after the 1st century (or after whatever other date they may think the supernatural gifts ceased).

Examples of notable cessationists:


Atheists

Broadly speaking, atheists (and I should probably include here agnostics, skeptics and naturalists in general) tend to be people who are extremely skeptical of any claim about the supernatural, a spiritual realm, etc.

Epistemologically speaking:

  1. Atheists find contemporary testimonies of miracles and supernatural spiritual gifts to be unconvincing hearsay and thus they reject them as justification for the belief in their continuation.
  2. Atheists find preserved manuscripts with eyewitness testimonies from the 1st century of Christianity to be unconvincing hearsay and thus they reject them as justification for the belief in the miraculous during the first century as well (this includes a rejection of the belief in the resurrection of Jesus, the miracles performed by the apostles, etc.).

Put simply, atheists view any claim or testimony about the supernatural as unconvincing hearsay. Period.

Examples of notable atheists (who actively reject 1st century miracles, and miracles in general):


Question

When it comes to assessing the reliability of testimonial evidence, we can see clear epistemological differences between continuationists, cessationists and atheists. It should be very obvious that they do not share a common standard of what is considered to be convincing and and what is considered to be unconvincing. Why is it so? What are the underlying principles governing the epistemologies of these three groups and how do they justify their epistemologies in the first place?

On a personal note, I see continuationists as a group with a positive attitude toward testimonial evidence in general, which makes it easier for them to accept miracle claims both during and after the apostolic age on the basis of eyewitness testimony. On the other extreme, atheists are extremely skeptical of any claim about the supernatural, which makes them reject miracle claims in any century. Cessationists are somewhat in between, accepting miracle claims from the first century but rejecting miracle claims afterward, which I'm still struggling to understand and can't help but interpret as some sort of inconsistent double standard. But that's just my opinion.

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  • I think the 3 groups you have outlined treat testimonial evidence based almost solely according to what they have already decided to believe about such things. "If they don't believe Moses and the Prophets, they will not believe even if someone rises from the dead." Sep 15 '21 at 19:50
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    ChristianitySE does not concern itself with the beliefs of atheists, generally speaking. If you could confine your question to the two Christian groups this would be a "within scope" question. (And an interesting one). Sep 17 '21 at 12:51
  • @KorvinStarmast - I simply see atheism as the natural progression if you consistently extend the same skepticism of cessationists to 1st century miracle claims. Sep 17 '21 at 13:45
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    Good for you. Christianity SE spent a lot of years figuring out what it does, and this stack's scope does not include atheism. What is in scope is Christian belief. Atheist belief is not, by its own definition, Christian belief. We don't do Muslim belief either. There are other SEs for that. Sep 17 '21 at 21:05
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I think you have a good point in suggesting how those with a cessationist worldview and skepticism in general have much more common ground with each other than is often expressed.

I find it interesting that the skeptic, Robert Price, once commented:

The zeal and ingenuity of conservative evangelical scholars in dismantling the miracles of rival Christian groups (and exploding rival interpretations of Scripture used to support such miracles), is worthy of the most skeptical gospel critic.

On a positive note, well authenticated testimonial claims of literal signs, wonders and miracles can function in our generation in a reciprocal manner. That's because they provide an antecedent probability argument for taking the New Testament miraculous accounts literally. For example, one writer points out:


The principle of analogy also appears to assume metaphysical naturalism, since it presupposes that miracles do not occur today.

But how is such an assumption justified without arguing in a circle? Another historian may hold that miracles do, in fact, occur today. And '[i]f miracles are presently occurring, then Troeltsch's principle of analogy could be granted and used to support the reality of past miracles' (Beckwith 1997:97. See also Meier 1994:516).

Perhaps this is what was meant when the Christian apologist, Clark Pinnock, wrote in regard to the healing of his eye:

I know from personal experience that one such incident can be worth a bookshelf of academic apologetics for Christianity (including my own books).

From a theological point of view, personal experiences of signs, wonders and miracles from God point to a metaphysical explanation. In that sense, they function in a similar manner to how some archeological research points to the reliability of the New Testament documents.

Indeed, modern authenticated (self or otherwise) signs and miracles from God can remove some of the intellectual obstacles that can quench the Holy Spirit's gift of faith (fides divina), that is worked in the hearts of those who believe.

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