It becomes sort of an endless, circular argument.
Yep, I think you are right on the money when you say the above. Like most of my thinking these days, I am trying to comprehend the reality that pretty much all beliefs begin with a faith assumption, and therefore have a certain circularity about them. Not a blind faith assumption, built on no reasonableness at all, mind you; but it will always come down to what one is willing to believe based on its plausibility. Exegesis can then be an exercise of what one is willing to see rather than what is there. Hopefully, by seeing this, we can understand whether we’ve succombed to it or not. A little humility is called for, I think.
I learned this in a way years ago when I took a liberal religious studies course at a State University (to fulfill an elective requirement). A Jewish woman (more of an agnostic than someone embracing Judaism) was teaching. She had a better handle on the gospels than most of the Christians taking the class. I spent most of the semester gearing up for debate using Josh McDowell’s “Evidence” books (now one volume - I am dating myself!). When it came time to discuss the resurrection, she asked the class this question:
“Who would be the most reliable person to report this event?”
Immediately someone raised their hand and said, “One who does not have a vested interest in the event.” She applauded his answer.
I sat there, thinking that that was a reasonable response. But it was “reasonable” insofar as the faith assumption underlying it was true: there is a place of “objectivity” regarding the event.
I raised my hand (she had had enough of me over the last weeks as I continued to try to challenge her, only to put my foot in my mouth time and again; I think I at least deserved an “A” for effort!):
“Now if I understand an event like this correctly, there are only two ways someone who is confronted with someone raised from the dead could respond: 1. I’ve had too much to drink the night before; or “what did I smoke last night?” Sort of like Scrooge trying to explain Jacob Marley’s apparition 2. OR, something actual has occurred, and the only one who would testify to it being an actual event would be the one who “believed” that it in fact was real.”
I had a “gotcha” moment! But it quickly faded as I realized what I was saying. Later, the apostles, when needed to apoint a replacement for Judas, and Paul, when he deals with the resurrection in I Corinthians 15, both talk about Jesus appearing to them, they being witnesses of his life, death, and resurrection. Their decision about apostolic replacement was based on this. Paul has a personal apocalypse that allows him to be a member of these witnesses. Five hundred others - believers - were also witnesses.
But, Jesus did not come out of the grave, and immediately go to Pilate’s door and say “Yo! Now what are you going to do?”
I think that would have settled a lot, don’t you? But Jesus even chides Thomas about the “seeing, touching, and believing” thing. Later on, the church would move into that realm of logic that insists on a reasonableness that just is not going to be where our proclamation lay. What does Paul mean that a crucified and resurrected Jewish Messiah would be “a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Greeks”? He is a stumbling block to Jews in that he is not the Messiah they expect(ed); to Greeks, God does not act in history in so local a manner - especially not with a “loser.” Here, we can see how the resurrection is a validation that God is with this Messiah, this person, and not some other. That is the locus of where faith is placed. God is not working out His plan anywhere else but HERE - in Jesus of Nazareth.
The real challenge for us is to place our faith where God says it must be placed in order to, as Andrew says, “narrate ourselves” into that stream of history that will culminate in our vindication for maintaining our confession faithfully.
Being a person who enjoyed debate and thinking I had logic on my side, I might have “won” one for the team in that class; but I was left with a whole new set of problems in light of it.
Jesus on purpose was not letting me reason to be a “trump card.” That is why he says to Thomas “you believe because you see; blessed are those who believe without seeing.”
Later, I was reading a book by the UK missionary Lesslie Newbigin. He had an experience with some Hindu scholars while a village pastor in South India. His interaction had him make the following statement: “One should not argue one’s faith assumptions on the grounds of another’s faith assumptions.”
The key to all this is that everything brings to it certain faith assumptions. All I did in that class in my apologetics was to show the invalidity of a faith assumption about objectivity regarding and event like the resurrection.
Ed is correct that there needs to be an understanding of the grounds on which someone argues before one can make a case. He accepts a certain grounds, he argues his case based on them. But that does mean the other must accept his grounds.
Ed defines “evangelical” in a certain way. So does Andrew. Me, I could care less if I were labeled “evangelical” or not. Well, actually, depending on the experience of those on the outside with American evangelicals, those whom I am trying to help understand the gospel, it would matter. Most times I have to dissociate myself from “evangelical.” It has a lot of baggage associated with that I think Jesus would deplore anyway.
I remember John the Baptist saying to the Jewish religious leaders of his day: “…don’t begin to say ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!” Those who act the part are the only ones that get to call themselves something. Self proclamation from any side of a debate is just that - the acceptance that “we have the truth.”
Not much chance making headway with that!