Put It To the Test

Exam

I recently spoke with a kind lady—call her Susan—who believes that miracles regularly occur in the present day. The present article is not designed to refute Susan’s position. It has been done elsewhere. Rather, I want to point out the basic principle that would help this lady (and many others) to stop believing falsehoods. Paul instructed the Thessalonians to “test everything; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In a concise statement, the apostle teaches several critical lessons by implication:

Rationality demands that we not accept everything we hear. We are to hold fast to a subset of all things—not all things. Rationality demands that we be characterized by some skepticism. Susan admitted that she has never seen a miracle, and yet instead of examining the biblical evidence that teaches the age of miracles has passed, she maintains that the Holy Spirit is performing miracles today. Due to her own emotion-laden irresponsibility, and that of her religious leaders, she has forsaken common-sense skepticism.

Rationality demands that we assent to only those propositions that are warranted by the evidence. Susan remains, as far as I know, an apologist for a false religion. Her approach to apologetics is wrong, because it is experiential. Experiential apologetics is based on an individual’s personal experience. In Susan’s case, this means that her foundational reason for religious belief (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) is her own inner experience. But the evidence, for beliefs that merit widespread approval, ought to be public. For example, because all men everywhere are accountable to the law of Christ (Acts 17:30), the evidence for Christ’s existence and divinity are publicly available inside the scriptures and out. Thus no one requires a direct or “straight-to-the-heart” communication from God in order to believe the truth (2 Peter 1:3).

Rationality demands a standard for the justification of good beliefs. How is one to know what is good? Different kinds of beliefs require different standards of justification. For example, it is widely granted that I am justified in believing that there is a cat on the mat if I see a cat on the mat, I have no reason to believe my vision is impaired, etc. What kind of standard is Paul talking about? The immediate context has to do with prophecies made by Christians in the first century. Thus Paul is saying that religious teaching must not be accepted without requisite verification. In the apostolic age, when the letters to the Thessalonians were written, such verification consisted of witnessing miraculous works (Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12-14) and referencing a growing number of authoritative writings (Galatians 1:6-10). Today, verification occurs solely by reference to a collection of authoritative writings, i.e., the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13:8-12).

Let us follow Paul’s instruction and abandon arguments by saying “I just feel in my heart that. . . .,” “I’ve always heard,” or “My preacher says. . . .”. Instead, let us honestly seek good reasons to believe.

- 2017