apologetics, Archaeology, Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion- A Historiographical Approach to Origins” by James Stroud

phnr-stroud

…Either we will stand behind objective truth or sink into the abyss of relativism in the name of political correctness. (278)

One area Christian apologists need to explore further is the study of historiography. Historiography is, basically, the study of how to study history. It provides the framework in which one might seek truth in understanding historical facts. The way we study history will directly impact the results of historical investigation.  John Warwick Montgomery, Michael Licona, and N.T. Wright have done an excellent job integrating historiography into their approach, and there are several treatments of historiography in works on archaeology with apologetic import (K.A. Kitchen is but one example), but there remains much room for development of this essential discipline in the area of Christian evidences.

James Stroud, in his work The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion- A Historiographical Approach to Origins, has provided much development in this area. Historiography, he noted, touches upon a number of extremely important questions such as “What does it mean to know something?”; “How do we come to know something?”; “Can we know the past?”; “How does one study history?”; “Is there objective meaning to history…?” (30-31). He does a good job presenting some of the difficulties inherent in the study of the past, as well as providing a few possible solutions. Central to Stroud’s argument is the notion that “one’s personal philosophy and presuppositions guide.. one’s interpretation of the available data…” whether one is talking about science, history, or religion (31).

Next, Stroud turned to an analysis of positivism and academic freedom. His argument is essentially that one should not pre-commit to a “closed” philosophy of history such that one cuts off any and all debate about the presuppositions one uses to interpret history and historical sciences. The winners write the history, but they are also capable of restricting the direction research may turn (49-50). There must be a distinction between the definition of science and science in practice; that is, one should not restrict scientific study through the use of one’s presuppositions to determine what is even capable of being studied or used as a hypothesis. Instead, people should be allowed to follow the evidence where it leads, even if such a project may discover things which lie outside the accepted explanations.

It must be acknowledged that Christianity is, by its nature, a distinctly historical religion: “[T]he truth or falsity of Christianity stands or falls with individual events within history…” (69). Thus, Christianity is almost uniquely capable of being approached in such a manner as to discern its truth through historical claims.

Interestingly, Stroud did not limit his use of “philosophy of history” to the study of history. Rather, he expanded it to include origin sciences, which are, he argued, a kind of historical science themselves. Thus, he examined both the origins of the universe and the origin and diversity of life alongside the historical portions of the book. In these sections on the historical sciences, he presents the design argument both in its cosmological and biological forms.

The meat of the book, however, may be found in the exploration of human history, which comprises approximately half the book. Here, Stroud really gets into stride. One central part of his argument is that “Language, writing, civilization, and religion all seem to be in a fairly advanced stage of development [from the beginning]….” (146). Proposed solutions which argue for a gradual evolution of human culture continue to be confronted by discoveries to the contrary, such as Gobekli Tepe, which shattered preconceived notions of the history of religion (155-157). Language appears to be highly complex from the beginning, and there is little reason to think that some languages are more primitive (in the sense of development) than others (149-150). Stroud relates these points back to the expectations one might get from the biblical text and argued that the biblical text presents a plausible interpretation of such evidence (163ff).

The Flood served as one of the case studies Stroud utilized to make his point. He argued that the preponderance of evidence suggests that the biblical flood is accurate (174-177). The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 also hints at “astonishing” accuracy regarding the historical recordings in the earliest portions of the Bible. Moreover, stylistic evidence within Genesis places its date as very ancient, just as one might expect from taking the book at face value.

Yet Genesis is not the only portion of the Bible which received insight from Stroud’s analysis. The conquests recorded in Joshua have been backed up by archaeological findings. The history of David also garnered attention, and Stroud’s handling of the archaeological data is informative and concise.

The New Testament is, of course, centered around Christ, and Stroud explores the evidence for the Resurrection and the narratives related to Him. One very important point he made is that “…it must be pointed out that the… manuscripts we have for Jesus today did not start as a ‘Bible’ but were later [collected into one]… [T]o dismiss any of this manuscript evidence is in effect to dismiss the most primary sources we have on the Historical Jesus” (240). Yet even sources apart from these can account for a number historical aspects of Christian faith and practice, to the point that it becomes very difficult to reject entirely the Christian story (240ff). Stroud defended the Resurrection itself with a type of “minimal facts” argument, in which he reasoned from several largely established facts of the historical Jesus to the resurrection (248ff).

Naturalism, argued Stroud, fails to account for the historical and scientific evidences for the origins of the universe, life and its diversity, civilization, and the evidence related to the historical Jesus. One should therefore not be constricted to operating within a naturalistic paradigm when one investigates origins or history generally. An a priori rejection of the supernatural is unwarranted.

Thus far, I have shown a number of  positive portions of the book. That is not to say there are no areas of disagreement or any problems. First, Stroud’s writing style often comes across as autobiographical, which takes away from the academic feeling of the overall work. Second, there are a number of grammatical errors in the book which are sometimes quite distracting. Third, there is a tendency to overstate the case in some places, such as asserting that any discussion of evolution beyond microevolution is “100 percent speculative”  (117) or that “all scholars” in some certain field agree with some fact or another. Fourth, at points Stroud states the view of the opposition in ways that I suspect would be objectionable. One example may be found here: “[T]he vast majority of naturalists confirm that humankind did indeed share a common language…” (177) or the notion that “even the most adamant proponents of naturalism” would admit that the origin of life is unexplainable through naturalistic means with the current understanding (115). I suspect that adamant naturalists would object to this and argue that the RNA world hypothesis or some other origin-of-life scenario does, in fact, explain the origin of life.

Many of these difficulties are minor, but they tend to pull down an otherwise excellent work. It is unfortunate, because it also seems like these could all be solved by a good editor. As it stands, however, one should be careful when reading the work to be aware that in many cases one should perhaps temper the sweeping conclusions Stroud makes. In any field of study, there are rarely (if ever!) times where “all scholars” might agree on something, and the language in the book constantly implies that there are many such agreements in some of the most contentious areas of all historical or scientific studies. Although this does not throw his conclusions out the window, it does somewhat devalue the work, as one must read it with an actively cautious eye.

I don’t often (in fact, I can’t think of ever mentioning this before) discuss the cover of a book I’m reviewing, but I have to say this has what might be the coolest cover for an academic book I have seen. I mean seriously, look at it! It is awesome.

With The Philosophy of History James Stroud has provided much needed development for Christians who might want to look into the study of the methods of historical investigation to develop their own understanding of Christianity. He also applies these methods in sometimes surprising ways. I have noted a number of areas of difficulty found within the work, but it should be noted that these are comparatively minor when compared to the project as a whole. Stroud has provided some necessary development in an area of study that Christians should continue to develop. Historiography is an essential field for Christians to study and become involved in, and The Philosophy of History has provided a broad framework for others to continue the work (and hopefully for Stroud to continue, himself). It is an excellent, thought-provoking read which illumines areas of which many apologists, unfortunately, remain unaware.

Source

James Stroud, The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion- A Historiographical Approach to Origins (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2013).

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book for review. The author only asked that readers provide feedback of any kind, including negative, in order to broaden the dialogue in this area. 

SDG.

——

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

7 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Philosophy of History: Naturalism and Religion- A Historiographical Approach to Origins” by James Stroud

  1. Just for fun I took one of your paragraphs and turned it around. It works both ways, I think:

    “The supernatural, I argue, fails to account for the origin of the universe. One should therefore not be constricted to a supernatural paradigm when investigating the origin of things. An a priori rejection of naturalism is unwarranted.”

    Posted by John Moore | December 2, 2013, 8:11 AM
    • The problem is that it actually doesn’t work. A worldview which is open to the supernatural does not exclude a priori naturalistic explanations.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 2, 2013, 5:43 PM
      • Wait, I thought naturalism meant there’s nothing supernatural. How can you accept some naturalistic explanations while still accepting the supernatural? It looks like you’re using two different definitions of “naturalistic.”

        Posted by John Moore | December 2, 2013, 6:46 PM
      • There’s a difference between method and ontology. One can find natural explanations in a method that is open to the supernatural, but in a naturalistic paradigm, one cannot move the other way. Your analogy is broken. One can use a supernatural paradigm and could, possibly, always turn up natural explanations. It is not limited. The naturalistic paradigm is inherently limited because of an a priori decision to commit to a limited view of reality.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 2, 2013, 6:50 PM
  2. Hello.

    The historical conquest of Canaan by Joshua has NOT been backed by archeology, on the contrary it has been conclusively disproven.
    Many important towns of the book of Joshua (including Jericho and Ai) were either non-existent or utterlt insignificant between 1260 and 1100 BC. The strong continuity in the architecture of the cities and villages conclusively precludes the arrival of a foreign people in that region at that time.

    But above else, accepting the historicity of the accounts has devastating moral and theological consequences.

    For all outsiders, Conservative Evangelicals like fools when they (rightly) defend the right of unborn children while saying it was good that God ordered soldiers to murder babies and pregnant women alike.

    C.S. Lewis summed up perfectly the problem:

    „Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.
    To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.
    – See more at: http://undeception.com/lewis-agreed-with-me-about-the-canaanite-genocides-smart-fella/#sthash.p3s2FlWx.dpuf

    I cannot count the number of people who have given up their faith because they were taught again and again that you have to believe in the goodness of this divine genocide in order to be a Christian.
    This might very well be the first cause of apostasy, along the (unbiblical) doctrine of conscious eternal punishment.

    I like most of what you write and think you do (on average) an amazing job but such kind of things could completely discredit you to the eyes of many people.
    So I hope you will rethink your position on the Chiago statement of inerrancy .

    I mean that as a constructive and friendly critque.

    Lovely greetings in Christ.

    Posted by lotharson | December 5, 2013, 8:52 PM
    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I really appreciate this kind of critical interaction as we both seek the truth.

      I think that you and I are clearly approaching the issue from entirely different starting points. It may be helpful to draw those out, and I’ll try to do so briefly here.

      1) You wrote, “I like most of what you write and think you do (on average) an amazing job but such kind of things could completely discredit you to the eyes of many people.”

      Frankly, my first reaction (other than to be excited that you do, on average, enjoy my writing!) is to say “Oh well…” with a kind of bemused tone/expression. Why should I alter my beliefs because I would be “discredited” in the “eyes of many people.” I can’t help but think of 1 Corinthians 1:18. The truth sometimes does appear foolish to many. Oh well.

      2) You wrote, “Many important towns of the book of Joshua (including Jericho and Ai) were either non-existent or utterlt insignificant between 1260 and 1100 BC. The strong continuity in the architecture of the cities and villages conclusively precludes the arrival of a foreign people in that region at that time.”

      I think this might show that your position may (hopefully fairly) be summed up by a kind of either-or where it is either direct literal word-for-word reading or it is ahistorical and something else (myth? I’m not sure what word you would use). But of course I don’t think that either-or is valid. I tend to agree with the view of people like Paul Copan in that a lot of the text is hyperbole and would have been understood as such. So perhaps you’re starting at a different point of even approaching the text than I am. Maybe, rather than apparently rejecting it as false (or something else? not quite true? I’m not sure how to present your view), you could think more deeply about hermeneutical approaches to the text.

      3) You wrote, “I cannot count the number of people who have given up their faith because they were taught again and again that you have to believe in the goodness of this divine genocide in order to be a Christian.”

      I think this is a very powerful challenge in the sense of emotional appeal. But the bottom line is that things are objectively true or false. If a view of the narrative is true and that view causes people to give up their faith, that doesn’t make the narrative cease to be true. But of course I think this comment is directly related to the false dichotomy I pointed out in 2), above.

      4) I already knew that about C.S. Lewis but frankly consider him a decent apologist and a pretty shoddy theologian. Obviously I’m not making an argument here, but I am pointing out that I don’t really take Lewis as authoritative in, well, pretty much anything related to theology.

      Hope that helps to clarify! Thanks again for your thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I appreciate it, as well as your kind words.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 6, 2013, 5:54 PM

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