Undesigned Coincidences

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William Paley (1743-1805) – Historical Apologist Spotlight

William_Paley_by_George_RomneyWilliam Paley (1743-1805) is a name which echoes through history. His Natural Theology continues to have a profound and lasting impact on the argument from biological design. His Evidences of Christianity  challenges readers on a historical and exegetical level with arguments for the faith. Unfortunately, too few have thoughtfully interacted with his arguments. Here, we will first look at Paley’s views and life. Then, we will examine his major works and arguments. We will discover there is much to learn from this intellectual giant. Note that this post is necessarily brief, and that readers are greatly encouraged to go to the primary sources found below.

Brief Biographical Note*

Paley went to school at Christ’s College and Cambridge. At the latter, he was awarded multiple times for his scholarship. He eventually became the Senior Dean at Christ’s College and was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity from Cambridge. Bishop Barrington of Durham granted him the rectory of Bishop Wearmouth. His life was strewn with accomplishments.

He was a utilitarian with deep Christian convictions. Throughout his life, he remained controversial. His utilitarianism was condemned, as was his critique of the often extreme defenses of property ownership. His anti-slavery was unpopular alongside his support of the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War.

The powerful nature of Paley’s works is revealed in the fact that his major work on utilitarianism, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, became mandatory reading at Cambridge. His Natural Theology continues to be discussed in courses on philosophy of religion. The man was acclaimed by some within the church, who praised his defense of the faith despite others’ objections to his metaethical views.

His contributions to Christian apologetics are the focus of this piece, and we shall turn to them now.

Natural Theology

Paley’s most famous work nowadays is undoubtedly Natural Theology. In this work, he makes his well-known case for the design argument. He utilizes the analogy of a watch. If one finds a watch on a beach, one knows instantly that someone made the watch. Paley applied this same notion to life; one sees the sheer complexity and life and can infer that it, like the watch, was designed.

Many have dismissed Paley’s work here, noting that at points he relies on scientific explanations which have been discredited, while at others his examples have been explained. Yet the genius of his work is found in broader principles, which moderns should note. First, he argued that simply never having observed design in action on a biological level does not preclude any possibility of arguing for that same design (Natural Theology, 8, cited below). Second, evidence of things “going wrong” within a design does not invalidate the design of an object in and of itself. Third, higher level natural laws which may lead to order does not explain away the order itself. Fourth, when something appears to be designed, the burden of proof is upon those who assert an object is not designed.

These points seem to me to hold true to this day. I am sure none of them are uncontroversial, but Paley places his defense of this points squarely within his analysis of those artifacts which he considers to be designed (i.e. the eye and ear). A full treatment of these points thus must turn to his own arguments, but for now I would provide the following brief defenses. Regarding the first, this point seems obvious. If I have never seen someone construct a car, that does not in any way mean that I cannot conclude that someone had to have made it. The second point should be well taken within the context of the debate between Intelligent Design and Darwinian forms of evolution. The point is that simply pointing out a flaw in a design does not mean an entire object is undesigned. The third item seems correct because if something exhibits order, and that order is shown to be based around an ordering principle, the very order in and of itself has not been explained; instead, it is only the mechanism for generating that order which is observed. Finally, the fourth point is likely to be the most controversial–after all, appearances may deceive. Yet it does seem to be the case that if, a priori, something appears designed, then to conclude that something is not designed one must have defeating evidence for this appearance.

A View of the Evidences of Christianity

Paley’s Evidences (commonly known as “Evidences of Christianity”) became almost instantly famous. The work generated a number of summaries and expositions by other authors who were delighted with its style and the arguments contained therein. It is easy to see why, once one has begun a read through this apologetic treatise. Paley presents a number of arguments in favor of the Christian worldview. These evidences are largely historical in nature and include the suffering of those who spread Christianity as evidence for its truth, extrabiblical evidence for the truth of the Gospels, the authenticity of our Gospel accounts due to the early practices and beliefs of Christians, undesigned coincidences, and many more. Paley also provides a dismantling of David Hume’s argument against miracles.

It seems to me that any and all of these arguments retain the force they had in Paley’s own day. Consider the argument from the suffering of Christians. Well of course those of other faiths are willing to even die for that which they believe is true. But Paley rightly pointed out a huge difference between those of other faiths dying for their beliefs and the early eyewitnesses of the events surrounding Christ dying for their own beliefs. Namely, these people would know for certain whether that which they believed were true. That is, they either saw the resurrected Christ or they did not. If they did not, then explaining their willingness to die for this profession of faith becomes extremely difficult. However, if they did actually see that which they declared, their willingness to suffer unto death for this belief makes perfect sense. Many miss this important distinction even to this day. The rest of Paley’s arguments found in the Evidences is filled with insights similar to this.

Horae Paulinae

An argument which has largely been neglected within modern apologetic circles is that of “undesigned coincidences.” I have made an exposition of this argument already, and it should be noted that the best places to discover it are in the realm of historical apologetics. William Paley dedicated this work, Horae Paulinae, to discovering undesigned coincidences within the Pauline corpus alongside Paul’s history as written in Acts.

Now, the argument from undesigned coincidences takes quite a bit of work to properly outline. It is, in essence, a matter of looking through the Scriptures and finding how incidental details in one account fill in the blanks of another account. However, this description is so brief as to be simplistic. Paley himself acknowledged a number of the difficulties with describing undesigned coincidences in this way. Regarding the Pauline corpus, for example, it could be that someone invented letters from Paul but based them upon his history found in Acts. But the argument itself takes this into account and generally serves as a defeater for this notion by sheer weight of evidence. That is, the more coincidences are found, the more credulity is stretched if one wishes to assert forgery.

Paley buries the objections to undesigned coincidences in this fashion throughout the Horae Paulinae. The sheer volume of coincidences he finds, and the way they seem so clearly to be incidental, serves to dispel doubts about their genuine nature.

Other Works

Here, we have surveyed Paley’s major works, but he was a prolific writer who published sermons and of course his (in)famous work on utlitarian ethics. The preeminence of Paley as a scholar and writer is unquestionable. It is time we acknowledge how much we have to learn from those who have come before us.

Conclusion

We have seen the diverse array of arguments which Paley offered in favor of Christianity. These ranged from biological design arguments to undesigned coincidences to historical arguments in favor of the Gospels. Paley was a masterful writer whose arguments continue to influence apologists and draw ire from atheists to this day. Although the arguments have not been unscathed, I have offered a few reasons to reconsider some which have long been dismissed or forgotten. Paley’s influence endures. 

I would like to dedicate this post to Tim McGrew, who introduced me to the vast field of historical apologetics. Without his bubbling delight and enthusiasm in the field, I would never have known much–if anything–about people like Paley. It is my hope and prayer that you may also be persuaded to pursue historical apologetists/apologetics. Be sure to check the links for some good starting places.

Be sure to check out the links at the end of this post as well as the resources from Paley.

Links

Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.

Library of Historical Apologetics- Here is where I got started, with Tim McGrew’s phenomenal collection of works. In particular, the “annotated bibliography” will set you up with some fine works. The site features a “spotlight” on the main page for various fantastic reads. Browse and download at will. Also check out their Facebook page.

On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity- I provide a number of links as well as an annotated list of historical apologetics works which are great jumping off points for learning more about the vast array of arguments which have largely been forgotten within the realm of apologetic argument. I consider this one of the most important posts on this site.

Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated- Here I outline the argument from undesigned coincidences and explain how it can be used within apologetics.

Sources

William Paley, Evidences of Christianity (this is a free link for the item on Kindle, note that it is also available for purchase in a hard copy). Also see here for a few links to PDF versions of the book.

—-, Natural Theology (Oxford World’s Classics) - This link is for the Kindle edition which I used for this post. I highly recommend this specific edition due to the helpful introduction and other information included in the text. It can be found for free here.

—-, Horae Paulinae - this link is to the kindle version. It is also available for free here.

*I am indebted to the discussion of Paley’s life found in the introduction of the Oxford Classic’s edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, which I have cited above.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Jesus’ Birth: How undesigned coincidences give evidence for the truth of the Gospel accounts

There are many charges raised against the historicity of the birth narratives of Jesus Christ. These run the gamut from objections based upon alleged contradictions to inconsistencies in the genealogies to incredulity over the possibility of a virgin birth. Rather than make a case to rebut each of these objections in turn, here I will focus upon using undesigned coincidences to note how these birth narratives of Christ have the ring of truth. How exactly do undesigned coincidences work? Simply put, they are incidental details that confirm historical details of stories across reports. I have written more extensively on how these can be used as an argument for the historicity of the Gospels: Undesigned Coincidences- The Argument Stated. It should be noted that the birth narrative occurs only in Matthew and Luke. John begins with a direct link of Christ to God, while Mark characteristically skips ahead to the action. Thus, there are only a few places to compare these stories across different reports. However, both Mark and John have incidental details which hint at the birth account. These incidental details lend power to the notion that the birth narratives of Jesus are historical events.

Joseph

First, there is one undesigned coincidence that is such a gaping hole and such a part of these narratives most people will probably miss it. Namely, what in the world was Joseph thinking in Luke!? Do not take my word for this–look up Luke chapters 1-2. Read them. See anything missing? That’s right! Joseph, who is pledged to a virgin named Mary (1:27) doesn’t say anything at all about the fact that his bride-to-be is suddenly pregnant. There is no mention of him worrying at all about it.

So far as we can tell from Luke, Joseph, who we only know as a descendant of David here, is going to be wed to a virgin and then finds out that she’s pregnant. He’s not the father? What’s his reaction? We don’t find out until Luke 2, where Joseph simply takes Mary with him to be counted in the census, dutifully takes Jesus to the Temple, and that’s about it. Isn’t he wondering anything about this child? It’s not his! What happened?

Only by turning to Matthew 1:18ff do we find out that Joseph did have his second thoughts, but that God sent an angel explaining that Mary had not been unfaithful, and that the baby was a gift of the Holy Spirit. So we have an explanation for why Joseph acted as he did in Luke. Now these are independent accounts, and it would be hard to say that Luke just decided to leave out the portion about Joseph just because he wanted to have Matthew explain his account.

The genealogies of Jesus that Matthew and Luke include are different, but they reflect the meta-narratives going on within each Gospel. Luke’s narrative generally points out the women throughout in a positive light, and it is often argued that his genealogy traces the line of Mary. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, traces through Jesus’ legal father, Joseph. Now it could be argued that these are simply reflections of the authors’ imaginations within their fictional accounts, but surely including names with descendants tracing all the way back to Abraham and beyond is not a good way to construct a fictional account. No, Matthew and Luke include the genealogies because their accounts are grounded in history.

Incidental Details

Interestingly, the birth narratives of Jesus also help explain the events reported in Mark and John, which do not report His birth. What of the apparent familiarity John had with Jesus in Mark 1:3ff and John 1:19ff? It seems a bit odd for John to go around talking about someone else “out there” who will be better in every way than he himself is without knowing who this other person is. Well, looking back at Matthew and Luke, we find that Mary and Elizabeth (John’s mother) knew each other and had visited each other during their pregnancy. It seems a foregone conclusion that they continued to interact with each other after the births of their sons, which would explain John’s apparent familiarity with Jesus in Mark and John.

Strangely, Mark never mentions Joseph as Jesus’ father. If all we had was Mark’s Gospel, we would be very confused about who Jesus’ father is. The oddness is compounded by the fact that Mary is mentioned a number of times. Well okay, that still seems pretty incidental. But what about the fact that Mark explicitly has a verse where he lists Mary as well as Jesus’ siblings?

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:3, ESV)

This verse seems extremely weird. After all, Joseph was a carpenter (well, a more accurate translation is probably “craftsman”) and yet despite Mark explicitly using that word for Jesus, as well as listing Mary and Jesus’ siblings, we still see nothing but silence regarding Jesus’ father. Well, of course! After all, when we turn to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, we find that Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus had no human father. Thus, Mark, ever the concise master of words, simply omits Joseph from details about Jesus’ life. But to not mention Jesus’ father in a largely patriarchal society alongside his mother and siblings seems extremely strange. It is only explained by the fact of the virgin birth, with which Mark would have been familiar. However, Mark didn’t see the birth narrative as important in his “action Gospel.” Only by turning to Matthew and Luke do we find an explanation for the strange omission of Joseph from Mark’s Gospel.

Conclusion

I have listed just a few undesigned coincidences to be gleaned from the birth narratives of Jesus. The fact of the matter is that these can be multiplied almost indefinitely if one looks at the whole of the Gospels, and even moreso if one investigates the whole Bible. These incidental details fit together in such a way as to give the Gospels the ring of truth. The way that Matthew fills in details of Luke, Mark demonstrates his familiarity with the birth narratives, and the intimate connections of Jesus and John are all cross-confirmed is both incidental and amazing. The claim is not that based upon these incidences alone the Gospel accounts are true. No, the claim is that those who challenge the truth of these accounts must account for these incidences in a way that is more plausible than that they simply occur when people relate history. It seems that the only way to do that would be to resort to outlandish narratives that involve the four authors sitting together and discussing which portions of stories to leave out so the others can fill them in. No, instead it seems much more likely that these four authors were writing what they had witnessed–or received from eyewitness testimony, and just as we do when recounting events (think of 9/11, for example, and the different things people remember) they wrote specific details they felt were important or part of the narrative, while the others found other things more important or had other incidental knowledge related to the events they recorded.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated

The argument from undesigned coincidences is one of the forgotten arguments for Christianity. It has seen a very recent resurgence through the work of some Christian apologists, such as the philosopher Timothy McGrew. The core of the argument is an investigation of the Bible. When one examines the Scriptures, one finds a number of historical, factual claims which either overlap and confirm others made independently or fill in gaps that authors familiar with current events at the time of the writings would have assumed their readers knew about. These coincidences are therefore undesigned–they are unintentional–but they show that the authors who wrote the books which contain them were telling historical truths.

The Argument Outlined

The argument from undesigned coincinces is not an argument which can be contemplated and accepted or dismissed within minutes or even a few hours of study. The argument must be analyzed by investigating individual instances of the undesigned coincidences for oneself and feeling the weight of the evidence begin to burden the mind.

The argument is an inductive argument. Basically, it argues for the conclusion that the Bible is historically accurate. However, it can be used to argue more specifically towards the conclusion that the miraculous accounts in the Bible did in fact happen.

John James Blunt, an early (1794-1855) proponent of the argument from undesigned coincidences, uses the argument as a challenge:

In our argument we defy people to sit down together, or transmit their writings one to another, and produce the like [undesigned coincidences]. Truths known independently to each of them, must at the bottom of documents having such discrepancies and such agreements as these in question. (J.J. Blunt, kindle location 89, cited below)

It would be hard to make the argument more succinct than this. The argument is built from an ever-growing number of independently observed statements throughout the Bible which coincidentally prove, confirm, or fill in historical gaps of other passages. Therefore, it can feature a huge number of steps, each one an additional piece of evidence. Because of this, it is most easily stated as a challenge. Once you have considered the massive weight of the evidence from untold numbers of undesigned coincidences, can you really maintain your skepticism of the historicity of the Bible?

The argument is used not just to establish the credibility of the Gospels but can be used for a number of other claims about the historicity of Christianity: “The argument deduced from coincidence without design has further claims, because… it establishes the authors of several books of Scripture as independent witnesses to the facts they relate; and this, whether they consulted each other’s writings or not; for the coincidences, if good for anything, are such as could not result from combination, mutual understanding, or arrangement” (Blunt, Kindle Location 78).

Undesigned Coincidences- What are they?

Tim McGrew explains the notion of an undesigned coincidence:

How can we say, no, really there are marks of authenticity [in the Bible]… We should look not for parallel passages in the same words but for what are called undesigned coincidences… Sometimes two works written by different authors incidentally touch on the same point in a manner that cannot be written off as copying or having a copy made from some third source… The two records interlock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. [McGrew, cited below]

Undesigned coincidences overlap and interlock with each other. It is perhaps easiest to explain the concept through an example [I owe this example to Jonathan McLatchie in his post “Undesigned Coincidences: The Ring of Truth”:

Luke 23:1-4:

Then their whole assembly rose up and brought Him before Pilate. They began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is the Messiah, a King.”

So Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

He answered him, “You have said it.”

Pilate then told the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no grounds for charging this man.”

Wait, what? Isn’t it Pilate’s job to make sure the Jews do not revolt against Caesar? This guy just basically said he was king!

But then compare that to John 18:33-38:

Then Pilate went back into the headquarters, summoned Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered, “Are you asking this on your own, or have others told you about Me?”

 “I’m not a Jew, am I?” Pilate replied. “Your own nation and the chief priests handed You over to me. What have You done?”

 “My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.”

“You are a king then?” Pilate asked.

“You say that I’m a king,” Jesus replied. “I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.”

“What is truth?” said Pilate.

After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no grounds for charging Him.

John’s telling of the story therefore fills in the gap in Luke’s story. In Luke, there is no reason Pilate would not find grounds for charging Jesus. Only by reading the story in John does one discover that Pilate wanted to let Jesus go because Jesus had explained that his Kingdom was not an earthly kingdom.

If one looks again at these texts in context, one will find that in John, there is no explanation for why Pilate would think Jesus claimed to be a king anyway–it is just out of left field. But turning back to Luke, there is a scene in which the Jews accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king to Pilate. So there is, in these passages, a back-and-forth confirmation. You have to read them both to get the whole picture, and these kinds of details are not the types of things people could plan for.

This is just one example, but they can be multiplied almost beyond comprehension. The way they work is, as McGrew said, like interlocking pieces of a puzzle.

What about Miracles?

The argument can even be used to make a stronger claim. Again, see Blunt, “[I]n several instances the probable truth of a miracle is involved in the coincidences… [W]hen we see the writers of Scriptures clearly telling the truth in those cases where we have the means of checking their accounts… it is reasonable to believe that they are telling the truth in those cases where we have not the means of checking them…” (Kindle Location 89).

Thus, the argument from undesigned coincidences is not a religiously neutral argument. It can also be used to support the truths of miracles. The way this argument works is very subtle. It is not reducible to only the claim that because the Scriptures seem reliable on historical matters due to the undesigned coincidences, we should trust them on the miraculous. Rather, the fact is that the “probable truth of the miracle is involved in the coincidences” (Blunt, 89). “[W]here the natural and supernatural are in close combination, the truth of the former must at least be thought to add to the credibility of the latter” (ibid, 531). The miraculous is sometimes so intertwined with the historical that the confirmation of the historical cannot help but be evidence for the miraculous. Thus, the argument from undesigned coincidences provides a direct argument for the truth of the miraculous.

Conclusion: There’s more where that came from

I have written this post with the intended purpose only to show what the argument from undesigned coincidences looks like. We have seen that it is an inductive argument that is based upon a vast number of examples of varying weight. Furthermore, unlike many historical arguments for Christianity, the argument from undesigned coincidences offers a direct argument for the truth of miracles. I have not addressed possible objections to these arguments. Instead, I leave those for a later post. The next post in this series will outline a few principles of undesigned coincidences.

In closing, it is perhaps best to close with the words of another pre-1900 proponent of the argument:

[S]ince we decide many important worldly matters upon the mere preponderance of evidence and arguments, why should we not adopt the same principles here? It is not necessary in order to recommend the Gospel story for our adoption to insist that it be proved to a mathematical demonstration, and beyond the cavils of every doubter, or of every unreasonable skeptic. Why not adopt that conclusion which has the higher degree of probability rather than the opposite? [Bennett, Kindle Location 59, cited below]

Links

If you want to learn more about forgotten arguments for Christianity, check out my post “On the Shoulders of Giants: Rediscovering the lost defenses of Christianity.”

Tim McGrew has offered a number of other talks on the topic. Please check them out for more discussion of this argument. McGrew on Evidence4Faith. Another lecture by McGrew on undesigned coincidences. Check out McGrew’s interview with Apologetics 315.

Another great post on “undesigned coincidences” can be found at the Christian Apologetics Alliance blog: “The Ring of Truth.”

Cross Examined has a number of coincidences to examine in their post on undesigned coincidences.

Sources

The image is public domain{{PD-1923}}

John James Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings of both the Old and New Testament, New York, 1847.

Edmund Bennett, The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint, New York, 1893.

Timothy McGrew, “Undesigned Coincidences”- this talk can be accessed free of charge here.

William Paley, Evidences of Christianity, New York, 1794; 1865.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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