J.J. Blunt (1794-1855) gave some advice in his book Undesigned Coincidences (freely available at that link–copyright expired) that ought to be applied by we apologists to every single argument we consider. His own book put forward the argument from undesigned coincidences, which is essentially an argument that looks across the Bible to compare books to each other in order to see if details in one might be confirmed in another. Blunt, however, did not feel every single one he found would be seen as useful to his overall argument, and that is where I think his advice might be applied to apologetics generally. He wrote:
I could add several other examples of this class [referring to an undesigned coincidence], i.e. where allusions in the prophets are very sufficiently responded to by events recorded in the historical Books of Scripture, but still the want of precision in the terms makes it difficult to affirm the coincidence between the two documents with confidence; and therefore I have thought it better to suppress such instances, as not possessing that force of evidence which entitles them to a place in these pages… the internal testimony is not so strong as to carry conviction along with it, of such being really the case; and this failing, it is folly to weaken a sound argument by a fanciful extension of it (253).
Here we see that Blunt has more arguments and instances he believes may carry at least some tiny weight, but that he decides it is better to “suppress” (i.e. not share) them, for doing so might take away from the stronger evidences that carry the proof. This, I think, presents an admirable way to approach doing apologetics, and one that we need to take to heart. It is all to easy to present an argument and then either (1) press the argument’s conclusion so far beyond what is warranted that we undercut the conclusion itself or (2) give continual, weak evidences.
Regarding the first potential difficulty, an argument can easily be pressed beyond its conclusion. Thus, for example, we may argue that a form of the cosmological argument demonstrates a first cause, and go on to argue this first cause is omnipotent, which seems a strong enough inference. But then we may go on and say the first cause must be free, to bring something out of nothing, which involves a choice. And then we may argue this implies omniscience for what could be free and able to create a universe as intricate as ours? One can see how quickly we’ve gone beyond an argument’s conclusion (a cause of the universe) to the point that we need to construct many more arguments to make our case. It may be better to let the cause be what we conclude, and use other arguments to establish other conclusions.
The second difficulty is one that is difficult to nuance. For example, a “cumulative case” approach is a good way to present arguments, but we need to balance that cumulative case with whether the arguments we are using for cumulative effect carry enough weight to be considered. We ought to be careful not to include arguments that, due to their weakness, may distract from the strength of the overall case. This applies even if the “weak” arguments do, in fact, provide some positive evidence. Sometimes it is best to let the case stand as it is. Other times, it is not.
As far as Blunt’s specific instances, I kind of wish he’d at least preserved them somewhere for us to browse, even if they are weak enough he doesn’t think them convincing. That way, we could look them up ourselves and see if 160+ years may have shed more light on the potential coincidence. Alas, we will not know what they are until the hereafter. As it stands, though, Blunt’s work is a giant of apologetics.
We apologists need to be careful not to unintentionally weaken our argument by being tempted to include every possible line of evidence. Sometimes, that can make our case appear weaker than it actually is.
J.J. Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings both of the Old and New Testaments: An Argument of their Veracity (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855).
Library of Historical Apologetics– A massive wealth of resources, with links to many, many books freely available (copyright expired) for those interested in historical apologetics.
Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated– I explain the argument from undesigned coincidences in more detail, with several links for further reading.
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I’ll forego the preliminaries here and just say it: this is the best introductory apologetics book in regards to the historicity of the Gospels I have ever read. If you are looking for a book in that area, get it now. If you are not looking for a book in that area, get it anyway because it is that good. Now, on to the details.
Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace maps out an investigative journey through Christian history. How did we get the Gospels? Can we trust them? Who was Jesus? Do we know anything about Him? Yet the way that Wallace approaches this question will draw even those who do not care about these topics into the mystery. As a cold-case homicide detective, Wallace approaches these questions with a detective’s eye, utilizing his extensive knowledge of the gathering and evaluation of evidence to investigate Christianity forensically.
He begins the work with a section on method. He argues that we must learn to acknowledge our presuppositions and be aware of them when we begin an investigation. Like the detective who walks into a crime scene with a preconceived notion of how the murder played out, we can easily fall into the trap of using our expectations about a truth claim to color our investigation of the evidence for that claim. Learning to infer is another vastly important piece of the investigation. People must learn to distinguish between the “possible” and the “reasonable” (34ff). This introduction to “abductive reasoning” is presented in such a way as to make it understandable for those unfamiliar with even the term, while also serving as great training on how to teach others to reason for those involved in apologetics.
Chapter 3, “Think Circumstantially” is perhaps the central chapter for the whole book. Wallace notes that what is necessary in order to provide evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt” is not necessarily “direct evidence.” That is, direct evidence–the type of evidence which can prove something all by itself (i.e. seeing it rain outside as proof for it actually raining)–is often thought of to be the standard for truth. Yet if this were the standard for truth, then we would hardly be able to believe anything. The key is to notice that a number of indirect evidences can add up to make the case. For example, if a suspected murderer is known to have had the victim’s key, spot cleaned pants (suspected blood stains), matches the height and weight a witness saw leaving the scene of the crime, has boots that matched the description, was nervous during the interview and changed his story, has a baseball bat (a bat was the murder weapon) which has also been bleached and is dented, and the like, these can add up to a very compelling case (57ff). Any one of these evidences would not lead one to say they could reasonably conclude the man was the murderer, but added together they provide a case which pushes the case beyond a reasonable doubt–the man was the murderer.
In a similar way, the evidences for the existence of God can add up to a compelling case for the God of classical theism. Wallace then turns to examining a number of these arguments, including the moral, cosmological, fine-tuning, and design arguments. These are each touched on briefly, as a kind of preliminary to consider when turning to the case for the Gospels. Furthermore, the notion of “circumstantial” or cumulative case arguments hints towards the capacity to examine the Bible and the Gospels to see if they are true.
Wallace then turns to examining the Gospels–Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John–in light of what he has learned as a detective. He utilizes forensic statement analysis as well as a number of other means by which to investigate witnesses and eyewitness reports to determine whether the Gospels can be trusted. He first turns to Mark and makes an argument that Mark had firsthand contact with Peter, one of the Disciples and an Apostle. He shows how we can search for and find “artifacts”–textual additions that were late into the accounts of the Gospels. None of these are surprises, because we know about them by investigating the evidence we have from the manuscript tradition. By piecing together the puzzle of the evidences for the Gospels, we form a complete picture of Christ (106ff).
It is easy to get caught up in “conspiracy theory” types of explanations for the events in the Bible. People argue that all kinds of alternative explanations are possible. Yet Wallace notes again that there is a difference between possible and reasonable. Simply throwing out possible scenarios does nothing to undermine the truth claims of the Gospels if the Gospels’ own account is more reasonable. Furthermore, drawing on his own knowledge from investigating conspiracy theories, Wallace notes that the Gospels and their authors do not display signs of a conspiracy.
A very important part of Cold-Case Christianity is the notion that we can trace back the “chain of custody” for the Gospels. By arguing that we are able to see how the New Testament was passed authoritatively from one eyewitness to disciple to disciple and so on, Wallace argues that conspiracy theories which argue the Gospel stories were made up have a much less reasonable explanation than that they are firsthand accounts of what happened. Much of the information in these chapters is compelling and draws on knowledge of the Apostles’ and their disciples. It therefore provides a great introduction to church history. Furthermore, Wallace notes that a number of things that we learn from the Gospels are corroborated not just by other Christians, but also by hostile witnesses (182ff). He also argues that we can know that the people who wrote the Gospels were contemporaries of the events they purported to report by noting the difficulties with placing the authors at a later date (159ff). This case is extremely compelling and this reviewer hasn’t seen a better presentation of this type of argument anywhere.
There are many other evidences that Wallace provides for the historicity of the Gospels. These include undesigned coincidences which interlink the Gospel accounts through incidental cross-confirmations in their accounts. I have written on this argument from undesigned coincidences before. Archaeology also provides confirmation of a number of the details noted in the Gospel accounts. The use of names in the Gospels place them within their first century Semitic context.
Again, the individual evidences for these claims may each be challenged individually, but such a case is built upon missing the forest for the trees. On its own, any individual piece of evidence may not prove that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, but the force of the evidence must be viewed as a complete whole–pieces of a puzzle which fit together in such a way that the best explanation for them is a total-picture view of the Gospels as history (129ff).
All of these examples are highlighted by real-world stories from Wallace’s work as a detective. These stories highlight the importance of the various features of an investigator’s toolkit that Wallace outlined above. They play out from various viewpoints as well: some show the perspective of a juror, while others are from the detectives stance. Every one of them is used masterfully by Wallace to illustrate how certain principles play out in practice. Not only that, but they are all riveting. Readers–even those who are hostile to Christianity–will be drawn in by these examples. It makes reading the book similar to reading a suspense novel, such that readers will not want to put it down. For example, when looking at distinguishing between possible/reasonable, he uses a lengthy illustration of finding a dead body and eliminating various explanations for the cause of death through observations like “having a knife in the back” as making it much less probable that accidental death is a reasonable explanation, despite being possible.
Throughout the book there are also sidebars with extremely pertinent information. These include quotations from legal handbooks which describe how evidence is to be viewed, explanations of key points within the text, and definitions of terms with which people may be unfamiliar. Again, these add to the usefulness of the book for both a beginner and for the expert in apologetics because it can serve either as a way to introduce the material or as helpful guides for using the book to teach others.
Overall, Cold-Case Christianity is the best introduction to the historicity of the Gospels I have ever read. I simply cannot recommend it highly enough. Wallace covers the evidence in a winsome manner and utilizes a unique approach that will cause even disinterested readers to continue reading, just to see what he says next. I pre-ordered two copies to give to friends immediately. I am not exaggerating when I say that this book is a must read for everyone.
I would strongly endorse reading this book alongside On Guard by William Lane Craig–which thoroughly investigates the arguments for the existence of God. With these two works, there is a perfect set of a case for Christianity.
J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013).
Disclosure: I received a copy of the book for review from the publisher. I was not asked to endorse it, nor was I in any way influenced in my opinion by the publisher. My thanks to the publisher for the book.
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.