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”:
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]
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.
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.
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.
There is something missing from our arsenal as Christian apologists. I came upon this truth about a year and a half ago, but have only begun to realize how much we have been missing. Let me begin with an illustration:
It was a short, scenic drive down Interstate-94 to meet with Dr. Timothy McGrew, a professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University. At the time I was living in Ann Arbor, and I had only conversed with Tim on Facebook. He told me, with ill-concealed glee, about a folder on his computer that was filled with PDF scans of copyright-free (public domain) books by forgotten Christian apologists and theologians. The arguments in them, he told me, were not often used by modern apologists and could but increase my knowledge.
We met at a restaurant along the highway and talked for about an hour and a half while Tim uploaded files on my computer. Tim described to me a number of the items in this collection, but what struck me was how many arguments he referenced which are simply forgotten in current apologetics discussions. For example, he described the argument from “undesigned coincidences,” which basically goes through the Bible and shows how interrelated texts confirm each other’s historical veracity. I was shocked that I had not run into such a profound argument for the Christian faith. I was tremendously excited to find out that there were many such treasures waiting to be discovered.
Despite our continued interactions, I only very slowly began to read through this fantastic set of resources with which Tim had provided me. Once I got my Kindle, however, I began to tear through them. I have discovered so many delightful discussions, wonderful arguments, thought-provoking works that I could hardly begin to list them here. But I will try at least provide a few avenues for study.
I want you, and yes, especially you–the spirited apologist who has your Kalam argument memorized, your Leibnizian argument polished, and the like–to consider this fact: there are scores more arguments for the veracity of Christianity just waiting to be accessed. These arguments have little-to-no discussion in the apologetic blogosphere, they very rarely appear in modern books (if ever), and many of them are quite strong. What is your reaction to that knowledge?
I suspect it is a salivating, whetting of the appetite; it is a yearning desire to learn more. Fear not! These books, and the arguments within them, are, as I said, at your fingertips. The following is my brief, annotated list of fantastic free resources to help you, my fellow Christian apologists, broaden your knowledge.
Repositories of Resources
Library of Historical Apologetics (Currently DOWN)- 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.
Open Library– Open Library has a number of the books listed at the Library of Historical Apologetics available in a more Kindle-friendly format, if that’s your reading method of choice. I highly recommend using it to send books to your Kindle for free (when you select wi-fi delivery). See below for some specifics.
Yes, it can be daunting once you realize the voluminous nature of the study ahead of you. So I’ve made it easy by providing links to a few books–again, for free–to get you started, along with some comments. Oh, and I’ll be running a series shortly which outlines and examines several of these arguments.
Forgotten Arguments for Christianity: Undesigned Coincidences- The argument stated– I outline one of the many forgotten arguments for the truth of Christianity.
The Four Gospels from a Lawyer’s Standpoint– Edmund Bennett. Short and sweet, this book presents an argument I find extremely compelling: undesigned coincidences. Essentially, what Bennett argues is that the authors of the Gospels, writing individual histories, incidentally confirmed each other’s histories. I can’t recommend this highly enough. [To download, click the [G] or [A]; or if you want it for kindle, click here and on the right select “send to Kindle.”
A View of the Evidences of Christianity– by William Paley. It would be hard to describe the impact this book will have on your apologetic. Paley is simply masterful. In his first section alone he tears apart Humean arguments against miracles. This book is of extreme import for anyone interested in apologetics. Again, Kindle users.
Undesigned Coincidences– by J.J. Blunt. Once you’ve read Bennett, this book takes you through the entire Bible pointing out more historical arguments of great import throughout. I find this argument stunningly powerful, and I think as apologists we must incorporate it. Kindle [warning-lots of typos in this one due to the transition from PDF to Kindle. If you find a better version for Kindle, let me know].
Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte– I’ll let Tim McGrew describe it: ” In this delightful spoof, published while Napoleon was still alive, Whately turns Hume’s skeptical doubts regarding miracles against reports of the career of Napoleon—with devastating results.” One can’t help but think of those who deny the historical Jesus today and how one might apply this to Abraham Lincoln, JFK, or (as I have), the Titanic. Kindle users.
A Dissertation on Miracles– by George Campbell. A devastating critique of Hume’s argument against miracles.
The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul– by James Smith [click the link in the article]. This work is an argument for the historical accuracy of Luke in Acts constructed by a sailor who also knew numerous languages and was intimately familiar with the documents with which he worked for this account.
There is now a fire within me that seeks after these forgotten or little-known arguments–a burning that is only quenched by finding more early writings–and I can’t help but hope that you, too, will be delighted to delve into these lost treasures. We can’t let the past escape us. One thing I always tell the apologetics class I teach is this: “If you have a doubt or a question about the Christian faith, I can guarantee you that someone smarter than me has already thought about it and written on it. Don’t go at it alone.” Christian brothers and sisters, don’t let this knowledge escape you. We must spread it to this generation and beyond.
My thanks to Tim McGrew for his guidance in this study. May we all strive for Christ as he has.
I leave you with something he told me about these historical apologetics books:
I know …
… a music theory professor who read Thomas Cooper’s _Bridge of History_ and phoned me up screaming violently for more …
… a seminary graduate who confessed that he had never been taught the evidences of Christianity that he was discovering in the old, forgotten works …
… a marathon runner and stay-at-home mom who fell in love with George Campbell’s _Dissertation on Miracles_ …
… a construction worker who was captivated by the argument from undesigned coincidences …
… a daycare worker who has educated himself by reading dozens of old works of apologetics …
… a civil service worker in Chicago who set out to refute the arguments in Thomas Chalmers’s _Evidence and Authority of the Christian Revelation_ and ended up becoming a Christian …
… the list goes on and on …
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) 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.