Arguments from Historical Testimony
In discussions on theology, you often see what I would call an “argument from historical testimony.” Whereas an individual is offering some type of argument against a theological concept, let’s say the timelessness of God, and their interlocutor offers a rebuttal that appeals to the historical testimony of the church. There is not often a citation of thinkers, but instead, a blanketed statement is usually offered that follows something along the lines of, “the church for the last 1700 number of years has affirmed the timelessness of God so it is you against church history” These rebuttals are rhetorically powerful and are often expected to serve as a form of a defeater to the argument without needing to formally engage the presented argument against the theological concept. They are a type of argument from authority and I’ve seen them most often occur in the discussion on the doctrine of God and the divine attributes, whereas notions of classical theism are often defended from this historical testimony.
While I do not want to discount or diminish historical testimony as a valuable asset in theological inquiry, nor do I want to imply that the tenets of classical theism are false, however, I do want to examine the utility of historical testimony in argumentation by attempting to locate their appropriate placement within the structure of one’s overall argument for a theological construct.
To begin, I would like to examine the role that historical testimony is playing in the above hypothetical argument and draw out why I believe that it is incorrect to play that role. After that, I will argue for the role that I believe that historical testimony ought to play in theological discourse.
When historical testimony is presented as a defeater or as an antecedent indicator of the truthfulness of another proposition, the historical testimony is itself is functioning as a proposition in a line of argumentation.
Here is a simple syllogism to illustrate the point that I am making.
If “the church” affirms the proposition that God is timeless, then God is timeless.
“The church” affirms the proposition that God is timeless.
Therefore, God is timeless.
This is a poor argument as it stands for many reasons, however, I would like to deal constructively with it because some seem to be convinced by this argumentation and are willing to maintain that the conclusion is true, even in light of argumentation to the contrary.
The biggest problem with the argument from historical testimony is that there is a hidden assumption this is not always clear in an individual’s reasoning and is never explicitly stated, though it is often implied. The difficulty in assessing the validity of an argument comes from identifying the hidden assumption that the arguer is carrying. For the argument to be valid, the proposition must be related to identifying the church's relationship to truth, which can be a historically complicated conversation.
Let’s suppose that the hidden assumption is that if something is affirmed by the church, then it must be true. Reformed with this hidden assumption made more explicit, we would be left with the following argument:
If a proposition is affirmed by ‘the church”, the proposition is true.
The church has affirmed the proposition that God is timeless.
Therefore the proposition that God is timeless is true.
This would make the hidden assumption more clear, however, I think there are both definitional and application problems that arise from this line of argumentation. First, what does it mean for ‘the church’ to affirm a proposition and how much dissent is required to be considered a non-affirming position of the church? Are only the top historical voices considered or do we consider lesser voices as well? How we define our terms will have a significant impact on the scope of theological content that could be considered from only a small handful of propositions to a more robust theological system. This leads to the next point that very few, at least in Protestantism, want to affirm the universal application of this proposition regardless of the scope that arises out of the definitions. Depending on how the scope is established, this would require many to affirm a host of other propositions that they would not consider to be deduced from the Bible. Thus they would reject this proposition.
One could adapt the church-truth relationship to a state of greater probability in that if “the church” affirms a proposition, it is has a greater probability of being true. Though this adaptation circumvents the application problem above, it does not deal with the definitional problem and it introduces another problem in the fact that the conclusion no longer follows and must be adapted. Here is an illustration of the adaptation below.
If a proposition is affirmed by ‘the church”, the proposition has a higher probability of being true.
The church has affirmed the proposition that God is timeless.
Therefore the proposition that God is timeless has a higher probability of being true.
While this is valid and would even be an argument that I would endorse, it does not function in the manner that the interlocutor of the hypothetical argument wants it to as the argument from historical testimony is being used as a defeater. Without affirming an additional proposition that places the affirmation of the church in close communion with the truthfulness of a proposition, then historical testimony can not play this role in argumentation.
I do not believe that the argument from historical testimony is clear enough, nor is it complete enough to occupy a decisive role in our argumentation, and thus it should be abandoned in light of better, clearer argumentation to validate the truthfulness of a proposition. An argument that states that, if the church says it, then it must be true unless we are willing to espouse another proposition that asserts that “the church” has some type of relationship to definitive truth.
What shall we say then? Should we abandon historical testimony in all of our argumentation? μὴ γένοιτο! The historical testimony plays an essential role in our argumentation even if it can not play the role of authoritative arbiter that we at times desire it to be. Historical testimony is most appropriately used as a supplement to one’s overall argument.
For example, for the proposition that God is timeless, one could look to Aquinas and Augustine for both reasoning and support for the idea that God is timeless and examining their reasoning for asserting this proposition to help develop your own reasoning. But the historical testimony in and of itself can not serve as a replacement for arguing the truthfulness of a proposition. To support the assertion about God, especially one that is not specifically biblical, one needs to present an argument for its truthfulness and a general appeal to historical testimony, even if unanimous, which will not provide sufficient justification in and of itself for considering a proposition to be true.
What role do you believe that the intellectual history of the church plays in our current theological method and decisions on what we determine to be true? Do you believe that our goal as theologians is to defend the truth of those that came before us or to seek the truth even if it puts us at odds with history? Big questions! Let me know what you think in the comments below.