Leading Evidence

Throughout my college and seminary training, I often heard both teachers and students say things like, “You can’t conclude that based on the evidence,” or “The evidence clearly points to such-and-such a conclusion.” My least favorite statement of all, however, was “We need to be willing to go wherever the evidence leads.”

The problem with this whole approach is that evidence leads nowhere.

Perhaps I ought to nuance that slightly. On very rare occasions the evidence is so clear that it leads to an obvious conclusion for the vast majority of reasonable (i.e., “sane”) people. Two examples: “something exists” . . . “I exist.” From that point any assertion based on evidence begins to move—ever so slightly—away from the center-point of certainty. But once a person steps from that very small bounded pasture of certainty into the open range of uncertainty and probability, the evidence must be shepherded by arguments—guided toward a reasonable end.

Let me be clear: I don’t buy into the idea of “following the evidence wherever it leads” because in the vast majority of cases the evidence does not lead . . . we lead the evidence. An argument, which incorporates evidence, leads in a particular direction. And arguments, while hopefully including all evidence in a cohesive, coherent, and consistent manner, are led by the arguer. Thus, the arguer leads the evidence. Even when people are all examining the exact same evidence, the result will be a variety of interpretations supported by different groups and individuals. Sometimes when the amount of evidence increases—or old evidence is reevaluated—the picture may change. But not always. Each of us is leading the evidence in a particular direction based on our pre-understandings, presuppositions, agendas, methodologies, questions, and biases. The point? Every endeavor to analyze evidence is perspectival.

In decades (and centuries) past, when a scholar claimed to be compelled by the evidence in a particular direction, many times he or she strived to act as a judge or juror, valuating and evaluating the objective facts without bias. With the decline in modernist confidence in such objectivity, most scholars today admit that they approach all evidence with biases and questions. But often people suggest that the solution to this problem is to strive to strip away biases—that is, “Admitting that you have a subjectivity problem is the first step in overcoming your subjectivity.”

Shouldn’t we strive to be as objective as possible and then proceed with the investigation? No! This is impossible and could, in fact, be more dangerous than simply embracing our perspectives and running with them. Here’s why: if overcoming our perspective is not really possible, then believing that we have somehow overcome them is worse than not being aware of them in the first place. It’s like digging ourselves into a pit, looking up, realizing we’re in a pit, then solving the problem by making the pit larger. We may have worked harder at digging. We may have even employed people to help us dig. But in the end, we’re still stuck in a pit.

Another problem with buying into the method of approaching evidence with as much objectivity as possible is this: what if your original perspective, bias, and set of presuppositions is right? What if your understanding of a particular subject and therefore your arrangement of the evidence is actually the correct one? If this is the case, then stripping yourself of those presuppositions is not only unnecessary—it’s dangerous!

A while back, when I worked for a particular ministry of a well-known pastor, the ministry received a letter from a critic stringing together evidence from the pastor’s writings proving that he held to a particular false doctrine. That man examined the evidence, drew his conclusions, and demanded repentance and an apology. The problem is that that person completely misinterpreted the evidence. For a few rounds, we tried to combat the person’s views by pointing him to other writings of the pastor that showed that he clearly did not hold the false view. But it didn’t work. Finally I said, “This is ridiculous. We know this guy’s interpretation is wrong because we know Pastor So-and-So doesn’t hold this view.” There was no point in argument or evidence in this case, and even though we couldn’t prove to the critique that we were interpreting the pastor’s writings correctly, our unique perspective guaranteed that we were.

I think in many cases this analogy works for reading Scripture. Christians should not be ashamed to read the entire Bible in conformity with classic Christian theology. I am completely unimpressed with lexical, grammatical, and exegetical arguments based on probabilities, historical parallels, or other evidences that do not align with a normal Christian understanding—touching on issues of orthodoxy. In my mind, when a person’s methodology leads to conclusions that are at odds with the classic Christian faith, it doesn’t mean my interpretation needs to be revised or that the faith needs to be modified—it means the methodology is flawed.

This works best at the macro-level, dealing with big issues of orthodoxy (God, Christ, Salvation, etc.). But it can also function as a working principle at the micro-level. For example, I am unimpressed with evidence and arguments that conclude that the “Angel of the Lord” appearances of the Old Testament—classically regarded as appearances of the pre-incarnate Son of God—are merely created angels acting as stand-ins or heavenly representatives of God. The traditional interpretation of the Angel of the Lord as the Son/Logos of God is so ancient and compelling that in my mind the methodologies used to arrive at competing views are discredited. That God the Son (Logos) has always served as the divine mediator between the Father and the creation goes back to Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and more. But isn’t this reading the Bible in light of tradition? YES! That’s the whole point.

But wait! Am I not, then, simply approaching this question from my own particular perspective? Of course! Then how do we arrive at the undisputed truth of the matter?

We don’t. There will always be dispute. There will always be challenges. Our responsibility is to engage in the real practice of theology. It’s not understanding seeking faith. It’s faith seeking understanding. It’s not exegesis leading to a biblical theology. It’s traditional theology guiding biblical exegesis. This means contributing to the quest for understanding in community, offering up arguments and critiques, incorporating new evidence as it comes, constantly re-evaluating evidence, exploring new arguments, and always operating under the assumption that the dialogue will continue long after we’re gone. But we must always carry on the conversation in the context of the tradition and in the confines of the believing community.

Ideally my dialogical hermeneutical method ought to take place in a community of free and open dialogue in which various perspectives are heard, understood, discussed, and critiqued. But this is, of course, impossible. So, in the absence of such an ideal dialogical community we’re really just left with one practical solution. It’s the solution through which the Holy Spirit guided the church into truth for the last 2000 years. We struggle with the questions, we agonize over them, and we debate each other, all the while trusting that the Spirit will guide His church into the future as He has faithfully done in the past—in, though, with, among, and, more often than not, in spite of us.

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