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History, Historiography and Empricism
by Samuel Frost
My favorite subject in college and seminary was philosophy, not theology. One cannot be studied without the other, though. Philosophy was, correctly called, the Queen of sciences, whereas theology was king. The so called “problem” of a failure for Preterism to produce “evidence” for Jesus’ return in A.D. 70 is replete with ignorant assertions, logical invalidities and just plain bad philosophy.My favorite subject in college and seminary was philosophy, not theology. One cannot be studied without the other, though. Philosophy was, correctly called, the Queen of sciences, whereas theology was king. The so called “problem” of a failure for Preterism to produce “evidence” for Jesus’ return in A.D. 70 is replete with ignorant assertions, logical invalidities and just plain bad philosophy.Philosopher and theologian Gordon Haddon Clark dealt with these matters in over forty books. If you are not a Reformed reader, you have probably never heard of him, which is just a plain shame. Nonetheless, he wrote a book called Historiography: Secular or Religious. History deals with the so called “facts” whereas historiography directs the philosophy of history. No one historian can record all the facts of history (an impossibility) and he must, on all occasions, select certain facts to include and omit others. No man is omniscient.
Now, this is not a new problem. Did Caesar really cross the Rubicon? Did Oswald really shoot Kennedy? We have one source that tells us of Caesar’s venture, and a warehouse full of tens of millions of documents on Kennedy. Anyone care to read a ten million page book? I thought not. These little questions of history beg another question: how do you know absolutely? This is the question of epistemology.
Now, if history is based on “observing data,” and no one living today has observed Caesar, then how do we know he really crossed the Rubicon? Just because a lone history entry says he did? If you have had any dabbling at all within historical “documents” you will know that controversies exist just as sharp and as heated as those who try to interpret the Bible. Josephus clearly wrote from a pro-Roman standpoint (to save his own neck). Did this color his view of the facts, and if it did, will we ever know the facts of that period? Controversy is ablaze among Josephist studies.
But, all of this begs another question: does observation prove anything? That is, do we know by sensation (seeing, touching, hearing, smelling and tasting)? To claim that we do is called Empiricism. Empiricists believe that we can establish history and what history means by an appeal to data. But, this is as logically false as can be, and it can be easily shown to be false. Take, for example, the botanist that counts 99 white lilies of the valley. He infers that the next lily he will “see” (observe) will also be white (this is called inductive reasoning). Now, ask yourself, can he prove beyond all shadow of a doubt that the next lily he will see will in fact be white and not pink? No, he cannot. Empiricism can never give absolutes either in botany or history.
Historiography is the philosophy of history and what history means. Yet, here, we have several views: Hegelianism, Augustinianism, Toynbee, Spengler, Marx, and Darwin. They cannot all be right, for they all assuredly differed radically in their approaches to what history means and is. Does observing historical facts “tell” them what history is? If it did, then why did Marx differ from Augustine? Does reading the Epistles of Polycarp tell me absolutely what history means? Do the letters of Ignatius (there was 15, but they were found to be fake and now we have 8) tell me absolutely what every single church member living in 107 A.D. believed? Logically, never.
To argue, then, what “happened” or to assume in the argument that “if Jesus returned, then no one saw it” is begging the question (a logical fallacy). I can easily reason, as so many atheists do, that “if no one saw Jesus get out of the tomb, then it did not happen because there is no evidence.” Well, if the evidence needed to “prove” Jesus’ resurrection is based on the philosophy of Empiricism, then our atheist friend is exactly correct. But, I am not an Empiricist, and no Christian who accepts revelation should be one, either. Yet, it is exactly these same type of empirical arguments raised by our opponents that are just logically flawed!
Take this one, “we have no evidence that anyone wrote anything down recording Jesus’ second coming.” Based on what? Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius record “signs” during the Destruction, and the latter two authors were not even there! How did they know what happened? Did they have e-mail and telephones? But, note even more subtle is this question in that it ASSUMES an empirical philosophy. That is, if anything is to be proven in history, then it must have evidence to back it up. Okay. Who shot Kennedy? Did Shakespeare write Romeo and Juliet? Did Jesus really come out of the grave? How do you know? Just because some fanatical followers of his said he did? Apparitions happen today and people claim to be probed by UFO aliens. How do you know?
Secondly, this little question argues in silence, an informal logical fallacy. That is, it assumes that no one wrote down anything. But, how could you possibly prove that no one wrote down anything about the Second Coming? How could you possibly reason with absolute certainty that we have simply not found anything written? How can you be for certain? You can certainly make a case that Jesus’ Second Coming did not happen in A.D. 70, but that’s it. You can make a case, but I can make a case that O.J. Simpson did not kill his ex-wife. Who is right? Well, one has to decide what he will count and what he will not count, just as I stated in the beginning. And THIS decision to count some things and not others, to assume this philosophy and not that one, HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HISTORICAL FACT AT ALL, but the question of HISTORIOGRAPHY. You have now moved from “observation” to “speculation,” and that’s okay, so long as you admit this is what you are doing. After all, the preterist account of “what happened” is speculative, too. I don’t know absolutely why some missed or didn’t write, but I cannot deduce, logically, that all missed it and no one wrote it down. I can speculate, just as you can speculate that it did not happen based on the writings we have, but speculation is not history.
In my book, Misplaced Hope, I thoroughly document the first two centuries of the “fathers” and my conclusion was still Preterism, even though I did not find any of them an admission that the Second Coming happened in A.D. 70, with the possibility of I Clement. By the time of the second century we have tens of thousands of Christians (so much so that by the time of 312, Rome fell to Christians). They were in catacombs, caves, small house groups, located from Spain to Egypt to Syria moving east to Asia and northwards. And these few men (apostolic fathers) are going to tell me what EVERYONE believed? That is an impossibility. We have no direct proof that any of the writings we have of this period ever knew or saw any of the apostles, and what statements linked them to the apostles, the Gnostics claimed all the more. Who, then, was linked since both affirm their links? Irenaeus claimed with apostolic authority, based on the elders that knew John, that Jesus lived until he was fifty years old! What makes this apostolic claim anymore correct than his supposed statement that Papias knew John, or that Polycarp was a disciple of John? No one can answer with absolute authority.
Listen to this one verse: Isaiah 66:18-19 "For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.” I can easily “make a case” that this refers to A.D. 70 and “the gathering” and “the glory” and folks seeing “my Glory.” But, notice what happens AFTERWARDS: “I will send them to those…WHO HAVE NOT SEEN MY FAME or SEEN MY GLORY.” Who are these people? You mean, some saw it (those with an eye to see) and some did not? Interesting.
Therefore, to conclude this article, within the rigors of my training in logic, philosophy and history, I am firmly convinced that Jesus returned in A.D. 70 and the statement “every eye shall see him” (taken from Zechariah) was true. I believe this is the case because I ASSUME, I PRESUPPOSE that the Bible “is the word of God, written.” I believe that “Thy word is truth” and that all other claims are false (and cannot be demonstrated without begging the question). Therefore, when I “look” at history, I look at its “evidence” through the eyes of the Bible and the framework of the Bible. If the framework of the Bible states that this and this happened, it happened. Did Samson destroy the Philistines? Do you have “proof?” Did the Red Sea really split apart? Do you have proof? Did Moses really “see” the backside of God? Do you have proof? Archeological evidence? How do you know? I have demonstrated by the principles of historiography and logic (and presuppositional methodology), based on the Word of God, that Preterism can “make a case.”
I cannot “prove” that Jesus returned in A.D. 70, but you cannot prove that he, in fact, didn’t. And, so, there we are. You have to make a decision. But, that decision is not informed by history and documents, but by another controlling presupposition. So, let’s stop all this useless and tiresome illogical appeal to empirical evidence and work on what the Bible states. Then we can, as I did in my book, talk about how, indeed, they missed some aspects in the second century (we have no first century documents, unless you date Barnabas and I Clement in or around 70, but the controversy over dating these letters cannot ever be solved, and so, they are useless for determining one way or the other the questions at hand). However, Dispensationalism must account for early preterist tendencies easily found there. Baptists have to account for Constantine and Calvinists must account for the fact that “from the evidence” the early fathers were Hellenistic free-willers. Protestants in general must account for the fact of infant baptism, and non-Charismatic types must account for second century glossolalia (tongues) and prophecy being spoken, as well as visions being given and written down (Shepherd of Hermas). In short, when it comes to history, I can turn the tide against Roman Catholics, Protestants, and the Roman Catholics turn it against the Greek Orthodox, and the Protestants turn it against both. The Baptist argue for a “blood trail,” the Episcopalians argued for their privilege, and the Catholics appeals to them against Luther (and Luther appealed to them against the Catholics). And, on what basis did all of these groups try to “prove” from history their own particular doctrinal view? They each claimed to “get it from the Bible.” Interesting. Bottom line: the Bible. Yet, the Preterist alone must come up with absolute non-biblical resources that prove that his doctrine is correct…..I have one word for this, folks: Hypocrisy.