Lydia McGrew on Minimalism & the Resurrection





January 31, 2019

Since I have turned my research attention to the argument in favour of the resurrection of Jesus (simply called the Resurrection Argument), I face the question as to which is the best (or at least a good) approach to take in arguing for the resurrection. The debate about the different approaches to the argument is an in-house debate among Christian apologists and, therefore, non-Christian’s might not find the debate (or this post about the debate) very interesting.

A popular approach to the Resurrection Argument is the so called minimal facts approach (MFA), which is promoted by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. According to this approach, when arguing for the resurrection, one should solely defend and focus on facts that are accepted by almost all New Testament scholars. These facts could include, for example:1

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. The disciples had experiences soon after Jesus’ death that caused them to believe that Jesus had appeared to them and had been resurrected.
  3. Paul placed his trust in Jesus after having an experience that he believed was an appearance of the resurrected Jesus.

The alleged upshot of the MFA is that, if successful, (1) it makes the Resurrection Argument more robust because the facts it relies on are difficult to dispute, (2) it makes it easier for a sceptic2 who accepts the facts to accept the conclusion that Jesus is risen, and (3) it does not require one to defend the reliability of the Gospels. These seem (at least to me) to be wonderful benefits (given that the MFA succeeds, of course).

Another approach to the Resurrection Argument, and which we shall call the minimalistic approach (MA), does not focus solely on facts that have close consensus among scholars, but, as with the MFA, it does not depend on a defence of the reliability of the Gospels. Rather, the MA requires one to simply defend the reliability of the portions or passages or sections or events of the sources that one uses. This is the approach taken by William Lane Craig.

Now, Lydia McGrew criticises both these approaches to the Resurrection Argument here, here, and here.3 Unfortunately, parts of her critique are not terribly smooth or organized or well written. Nevertheless, let us attempt to evaluate some of her objections.4

First, McGrew declares,

I submit that [the minimal facts approach] is highly problematic. A minimal facts argument would be fine as a first statement of some of the issues, as a first approach, but it becomes positively misleading if those who learn this method think that they can lightly toss the gospels to the likes of Bart Ehrman and that we can be fully justified in believing in Jesus’ resurrection even if the gospels are, in the words of deconvert Muehlhauser, “riddled with contradictions [and] legends.”

Accordingly, McGrew seems to think that, since the MFA and MA do not require a defence of the Gospels,5 they encourage their proponents to ‘lightly toss the gospels to the likes of Bart Ehrman’. However, this cannot be true of the approach per se. There is nothing in either the MFA or the MA that encourages or implies that one must not defend the Gospels. These approaches simply do not require one to defend the Gospels for their present purposes.6 McGrew’s objection is similar to arguing that, since the fine-tuning argument or moral argument or cosmological argument do not require a defence of the Gospels, they encourage one to not defend the Gospels and are, thus, problematic!

Perhaps, then, what McGrew means is that the community behind, or the proponents of, the MFA and MA encourage one not to defend the Gospels. However, if this were the case, then one cannot object to the MFA or MA but, rather, one should try to change the culture of the community. Nevertheless, in my experience, many proponents of these approaches do not encourage one to ‘lightly toss the gospels to the likes of Bart Ehrman’.

What about the claim that ‘we cannot be fully justified in believing in Jesus’ resurrection even if the Gospels are riddled with contradictions and legends’?7 This claim is clearly false. First, if one presents a sound argument in favour of Jesus’ resurrection that does not show that the Gospels (or at least the portions of the Gospels not used in one’s argument) are not riddled with contradictions, then the argument will justify belief in Jesus’ resurrection (because it is sound). How can it not? Thus, the important question, rather, is whether there are any sound arguments of the MFA or MA?

Second, many (if not most) Christians come to know (in a justified sense) that Jesus was resurrected, and they do this before they have an opinion about the historical reliability of the Gospels. A common scenario of conversion looks as follows. (1) You tell someone about the good news without presenting to them any apologetic argument. (2) The Holy Spirit works on the person’s heart and witnesses to the person about the truth of Jesus and his resurrection. (3) The person places their faith in Jesus and comes to believe that Jesus died for them and was resurrected. Now, in this common scenario, your evangelistic approach did not require you to defend the Gospels. But is the person justified in believing in Jesus’ resurrection? Absolutely! As Christians, we believe that the witness or testimony of the Holy Spirit can justify one’s belief in the resurrection. For these reasons, McGrew’s first complaint about the MFA and MA does not convince me.

McGrew continues, in the same article, and points out that, if we keep with the minimal fact of near consensus that the disciples thought they had seen the resurrected Jesus, then we lose out on much relevant data or extra facts from the Gospels. For example, the near consensus is that the disciples believed that they had visual experiences of the risen Jesus, but excluded from the near consensus are the auditory, physical, conversational, and interactive experiences as described in the Gospels. McGrew thinks that this weakens the case for Jesus’ resurrection. She writes,

I think it is necessary to be blunt: If all that we are going to assert and seek to explain is the claim that Jesus’ disciples had some kind of visual experiences soon after his death that they took to be appearances of the risen Jesus, and if we are allowing that these experiences could, for all we know, have been fleeting, unclear, intersubjectively inaccessible (that is, invisible to anyone other than the disciples), and involving no senses other than sight, then the case for the resurrection is gravely weakened. … But let’s be clear: The conclusion we thought we could support was that Jesus was risen from the dead. Vague, fleeting, or visionary experiences provide a weak case for that conclusion. In fact, if the minimal fact of the appearance experiences is compatible with minimal experiences, then paranormal explanations become an interesting option, which I gather is what New Testament scholar Dale Allison is exploring. Maybe there’s just “something weird” in this world that we don’t know much about that isn’t a miracle, and isn’t a resurrection, but that causes people to have brief experiences “of” a person after his death.

We should note two things here. First, McGrew’s above objection does not necessarily apply to the MA but mostly (or only) to the MFA. Second, the MFA does not rely on merely one minimal fact. The MFA uses Inference to the Best Explanation (IBE) to argue that the best explanation of the set of several minimal facts is that Jesus was resurrected. If it can be shown that no other hypothesis (including paranormal explanations) explains the set of minimal facts as well or adequate as does the resurrection hypothesis, then the MFA is successful.8 McGrew has not (to my knowledge) shown that this cannot be done. Thus, I am once again not convinced by McGrew’s objection.

McGrew then turns her attention to the MA. Recall that the MA requires one to defend the reliability of those portions or events of the Gospels that one uses in one’s Resurrection Argument only. These might include, for example, the passages that discuss Jesus’ claims about his divinity, the crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, and appearances of the risen Jesus. In response, McGrew declares,

I would say, speaking as an epistemologist, that it is open to doubt whether one can get the conclusion that the Gospels get even these few things right if one is willing to grant, even “for the sake of argument” that they are as riddled with contradictions and errors as the skeptic wants to claim. Try that with Bart Ehrman and see how far you get.

Let us make a few remarks. First, we should not downplay the events in the Gospels that the MA requires us to defend. They are not merely a ‘few things’ but, rather, they are several major events that are central to the Gospels. I would say, speaking as an epistemologist, that, if one can show that these events are historically reliable and that the gospel writers got them right, then it becomes easier to trust the Gospels and defend their full reliability. Thus, what McGrew should be focusing on is whether the proponents of the MA do, in fact, succeed in defending the reliability of the relevant passages.

Second, we should focus, not merely on the methodology of the MA, but on one’s intention for using the MA. This is an important point. There is nothing wrong or problematic if, for example, one is evangelising to someone who will be convinced by the MA, or if one is not trying to convince others but merely trying to explain to others why one is convinced by the MA, or if one is trying to strengthen a believers’ faith in the resurrection, or if one writes an academic work that explores and tries to defend the MA. There are so many situations in which it would be helpful or beneficial or useful to use the MA. It would clearly be wrong for McGrew to insist that all apologists ditch the MA and do things her way.

Third, we should not neglect the role of the Holy Spirit in apologetics. It is ultimately the Holy Spirit’s role to convict non-believers, and we with our apologetic arguments are simply tools that the Holy Spirit may use. Thus, when trying to decide on a methodology or approach to use in apologetics, one should seek or pray for God’s guidance. It is highly plausible that God wants some apologists to focus on the MFA, others to focus on the MA, and others to focus on more detailed approaches in order to reach a wide range of non-believers.

Finally, McGrew seems to be setting an unreasonably high standard for the Resurrection Argument when she remarks, ‘Try that with Bart Ehrman and see how far you get’. She seems to think that, if your argument does not convince Ehrman or like-minded people, then your approach is wrong or bad or unsuccessful or, at the very least, weak. However, people who refuse to listen to the Holy Spirit will not be convinced by our theistic arguments despite how powerful they are. Moreover, one cannot deny the effectiveness of the MA when one looks, for example, at Craig’s Reasonable Faith ministry or Licona’s Risen Jesus ministry. Has McGrew managed to convince as many people about the resurrection as has Craig or Licona? Indeed, has McGrew managed to convince, by using her approach, Bart Ehrman or like-minded people? I highly doubt it. I therefore find McGrew’s objections to the usefulness of the MA unconvincing. Therefore, I think that the MFA and MA are both worth exploring.

However, this does not mean that McGrew’s approach (in which one defends the Gospels as part of the Resurrection Argument) is wrong or problematic. Such an approach is just as valuable and important as the MFA and MA. There will be people (most likely a minority) who find the unreliability of the Gospels a stumbling block to believe in the resurrection. These people will need McGrew’s approach. Moreover, as far as I can tell, it does not seem too difficult or time consuming to defend the overall reliability of the Gospels. Thus, this approach is also worth exploring. Indeed, we can all play a vital role on the same team!

In conclusion, the proponents of the MFA, MA, and McGrew’s approach should not insist that every apologist adopt a specific approach to the Resurrection Argument. I would suggest that an apologist (try to) master each of these three approaches and use the best approach for the specific situation.


1Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2010), 302-303.

2 Skeptic is the preferred spelling in American and Canadian English, and sceptic is preferred in the main varieties of English from outside North America. I am from South Africa.

3In fact, McGrew seems to have a passion for criticising her fellow Christian apologists. See, for example, her critique of Licona’s work here. See especially here, here, and here. There is nothing wrong with zealously critiquing the work of others, of course. However, when we do this, an important question to ask is this: Do we exhibit an attitude of love when critiquing another’s work? Remember that love ‘is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful’ (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Do our critiques display this type of biblical love?

4I am not sure if it is the word length of McGrew’s posts or her writing style, but something about the posts makes them feel like they are never going to end. I have read academic books that are much longer than McGrew’s posts. However, unlike her posts, these books were not painfully difficult to follow and, by the end of the books, I could still remember their beginning!

5I will use the phrases ‘defend/defence of the Gospels’ to mean ‘defend/defence of the historical reliability of the Gospels’.

6As Habermas explains about the MFA, ‘[The MFA] is not a prescription for how a given text should be approached in the original languages and translated, or how a systematic theology is developed, or how a sermon is written. So it should never be concluded that the use of such methods in an apologetic context indicate a lack of trust in Scripture as a whole, or, say, the Gospels in particular. Nor should it cause others to question or doubt their beliefs. Thus, it should only be understood and utilized in its proper context.’

7I am not sure what McGrew means by ‘fully justify’, so I will do what any great philosopher would do and ignore the word ‘fully’ here.

8I have a suspicion that McGrew is thinking in terms of probability, that is to say, she wishes to use some form of Bayes’ Theorem to argue that the resurrection hypothesis is highly probable. If this is the case, then it is understandable that McGrew wishes to appeal to facts that greatly raise the probability of the resurrection. However, IBE and Bayes’ Theorem are different approaches, and one should not criticise the MFA from a probability perspective, so to speak, if it makes use of IBE.


About the Author




Dr Jacobus Erasmus is author of the book The Kalām Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment, and he is currently a researcher in philosophy at North-West University, South Africa. He holds a PhD in philosophy and an Honours Degree in Information Technology, and he is currently completing a PhD in theology.

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