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The origin of facts

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Rowan Forster, in a recent Online Opinion article entitled "The Resurrection: History? Legend? Whatever" took exception to my understanding of truth. He asks:

"Where lies the line between factual account and mere myth? Between history and legend? Between fact and fabrication? Between the literal and the figurative? Between factual account and creative invention? Between objective reality and subjective imagining?"

Most of us would agree with this sentence since we live in an age in which evidence rules. We have been trained in the methods of science and scepticism from our earliest science lesson and we know the difference between fact and fiction. I will argue that such understandings of what is true and what is not are as recent as the eighteenth century and would have been totally alien to the original writers and readers of the bible.


A good friend of mine once wrote: "It is of first importance to grasp that 'facts', like wigs and snuff boxes, were the invention of the eighteenth century." He meant by this that "facts" only took on importance after the work of the English empiricists Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704). According to these two men, with some help from Thomas Hobbes and others, knowledge was based on the experience of the senses. While this was a great boon to the natural sciences, the success of this idea tended to alienate traditional ways of knowing going back centuries.

In my un-presented thesis on Sir Isaac Newton's antitrinitarianism I opined: "One broad stream of thought that is relevant to the Trinitarian controversy was the change of epistemology between the medieval world and the early modern. In the former, knowledge was largely contemplative, receptive and illuminative. The role of knowledge, after Augustine, was to draw closer to the beatific vision. Knowledge was revealed. This was essentially a passive mode of endeavour. By contrast, beginning with Francis Bacon, the gaining of knowledge was an active endeavour that involved the enquirer in the pursuit of facticity. This was a gaining of knowledge by doing rather than by intuiting ideas lodged in the mind of God. In effect, it was in a way, a search for knowledge that God the creator and ultimate actor could only know, and it closed the distance between creator and creature.

Bacon's scientific method consisted of gathering huge amounts of data "matters of fact" and the induction of the "forms" which existed behind the fluctuating world of experience. The book of nature was to be examined not by the platonic forms of the universals, or by the authority of the ancients, including, one supposes, that of the church fathers, but was to be examined by the experience of the individual."

This is the historical basis of our insistence that all knowledge must by passed through the filter of facticity. What we witnessed in the eighteenth century was a merging of theology and science into a single idiom to produce a secular theology never seen before. We continue to live in its shadow.

My criticism of Evangelicalism is that it inappropriately imposes modern epistemology onto biblical texts. Exegesis then consists of gathering data, and then drawing a conclusion based on evidential fact. Thus, evangelical exegesis consists of gathering all of the "facts" in the texts and coming to certainty. This has never, before the modern age, been a method of exegesis and it misses entirely the intention of biblical writers. Its use by Isaac Newton and John Locke produced bizarre results that refused the fundamental conclusion of the early Church that God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Newton was a closeted Unitarian and Locke flirted with Socinianism. So much for the use of empiricism in theology!

The mistake in method was to place the bible at the origin of our speech about God. However, the early Church was doing theology long before a word of the bible had been written. This means that the bible was derivative of the theological ideas of the early Church rather than being a source of factual information from which theology was derived. This means that we have to read the bible through the lens of theology. The mistake of the Reformation was to give the bible to the isolated and often theologically uneducated individual to make of it what they will. The result in our time is that readers living in a culture dominated by scientism draw scientific conclusions i.e. conclusions that rely on factual evidence.


In the eighteenth century the application of empiricism to biblical texts destroyed the theology of the Church and resulted in a shallow moralism. The "theology" of the early English scientists of Boyle, Hooke, Clarke and Newton are now examples of how not to do exegesis. In its extreme, it attempted to reduce exegesis to mathematics because that was understood to be the only sure way to truth.

It is apparent that Locke, in his refusal to entertain the post biblical constructions of the church concerning the nature of God, reduces the faith to belief in the Messiah, the resulting moral life lived out according to the universal law of God, and the resultant comfort in heaven in the afterlife. This is beginning to look very much like Liberalism.

For Locke, freedom of conscience was the absolute result of his epistemology; only the experiencing individual could know the truth. This produced the atomised Christian who stood on his own, apart from the Christian community, and examined belief with the use of reason. Christian theology was thus rationalised and reduced to arguments that one person could make. Although Locke departed from Descartes on many points he did inherit his individualist scepticism by which the individual stands alone on intellectual matters.

At the centre of this impoverishment is the suffocated imagination. When you have facts, or think you do, then you do not have to have imagination. The fabric of the faith is set out in rational terms accompanied by verifiable facts. Of course, none of these facts are verifiable since we are dealing with events that occurred two thousand years ago and it is the nature of biblical texts to be more preaching that modern historiography. The rich brocade of centuries of theology is reduced to points of fact.

The problem is that once these "facts" have been established, assent to them displaces faith. Faith then demands that we sacrifice our intellect and believe in the impossible. A great chasm opens between how we experience the world and our beliefs. We do not experience the power of prayer or the performance of miracles. In our world, bodies do not rise from the dead nor are they propelled into space. This is how Christianity has become a laughing stock in our time and why the Church is falling apart all around us.

The disruption that the gospel causes in the world is not a disruption in our understanding of how the physical world works but in what may be called "the ways of the soul" those habits in life that seek security at all costs. Whereas the gospel would have us let go of all false security, one of the hallmarks of faith, fundamentalism would tie us to a written word that displaces the Word to which it is a witness. We must remind ourselves that the bible is not the centre of faith but that it is a witness to the centre: Jesus Christ. In being a witness, it uses all of the facilities of the ancient world; rhetoric, story, poetry and legend. What it does not do is to give us dot points pertaining to facts.

Forster worries that since the resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian belief, (I agree) then if it was found not to have happened then the Church will fall. The irony here is that the Church has already fallen. All Nicene denominations that I know of have a critical shortage of priests/ministers who serve smaller and smaller congregations. The Church is spurned by educated men and women because it is presented by Evangelicals as a collection of beliefs that, ironically, do not connect with our experience of the world. These beliefs trail questions behind them too numerous to count. This means that the Church loses its authority because it is plainly irrational. Modern epistemology, applied to biblical texts, produces nonsense and trails unsolvable questions in its wake. The damage to the Church is inestimable.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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