A View of the Evidences of Christianity Summary
William Paley’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) stands both chronologically and conceptually between his two better-known works, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) and Natural Theology: Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802). The latter, a well-reasoned treatment of the arguments for intelligent design, begins with the often quoted analogy of inferring the existence of a watchmaker from finding a watch in a field. In the introduction, Paley suggests that the three works build on each other in reverse chronological order. Moral philosophy is built on the premise that God wishes the happiness of his creatures and that to ensure the virtue necessary for happiness, an adequate system of future rewards and punishments must exist. To accept that the New Testament contains an accurate description of that system, one must be convinced of its authenticity as divine revelation and historical record. Such conviction in turn requires belief in a deity who cares for and communicates with humankind.
As a philosopher, Paley was an empiricist who considered all human knowledge to be based, ultimately, on things sensed and experienced directly. For a Christian empiricist, that basis consisted foremost of the testimony in the New Testament and the writings of early Church fathers. Paley wrote Horae Paulinae: Or, The Truth of the Scripture History of Saint Paul as Evinced by a Comparison of the Epistles Which Bear His Name (1790) and Evidences of Christianity as an answer to David Hume’s skepticism, particularly with respect to miracles.
Horae Paulinae is the more original work. In A View of the Evidences of Christianity, Paley draws heavily on Nathaniel Lardner’s The Credibility of Gospel History (1727), which was the earliest major work to examine biblical texts in their historical context. Paley’s contribution consists of reducing a diffuse scholarly work to a form accessible to an audience of parish clergymen and undergraduates at Cambridge University, where he taught moral theology, and of integrating biblical scholarship with a practical system of morality.
A View of the Evidences of Christianity is divided into three sections. The first part discusses the miracles attributed to Christ in the New Testament and presents arguments for accepting them as real occurrences. The second part, “Auxiliary Evidences of Christianity,” presents other evidence from the Old and New Testaments and ancient writers supporting the veracity of the Gospels. The third part, “A Brief Consideration of Some Popular Objections,” systematically examines eighteenth century arguments against either the historical accuracy of Christianity or its value as a guide to the conduct of human affairs.
Paley sets the stage with a series of rhetorical questions: Suppose the entire human race has lost sight of the divine means of obtaining future happiness. Suppose that God wishes to reveal his plan and that miracles are necessary to make that plan acceptable. The miracles, he concludes, are no less plausible than the revelation itself.
David Hume cast doubt on biblical miracles, maintaining that unreliable testimony was a far more probable explanation than an occurrence seemingly violating natural laws. He cited the lack of recent, well-documented instances of a similar nature to bolster his position. Paley counters by saying that this in no way violated the principle that like circumstances beget like results; because there is now no messiah spreading the message of salvation, no miracles are required.
The apostles and early Christian evangelists maintained their story in the face of severe persecution; moreover, with a few minor exceptions, it was always the same story. This would be unlikely if any part of it were a fabrication, Paley asserts. Ancient lists of the books of the orthodox canon include the same texts used throughout the Christian world in the eighteenth century, indicating that the selection process was...
(The entire section is 1,301 words.)