A View of the Evidences of Christianity Summary

William Paley


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1122 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

LeMahieu, Dan L. The Mind of William Paley: A Philosopher and His Age. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976. A comprehensive biography covering the genesis and content of Paley’s major works; good chapter on Paley’s impact in the nineteenth century.

Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004. Contains biographies of Paley and Hume that evaluate the impact of their writings.

Sweet, William. “Paley, Whately, and Enlightenment Existentialism.” International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion 45, no. 3 (1999): 143-166. Traces the efforts of two rational Christian theologians to attack rational Deism with its own weapons. Richard Whately wrote Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte (1819), a satire on skeptical treatments of the Bible as history.

Sweet, William, ed. God and Argument. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 1999. A collection of conference papers. The chapter “Evidentialism and Its Origins and the Anglo-American Philosophy of Religion” contrasts Paley with William Clifford, an American agnostic. Contains a chapter on philosophical approaches to miracles.