Jeff Lowder and the Purpose of ETDAV

Note, June 2009: Looking back on this essay after over ten years, after Jeff Lowder has long since "retired" from "active duty" at Infidels.org, I can only wonder at the level of stubborn contrariness that was required for him to maintain -- in the face of direct testimony by persons involved in the compiliation of ETDAV -- that it was intended to be a serious apologetics work. How ironic as well that it the many years since, I have repeatedly criticized McDowell for focusing on "personal testimony" so much that his hard evidence arguments were compromised.

Josh McDowell is first and foremost an evangelist -- and an apologist second, or third, if at all.

Readers may wish to skip this article in which I interview one of the ETDAV team members and go to the article linked in the first paragraph below where I report results of an interview with McDowell himself. Though Lowder did respond to this article, he did not respond to the interview with McDowell.


In the Preface to ETDAV, Josh McDowell lists several people as "Research Team Members" - these, he tells us, were college students who helped him compile the material in ETDAV, so that they could receive credit from their universities.

On Sunday, September 14, 1997, this author made telephone contact with one of the members of this research team, Ron Lutjens. We spent the better part of an hour discussing ETDAV, its purpose and contents, and the interpretation of the purpose and contents on the part of Jeff Lowder and his Jury comrades.

During this time, I read Lutjens key quotes (with their context) from Lowder's previous two essays on this topic. The results will not surprise those who have been following this debate from the very beginning. Lutjens agrees that Lowder has mistaken ETDAV's purpose: Except in that very basic sense in which a fact is an "apologetic" for whatever it is that it asserts - a distinction that I have allowed, from the very beginning - ETDAV is not an apologetic. (For more confirmation of this, see now also the results of my conversation with McDowell himself.)

But now to the task at hand. We begin with these comments by Lowder, made in my direction:

...comments by Holding suggest that the issue before us concerns the level of indirection for application of apologetic resources. Holding thinks there is some (fictitious) difference between:
(1) a book with a direct apologetic goal, aimed at the non-believing reader,
and
(2) a reference manual that outlines and lists apologetic resources for Christians to use in soulwinning nonbelievers

A point here: In terms of ETDAV's purpose, Lutjens agreed that the purpose of ETDAV was and is to be a resource tool for Christians, with the purposes delineated (which we have gone over elsewhere) in mind. But the difference between (1) and (2) is fictitious...? Does not the very variability of the descriptions tell us that there is a big difference? Not according to Lowder, for:

Functionally, this makes no difference at all to the soundness of the arguments in the book. It is totally irrelevant whether the same "defenses of Christianity" get presented to the non-Christian in book format, or if they get told to the non-Christian by word of mouth. In both cases, it's the same information. Adding a level of indirection in scenario (2) doesn't excuse shortcomings in the data presented.

This is misguided, in the same sense as it has been from the beginning: ETDAV is not in the business of making arguments. It is, again, merely an outline - as Lutjens put it, a "catalog" - of information.

Now I must ask this: Has Lowder been approached by believers who walk up and simply recite text from ETDAV basically "as is"? If so - pass them the User's Guide. Show them the part in the Preface under, "Do What With It?" The Christian believer is not intended to simply parrot the raw data, or shove it under a Skeptic's nose; he is to use the data in a larger presentation based on his own convictions. ETDAV should not even make it out of his back pocket.

The point, in any event, is this. As I shall delineate at the end of this reply, we are not dealing with "the same information" in both cases. If we were, Lowder would not need to add the many suppositions or ask the many questions about "what McDowell is thinking" in his own paper.

In all of this, I do not say, and have never said, that type (2) is not open for a rebuttal. Of course it is. But it is not so open that we may proceed to creatively ascribe arguments to it that are not in the text.

While we're on the topic of "shoving," let me add a relevant comment here from Lutjens. It is his observation that McDowell would in no way approve of the tactics described by Lowder as being used by ETDAV readers. McDowell himself was, he recounts, never one to get in people's faces; he was bold in his opportunities, but always respectful.

That said, if McDowell's readers are not observing the same methodology in their witnessing, they deserve to be chastised, as I have chastised them - and Jury should be directed not at McDowell and his intentions, but at the readers of ETDAV who do not properly observe its purpose, and at the bad arguments that THEY make when they use ETDAV improperly. Jury would be right on target if they ever decided to recount individual experiences of ETDAV readers using the material improperly, and then showed how they were wrong in doing so.

The Foreword

Here again, Lowder appeals to Bill Bright's Foreword in an attempt to define ETDAV as he sees fit. Let me add something here: Even if Lowder were 100% correct in what he says below, re Foreword and Title, he has YET to deal with the instructions for ETDAV given in its Preface and User's Guide. Even if Bill Bright had shouted at the top of his literary lungs, "THIS BOOK WILL SMASH SKEPTICS! SHOVE IT IN THEIR FACE AND SAVE THEM!" - one would still have the overwhelming weight of the direction of the book telling readers to do otherwise.

Nevertheless, let us look at what Lowder says now regarding the Foreword:

...if there is anything regrettable, it is Holding's suppression of what can be clearly seen. In his own words, Bright wrote that "the material contained in this book" (and not some other book) is "overwhelmingly conclusive." I agree that someone is "reading intentions into Bright's words that are simply not there," but that someone isn't me.

The fact is, though Lowder has here juxtaposed the "material" and "overwhelmingly" quotes in such a way as to make it seem like Bright is saying that the material in ETDAV is what is overwhelmingly conclusive, this assertion does not stand under literary scrutiny. The passages are several sentences apart, in entirely different paragraphs, part of entirely different lines of thought - and, they are in the REVERSE order from the way Lowder has presented them.

Again: Bright does NOT say that ETDAV is "the" conclusive clincher. If he really thought that, then I must say that Bright, who is otherwise rather direct with his opinions, is being extremely coy about it. When he refers to evidence that is "overwhelmingly conclusive," he refers not to "Evidence" (ETDAV), but to "evidence" with a lower-case "e."

And if we need further proof that he is not talking about what is contained in ETDAV, the testimony of Lutjens should be decisive. Bright, Lutjens tells us, is indeed referring here to a broader stream of "evidence" than just what is in ETDAV. Indeed, he had foremost in mind the claims of Christ recorded in the NT as what is "overwhelmingly conclusive".

Naturally Lowder would disagree with Bright on that also; but the point is that the connection Lowder seeks to make is invalid. What we have said here and elsewhere indicates that Bright is not talking about the evidence in ETDAV being "overwhelmingly conclusive."

In fact, simply the way that Bright uses the phrase "the evidence" through the paragraph tells us that he is not referring to ETDAV particularly. In the first sentence of the paragraph, Bright says, "In my own experience of more than 28 years of sharing the good news of the Savior with the academic world, I personally have never heard a single individual - who has honestly considered the evidence - deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of men."

If here, "the evidence" means "the evidence that is found in ETDAV," then we have a startling anachronism: Bright refers here to the "past 28 years" when he has never heard of people denying the significance of "the evidence" - 28 years in which ETDAV did not exist.

Similarly, Bright refers to "well-known professing atheists" who did not "come to intellectual grips with the basic historical facts concerning the birth, life, teachings, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Those who have, such as C. S. Lewis and C. E. M. Joad, have found the evidence so convincing that they have accepted the verdict the Jesus Christ is truly who He claimed to be..."

ETDAV was published in 1972. Lewis died in 1963. How was he convinced by "the evidence" in a book published 9 years after his death, and many more years after his conversion?

Of course, I know the sort of reply that will follow this: That ETDAV is simply the later presentation of "the evidence" that Bright talks about for the past 28 years and that convinced Lewis and Joad. But then we come back to the meaning that I have ascribed to Bright: "Evidence" generally, with a lower case "e." Obviously Lewis, et al. were not convinced by "the evidence" which was in a precise one-to-one correspondence with what was later in ETDAV. And if that is so, the emphasis on ETDAV as supposedly "the" apologetic which smashes the skeptic loses all force.

On Wednesday, September 17, 1997, I contacted the offices of Campus Crusade for Christ International and spoke with a close friend and associate of Bill Bright who has worked with him and known him for many years. He asked not to be identified. However, he confirmed that Lutjens was certainly correct: Bright is referring to the evidence of the NT, not the Evidence in ETDAV. He agreed that Bright would consider it preposterous that any other book would be considered "evidence" superior to that of the Scriptures.

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover

But now Lowder tries this tack: He says that the very title of ETDAV "entails that ETDAV is an apologetic." Now again we say: It is so in no more sense than any fact stated is an "apologetic" for what it asserts. But now to the title bout:

McDowell is claiming that historical evidence demands a verdict for the Christian faith. Holding, however, claims that "this title only says that a verdict is demanded - NOT [sic] that a particular verdict is demanded." But McDowell himself helps us out here. The cover of the ETDAV volume also says "Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith". Hence, by positioning both texts on the cover, it is clear that McDowell believes that this amazing "Evidence Which Demands a Verdict" is precisely the same as the "Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith."

A few words in order here:

Lutjens himself could not offer any recollection as to whether "ETDAV" was bandied about as a title for the work by McDowell himself. However, he agreed that in this case (especially as ETDAV was one of McDowell's earliest books, before he became a fixture in Christian apologetics), it was quite likely that the terms related to the title and other things on the cover were determined by the publisher.

(It was my intent to contact the publisher of ETDAV by telephone to see if they could offer any further input on the matter, but it seems that the folks who did all of this 25 years ago are no longer around. I daresay some of them are probably deceased. However, McDowell himself did remember the reason for the title, and it turns out that both Lowder and I were wrong; see the second article linked above.)

Lowder continues:

...how can McDowell escape the charge of attempting to deliberately bias the verdict in his favor? Any honest examination of "the evidence" would include both the affirmative and the negative evidence, and then the reader could decide for themselves. But McDowell presents only the affirmative evidence in his book, and then tells the reader that a verdict is demanded. A verdict, based upon "Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith".

Now here, I suspect, is just a bit too much venom released. Bear in mind, again, the purpose of the book: it is a catalog of information. And again, within the context of the time, I have been told by people old enough to remember that McDowell did not NEED to offer negative evidence. There was plenty available, and I daresay there still is.

Lutjens himself, when asked about this, remarked that there was not much apologetic material available on a popular level at this time - he recalled the works of Francis Schaffer and Wilbur Smith, who are much more cerebral writers.

In short, ETDAV as it is presented filled a need that was there. To have included negative evidence would have been repetitive and unnecessary. On the other hand, the need ETDAV originally filled may well be outdated by now; and of course, that is why we need more stuff like HWAU, and that is why Jury, as I see it should be addressing something along those lines instead.

Holding has said earlier that McDowell is under no obligation to present the facts for both sides in his book. But by failing to present the negative evidence, McDowell loses any claim to be honestly examining the subject. This in turn means that Holding's position -- that McDowell isn't attempting to promote a particular verdict -- is false. Deliberately withholding relevant evidence is a clear indicator that a particular verdict is desired.

Here again, what I have said is that McDowell obviously favors a "positive" verdict by his readers; but that is not the point of the book anyway, as the instructions clearly tell us. The User's Guide rests before us like El Capitan, and Lowder has yet to scale it; instead, we are troubled with being hoisted over the pebbles at the bottom of the canyon. And again, McDowell was not "deliberately withholding" evidence from the other side - the evidence was already out there. That's like standing in the middle of a lake and objecting to the person next to you hoarding the canteen deliberately withholding the water inside. You want water? Turn around and dip in, my friends.

In this regard, Lutjens readily conceded that ETDAV would have been a much stronger work had opposite points of view been included. But, he also agreed with me that convincing people was not the purpose in mind for ETDAV at all. McDowell is therefore, as I have said, under no obligation to present both sides. Nor, in fact, is he intending to "examine" the subjects in question, except (again!) in the most simple and basic sense that any presentation of data does by its own nature! It was up to the reader to take the matter further as they needed. Certainly the inclusion of a bibliography at the end of each chapter should tell us as much, even if we totally ignore ETDAV's instructions.

Target: Trilemma

To his credit, Lowder does present a strong case for one part of ETDAV as apologetic in pointing out that Chapter 7 on the Trilemma contains the Trilemma argument. And if Chapter 7 (and I would add, Chapter 8) simply dropped out of the sky by itself, I think it would be fair to interpret it as an apologetic, albeit a very strangely organized one.

But the fact is that those bothersome User's Guides are still there: And in their light, all that Chapter 7 is, is a reference outline of a significant argument. McDowell uses as an example of the ETDAV reader someone who incorporates the material in ETDAV into speeches, term papers, and other presentations. And so, for example, the intent of the following phrases that Lowder cites:

Jesus claimed to be God. He did not leave any other options. His claim to be God must be either true or false and is something that should be given serious consideration....
First, consider that His claim to be God was false. If it was false then we have two and only two alternatives. He either know it was false or He did not know it was false.

...is simply to outline the thrust of the Trilemma argument for those who have never seen nor used it before, or need to again familiarize themselves with it.

Now of course, it may be objected that there is no superficial difference between presenting this data informationally and argumentatively - and indeed, there is not, WITHOUT the User's Guide to push us along. The reader is supposed to use this argument in a certain way; they should (as Craig advises) develop it properly before using it - not just rattle off memorable phrases from the pages of ETDAV or shove the pages down a Skeptic's throat.

Then, for example, the quote noted by Schaff:

Is such an intellect ... liable to a radical and most serious delusion concerning His own character and mission? Preposterous imagination!

...becomes, within the context of the purpose of ETDAV, a quote used within the text of a paper's argument (probably in this case, best functioning as a lead-in to a section showing HOW such an intellect would not be liable to delusion), along with further backup and argumentation that develops the thought (in this case, the data I presented from "The Three Christs of Ypsilanti" would have a role).

This is the "functional difference" between situations where Skeptics read the trilemma in ETDAV and skeptics who hear it from a "McDowell fan" - they should never hear it from a McDowell fan that way; and if they do, of course, the McDowell fan is not following the instructions.

A Modest Proposal

Lowder closes his latest defense with an interesting line of thought:

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that ETDAV is not an apologetic but merely a resource for Christians who wish to defend their faith.
Is being merely "lecture notes" some lower quality standard of evidence?

No, not lower quality; but lower QUANTITY is. In other words, not all of the data is there, it is not a cohesive or comprehensive presentation, nor does it pretend to cover all the data or claim to be comprehensive. It's just a way to get you out of the starting blocks.

Does being lecture notes" excuse the poor arguments and bad data inside it? Does being "lecture notes" entail that one ought not to expose the poor arguments and bad data inside it?

Answer: No, it would not. And here I have some agreement: I say (as I have said) that there are no "arguments" as such in ETDAV; there are outlines of arguments, and lots of data. And here is where I have a proposal for Lowder; but first, let us conclude this paragraph, and do some minor housekeeping:

Does being "lecture notes" somehow prevent readers from encountering the other side of the argument when witnessing?

Obviously it does not, and I have not said that it would. As I and Lutjens readily admit, ETDAV would be a better book if it had the other side presented in a more cohesive and comprehensive way; but again, that's what HWAU and the other books by McDowell are for.

Now to some material from a footnote I found of interest:

[8] For a refutation of the trilemma, see Holding's idol William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 38-39, or Jim Perry's contribution to Jury.

Actually, Craig does not "refute" the Trilemma; he merely points out its limitations, and indicates that it cannot be successful without knowing how it is properly used and understanding those limitations.

As for the idol bit, well, the Craig statute in my living room needs polishing so I really don't have time to address the matter further; just let it be said that I wonder how tolerant Lowder would be if I started writing about, "Lowder's idol G. A. Wells" or "Lowder's idol Robert Price." I am sure I would be delivered up unto the lions for dinner.

Whether Holding realizes it or not, he's accusing McDowell of publishing a set of "lecture notes" that is chock-full of second-rate data and errors. And that is precisely what the other Jury authors and I have maintained all along.

Is it really what's been maintained? Let me put it this way: I am not certain what Lowder means by "second-rate" data - but by "errors" I obviously know what he means. I'll have to take a bit of a hazard to make an overall point. I will assume that Lowder here means that ETDAV has data that is simply wrong - i.e., we can pick statements from ETDAV, and say, "That is wrong because..." it is not true.

Now if this is so, even I have expressed some agreement with that: In particular with the Jericho material (Ch. 4). But if Lowder is simply out to correct errors in ETDAV's data, then what would this do to, say, his Chapter 5 reply? I have pointed out that Lowder found it necessary to go far afield in speculation in order to "rebut" the contents of McDowell's chapter 5. He has had to say thinks like, "McDowell gives the impression that," or, "McDowell seems intent on proving," or, "It is unclear what McDowell thinks he is doing," etc. - would it all not have been clear had Lowder simply read the User's Guide and understood and accepted the purpose of ETDAV as a catalog of evidence without commentary?

With that said, I will now say this: I wholeheartedly agree that if ETDAV contains bad data, it should be corrected. Lutjens likewise agreed that it would be perfectly legitimate to go down the data presented line-by-line and point out what is erroneous; that, truly, would be the only true "rebuttal" to ETDAV.

But here is the problem: If that is what Lowder wants to do, then almost all of his current Chapter 5 in particular is of no real use.

Why? Consider the contents of McDowell's chapter 5, and correspondingly, Lowder's reactions above to it. Under the principle outlined of simply reacting to "bad data," what could Lowder really offer in rebuttal to Ch. 5?

For example, McDowell asserts nothing about Tacitus other than who he was, when he lived, and that he alludes in his work to "the death of Christ and to the existence of Christians at Rome." Lowder does not disagree with these propositions by themselves. Therefore, under this proposed scenario, he cannot offer any rebuttal, for he agrees with all the data presented.

And so it would be, for most of the remainder of the chapter: All that would be left of Lowder's current reply would be the singular arguments that Suetonius and Mara Bar-Serapion are not referring to Jesus.

Other chapters of Jury would have to be changed also, but (ironically) to a lesser degree. I think that Chapter 7 could survive mostly intact (I freely acknowledge that Jim Perry stays closer to realizing the intent of ETDAV than anyone else). Without doing any detailed analysis, the bottom line is that much of Jury, and Chapter 5 especially, is rebutting not the actual data presented by McDowell, but rather what it is presumed that McDowell is trying to argue, or perhaps what McDowell's clueless fans have tried to argue - and this is the overriding practice that I say has made Jury a misguided project.

And now my alternative, and it is really a very simple one. I have suggested to Lowder that ETDAV should be used as a framework - in short, in a "mirror image" manner of the way it is supposed to be used by Christians. Simply bring up the data by McDowell; then, bring up relevant arguments from other sources as desired, and reach a conclusion. What I propose here amounts to a simple terminological shift: Thus, the following paragraphs in Jury Chapter 5, concerning Suetonius:

McDowell seems to think that `Chrestus' refers to Jesus. However, even if he is correct in citing this passage as independent confirmation of Jesus, his failure to acknowledge, much less refute, the opposing viewpoint is simply poor scholarship.
However, there are good reasons to believe that `Chrestus' does not refer to Jesus of Nazareth. The word `Chrestus' "permits no certain identification of an historical individual;" McDowell's assumption that `Chrestus' alludes to Jesus of Nazareth reveals an unhistorical bias.[118]...

...would simply be rewritten thus:

McDowell cites the reference to `Chrestus' as referring to Jesus. However, there are good reasons to believe that `Chrestus' does not refer to Jesus of Nazareth. The word `Chrestus' "permits no certain identification of an historical individual."[118]...

Here, then, there is no presumption as to what McDowell is "thinking;" there is no slur upon his scholarship, and the ultimate purpose of ETDAV is justly recognized. This is really all that I say is needed to make Jury a "guided" rather than a "misguided" project.

I close with some comments on Lowder's final footnote:

If ETDAV is not an apologetic, then McDowell has done his students and anyone else who relies on ETDAV a grave disservice. Perhaps he thinks he is doing such people a favor by not discussing it; however, he has merely postponed the reckoning day. Those believers who rely on ETDAV as an apologetic resource will still have to deal with the negative evidence. But in place of having it presented to them by McDowell in relative comfort of ETDAV, they will instead be blind-sided by this negative evidence when they hear it for the first time coming from the skeptics they will be trying to convert. Imagine the surprise of such Christians when they realize that they have only been told half the story, and that half containing serious flaws.....

Actually, here is how I would phrase it:

If ETDAV is used as an apologetic, then McDowell's readers do themselves and those they witness to a grave disservice. Those believers who rely on ETDAV as an apologetic resource and go no further will still have to deal with the negative evidence. By resting in the relative comfort of ETDAV, and ignoring it for what it is, they risk being blind-sided by this negative evidence when they hear it for the first time coming from the skeptics they will be trying to convert. Imagine the surprise of such Christians when they realize that they have only studied half the story, and that half not even representing a thousandth of the available information.

And so it is: Lowder here cannot allow his feelings about McDowell to intrude upon his work in Jury, if he wants to present us with what is itself a fair, appropriate and balanced rebuttal. There must be no more about McDowell's being dishonest, or unfair, or one-sided; this was never really relevant to the facts at hand anyway.

If Lowder and the Jury crew wish to make Jury a viable product, then all such references to McDowell must cease (i.e., eliminated as soon as possible, and not present in final drafts), and they must recognize ETDAV for what it is, for what I have said it is, and for what Lutjens has confirmed that it is.

I make this suggestion with an eye towards bringing the subject to a close once and for all. After this, if Lowder's ill feelings towards McDowell continue to be at the forefront of Jury, then there is nothing more to be said. Lowder can either accept the testimony of ETDAV, and that of one who took part in its compiliation, and make the minor alterations needed - or, he can in some fashion refuse to believe or accept what has been presented here, and proceed on his merry way.

And if that happens, believe this: I will be here to point out every single misconstrual, because I'm not going anywhere.

-JPH