Monthly Archives: August 2014

Christian apologetics: is there, besides the current popular approaches, another way to “take every thought captive”?

Room for another?  Can another transcend these?

Room for another? Can another transcend these?

“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” — 2 Cor. 10:5

There are generally thought to be three approaches to Christian apologetics. Definitions will vary, but here are what I think are some good ones.

One approach is known as fideism which says that the best defense of the faith is preaching the Gospel, and that “rational evidences” have nothing to do with the process.  Faith and reason, while both having their place, are opposed to one another like oil and water.

Presppositionalism has its roots in Calvinist theology, emphasizes the unbelievers darkened reason and the power of the Word of God to convert, and, according to John Frame, “should present the biblical God, not merely as the conclusion of an argument, but as the one who makes argument possible” (Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics, 2000, p. 220).

Evidentialism looks to engage a persons’ rational capacity and takes advantage of accepted methods of doing scientific and historical research. It examines the claims made about Jesus Christ by the eyewitnesses of the Biblical narratives, and looks to determine whether or not the claims are, as the Apostle Paul put it, “true and reasonable” (Acts 26).

What is one to make of the variety of approaches to Christian apologetics?

The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is usually classified as belonging to the “fideist” school of Christian apologetics, Basically, Kierkegaard says that there is something very suspect about a question like “What is the proper object of faith?”.  He says that to answer such a question is like a lover attempting to reply to the query, “Could you love another woman?”

In order to understand fideism, I think its important to “put the best construction on it”, something that presuppositonalist Alvin Plantiga seems to do (here is another well-written and intriguing post on the topic). Wikipedia has what I think is a very helpful and interesting paragraph (as of today at least) under its overview.

Kierkegaard: associated with “fideism”.

Kierkegaard: associated with “fideism”.

Alvin Plantinga defines “fideism” as “the exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth.” The fideist therefore “urges reliance on faith rather than reason, in matters philosophical and religious,” and therefore may go on to disparage the claims of reason.[5] The fideist seeks truth, above all: and affirms that reason cannot achieve certain kinds of truth, which must instead be accepted only by faith.[4] Plantinga’s definition might be revised to say that what the fideist objects to is not so much “reason” per se—it seems excessive to call Blaise Pascal anti-rational—but evidentialism: the notion that no belief should be held unless it is supported by evidence. (bold mine)

Plantiga, of course, would not consider himself a fideist.  But what does evidentialist apologist and living legend John Warwick Montgomery, commenting on the well-known 20th century Reformed theologian Gordon Clark, have to say about Plantiga’s own approach, that is presuppositionalism?:

“As with all genuinely presuppositional theologies, [Gordon] Clark’s grandiose, seemingly “rationalistic” system reduces to fideism and to what the theologians of the German Reformation called Schwarmerei…” (J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 178)

Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantiga has his own rather sophisticated presuppositional viewpoint

Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantiga has his own rather sophisticated presuppositional viewpoint

On the other hand, Reformed apologist and evangelist Sye Ten Bruggencate, in a rhetorically powerful speech/sermon about presuppositional apologetics (see here) says the following of Montgomery’s approach:

“Examine the evidence so you can get to God – that is evidential apologetics… we give evidence to the unbeliever so that they can use their own reason to get to God… that is just what Scripture tells us not to do.”

According to Bruggencate, with evidential apologetics one necessarily puts the king on trial instead of submitting to him.  As C.S. Lewis put it, “God is in the dock”.  Is that really the case?  Can that, with some evidential approaches and attitudes, be the case?  Of course, the good Dr. Montgomery, who has written

“…we are to render ourselves and our message historically vulnerable as did our Lord Himself when He deigned to enter fully and unreservedly into the maelstrom of human history. If we so present Him, His historical claims will assuredly prevail, for, as those who had eyewitness contact with Him declared, His manifestation in history was accompanied by many infallible proofs.’” – John Warwick Montgomery, Preface, Where is History Going?, 1969)”

…would surely take exception to that characterization!*  And interestingly, C.S. Lewis would have been the first to defend him (see picture below).

The author of this book, on Montgomery's 1963 essay "Jesus Christ and History": "Your lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful...I don't think it could be bettered." (Appendix B in "Where is History Going?")

The author of this book, on Montgomery’s 1963 essay “Jesus Christ and History”: “Your lectures did me good and I shall constantly find them useful…I don’t think it could be bettered.” (Appendix B in “Where is History Going?”)

How can this divide amongst various Christian apologetical approaches be overcome? Andrew Clover, who blogs with me over at Reformation 500, recently said to me in an email (bold mine):

I have often wondered if there isn’t a presuppositional way to argue from evidence. The reason most evidential argumentation falls flat is because the underlying assumptions of the unbeliever’s worldview are rarely challenged. So even though the evidence presented is often very solid, the unbeliever reinterprets it through his own grid. [Presuppositional apologetics] seeks to challenge those assumptions, whatever they may be in particular cases.

It seems to me that it should be possible, at least in theory, to make a holistic apologetic that both challenges the assumptions of atheists and even other religions on a philosophical level, while simultaneously showing how the evidence all points to the biblical worldview being correct. Of course, none of that means anything without the gospel; but we both know that already.

This is what we are going to be looking at more closely. For a preview of some of the content of that discussion, check out this very interesting post at the Brothers of John the Steadfast blog by Sam Schuldheisz, titled “Lutheran and Reformed Apologetics: An Overview”.  I also recommend reading the comments as I think a very productive discussion – involving both Dr. John Warwick Montgomery and Dr. Rod Rosenbladt! – took place there.

I’ll leave you with a quote from a man named Jim Pierce who participated in that conversation:

I think there is a third way and that is plainly speaking the Gospel truth to all and defending one’s own faith from the Scriptures. Furthermore, we should use whatever else we can adopt from both evidential and presuppositional apologetics while we confess the truth of Christ
…as Lutherans who don’t believe, teach, and confess that we can come to faith through reason, we shouldn’t be so concerned about using what we can from presuppositional apologetics as we confess our faith in Christ (or, we shouldn’t reject the whole of presuppositional apologetics out of hand). In other words, it is the Holy Spirit doing the converting, so let’s use all the tools we can which will not conflict with our confession of faith

I think Jim is making some real sense here, and in the coming series, I will do my best to clarify how this might be done – starting with my own deep appreciation for evidential apologetics and John Warwick Montgomery.  I hope that you will find it helpful, and I invite you to offer me help as well in this process.


UPDATE: That upcoming series will be called: “Strengthening Montgomery’s Case?: Beyond the Evidentialism-Presuppositionalism-Fideism Debate Towards a Stronger Christian Apologetics”



*Montgomery’s point about Christ making Himself vulnerable goes hand in hand with the Lutheran emphasis on God using humble, simple, and weak things so as not to terrify us utterly with His power and holiness.  Working through the Word and Sacrament, God makes Himself able to be resisted.




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Posted by on August 28, 2014 in Uncategorized


“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part III of III)

The greatist history lesson ever: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32)

The greatest history lesson ever: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Part I

Part II

if history has meaning, this meaning is not historical, but theological; what is called Philosophy of history is nothing else than a Theology of history more or less disguised.” — Robert Flint (1838-1910)*

In the last post, we looked in some detail at historicism, which I said has been one of the great enemies – along with philosophical naturalism/mechanicism – of the Christian faith.

My take on the current influence of historicism in the Western world is that it is gradually going extinct as particularly Christian notions of divine providence dissipate in the wider populace. That said, I think that historicism still exerts significant influence in the [dying] mainline churches and, ironically, perhaps increasingly in more conservative church bodies as well…. (with Erlangen theology, for example, being increasingly attractive to some conservative proponents of Lutheranism looking for what are widely considered more intellectually respectable options).

An agnostic seeking to be escape the "myth of progress", based, he says, in religion.

An agnostic seeking to be escape the “myth of progress”, based, he says, in religion.  More here**.

Onward. The final post in this series addresses the reality of purpose in history as well as the Christian alternative to historicism (and more indirectly, philosophical naturalism/mechanicism as well).

These days, we hear much from persons – even those who consider themselves quite “non-religious” – about “being on the right side of history”. A good question here is why one would assume – particularly if a person is more atheistic or agnostic – there is a right side to be on? Truly, even those who insist that impersonal and purposeless processes are the foundation of the cosmos consistently find themselves attributing a purpose to life that goes deeper than their mere preferences.

In his book, Christ and History, mentioned in previous posts, George Buttrick says

“…the ‘fatalities’ of nature (interesting word: fate-alities) invade history; and nature sometimes seems irrational, at least to historical eyes. Why should a flash flood in the Pennsylvania hills sweep away an orphanage?..Hitler’s Germany or an engine driver cannot fully be ‘explained.’ There is an irrational streak in history.” (66 and 67)

Russel Crowe as "Maximus" in the 2000  movie, Gladiator

Russel Crowe as “Maximus” in the 2000 movie, Gladiator

…and then perceptively notes that just when people

“say that history is irrational it reveals purpose… [this] heresy [of American progress] could not have risen except as deviation from a true surmise, namely, that history has a purpose – so that man is able to ask, “What is the meaning of history?” How strange that amid all the fatefulness of human freedom, politics is still a valid quest! How strange that history is not a raveled chaos, but a tapestry of which we ask, “What does this portray?” Good statesmanship is the right reading of events and the proposal of realistic action: it assumes that history will honor, at least in measure, our honorable purpose – because history itself is purpose. Jesus seems to have assured men of this trustworthiness in our human story: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Here he compares the dependability of nature with the sure purposes of history. So each man says of public and private pilgrimage: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.” Yet how can purpose be irrational, and irrationality show purpose?” (67-68)

He also writes, compellingly

We assume human freedom, and have little option; for if we deny freedom, we assume that the denial is free, not merely the lip movements of a marionette. Similarly we assume that freedom is responsible freedom, as when we say, “he was brave’ or “he was a coward.” If we confess, as we must, that we have small right to judge our neighbors since we cannot read their inner history and may be ignorant even of their outward circumstance, and since we also have a tarnished record, we thus make a larger confession, namely, that we are all under a higher court….Yet history seems often to scorn the responsible man…” (p. 70)**

Only written by the winners?

Only written by the winners?

And as noted in our first post, history goes down to the deepest levels. Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? Or, in words Buttrick uses: Who am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of history? From where have I come and where am I going? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? And if we should not, like those under the thrall of historicism, talk about “salvation history” as distinct “world history” – but rather say “history is history is history” – what does this look like?

History is a part of who we are – not just the facts but the meaning of the past, present and future are always before us! We cannot avoid being creatures who must give an account of who we are: from where we have come, where we are, and where we are going. This is because we are the crown of God’s creation created in His image. As He does history, we do history.

That said, it is true that from the beginnings of the creation only God has perfect knowledge about what has, is, and will happen on this stage that He has prepared – the drives, the thoughts, the words and deeds of all flesh. And this is true even as He Himself is far from being a “neutral observer” but rather moves (in Him all “live and move and have their being”), influences, directs and harnesses all things. It sounds a bit trite, but it really is true – history is “His story”.

And yet, thanks be to God! He has revealed to us that which we need to know about our living, moving and having our being in Him in space and timethe things that really and truly matter. God has spoken! – He is there and not silent, as the 20th century Reformed Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer liked to say. In working with His prophets and apostles He tells us what really matters – primarily who He is and what He has done and who we are and what we have done – giving us forgiveness, life, and salvation and – telling us also what He is doing and will do – filling us with direction, purpose, and power for living.

whereishistorygoingIn giving us this life-giving account of what has unfolded by His design in time, our Lord is, again, certainly not “neutral” – such a depressingly deadening and uncommitted word! – even as He certainly is just, fair, and reliable – true – in its telling. In His words to us we discover that in His work in time our Lord has chosen to work intimately with His image-bearers – that is the mini-Creators bent on rejecting Him due to the historic space-time fall. In fact, He has done this very thing – that is working with men – in giving us the Bible (again, see this post on the role of trust in human beings in God’s plan). This book was “co-written” with men more “given over to Him” than most – that is, by those who allowed Him to work through them to give us the Divine Scriptures, which we can and should say are in but not of this world. Like the Son and like the sons themselves.

But of course, it is only natural that we want to ask: if this is the case can we say that God is “objective” in His telling of history? Again, we can see that what is really being asked here is whether or not the account that God has given us is fair, accurate, and reliable – true. It is indeed this – we can rest assured that in giving us the only real message that brings forgiveness, life and salvation He has described the past – and the future – in just this way, even as, again, it is not only this: fort the True One has also been in the midst of it, shaping it. Without a doubt, as regards what has come before us, for example – that is, history proper – we can and should say that there is a certain past that really happened, and that only God knows this past in its fullness, for He very actively knows all of us perfectly. We have no better account of the doings of God and men in time and space than what He can provide us with.

So all of this raises a very interesting question for us: what to make of all other human efforts to record the facts and meanings of man’s past, present and future? Compared with Holy Writ, we can simply say that these are pale imitations – some better, some worse – of what our Lord has done. As men have worked to create accounts which portray the past and speak of its meaning both then and for now, there are certain things we notice. When we talk about the important events in history we tend to focus on victory, wealth, power, prestige, fame, worldly success (and post-Enlightenment, “progress”). He, on the other hand, seems to focus on more simple matters, particularly the power and work of death-defying love – divine and human – that goes deeper than all of these things, transcending them.

So, some historical accounts of men will be more valuable than others, and not only because some are more “objective” than others. Of course, it really does go without saying that no human history is “objective” – it simply cannot be “unbiased”, as if we were the all-seeing and neutral narrator of a novel (of course detailing only the important events in the story – neutral?). And we come to this important point again: even as this idea of the Author and the novel has often been connected with our ideas of God for good reasons, His knowledge of the past, present and future – as we have repeatedly noted above – is much more involved than this! We might equate the notion of “objective” with having a “God’s eye-point of view”. But of course when we think about what having a “God’s eye-point of view” on the world and history means, we might again be tempted to think of God as not being involved – or that involved – in the story.  

How God is "objective" in the ultimate sense.

Is it more that God is objective or that He has an objective?

But He is deeply involved – for He is the great Subject and the Lover of His whole creation (Psalm 145), with man its crown, as the great object. Yes, God’s objective is His beloved object – so here is how history is “objective” to the hilt! 

God’s reliable history – the Holy Scriptures – are not a removed and dispassionate accounting of the facts, but of the meaning of a romance between the Husband and His bride, the Church. Here, all the facts are important – incredibly important!*** – but fall into this wider context.

And there are indeed dark nights in the soul in this history-defining relationship.  But as Buttrick reminds us: “Faith in action has eyes when our natural eyes cannot see”. (p. 79) And in the crucified One, it overcomes the world – in the “long defeat”.

Finally, perhaps some are disappointed that what I have said here does not take more of a “systematic theology”-like approach.  That is deliberately the case – for I think that the Reformed theologian Michael Horton is right when he often asserts that “the doctrine is in the drama”.  As I hope is clear from what I have written here, I think that what the Christian church has to offer the world when it comes to this matter of history cannot be underestimated in terms of its importance.

That will become even more clear in an upcoming series: *How* will we know the truth that sets us free? What is TSSI and is Jesus’ bodily resurrection the validation of His teachings? 

I hope you will join me for that one to.




*Quoted in Montgomery, Where is History Going?, p. 184

**He goes on to say: “[Israel] admitted that judgment had rightly fallen, or so at least her prophets knew; but Assyria! – Assyria was blind to God and His judgments, and worshipped only idols! So we ask why a megalomaniac paperchanger should bedevil the world. Yes, the seeds of Hitlerism were in every land, but the world arraigned against him was not Hitler. Bright eras come, not by man’s contriving; dark eras, not by man’s intention and desire. We are still responsible, but history ever and again appears irresponsible, as if there were no right and wrong… (pp. 70-71)

***In a recent post, the prominent and highly influential Eastern Orthodox blogger Father Stephen Freeman said:

Deeply connected to materialist Christianity is a “materialist” understanding of time. In the modern understanding, time is simply a description of the chain of cause and effect – the past being a collection of causes, the present being the result of those causes, and the future being the results that have not yet happened (and therefore do not yet exist). With a materialist notion of cause and effect, history (with a solid/fixed existence) becomes of supreme importance. Christianity as a “historical” religion, becomes a description of Divine causes and effects. The linear character of time takes on a controlling character. Thus historical (solid/fixed) events such as the Creation of Man, the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Red Sea, etc., have their historical character as their prime importance. The story of the universe is a story that takes place entirely within a materialist system of cause and effect. Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution. And because of the fixed nature of time/cause/effect, each historical event presupposes and requires the same character of its causes. Thus if the historical character of Adam and Eve are questioned, then the historical character of all subsequent events are challenged as well. The Fall becomes the cause of the Cross.

Elsewhere, he had written:

“Adam as the progenitor of sin is nowhere an idea of importance (or even an idea) within the Old Testament. St. Paul raises Adam to a new level of consideration, recognizing in him a type of Christ, “the Second Adam.” But St. Paul’s Adam is arguably much like St. Paul’s Abraham (in Galatians), a story whose primary usefulness is the making of a theological point.

Nevertheless, St. Paul’s lead eventually becomes the pathway for history’s ascendancy. For while it is true that man’s breaking communion with God is the source of death, this is reduced to mere historical fact in the doctrine of Original Sin. For here Adam, as the first historical man, becomes infinitely guilty and deserving of punishment, and pays his juridical debt forward to all generations. This historical understanding of the fall, with inherited guilt, locks the Fall within historical necessity. It is among numerous reasons that Original Sin, as classically stated in the West, has not found a lasting place within Orthodox tradition.”

One must wonder: are we then, in the West, by virtue of our believing in a historical Adam, all crass literalists now?  In responded to him regarding that first post above, I asked this

.when you say that “Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution”, is this not, from our perspective, something that seems to be very true? A simple reading of the account in Genesis 1-3 would seem to suggest this, would it not? Is there not some sense in which innocence was lost? Do they not realize they are naked? Do they not run? Does not “everything change” in some mysterious sense here? You speak of us misunderstanding the Fathers today, seeing them through the lens of this materialist Christianity (the “alien metaphysic” as you say). Do not some of the Fathers speak in this way though?

He said, in part:

you correct that there are fathers who speak in this way. I would speak in that way in certain contexts.

But the Genesis account is not a simple account and there are many things within it that signal this. It is layered and complex and sometimes begs questions (that call us beyond the simple). I sometimes think that the “simple” approach to Genesis forgets to stay with the text and reads an imaginary construction of the text that ignores the signals to abandon the simple.

“In the Beginning.” Sounds simple. St. John did not think so. Many fathers immediately noted that Christ Himself is the “Beginning.” I could go on and on and never leave the first verse.

I replied, in part:

What concerns me is that for many, Gods’ word seems to be merely something like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – the main intention not being to convey real history that speaks to us and forms us now, but rather to simply speak to us and form us now…

Now, now, now.

But look at Jesus… he never gives any indication that He took the events of the OT as anything other than things that really happened. What do we do when the True Myth Incarnate gives us such impressions… and then tells us to to believe like children?

For it seems to me, there is a ruthless logic here. There are these genealogies that connect Adam with Christ after all… Why stop with Genesis and Adam as being mythological so as to just be for the now, now, now – at the expense of words acknowledging that it also has to do with the real past?

Must these be set against one another? Is the realism you speak of – and which I hold to as well – against this?

And that, for now, is where the conversation ends.  I am told that someone like C.S. Lewis was “absolutely not a Christian materialist” but a decided “Realist” like the rest of the Inklings.  And I ask “What does this mean?”  Are we in the West who believe in a literal Adam not realists now where those who would deny him are?

What do you do when the True Myth Incarnate (Hat tip: C.S. Lewis) gives every indication that the stories of the Old Testament are utterly historical as well as for our moral edification? Do you, in an effort to stifle this inconvenient truth, eventually end up consigning the True Myth Incarnate to more ethereal realms as well? Why wouldn’t you? And then, even if you still say that you believe in Jesus Christ (as Jowett – see part I – no doubt would have claimed), do you really?  Might it not be time to wonder, with Paul, whether or not you have a “different Jesus”?


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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Uncategorized


“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part II of III)

“If exegesis is to be practiced historico-critically, it must use the methods of secular historical science, i.e. criticism which allows only probability judgments, and the principles of analogy and correlation (cf. Troeltsch).  Thereby it subjects itself in principle to secular-historical judgment” (theses presented for discussion in the University of Munich, quoted by Marquart on p. 114)

“If exegesis is to be practiced historico-critically, it must use the methods of secular historical science, i.e. criticism which allows only probability judgments, and the principles of analogy and correlation (cf. Troeltsch). Thereby it subjects itself in principle to secular-historical judgment” — theses presented for discussion in the University of Munich* (picture is of Ernst Troeltsch)

Part I

“[The distorted ideas of modernity] see man as his own god, and history either as man’s work or as a naturalism.” — p. 25, Bible as history, George Buttrick

Today I want to talk about historicism, with lots of help from the respected confessional Lutheran apologist and historian Dr. Martin Noland.

Over my last Christmas vacation, I tackled his PhD. Dissertation, Harnack’s historicism: the genesis, development, and institutionalization of historicism and its expression in the thought of Adolf Von Harnack (1996).** Right away I was hooked and intrigued with Dr. Noland’s ambitious work, because we share very common interests and he seemed to “fill in” many of the gaps that have existed in my own knowledge of topics such as these (see my own series on this topic “What Athens needs from Jerusalem”).

What follows is my own highlighting of key elements of Dr. Noland’s dissertation, along with some comments that aim to build on his very insightful observations and synthesis.

Be warned – what follows is admittedly some very dense and heady stuff – this can’t be avoided when talking about historicism! – but I am trying to make it understandable as best as I can, choosing the most helpful quotes and the like. At 360 pages, the dissertation covers a lot, and in order to not simplify the complexity too much, I have chosen to error on the side of going a bit too long myself. Here is a particularly helpful summation of Noland’s work by the man himself:

In summary, historicism was both a worldview and a method. As a worldview, it was identified with anti-naturalist and post-speculative realist perspectives, emphasizing the themes of the malleability of human nature and individuality. As a method, it operated with the principles of criticism, analogy, correlation, development, and the historical idea.” (p. 83)

The “post-speculative realist perspective” talked about in that quote is a term that emphasizes a distinction between men like Hegel and the others who followed him that are usually considered to be historicists – Hegel was far more optimistic about man’s ability to speculate accurately about the future, given what he considered the discernible workings of the Spirit in the world. In his dissertation, Noland points out the Christian influences (particularly a strong notion of “divine providence”) on some of the first systematic thinkers in historicism – men who responded to and countered Hegel – particularly Ranke and Humboldt, and also says that the highly influential early 20th c. theologian Adolf Von Harnack was “closer to the early historicists… than Troeltsch may have realized” (p. 202, hence Von Harnack’s picture being in part I).

Who is Troeltsch?  Pictured above, he is most well-known as a Christian historian of culture and religion, and the author of the famed work Die soziallehren der chrsitlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, which Noland says can be seen not primarily as a theological treatise, but “the epitome of historicist analysis of Western society at the highest level” (p. 213). So it is not surprising that Noland cites Troeltsch quite a bit in his dissertation, for the most part seeming to accept his analysis and synthesis as helpful (Noland’s own view is that Troeltsch himself should be classified as a historicist – he also told me that his views were affected by World War One and that he thinks Troeltsch can be considered a transition figure***).  Again, what follows will summarize some key bits of Noland’s overall analysis.

With the overthrow of Aristotle, both good and bad things came.

With the overthrow of Aristotle, both good and bad things came.

First however, I will share some of my own comments – to set the wider context a bit more. With the advent of Descartes in the mid- 17th c., there is a fundamental shift in philosophy in the Western world – a shift that the great Lutheran theologian John Gerhard perhaps just caught the tail end of.  Nevertheless – and I admit that I could be wrong about this – it seems to me that with Descartes we have an attempt to partially salvage Aristotle’s focus on certainties external to, or outside of, us – namely, their discernible essences – from the onslaught of Francis Bacon’s program (exemplified by a title riffing on Aristotle: the New Organon****), which in sum emphasized the importance of “what works”- technique (with extreme forms of nominalism being the inevitable result of this) via experimentation, systematic observation, and probabilities.

Rene “I think therefore I am” Descartes was not only a towering philosopher but also a mathematician and practicing scientist.  His ideas, scientific and philosophical (in these days, these were seen as going together, science was philosophy) had an immediate influence.  It would be  then be other action-men like Blaise Pascal who would soon afterwards seem to further vindicate crucial aspects of both Bacon and Descartes’ approaches, what with his many experimental science and mathematical-invention successes. Newton would follow soon thereafter, lending even more credibility – immense credibility – to Bacon and Descartes.  However, even in these days there were men who saw what was being missed in these approaches and endeavored to put forth their own viewpoints. Some indeed sensed that the Enlightenment efforts of men like Descartes (“the only things that can be proved, demonstrated, and verified beyond a doubt can be called ‘knowledge’”) and later, David Hume (there is a “fact-value split”) were, to say the least, “a bit off”.

Back to Dr. Noland’s dissertation: the key point in all of this, according to Troeltsch, is that for Descartes the question is no longer about ontology (“what is”) but rather the mind’s apprehension of reality, or “epistemology” (“an analysis of the contents of consciousness”, “what is known”).*****  Descartes, according to Troeltsch, is a “naturalist” who looks at the world through the lens of quantity and regularity and seeks to “express everything by mathematical statements and to find constant mechanisms behind all phenomena. It conceptualizes these mechanisms in the forms of laws, based on observations of physical, social, or moral regularity.” Naturalism “looks at the world from the standpoint of physical entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all human behavior and history physically” (Troeltsch, quoted in Noland, pp. 46 and 47).******

On the other hand, historicism, according to Troeltsch, is the great antithesis of naturalism. And Descarte’s great antithesis personified was an Italian writer by the name of Vico. According to Noland and those he cites (men like Isaiah Berlin, for example), we see the beginnings of this species of thought called historicism with him, who also introduced the notion of “mytho-poetical” truth – and how it could explain what had happened among the heathen (note: not Jewish and Christian) nations (p. 102). Like Descartes, Vico wanted to pursue “science” and “general laws” and so did not outrightly reject the scientific mindset like the historicists of the future would (“German thinkers steeped in pietism and mysticism”), who put their focus not only on organic ideas, like Vico, but individualities as well (p. 116). While Descartes rejected the “application of human ideas, such as ‘laws’ and ‘principles’, to the study of history, Vico argued that human history is, in fact, created precisely through such ideas, which are ‘modifications of the human mind’” (p. 108) – he “asserted the epistemological primacy of the man-made historical world” (Gadamer, in Noland p. 217). In Vico’s mind, methodological error was to be charged towards persons like Descartes, who “apply human ideas, such as ‘laws’ and ‘principles,’ to the study of nature, which was created by God and so is fully known by God alone” (p. 108)!

Noland sums up Troeltsch’s views on historicism by saying that while it to, like Descartes, was concerned with the “contents of consciousness” (the “cognito ergo sum” – i.e. vs. ontology, i.e. “what is”), it also…

looks at the world from the standpoint of intellectual, spiritual, and psychological entities and processes, even to the extreme point of explaining all natural phenomena as a cultural growth. Unlike the model of Newtonian science, which posited the fixed nature of entities and the mathematical description of processes, historicism recognizes that entities change and develop over the course of time. Such change of an entity, requiring a historical account of its origin and growth, is thus the root issue dividing naturalism and historicism. (p. 47)”

In short, “what the Enlightenment [and its naturalism] attributed to nature and nature’s God… the historicists attributed to history and history’s God” (p. 143).

John Henry Newman, also big on the importance of probability...

John Henry Newman, also emphasized the  importance of probability when it comes to finding faith…

Troeltsch contends, Noland says, that “the empiricist category of ‘experience,’ with its anti-naturalist concentration on knowledge attained a posteriori, not least by immersion in the ‘stream of history,’… laid the foundations for the rise of historicism” (48-50). Noland also says that “criticism is not a chief, distinguishing principle of historicist thought” even though for the historicist, we note that actual historical events become all about probabilities (p. 59).

In addition, for the historicist, the notion of “correlation” (“there can be no change at one point without some preceding and consequent change elsewhere…. Everything is interconnected and each single event is related to all others” – Troeletsch, p. 64) replaces the naturalist’s “mechanical concepts of causation” (though ultimately “’culture’, i.e. [bildung], is the historicist’s causal principle”) and “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change” (italics mine, p. 103).******* Importantly, the past is not a “series of isolated, sporadic, and ultimately meaningless events”, but everything contributes to “development”, which “connotes some form of growth or improvement” (p. 69). Again, note that many of these ideas are either explicit or are implicit/tacit already within the writings of Vico, who can be called the “father of historicism”.

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

Martin Noland, on historicism: “all classical notions of ‘substance’ and ‘essence’ become obsolete” and “even the notion of ‘truth’ becomes subject to change.”

I would also note here that for the naturalist and historicist (throw in empiricist, rationalist, etc), the present becomes the key to the past (for the historicist, this means “empathetically” coming to understand human nature more and more now, in line with creating a “psychology of historical causes”, p. 64) even if this also means “thinking in terms of the totality” (where there are necessary internal factors and contingent external factors to consider – this key principle is known as the “historical idea” [p. 74]) and not simply in terms of accurately reporting specific historical events, or as a historicist might say “unique and autonomous historical forces” [where these “stand in a current and context comprehending the totality of events” and are always conditioned by their context])******** (p. 64, 68, 69; for more key paragraphs explaining historicism see 62)

Noland also touches on the modern era, with the “linguistic turn” in historiography, which insists that the historian’s language does not only represent or reflect “past actuality”, but in some sense also creates it – the “narrativist” Ankersmit, for example, “argued that the historical idea was a construction of historicists, which they mistakenly located in the past itself as its principle of coherence” – this is to be guilty of “reifying” the historical idea. In other words, the “historian’s language does not reflect a coherence… in the past itself but only gives coherence to the past” (Ankersmit, quoted on p. 80). Noland says that if the historical idea is simply an arbitrary concept it “may well be judged a bankrupt method and worldview”. On the other hand, he says “the historicist notion of a ‘cultural whole,’ for which there are evidential grounds in both present and past history, resists the complete dissolution of the historical idea into textuality” (p. 81).**********

How can the “good, the true, and the beautiful” avoid becoming that which certain persons – and those they choose to associate with – simply agree is  - or they will say is – good, true and beautiful?

How can the “good, the true, and the beautiful” avoid becoming that which certain persons – and those they choose to associate with – simply agree is – or they will say is – good, true and beautiful?

Also noteworthy here is that before postmodern critiques like this came into play, Heidegger’s “existentialist analysis of Dasein and its temporality” can be seen to coincide with prominent historicists like Dilthey for example, who “judged that the internal experience of human ‘self’ and its historical memory” – “that strange fusion of memory and expectation” in internal experience – “afforded the only adequate foundation for historical knowledge” (p. 218). Unlike Vico, Dilthey summed up the view of many a modern historicist when he said that “the historical world cannot be subsumed under general values and laws, because history is constituted by the constant development of life in its inexhaustible and unpredictable fullness” (p. 219).

And we would also be remiss to mention how with the advent of Darwinism, this naturalism and historicism Troeltsch speak of could actually be imagined to merge together and go hand-in-hand, something Troeltsch himself observed had happened (pp. 48-50). I would sum this up by saying that the only difference here is that there are evolutionists more in line with Newton’s more naturalistic and mechanical approach (think Dawkins minus Newton’s piety) and those more in line with Goethe’s more organic approach to evolution (think Stephen J. Gould minus Goethe’s supernaturalism).   Here, I would refer persons to Benjamin Wiker’s helpful book Moral Darwinism to help one get a sense of the long and interesting story of evolutionary ideas and their influence. Further, I would also add that notions of “essences” – that is unchanging things – at this time could be more easily associated with things like atoms (and today particles known to be even more fundamental) as opposed to things like dogs, cats, men, women, marriage, children, etc.   Of course when this is pitched we are then left with this question: how can the “good, the true, and the beautiful” avoid becoming that which certain persons – and those they choose to associate with – simply agree is – or they will say is – good, true and beautiful?  

Who do you trust indeed?  Ah, trust.  Who are the voices from history that really do have a handle on history – real history?  We will pick up here tomorrow, but in the meantime, you can also see this post (“Put not your trust in men?  Overcoming the Cretan’s paradox in Christ”) I did as regards the critical role of trust in the world in general and the Christian church in particular.




* quoted by Marquart on p. 114, Anatomy of an Explosion: Missouri in Lutheran Perspective.  He also quotes from a May 1975 Forum Letter:

“It is not enough to say that historical criticism means ‘discriminating appreciation.’  ‘The historian,’ says [David] Lotz, ‘must cross-examine, test, weigh, probe and analyze all written records of the past.  If he fails to do this he de facto surrenders his claim to the title of historian!’ (p. 116, italics and bold mine)

Note that well.  Evidently, we can’t seek to learn more about history simply because we are curious to do so.  Of course questions will come, but no one can question absolutely everything.

As regards that first quote accompanying the Troeltsch picture, of course this “secular historical science” was in many cases advanced by professing Christians.  Although for many of them, universal human reason which could be shared by all (producing clear and distinct ideas) was not necessarily supposed to be opposed to the Bible – such was the claim at the time.

** In light of the issues presented by Lutheran theologian and textual critic Jeffrey Kloha several months ago, Lutheran theologian and historian Martin Noland gave pastors and interested laypersons a reading list (as had Dr. Kloha), and I slowly begin working my way through some of those recommended titles. One of those titles was Dr. Noland’s dissertation, evidently recommended to help persons have more historical context for better and more complete understanding these issues. The dissertation is available through the ProQuest dissertations database and so can be readily obtained from most academic libraries (I have commented more on this issue that arose a few months ago here).

Another note: I shared this part of my series with Dr. Noland and he wanted to point out that he is not a historicist by just about any definition of the term.  He actually took on this topic because his doctoral advisor, Dr. David Lotz, said that work needed to be done in this area for the “guild” of church historians.

*** Personal email, Aug. 3, 2014.

**** I can imagine that Aristotle would have found some of what Bacon had to say amenable to his own approach. After all, it was Aristotle who first pointed out that “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations (quoted in Crawford, Shop class as Soulcraft, p. 23).”

***** Quote from a First Thoughts commentator I saw while writing this: “I recall coming across in my reading a description of the modern/postmodern worldview as a worldview that has in effect replaced the metaphysics of the ancients with epistemology. This observation seems particularly relevant [in the following case]: Whereas the Carthaginian inhabits a cosmos haunted by metaphysical gods demanding blood sacrifice, the Postmodern inhabits a world that is ultimately subject to his or her own solipsistic preferences: thus a fetus is a life when the mother wants it, but not when she doesn’t want it.

****** Later on, according to Noland, Hamann would, along with Berkeley, assert that “human beings experience a regularity in the world around them, which they then improperly abstract into a concept of ‘natural law’ that excludes from serious discourse, the mystical, and the religious” (p. 124). Noland notes that this assertion was not adopted by later historicists. Nevertheless, I was happy to see this insight from some respected thinkers, as it is something that I myself have thought of quite frequently (see here)

******* Manelbaum has stated that historicism helped people to obtain a “historical sense”, which involved being able to “shed the prejudices of the day” and the rejection of anachronism, and he says that the “historical sense” “has also been regarded as characteristic of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 66, 7 ; I note that there have always been careful historians who have tried to keep their prejudices and ignorance of other’s customs in check, and would point to the 16th c. Lutheran humanist Flacius as a good example of a historian like this).   While this certainly sounds good, I note that one person’s “prejudice” may also be another person’s devout faith – and something they ought not give up

Note that on p. 113 Noland says that in Vico one cannot find the historicist principle of criticism (this would be where the historian tries to get behind the text, seeking for a “more credible” story) and yet it seems to me that the roots of this at least are clearly seen in this denial of more classical understandings of the terms “substance” or “essence”, which was certainly encouraged by Vico’s affinity for the Epicurean disciple, the Roman poet, Lucretius. If there are no stable categories that persons of varying backgrounds can agree on throughout time, can we, or should we, really be confident of anything that we are able to perceive? On what basis? The idea that we can be confident on the basis of a “principle of analogy”, affirming that human beings can know the things they have made (the mind’s awareness of its own productions over time) falls flat for both scientific (see Kant’s critique of this notion in his words vs. Herder) and practical reasons (for example, one simply needs to see all the important questions that historicists disagreed on! Which “self-understanding of the Spirit”???). Thus it is easy to see how the criticism that results in only skepticism without end gets started.

Further, on p. 96 note that Vico, in spite of his belief in a version of Divine providence, contrasted his own view with the “doctrinaires [i.e., the Cartesians], who “judge human actions as they ought to be, not as they actually are (i.e. performed more or less at random)” and who, “satisfied with abstract truth alone” and “unused to following probability” (emphasis mine), do not bother to “find out whether their opinion is held by the generality and whether the things that are truths to them are also such to other people”. While Vico is not dealing with the probability of historical events here, one can see how his idea of human belief and behavior – with the emphasis on generally held opinion and actions “performed more of less at random” – decreases the importance of both particular beliefs in the world and individual human agency (even if it does increase the importance shown to individual “forms” – according to Noland, as the father of “organicism” Vico could say that everything that is ‘made’ is ‘true”” and that “there are no mutations and no aberrations, only manifold potentialities”, p. 103), and with this the importance of character, and with this the importance of loyalty and trust.  This seems like it will inevitably lead to even more criticism and dissolution. After all, men are ruled “not be forethought, but by whim or chance” (p. 99).  Also note that in spite of his supposedly un-mythical-poetical use of the Bible (he applied the mythical-poetical critique to all the non-Christian/Jewish religions), Vico also did not believe that we were all one in Adam (p. 180).

********  Noland: “Historicists, to be sure, make ‘present experience’ a criterion of ‘what really happened’ in the past; but this methodological principle of analogy does not require one to minimize or otherwise obscure the ‘differentness’ of the past. Historicism, however, does oblige the historian to view events as ‘embedded within a pattern of development.’ The historical sense, by contrast, is content to investigate the discrete event as such, to determine its individual nature, apart from any concern to locate it in a larger developmental process.”

With this principle in mind, one wonders how much “differentness” the historicist is actually able to tolerate. Resurrections from the dead? The lives of totally unique human beings like Jesus of Nazareth, the very Son of God himself incarnate in the flesh?  If historicism can only be conceived of in categories more Platonic than Aristotelian, one wonders where this leaves the importance of this concrete determinative action of the Son of God in human history.

One can see lots of Plato in Vico: “Abstract, or general truths are eternal; concrete or specific ones change momentarily from truths to untruths. Eternal truths stand above nature; in nature, instead, everything is unstable, mutable. But congruity exists between goodness and truth; they partake of the same essence, of the same qualities…. (p. 96)

That said, I do not think the idea of the “historical sense” is perfect either, when one considers the importance of not only God’s individual acts in history, but the ongoing story that the Bible tells of his faithfulness.

********** Note also this statement by Wayne Hudson, in his recent article, “Theology and historicism”, thesis eleven 116(1) 19-39, 2013: “Put bluntly, it is not clear why…. recurrent structural features should not also be historicized if things change in the course of history as much as historicists suggest.  Conversely, if things do not change that much, then historicizing may have limited applications in other areas as well.


Images: Wikipedia ; Noland – Brothers of John the Steadfast.

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Posted by on August 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


“The right side of history” – what does this mean? History, historicism, and the Christian faith (part I of III)

Vico, Hegel, Harnack... in the line of historicism, yet another Christian heresy.

Vico, Hegel, Harnack… in the line of historicism, yet another Christian heresy.


“Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ’s historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history.” — J.W. Montgomery, Where is History Going? 1969, p. 185


I plan on getting to my posts dealing with Lutheran apologetics soon.  First though, this series (which will lay some good groundwork for those forthcoming posts).

In recent posts, “Daring to Deny Darwin” and “The ‘Upside’ of Being a Gadget”, I talked about one of the great enemies of the Christian faith: philosophical naturalism.

(and I have characterized one of the most modern forms of philosophical naturalism – existing from the 17th century and up – as the modern scientific and technological mindset, or MSTM, which we could also call “mechanized naturalism” or “mechanicism”).

I also recently posted a very short critique of Erlangen theology.  One aspect of this kind of theology is that it attempts to take into account some of the more creative ideas and methods of the great 19th c. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.  Hegel is perhaps the foremost proponent of “historicism”, which is a philosophy that originally arose in order to counter some of the negative aspects (and fruit) of more modern naturalistic views.* (more on this specifically in part II of the series).

That said, historicism is another great enemy of the Christian faith.  I would contend that the modern form of philosophical naturalism/mechnicism is like the drunk man who gets on the horse and falls off on one side.  Historicism is the basic counter-response, and the drunk man falling off the other side of the horse. The one who tries to utilize both in tandem also cannot balance on the horse.  Of course the drunk man in our analogy is a symbol of fallen man, particularly fallen man at the utter heights of his fallen intellectual powers (there is no denying he is clever and aware of much that is true!) – natural man’s own view of himself is that he is the “reasonable man”.

In this series we will take a look at historicism while also talking about the importance of real history.

We begin…

Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life?

These are questions about historical matters that none of us can fail to ask or think about. That said, naturalism and historicism, which I have said are two great philosophical enemies of the Christian faith, complicate terribly our potential answers to these questions.

sparrowThese days, you will certainly not get sage advice like the that given to Edwin, the 7th century King of Northumbria (now northern England and south-east Scotland).  After hearing the Gospel preached, the King proposed to convert to Christianity and one of his chief advisors, according to the Venerable Bede, said this:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”** (story from Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731).

Answers such as these were at one time seen as being eminently reasonable, especially in an age where much history had been lost.  To say the least, this is no longer the case.

Starting with the Renaissance but with the Enlightenment in particular, new ideas and new discoveries were in the air…  Many of these ideas, some good and some bad, would find their most fulsome flowering in the thought of the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. (though starting out with a man by the name of Vico – see next post). While it is fair to say that Hegel is more known as an idealist than a historicist, his work is associated with both of these streams of thought, which tend to merge.

In order to give you a bit of the flavor of the kind of influence Hegel enjoyed and the fruits his ideas bore, here is a lengthy – but very interesting – quote from the book “God’s Funeral” by A.N. Wilson.  In this quote, Wilson follows some of the history of a highly influential scholar and professor named Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), who is little known today but in his own day “turns up in a thousand nineteenth-century anecdotes”. Please note that Wilson himself is a septic skeptic – I will refrain from editorializing too much about his own rather skewed take on things:

An interesting account of the increasing atheism and agnosticism in 19th c. England.

An interesting account of the increasing atheism and agnosticism in 19th c. England.

“Unlike most Oxford men of his age, [Jowett] knew that there was an alternative [to self-defeating Humean empiricism and “insulting” revealed religion]. When his friend Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (destined to be Dean of Westminster – he is the little boy Arthur who risks the ridicule of his dormitory in Tom Brown’s Schooldays by daring to kneel down and say his prayers) had finished his magnificent hagiography of his hero Dr. Arnold, Jowett proposed that the pair of them take a holiday in Germany. They set off in the summer of 1814, with Liddell and Scott’s enormous and newly published Greek Lexicon, and with one copy of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft, which they took it in turn to read and analyse. They attended various philosophical conferences, but the most exciting and important thing Jowett did was to meet Erdmann of Halle – the meeting took place in Dresden. Erdmann was Hegel’s representative on earth. The two young Englishmen were thirteen years too late to meet Hegel himself, but meeting Erdmann was the next best thing.

Jowett never became a full-blown Hegelian. There was always a part of him which, as Geoffrey Faber his biographer says, was ‘salty’ and empirical; there was an even larger part of him which was so Platonist that it did not need Hegel. A typical Jowettism, this:

‘Hegel is untrue, I sometimes fancy, not in the sense of being erroneous, but practically, because it is a consciousness of truth, becoming thereby error. It is very difficult to express what I mean, for it is something which does not make me value Hegel the less as a philosopher. The problem of Truth idealized and yet in action, he does not seem to me to have solved; the Gospel of St. John does.”

There is a brilliance about this remark. Of course, all the churchy bigots regarded Jowett as a complete heretic, and he spend his life, after he came to fame and prominence, being denounced by them. But he was something of a mystic, so that although he never for a moment believed in the Thirty-nine Articles or the literal truth of miracle-stories in the New Testament, he believed deeply in God and Christ.

[editorial comment: OK…]

At first glance, certainly, idealism, the German version, seemed like the best approach for an attack on the dead hand of materialism and empiricism. The extent to which Hegel’s God – mentioned so frequently in that philosopher’s works – is the same God of Christianity can always be a subject of debate. Is Hegel’s God Personal? The community of the Spirit in Hegel consists in the Spiritual Community, or the Church. But this is not understood as [Cardinal] Newman and friends would have understood it in using the word. It is not the laying-on of apostolic hands, still less a sacramental ‘magic’ which constitutes the Hegelian community. The perfected community of enlightened ones is itself, in Hegel’s world, God. And he chose, when describing this community, and impersonal word, Gemeinde, ‘whose ordinary meaning excludes any idea of personal unity’.

Jowett was a great teacher rather than himself an original metaphysician. This is what makes his visit to Germany so important – and so different from [Edward] Pusey’s visit to Gottingen and Berlin nearly twenty years before. Whereas Pusey came back to England and decided that there were storms ahead and it was time to batten down the hatches, Jowett returned with a feeling of liberation…

Lutheran theologian Franz Peiper - Pieper was writing his critique of Erlangen before World War I (for all intents and purposes), before Barth and Bultmann came on the scene, before Barth and Gogarten had their "throw-down" about whether or not God can be known through history, or even creation. Pieper therefore was, to a certain extent, like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming. Therefore he can be forgiven somewhat for not being as prescient as we now can be about the topic post Barth

Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper was “like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming.”*** (this is what he warned us of)

Relevance for us? Stories like this have been recapitulated many a time by many a young theological intellectual (perhaps particularly those intellectuals studying in Germany). German thinkers – with their intoxicatingly comprehensive and systematic foci, have loomed large in world history…. (check out this paper and learn about Bad Boll – you will need to download this to read due to formatting issues)

Hegel’s style of thought was to exercise much influence in 19th and 20th century theology. Of course in the twentieth century there was also resistance to his thought, particularly from the Kierkegaard-influenced neo-Orthodoxy, led by Karl Barth. That said, for all the good that can be found in neo-Orthodoxy, it was lacking in many respects, including its unwillingness to speak about the matter of history and the Christian faith in a way that did not cause utter confusion.  

The late theologian George A. Buttrick wrote a very interesting book in the early 1960s called Christ and History. He is clearly influenced by men like Karl Barth and his neo-orthodoxy, and his comments below a) sound pretty good and yet, b) sound a bit strange, with some jargon that may be unfamiliar to us:

“Is thought primarily scientific or philosophical or theological?  Or is it historical, that is, so constituted as to be able by nature to respond to the onsets of God in history?  At any rate, the Bible is history… the Bible is history, and sacred history and faith-history… Bible history is eschatological…Bible history is focused history… [it] sets a Year One in the midst of history…” — George A Buttrick, Christ and History, 1963, p. 18, 22, 24-26

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hegel: "the philosopher should seek to discover the rational within the real—not to impose the rational upon the real."  Hegel himself:  “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”   Hegel: on the wrong side of history[‘s Author]

Hegel, on the wrong side of history[‘s Author]: “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept”

Despite Buttrick’s overall theology not being ideal, did he indeed hold the line here on this matter of Christ and history?  On the one hand, after I read the book, I thought that he basically did.  On the other hand, upon more reflection, I found myself doubting whether or not he really did! (though I can definitely say that in many respects the book struck me as quite insightful and informed – I will quote from it later on)

Here, it seems to me, is the crux: against Hegel, the Christian must assert that there are some statements made on earth that remain and always will remain true. Permanent.**** Over against those who would employ Hegel to re-imagine the historic Christian faith in this or that way, we must assert that there is no “salvation history” that should be held as distinct from larger (or smaller, according to some theologians) “world history”. In short, “history is history is history”.  That said, I think that some will, understandably, want to be nuanced in their understandings of these things, and in and in part II we will get on that road by taking a closer look at historicism….

(part II in a couple days)




*That said, in many cases historicism – in the minds of many men at least – is also frequently thought to be highly compatible with philosophical naturalism/mechanicism (particularly as regards what is the chronological and mechanical process of evolution and accompanying ideas of progress and goals). Part II will talk about this more.

**”The King did become a Christian and. St. Paulinus[, who had preached to him,] went on to convert many in the kingdom of Northumbria, notably the great Hilda who received the monastic habit from our own St. Aidan who served the next king of Northumbria after Edwin, Oswald.” (from here:

*** Full quote from my pastor: “Pieper was writing his critique of Erlangen before World War I (for all intents and purposes), before Barth and Bultmann came on the scene, before Barth and Gogarten had their “throw-down” about whether or not God can be known through history, or even creation. Pieper therefore was, to a certain extent, “like the scout that saw the opposing force coming, and galloped back to try to warn the garrison of what was coming.” Therefore he can be forgiven somewhat for not being as prescient as we now can be about the topic post Barth…”

**** In this view then, the notion of positive law, for example, cannot simply be thought to be the mere product and catalyst of social change, but is rather is intimately connected with things that are permanent and transcendent, outside of us.

Images: Wikipedia ; sparrow: ; Harnack pic:

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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized


“Christian theology doesn’t just consist in presenting an internally consistent system” — J.W. Montgomery

A very smart guy with lots of smart things to say... like this: "Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ's historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history."*

A very smart guy with lots of smart things to say… like this: “Vagueness as to what is meant by Christ’s historicity must necessarily result in vague and indecisive theologies of history.”*

If I hear him rightly, Montgomery is saying, among other things, something like “correspondence – not just coherence”.  As Wikipedia says about “the Correspondence theory of truth”, “the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to the world and whether it accurately describes (i.e., corresponds with) that world”.  Related to this of course, is the matter of demonstrable evidence, necessary to establish/verify particular claims.

In a previous post on apologetics, I had quoted this bit from C.S. Lewis’ conversion story:

“Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. “Rum thing,” he went on. “All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.” To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not-as I would still have put it — “safe,” where could I turn? Was there then no escape?” [read quote in full context here on PBS’s website]

Here we see the role of real evidence in C.S. Lewis’ conversion – how the “transcendent” broke through.  This, I said, got my vote for “Christian apologetics soundbite of the 20th century.  I also made the following statement:

For me, it is very significant to think of a quote like this in terms of its epistemological and theological significance. Although the Scriptures say that all are guilty before God (Romans 3), it also assigns a greater degree of guilt to persons who receive more light.  Does God assign greater culpability to those who simply hear the eyewitness testimony of those who witnessed the resurrection? Or do they need to at least feel like the claim is perhaps worthy of their attention – while still not believing it – before they can be accorded additional guilt?  Or, in order for this to happen, do they perhaps first need to read C.S. Lewis on why Hume is wrong on miracles, John Warwick Montgomery on how faith is founded on fact, John Wenham on why the resurrection accounts are compatible, or J. Warner Wallace, N.T. Wright, or Michael R. Licona making an inductive case that it is more probable than not that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead?

I will admit, I meant those questions to be rhetorical.  After paying attention to and thinking about these issues for a long time, I have come to some conclusions in the matter which I plan on laying out soon.  

I found it interesting that a day or two after I asked these questions Todd Wilken asked the following question of John Warwick Montgomery on this show:

Talk about if you would the absolute necessity for Christian confession [of faith] to be based not just in claims, not just in assertions, but in what can be established by ordinary means by which we usually establish – to a degree of high probability – to be facts.

Montgomery responded:

You put it very well. The fact of the matter is that religion deals with the ultimate meaning of life and the possibility of eternity…. the possibility of a final cosmic resolution of problems – it deals with ultimates. And since it does, it’s of absolute consequence that we have solid evidence for the religious position that we maintain. If in medicine, let’s say, it’s important that we have a basis for taking a particular remedy rather than another – because otherwise we might manage to kill ourselves – it is infinitely more important in the area of religion that we not rely upon something which is untrue… which is simply wishful thinking. And therefore orthodox Christians – Christians in the tradition of the church’s creeds and that believe that the Bible is in fact God’s word from cover to cover – these people have been tremendously concerned with the evidence and the factual foundations of faith. This is the reason why one branch of systematic theology is apologetics – this is the defense of the faith, the demonstration that this stuff is true. Christian theology doesn’t just consist in presenting an internally consistent system. You know my Uncle Oswald, who I mention frequently on the program, who is convinced he is followed by Albanians has a completely consistent philosophy – it’s just that it hasn’t got anything to do with reality. In the case of Christians, they insist that that the reason for believing in Jesus Christ is because He is God Almighty, He did come to earth and this is the incarnate God who really died on the cross and therefor can really provide a passport for eternity

I appreciate John Warwick Montgomery’s remarks here.  I think that it is very well put and needs to be paid close attention to.  That said, my questions revolve more around the content of Pastor Wilken’s question.

What am I thinking about?  Well, even if Christian faith is merely asserted in this or that circumstance, we can nevertheless say that by virtue of its being Christian faith there is necessarily a lot behind that assertion – not only good and logical reasons but things that we must call evidence as well.  This is part and parcel of Christian faith, even if it really can not be said to be the case for other faiths (yes, a few do try, but I think very unsatisfactorily).

But what is the nature of that evidence?  When we speak of the evidence that is part and parcel of our faith, what should we be focusing on?  And when it comes to speaking to unbelievers in particular, does God’s word have anything to say about what constitutes this evidence?  And what really, if anything, does this have to do with notions of probability?  These are the kinds of questions I want to explore and will look to talk about more in coming weeks.




* Where is History Going? 1969, p. 185

Image credit: Patrick Henry College website.



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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Uncategorized


From Pastor Jonathan Fisk: Please Help Persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria

Good words from Pastor Fisk:


On his blog, he provides additional links with documents and news reports.


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Posted by on August 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


John 16:8-11 and ministerial vs. magisterial interpretation

The Law and the Gospel are not “confused” in the person of Christ.

The Law and the Gospel are not “confused” in the person of Jesus Christ.

For judgment I came into this world…. I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world (John 9:39, 12:47)

It’s not about you: It’s about Jesus for you – and against you.


All of us who are in Christ know that we do not trust our Lord as we ought.*  When we talk about such matters, we are not talking about our justification – for it is not the strength of our faith that saves – but rather our continual Christification (as Pastor Jordan Cooper has called it), or sanctification.

But what about the person who does not trust Jesus Christ at all?  Can they be convicted of the sin of not believing in Jesus?  Of not being willing to be the trick or treat bag that receives God’s good gifts? (as the late Klemet Preus, quoting his father Robert, so aptly put it)

Yes. In John 16:8-11 we read:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today.  Click on image for more.

Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today. Click here for more.

From the Scriptures, we see that the Holy Spirit is Christ’s Spirit – and He not only brings people to Christ but convicts them that they have not yet been brought, or come, to Christ.

This passage from John’s Gospel used to be a staple, go-to text in orthodox Lutheranism. Coinciding with the advent of modern, critical forms of theology, this is one of the texts that has been relegated to the background. These days, even many of us conservative Lutherans are not eager to bring this issue up. Rather, when we talk about Jesus Christ we are determined that this will always be in the context of the Gospel, narrowly understood – as our forgiveness, life, and salvation, our rescuer from sin, death, and the devil! Jesus is pure grace and speak not another word to me! I demand this….

Going along with this, adherents of schools like those of Erlangen are eager to use existentialist philosophy as a theological grounding, emphasizing instead – to the exclusion of everything else – the conviction of sin that might come from the creation itself. Martin Luther talked about how it is possible for a person to even be terrified by the rustling of a leaf (a friend points out this is a reference to Lev. 26:36 and actually illustrates the faintness that befalls those who break God’s law), and these theologians are all over this.

Of course on the one hand this is reasonably in line with what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans chapters 1-3 and with Martin Luther’s own approach to “natural theology”. Further, we can and should note that when it comes to conviction of sin, it is not only a sense of the Creator’s justice and corresponding wrath that is a cause here, but His kindness as well.

For in Romans 2:4, we read that it is God’s His kindness that has a role in leading us to repentance (this does not mean that one can insist that contrition is only genuine and godly sorrow if it has been produced by the love of God**).  In one sense the creation really is ambiguous about the overall goodness of God (see here for a short video clip dwelling on the heartlessness and cruelty of nature) – and yet in another sense, we all see the beauty that remains in the fallen creation and know a measure of joy – for the Creator puts it in all men’s hearts (see Acts 14:17). By the Holy Spirit, we are convicted by the “whole package” of God whose divine nature is not only justice, but above all, love (and it is precisely because he, not sinful man, is good and love that we cannot come to Him by our own “spiritual powers”, converting ourselves).

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

But of course, we know that Christ reveals to us that whole package in even more detail – chasing out the ambiguities and doubts surrounding God’s goodness and love!  So: how much more so can we talk about spiritual conviction when man sees the Creator God incarnate, Jesus Christ! Truly in Him, we see how the promise of grace is wrapped up in His judgment and His judgment is wrapped up in the promise of grace. The law is wrapped up in the gospel and the gospel is wrapped up in the law (before you choke on that phrase note the caption on the picture that leads off this blog post).

He is both the One who will judge the world in righteousness and also the merciful one eager to show grace. And when grace is shown, there is always corresponding punishment of the wicked.

We want to be on the right side of this.

Am I interpreting all of this right? Some reading this might wonder. If you think that I am not getting things quite right perhaps a look at Romans 3 will help:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.20 For by works of the law no human being[a] will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

As Martin Luther and C.F.W. Walther would remind us, understanding the proper function of law and gospel is not, ultimately, about knowing principles about how God works and a) applying them to get guaranteed results or b) not being intentional in trying to get results (see the paper by Holger Sonntag below).  We can, however, say that it is this: it is the art of the Holy Spirit of God leading people into personal confrontation with the living God, perhaps specifically focusing on Jesus Christ – and the corresponding comfort that comes from receiving and believing in the narrow Gospel message.  We either paint with Him in His art – that is, using His methods – or not (for more specifics about the complexities here, read the free paper by Pastor Holger Sonntag on the third use of the law in Martin Luther’s Antinomian Disputations referenced here).***

But knowing this is just background for what I suggest we Lutherans really need to be talking about more today, which is this: while it is inevitable that when doing theology a limited amount of talk about ourselves is going to happen, should we not be emphasizing that we first and foremost focus on God and what He is saying – and because God focuses on us sinners, we also talk about us as *He* talks about us?

“Selfie theologian” Von Hofmann, leader of a school of theology that sees Scripture as merely a “form of the word of God” (think Plato) Go here for more on this.

“Selfie theologian” Von Hofmann (see here)

In other words, when it comes to explaining the message of the Scriptures, we dare not lay the emphasis on our interpretation or imagination – or even the church’s interpretation or imagination – and should this not especially hold true in this process of conviction and conversion (initially and continually)?

While it at times may well be reasonable to point out that the interpreter of Scripture cannot “escape his own shadow…”, when we are talking about standing before Almighty God, perfect in His holiness, is this appropriate?  If we do this, do we not become “I theologians” who practice a form of magisterial, not ministerial interpretation?  Even today, most all confessional Lutherans are eager to point out the dangers of a magisterial use of reason (here is a nice essay from Steven Hein introducing Luther’s complex views regarding the role of reason).  They are not so cautious when it comes to the matter of biblical interpretation.

Must we not, standing naked before God, “escape our own shadow”?  Think about what Pastor Todd Wilken, the host of Issues ETC has said as regards his complaints about much contemporary Christian music: when you are courting a woman, and her father asks you what you find compelling about his daughter, you don’t talk about what she does for you – how she makes you feel and such.  You talk about her, her character, her qualities, who she is.”****

I submit that passages like Romans 3:19-20 in particular help us to remember that the validation of God’s word is never subject to our evaluation of its truthfulness to any degree whatsoever.  Nor is the establishment of God’s word in any degree based on our critical evaluation of it.*****  Nor it this the time for us to be emphasizing how we are inevitably interpreters of the words of others (perhaps even testing them against other things we know are confident are true) – in hearing these words it is we who are interpreted, for we are hearing the active words of the living Spirit of Christ (see more about an interesting battle that took place over issues related to this in the 16th century between Matthias Flacius and Caspar Schwenckfeld). It is only men veering towards or playing with death who dare to call these words “dead”.

grace always – that brings certainty of peace with God – in our time of need.... (Johann von Staupitz instructs and comforts Luther in the 2003 Luther movie)

Grace always – that brings certainty of peace with God – in our time of need…. (Johann von Staupitz instructs and comforts Luther in the 2003 Luther movie)


Or, perhaps you think this a strong message…. In the event that you are feeling terrified or helpless, I offer you this:

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, has had mercy upon us, and has given His Only Son to die for us, and for His sake forgives us all our sins. To them that believe on His Name, He gives power to become the sons of God, and bestows upon them His Holy Spirit. He that believes, and is baptized, shall be saved. Grant this, O Lord, unto us all



*As just one example, the saintly Lutheran pastor Wallace Schulz says this: “Like all churches, we not only could do a little better, we need to do much better in reaching out to the lost and bringing them in. This is the will of God (1 Timothy 2:4)”

**Scripture speaks of God’s word being like a hammer that shatters (Jer. 23:29), but also says that “a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Proverbs 25:15).  In Luther’s antinomian disputations he discusses Rom. 2 to some extent: God’s goodness, just like his wrath, can be a form of his law that leads us to repentance.  In C.F.W. Walther’s eleventh thesis in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel he only says that those who insist that a person must come to repentance through God’s kindness are in error: “To demand of a poor sinner that he must, from the love of God, be alarmed on account of his sins and feel sorry for them is an abominable perversion of Law and Gospel.” (p. 236, 1897 ed., note the “must”).

***Law and Gospel is a valuable light. But if the popular “theological shorthand” misses out on the complexity involved in the application of it to specific individuals in time it goes awry.  Also, those who think that we can say things like the criterion of the law is the self are losing the plot.  The criterion of the law would be God’s self, and He has made His will known.

It is critically important to note that both the law and the gospel have a wider and narrow sense. This is the context – the faith/ethical framework of sorts, in which we live and move and have our being.  This realization is something many modern Lutherans seem to have lost.

****We find that if there is any human being that we should begin to focus on more and more besides the God-man, it is our neighbor, as we are  continuously reminded and even inspired, in our heart of hearts with Christ, to consider others better than ourselves. In short, as we mature more and more we are always actually looking outside of our individual selves more and more – to God in faith and our neighbor in love.

*****We Lutherans who love apologetics ought to note this well.

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Posted by on August 13, 2014 in Uncategorized

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