Strengthening Montgomery’s Case?: Beyond the Evidentialism-Presuppositionalism-Fideism Debate Towards a Stronger Christian Apologetics (part I)

01 Sep
Words we want to hear, a humble goal: "We want to hear you again on this subject." (Acts 17:32)

Words we want to hear, a humble goal…: “We want to hear you again on this subject.” (Acts 17:32)

“Like Cambridge professor C.S. Lewis, I was brought ‘kicking and screaming’ into the kingdom of God by the historical evidence in behalf of Jesus’ claims…” – J.W. Montgomery, “Jesus Christ and History (Part I)” in Where is History Going? 1969, p. 38)*

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” – multiple places in the Bible

In my last post, I spoke about the various categories of Christian apologetics and asked whether or not something could be done to bring them together. I seek to start that process – or at least to start a conversation about that process – in this series of posts. As I do so, I note that the Lutheran historian Martin Noland recently reminded me of two important books (note the titles!) by James Sire: A Little Primer on Humble Apologetics (2006) and Why Good Arguments Often Fail (2006).

It’s always good to be reminded of the importance of humility! As I proceed in this series, please challenge and pushback – because I realize that I am taking on a very important and challenging topic that demands attention from all Christians.

As I have been noting in previous posts (see here, here and here), I have a great appreciation for Christian apologetics, which I think often do not get the attention they deserve or need. I echo the Lutheran philosopher of science Angus Menuge:

Tragically, Lutherans have often neglected the gifts of their laity and espoused a feebleminded fideism that rejects apologetics in favor of emotionalism, pietism, personal testimonies, and feel-good religion that cannot answer the hard questions, and that ultimately provides the unbeliever with no good reason to prefer Christianity to the enormous menu of competing religions and ideologies.” (Angus Menuge, Reformation and the Rationality of Science in Theologia et Apologia, p. 252)

A book honoring beloved Lutheran evidentialist apologist Rod Rosenbladt

A book honoring beloved Lutheran evidentialist apologist Rod Rosenbladt

I can attest to the truth of his words. Again, in my LC-MS church experience (see here and here), apart from a youth director who wanted me to read the Screwtape Letters (I never did), I do not recall hearing anything about apologetics until college – when I was questioning everything I had hitherto known and, for the most part, treasured.

So again – there is much that I greatly love and appreciate about Christian apologists in general and Lutheran apologists in particular. That said, years ago when I was particularly zealous about evidential apologetics – so much so that I wrote my Master’s Treatise defending it’s connection with evangelism – I nevertheless, felt compelled to make the following point (after reading the book edited by Steven B. Cowen, Five Views on Apologetics, 2000):

“The idea that “it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” or to say that “Christian belief is unwarranted in the absence of supporting argumentation” would be characteristics of rationalism (Kelly Clark and William Craig, in Cowan 268, 174). Therefore, although a Christian has their trust in the true Person of Jesus Christ, it does not necessarily follow that “there is a requirement for people to understand and assent to theistic proofs or evidence of the resurrection before they can be rational in holding their Christian beliefs” (Kelly Clark in Cowan 364). At the same time, most would undoubtedly agree that religious terrorists, for example, rely too much on passion and do not sufficiently consider their beliefs and ways. Discernment is called for here.” (me, The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism, pp 11-12 [this was my master’s treatise]).**

I now realize that this kind of thinking*** was really the “camel’s nose in the tent” leading to this question I am now asking about the most popular form of apologetics among serious Lutherans: when it comes to countering more skeptical and modern theologies do they effectively do that or are they actually, in part, captive to them? Or are both of these statements true?   I think both statements are true and will attempt in what follows to explain why.

Speaking of more modern theologies, I recently came across a description of a new book called From Plato to Platonism by Lloyd Gerson.

Plato: How large is his influence in Christianity?  (see here).  Intelligent opposition to nihilism need not necessarily be Platonism

Plato: How large is his influence in Christianity? (see here for a thoughts on the connection between Plato and even “conservative” Protestant theologies). Note that in addition to being popular among many Christians, Platonism is one of the serious secular (in the old sense of the term – not “anti-God”) alternatives to nihilism…

Summing up the book’s content, the reviewer writes:

“The five pillars of Platonism–to which all Platonists subscribe, despite some differences, in Gerson’s view–comprise facets of an antinaturalism that dominated Western philosophy until the 17th century: antinominalism, antimechanism, antimaterialism, antirelativisim, and antiskepticism. Gerson is to be commended for such a robust defense of Platonism as a coherent philosophy.” (Choice July 2014 ; doi:10.5860/CHOICE.51-6099)

That’s an interesting argument. By that measure, a lot of us might be categorized as Platonists who would resist the label.**** In any case, Immanuel Kant – whose ideas are veritable foundation stones in most any modern theology***** – would surely find a home in this crowd. Among other things, Kant talked about the “noumenal”, that is the realm of real things outside the reach of our experience, and the “phenomenal”, that is the realm of what we experience by way of our senses – evidence and “common sense reason”, etc. Kant fits into this description of Plato’s followers better than most, because before Kant Plato also separated the realm of ideas or ideals from the phenomenal world.

In his essay 1970 essay, “The Apologetic Thrust of Lutheran theology”, John Warwick Montgomery shows his well-known brilliance. In responding to 20th c. modern theology and its partial reliance on Platonic and Kantian thought, he says:

“[Yes,] Luther very definitely distinguished two kingdoms, the earthly and the spiritual and in fact considered this distinction to be one of the most valuable aspects of his theology. But does this distinction dichotomize the world into a secular realm where reason and proof operate, and a spiritual realm where evidence has no place? This is precisely the impression given by virtually all modern interpreters of Luther….

Why can neo-orthodox and other varieties of current theology confidently hold to their “theological insights” while simultaneously accepting the most destructive judgments of biblical critics regarding alleged factual errors in the biblical material and the supposed historical unreliability of our Lord’s life? Simply because the (noumenal) truth of theological statements we are told, is in no way dependent upon the phenomenal, secular issues connected with biblical history. After all, the Bible conveys religious, not scientific of historical truth! “The Bible is not a textbook of science,” etc. (pp. 11 and 12, Theologia et Apologia: essays in Reformation theology and its defense presented to Rod Rosenbladt, edited by Francisco, Maas, and Mueller)

Evidentialist apologist (and serious Lutheran), John Warwick Montgomery, considered by many to be the foremost living apologist for biblical Christianity.

Evidentialist apologist (and serious Lutheran), John Warwick Montgomery, “considered by many to be the foremost living apologist for biblical Christianity” (see * below).

In the article, Montgomery shows that Luther not only accepted a natural theology (that is, what we can continue to know about God by nature, even as we suppress this knowledge) but also emphasized the incarnation as the starting point for all discourse about God – and as a link between earthly and spiritual realities.****** This, Montgomery basically argues, clears the way for an apologetics approach like his own based on empirical evidence.

I think so far so very good – Montgomery’s putting modern theologians in their place and stressing God’s active work in history – crowned in the incarnation of the Son of God Himself – is to be greatly appreciated. But what about the whole of his approach? Is his approach still defined by – or at least overly deferential to – knowledge constricting arguments of the Enlightenment (yes, in many ways the aspects of the Enlightenment project did lead to the expansion of knowledge) which have dominated (and largely made) the modern world – which in turn gave birth to the perceived need for modern theologies fleeing to Plato? (largely launched by the early 19th century theologian Schliermacher, who sought to make religion viable – a live option – once again among its “cultured despisers”, and also one of Plato’s primary interpreters in the 19th century).  More needs to be explored here. In the same article mentioned above, Montgomery also quotes two 20th c. Lutheran theologians speaking critically of apologetics, Gustav Aulen and J. Theodore Mueller.

First Aulen (in a statement I think will resonate more with persons appreciative of fideism):

The certainty of Christian faith is not dependent upon the demonstrable character of divine revelation. The idea that scientific studies and investigations should provide a solid foundation for faith and give it certainty is contrary to the nature of both science and faith. If this were indeed possible, it would mean that science, within the empirical reality, which is the object of its study, could discover something of that revelation of which faith speaks. The discoveries of science would in that case verify faith. But this would obviously be to ask something of science which it cannot give without ceasing to be scientific. Whether it be a question of a scientific investigation of nature or history, such a study cannot penetrate to that which is decisive for faith – the revelation of God. (The Faith of the Chrsitian Church, Fortress, 1948, p. 107, cf. 95-96).

Second Mueller (in a statement I think will resonate more with persons appreciative of presuppostionalism*******):

Christian theology is the ability to exhibit, or preach, the Gospel, but not to prove it true by human arguments of reason or philosophy. As the Christian theologian proclaims the truth, he wins souls for Christ, but not as he endeavors to prove true the mysteries of faith by principles of human reason. This also is the meaning of the axiom: “The best apology of the Christian religion is its proclamation.” Let the Gospel be made known and it will of itself prove its divine character. Christian apologetics has therefore only one function: it is to show the unreasonableness of unbelief. Never can it demonstrate the truth with ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom’” (Christian Dogmatics, Concordia, 1950, p. 109)

(quoted in Montgomery, J.W, “The Apologetic Thrust of Lutheran Theology”, in Theologia et Apologia: essays in Reformation theology and its defense presented to Rod Rosenbladt, p. 5, 6)

Montgomery holds that in spite of the clear theological differences, “the apologetic stance of these two men is virtually indistinguishable” as “any attempt to offer an apologetic to establish [Christian revelation’s] validity is to misunderstand the nature of the Christian Gospel”.  

While I concur with Montgomery’s second evaluative statement above, I am particularly interested in whether or not this might be all there is to say about views like Mueller’s in particular.  Stay tuned for part II tomorrow.




* More on the man from this biography found on this Amazon page:

To use C. S. Lewis’s words, John Warwick Montgomery was brought over the threshold of Christian faith “kicking and struggling.”

The year was 1949. The place, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Herman John Eckelmann, a persistent engineering student succeeded in goading Montgomery into religious discussions. Montgomery, a philosophy major disinterested in religion, found himself forced to consider seriously the claims of Jesus Christ in the New Testament in order to preserve his intellectual integrity. After no mean struggle he acknowledged his rebellion against God, asking His forgiveness.

Today, he is considered by many to be the foremost living apologist for biblical Christianity.

A renaissance scholar with a flair for controversy, he lives in France, England and the United States. His international activities have brought him into personal contact with some of the most exciting events of our time: not only was he in China In June 1989, but he was In Fiji during its 1987 bloodless revolution, was involved in assisting East Germans to escape during the time of the Berlin Wall, and was in Paris during the ‘days of May’ 1968.

He is an ordained Lutheran clergyman, an English barrister, and is admitted to practise as a lawyer before the Supreme Court of the United States and inscrit au Barreau de Paris, France. He obtained acquittals for the ‘Athens 3’ missionaries on charges of proselytism at the Greek Court of Appeals in 1986 and won the leading religious liberty cases of Larissis v. Greece and Bessarabian Orthodox Church v. Moldova before the European Court of Human Rights.

Dr. Montgomery is the author of more than fifty books in five languages. He holds ten earned degrees, Including a Master of Philosophy in Law from the University of Essex, England, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and a Doctorate of the University in Protestant Theology from the University of Strasbourg, France, and the higher doctorate in law (LL.D.) from the University of Cardiff, Wales.

** In contrast to what I wrote here, I believe Montgomery’s position, made understandable when one considers the often low level of Christian understanding in churches, is that we should not assume the correctness of our religious position without checking out its truth value, based on solid evidence. The difficulty here, of course, is that doubt for the non-Christian is always a desirable thing, but is never a desirable thing for the Christian.

*** Now, as I think more on this, I conclude not so much that it is right for persons to believe some things on “insufficient evidence” (though I am open to hearing about concrete examples that seem to defy this), but that our categories concerning just what constitutes evidence – often for practical but sometimes simply for “scientific” reasons – is simply too small. Is what this commentator at Reformation 500 said what I have in mind – or something a bit different?  This is touched on more in this and the next post.

**** This book is in fact a sequel to his Aristotle and Other Platonists!

*****Kant said: “through the concept of [moral] freedom, the ideas of God and immortality gain objective reality and legitimacy and indeed subjective necessity” (Critique of Practical Reason, preface, p. 4 of Prussian Academy edition).  Even many conservative theologians have used Kant’s idea here in their work.  I think it is worth noting that the legacy of Kant’s metaphysics is a topic of considerable debate among scholars. It seems that persons are able to find justification for their views – atheism, deism, theism, panentheism, pantheism, etc – in Kant. For extra credit, someone can explain to me why Kant’s system is incompatible with pantheism (see here and here for some very interesting reading).

******Something that has recently been the focus of evangelical historian Mark Noll in his book about a distinctly Christian scholarship, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind

*******The foremost representative of this school may be Cornelius Van Til.  Van Til, as I understand him, was keen to point out that you can only have logic, reasons, and facts because of God. I have elsewhere written similar things, or at least made statements that carry with it similar assertions: “Even the man claiming atheism trusts the being responsible for all that he can see, hear, feel, etc. – not personally as the giver of all good gifts, but rather as the one who is there – and therefore as the one whom he can and must define himself against. All know, at some level, that making God go away is impossible. Hence the quip about the atheist knowing both that God does not exist and also that he, the atheist, hates him.”  My take on this is that most evidentialists might agree with a lot of what Van Til says (see here for a nice summary of Van Til’s thought in conversation with the giants of philosophy and the problems they inevitably encounter) but then ask “What is the point?  How does this help us in practical terms?”

At the end of the article mentioned above by Nathan Shannon (Shannon, “Christianity and Evidentialism: Van Til and Locke on Facts and Evidence”, WTJ 74 (2012): 323-53) he says:

“We might say that van Til’s entire apologetic outlook is transcendental; he holds that the necessary pre-condition for knowledge is the triune God: “We say that if there is to be any true knowledge at all, there must be in God an absolute system of knowledge.”but since one cannot reason to the pre-condition for the possibility of reason, such a transcendental claim must be defended indirectly, by arguing that each and every other attempt to account for the possibilities of fact and prediction fails. So Van Til claims, “If the Christian theory of creation by God is not true, then we hold that there cannot be objective knowledge of anything.” And how must we approach making an argument to the impossibility of the contrary? “One must place one’s self upon the foundation of those who speak of uninterpreted facts, for argument’s sake, in order to show the impossibility of the existence of any uninterpreted (brute) fact.” This, in brief, is van Til’s apologetic method.”

Again, while I agree that God makes all things – including evidence and argument – possible, I wonder where this gets us practically.  What does it have to say to the fact that I am being responsible choosing a competent pagan doctor to treat my child as opposed to an incompetent Christian one?  Or how does one relate this to the practice of detective work and judicial prosecution?  How do we explain that, given a common framework of law with which to agree with, a jury may unanimously make a correct judgment – “beyond a reasonable doubt” – in a court case?  The “common grace” of God to be sure, but the common grace of God in what way specifically?

Montgomery, for his part, addresses these kinds of matters when he says: 

“The presuppositionalist finds it impossible for non-Christian and Christian to experience common ground in the matter of revelational fact and interpretation.  But consider: In the realm of secular fact (e.g. the chemical composition of water, the historical crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar), both Christian and non-Christian are capable of discovering truth and interpreting it; for university life is predicated on this assumption, and advances in human knowledge are indisputable evidence that even unregenerate man can understand the factual nature of the word and rationally interpret the data of his experience.  

Now if we say that the events of Christ’s life (or the Biblical events in general) are not subject to comparable treatment, then whether we like it or not we are actually divorcing ‘Christian facts’ from secular, non-religious facts. Yet this is precisely what the incarnation denies!….” (“Lutheranism and the Defense of the Christian Faith” (Reformation Lectures), Lutheran Synod Quarterly, vol. XI, No. 1 (Special), Fall 1970)

This is a strong point.  I think that while Van Til’s approach might be quite helpful with those who are very philosophically inclined, it also does not seem to be – as is the book of Acts – absolutely riveted on the person and work of God in the flesh. 

That said, a couple additional points… First, Van Til would take issue with the phrase “secular facts”.  But still, what practical difference does this make?  Second, while I think Montgomery’s critique is significant and should make all of us Christian apologists reflect long and hard, I suggest that it is nevertheless important to take into consideration the kinds of knowledge that “university life”, increasingly captive to scientific methodologies (what I have called the “Modern Scientific and Technological Mindset”, or MSTM – see here and here), pays attention to on the one hand and gives short shrift to on the other.  More exploration on this in the coming posts, particularly part III.

Presuppositionalism excels as a method critiquing other worldviews and showing their inconsistencies and problems.  Note that in part II I will be share some quotes from this paper, which makes some excellent points defending Van Til’s presuppositionalist approach.


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