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

02 Sep
"The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent." -- Acts 17:30

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” — Acts 17:30

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” — Psalm 14:1

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…they are without excuse. For although they knew God... — Romans 1

He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. — Acts 17:31

Part I

Yesterday, we saw how John Warwick Montgomery stated that “the apologetic stance of [20th century Lutheran theologians Gustav Aulen and J. Theodore Mueller] is virtually indistinguishable” and that both men essentially say that “any attempt to offer an apologetic to establish [Christian revelation’s] validity is to misunderstand the nature of the Christian Gospel”.  (see part I)

I note in particular that in the statement Montgomery quoted from Mueller we read:

“….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….”

I want to suggest that Mueller, like many other serious Lutherans today who have seen some real value to apologetics but not fully endorsed Montgomery’s views (this would be myself), not only embraced defensive apologetics (the word itself means defense) – where claims attacking Christianity are countered – but would also have likely seen a valuable – albeit more limited role (than Montgomery) – for positive apologetics, that is, “making a [positive] case for Christianity”.  I will try to explain more in what follows.

Making a positive case for Christian faith – or for exploring the Christian faith – can, as Paul Maier puts it, “improve the acoustics” for hearing God’s life-transforming word.

Making a positive case for Christian faith – or for exploring the Christian faith – can, as Paul Maier puts it, “improve the acoustics” for hearing God’s life-transforming word.

Certainly, there is something to be said about giving an answer to real objections persons have about Christianity – defending the faith from attacks.  Not only this, but “on the ground” many of Christian apologists have found that it may, on occasion, make very good sense to tactfully go on the offensive with the goal to, as the Lutheran historian Paul Maier says, “improve the acoustics”:

  • What are some good reasons this or that objection to the Christian faith not only fails, but that Christians can provide an even better answer?
  • How could one think it is reasonable to assert that it is more likely than not that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead?
  • Perhaps most importantly: If a person is going to more seriously explore questions of faith and religion, why should they start with, or give special attention to Christianity?

Such arguments need not necessarily depend on philosophical, scientific or rationalistic systems – nor are they meant to convert per se – but rather to gain attention and curiosity – so that persons might at least be open to listening to a message that brings with it the seeds of spiritual transformation.* 

Perhaps a man like Mueller would have thought some of these questions above were more potentially acceptable than others (perhaps given the attitude of the particular person asking them?). In part III we will talk more about the proper place of these offensive apologetics (again, as in not just defensive) which are meant to bolster and “make a case for” God’s word and Christianity.  In any case, even if Mueller would never have thought to make points like this, surely we can agree that what he is talking about is no blind fideism.  In other words, Christian faith is not, to use Montgomery’s description (not in talking about Mueller but rather Rudolph Bultmann), a “naked leap” that cannot be “aided by objective evidence or factual demonstration” (see p. 8, “The Apologetic Thrust of Lutheran theology”, Theologia et Apologia: essays in Reformation theology and its defense presented to Rod Rosenbladt, edited by Francisco, Maas, and Mueller).

After all, simply based on what Montgomery has quoted from Mueller, it seems to me there is no good reason to think he would have disagree with Lutheran thinker Gene Veith, when he states in the forward to the new book by LC-MS apologists Making the Case for Christianity: Responding to Modern Objections:

“The word apologetics comes from the Greek word for “defense.”  Christian apologetics is not necessarily about trying to argue someone into the faith, if that were possible.  At its heart, apologetics is about defending Christianity from those who attack it.  Today Christianity is being attacked from so many different sides, tarnished with so many false charges, and obscured with so many misconceptions that the apologetics enterprise – that is, defending the faith – is critically important.  The attacks need to be fended off, the charges answered, and the misconceptions cleared up so that Christianity can at least gain a hearing, which is all the Word of God needs to create faith (Romans 10:17).” (vii, Making the Case for Christianity: responding to modern objections, ed. By Maas and Francisco)

Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart: “Man is not an objective super-observer in the universe, but a condemned sinner with a vested interest in escape.”

Lutheran saint Kurt Marquart: “Man is not an objective super-observer in the universe, but a condemned sinner with a vested interest in escape.”

In fact, I suggest that if Mueller is saying what I believe the great Lutheran theologian Francis Peiper was saying**, given the Holy Spirit’s wielding of the eyewitness testimony that has been passed down to us*** (notably, simultaneously attested to in writings given through God’s own inspiration… His own mouth – “it is written”!****) – supported by His prophecy-fulfilling miracles in particular – faith in this message is the only possible and reasonable answer – even for those with no previous exposure to the Christian faith.  More specifically, the Holy Spirit, using the evidence of this reliable testimony – reveals to the sinner that unbelief in Jesus Christ is unreasonable (see John 16:8-11) when and where it pleases Him to do so.  And most specifically, the crown of God’s “many infallible proofs” is this Apostolic testamentum: the man Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead that all may know it is He who will judge all men (Acts 17:31, see Romans 1:4).  Of course, none of this implies that men are not also guilty before God prior to hearing this message (Rom 1-3).

Quickly note this about Acts 17:31 (see here where I look at this passage more closely):

  • One need not believe the book of Acts is infallible to have confidence that the Apostle Paul said this or that what he said might be worth listening to or asking serious questions about [note also Luke’s reputation for being a good historian here as well – i.e. being verifiable in many respects*****]
  • While an invitation into what all would call “evidentially-based considerations”, this statement is nevertheless more of an assertion about how God has made Himself known in history – and what He calls proof and defines as proof.

To go along with such a strong message, I recently wrote the following about Romans 3: 19-20******

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 itNor is 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”. (see more here)

Montgomery, however, in his essay we have been discussing, writes these words:

Granted that for Luther God’s word was objectively true; does it follow that its truth can be established and defended in the marketplace of ideas, or is the sinful character of the human situation an absolute barrier to such an operation?  This is the question before us….” (p. 9)

“We are not honest and open-minded explorers of reality; we are alienated from reality because we have made ourselves the center of the universe” (p. 104)

“We are not honest and open-minded explorers of reality; we are alienated from reality because we have made ourselves the center of the universe” (p. 104).  For my critique of this book, see here.

I look at this a bit differently – even if we presume to do this just for the “marketplace of ideas” – and not within the church – I think we should always be very hesitant and cautious to talk about “establishing” the truth of God’s word.  Let us take the matter of resurrection in particular.  Has God not raised the man Jesus Christ from the dead in history, given us reliable men to share that fact and its meaning, and even safeguarded this testimony by putting it into writing (again, see Acts 17:31) – even apart from the question of the matter of a man’s sinful character which is determined to fight against God’s word?


Again, I am not denying that we really do need to connect with unbelievers by answering their real questions and objections and even, from time to time, putting forth arguments that will help us gain a hearing (please see* again).  I am simply saying that God’s word is “established” not just in marketplaces, but wherever a message like the one Paul proclaimed is proclaimed – and – importantly – regardless of whether or not our own apologetical arguments used to bolster or even “prove” the Biblical message are provided.  Again, what I think is critical here is what God calls proof through the messengers he uses to share that proof.  And what does this look like – just what is happening here?  The unbeliever, dead in sin towards God, is not so much persuaded by the truth – in that, properly informed, he then makes a decision by his free will to accept God’s word – but is rather hurled down and slain by this word – when and where the Holy Spirit is pleased to do so.

If I read them rightly, something like this seems to have happened with both C.S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery. 

We will conclude this series in the next post tomorrow, tying all of these thoughts together in a more complete and systematic way (at least as much as I am capable of doing so), and addressing what are sure to be common questions and concerns.




*Note that if an unbeliever is willing to listen to a “case for Christ” it is not because he is, in his spirit, seeking the one true God.  He is simply willing to listen for his own reasons – never godly ones.  Examples: basic curiosity, the desire to win an argument, wanting to connect with the person who makes the argument(s), wanting to serve “a god” but not God as He is, etc.  Of course ungodly listening is far better than no listening at all.

In a brief essay (read it here) titled “A Proposal on the Occasion and the Method of Presenting Evidence within a Van Tillian framework” (RPM, Volume 12, Number 9, February 28 to March 6 2010), Jimmy Li provides some interesting information about Cornelius Van Til’s approach to evidence:

“Van Til acknowledged the validity of presenting evidence outside of Scripture when he stated, “I would therefore engage in historical apologetics,” and confessed that “I do not personally do a great deal of this because my colleagues in the other departments of the Seminary in which I teach are doing it better than I could do it.” Perhaps part of the reasoning of those who believe Van Til is against evidence is the absence of Van Til’s actual discussion of the extra- biblical evidences vindicating Christianity. If this is so, this would be rather sloppy reasoning on the part of Van Til’s critics in their commitment of the logical fallacy of arguing from silence.

While Van Til was not against Christian evidences, he was particular in that evidences should not be given in any fashion that would appease the autonomy (self-rule) of the unbeliever. Christian evidences must be presented in a Christ- honoring fashion.”

One piece of advice from the essay:

“Practically, to find out whether or not it is appropriate to present evidence to the nonbeliever, it is important to get nonbelievers to divulge their philosophy of facts and other important epistemological presuppositions before any evidence is presented. Towards this purpose, good questions to ask nonbelievers are, “What would make you believe in X?”, or “What do you believe must be true in order for you to believe in X?” Press them to list their criteria of evidences as concretely as possible, instead of just using slogans like “I believe if it’s reasonable.” Rather, find out what are the actual criteria that the individual has that make the unbeliever think that a claim is reasonable. Whether or not the occasion warrants a presentation of evidence is dependent upon the content of the nonbeliever’s criteria of evidence. If the criteria has already precluded Christianity, no evidence shall be presented, but rather the discussion should center on the problem of the nonbeliever’s philosophy of facts, and epistemological arguments should be brought up to demonstrate that their philosophy of facts are self-refuting, incoherent or arbitrary. Nonbelievers are not religiously neutral, and as sinners they tend to suppress the truth. Therefore it should not surprise Christians that often they will spend the bulk of their time in the critique of presuppositions rather than presenting evidence.”

This strikes me as a potential strategy for some occasions but not all occasions.  Why not, more often than not, try to focus on what God’s “criteria of evidences” are?  What He calls “proof”?  The fact that God has given all men proof of Jesus’ right to judge by raising Him from the dead would seem to serve something like a Law and Gospel purpose – provoking rejoicing in one and fear in another.

Law and Gospel are not just associated with what we are to do and what Jesus has done, but judgement and promise.  The Law works wrath and the solid word from God about this being His proof will be heard as by some as being about judgment (of them) and by others as “good news” promises of deliverance and the good new creation.  Of course this is all about the first commandment, and the surety that God gives us – in the flesh of Jesus Christ – regarding His judgment of man’s high treason.
**One of Peiper’s better quotes from the Christian dogmatics: “There is but one way to prepare the worldly-wise (the “wise men after the flesh”, I Cor. 1:26) for conversion, and that is that the terrors conscientiae break down their conceited trust in their own wisdom and utterly destroy “the conception of the universe as held by modern man.”  Ludwig Hofacker somewhere said bluntly and to the point: “The camels must one and all pass through the eye of the needle” (Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2, p. 479).

Also, shortly after the quote from Mueller that Montgomery offered, Mueller goes on to say:

“…it may also be stated that there are no scientific reasons against the Christian faith.  Wherever the Christian faith is opposed, the opposition has its source not in true science, but in vicious infidelity.  The rejection of divine truth can in no case be justified on reasonable grounds; it is the perverted reason of man only that disavows the truth which is in Christ Jesus.” (Christian Dogmatics, p. 72, 1955)

***”That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.We write this to make our joy complete.” — 1 John 1

**** The New Testament Scriptures record for us in writing the Holy Spirit-inspired reliable eyewitness accounts. Undoubtedly, by Divine design, this written account “just so happens” to impressively back up these eyewitness claims passed down to us!  As J.A.O. Preus reminds us “the written words of the Scripture are merely the written statement of what God has previously uttered orally” (p. 51, It is Written), and

As to the relationship between the spoken and written words of the apostles, the Christian of the New Testament is to put both on the same level… the only difference lies in the permanence of the written Word. The Word spoken by the eyewitnesses of the apostolic circle would have been distorted or destroyed had it not been written down under the inspiration and influence of the Spirit. The difference is one of form, but not of essence. All in all, the disciples were very conscious of the fact that in their preaching and teaching they were bringing people the Word of God.” (p. 49, It is Written)

Specifically discussing God’s word in its written form, Christian apologist Craig Parton says that “[this message is] intentionally vulnerable to factual investigation”.  While I think Parton is right to say this, he also, in making his positive case for Christianity says “the burden of proof for establishing the claims of Christianity in general and the resurrection in particular are on the Christian, since he is the one asserting an affirmative case, namely, that the resurrection occurred as described in the primary source documents.” While it is true that Parton right before this says “We…. look at the case for the resurrection as would be done in a trial court” (and he notes we can do this because of “the vast number of trial lawyers who have investigated and substantiated the case for the resurrection”… [they have] “put the resurrection on trial and found its defense unassailable”), does his statement about the burden of proof for the resurrection needing to be established by the Christian perhaps need to be more carefully qualified?  In other words, should he not rather say something like, “if we are, for the sake of ‘improving the acoustics’, going to try and make an affirmative case for the resurrection such that would have the potential to succeed, for example, in a court of law, we would need to….”?  (quotes from Parton: p. 72 and 73, Making the Case for Christianity, eds. Maas and Francisco)

After all, Parton has elsewhere said that “All apologetics does is remove and eliminate obstacles between the unbeliever and the cross so those obstacles are seen for what they are – illegitimate excuses to keep a person from facing Jesus Christ and his claims upon that person’s life that they are in need of the salvation he offers.” (Craig Parton, “Evidence for the Resurrection”, Issues Etc., Audio cassette, 23 April, 2000).

One might wonder: even for fallen creatures, why should the oral word preached by the prophets and Apostles, not have been “more than enough”?  Why should it have been further necessary for God to safeguard His word through the written word?  “Guilty as sin” before God, have we not, in fact, consistently received one condescension after another?

It is true that we are always “without excuse” before God.  That said, it does us well to remember that we are without excuse even more when we demand more than this eyewitness testimony – which, like the law, both kills and makes alive – passed down through history from reliable man to reliable man, entrusted to teach us. In like fashion, was not Thomas without excuse when he doubted the contemporaneous eyewitnesses of his day?  Can we not even say that this oral testimony handed down is the relentless evidence, proof even, that hunts us down and kills us, silencing old Adam and the curse he brought and still brings?

And it seems to me that unless we are constantly reminding ourselves that our positive apologetics only “improve the acoustics” so that God’s own words about these matters of proof might be heard we might be tempted to think of ourselves as being less culpable that we really are.  To emphasize: man is without excuse – culpable – even in spite of this specific witness to the prophecy fulfilling resurrection – and other prophecy-fulfilling miracles – of the Messiah, the Son of God. And man is guilty even in spite of the many other miracles that Christ, His apostles, His prophets, and others have enacted in His Name, accompanying His death and life-giving message (such that Tyre and Sidon would have repented). Finally, man is guilty in that He has worshipped the creation instead of the Creator he – to a very real extent – knows, and has suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1).  As Paul insists two chapters later in Romans 3, even in spite of their not having heard any Gospel proclamation (or, for that matter, something like the Kalam Cosmological Argument), there is no one who is righteous, no not one (save the One). Such is the fruit of the first sin of Adam and Eve – that great act of curse-enacting high treason against our King.

Of course persons will examine the facts surrounding the key foundations of Christianity for different reasons.  Some Christians, for example, might simply be curious about what else we might know from history outside of the biblical sources – and really not be given over to much doubt, if any at all. These are to be commended, for insofar as we have a new man, a new nature, we always delight to hear the blessed story again and again – and in even more detail if possible!

*****Even modern, more secular historians can, should and have acknowledged Luke’s reliability regarding significant historical details.

******”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.  For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”

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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Uncategorized


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