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

03 Sep

Bones discovered? WWF[aith]D?  How about: We are confident there are good reasons to doubt this claim and there most likely will be may more good reasons coming.

Christ’s bones discovered? WWF[aith]D? How about: “We are confident there are good reasons to doubt this claim and there most likely will be many more good reasons coming.”

Part I

Part II

“And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” — II Tim 2:2

“Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” — I Thes. 2:4

“And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.” — Exodus 15:31

Picking up from part II…of course, it is not that the question about “establishing” the truth of God’s word has no relation to the matter of the sinful character Montgomery mentions. Again, in Montgomery’s and C.S. Lewis’ own stories of conversion they are essentially talking about being convicted by the Holy Spirit through the evidence provided in God’s word – unbelievers being cast down and slain… “taken apart” through the Spirit’s testimony.

But, one might ask, isn’t Montgomery talking about how it was positive apologetics arguments from well-informed Christian apologists that were instrumental in his conversion – and not just the Holy Spirit working through the reliable eyewitness testimony passed down in the the church (in harmony with that same message present in the Holy Scriptures)? My guess would be that these two things went hand in hand, but even assuming that it was something like an argument for the probability of the truth of the Gospels that the Holy Spirit used to  “break the camel’s back”, does this mean that we should necessarily make it our highest priority to put forth such positive apologetical arguments?

Speaking of an atheist he knew talking about he good evidence for the resurrection: "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?... God closed in on me." [read quote in full context here on PBS’s website]

Speaking of an atheist he knew talking about he good evidence for the resurrection: “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?… God closed in on me.” [read quote in full context here on PBS’s website]

I suggest not.  Instead, should we not simply see them as useful devices that may, on occasion, “improve the acoustics” – so thatGod’s proof” (see last post and Acts 17:31) can do its work in leading someone to conviction of sin and faith in Jesus Christ?*  After all, has not Dr. Montgomery himself pointed out on many an occasion that “doubting Thomas” did not have insufficient evidence before Jesus showed up? In fact, he had heard Jesus’ prophecies and He had the eyewitness testimony of men he knew to be reliableCertainly, for his unbelief, the text leaves little doubt that he was culpable.

Does it not seem that what Thomas graciously received from the Lord was a concession for his hardened heart – i.e. here the Lord shattered His hardened heart so that He would be believe in Christ again? (assuming he had previously trusted in Christ but lost faith – some will dispute this but it does not affect my point)  And of course if this is true, here is some more very good news: we, and those God has given us to love, might also receive such a hard-heart-breaking condescension from our Lord!** (perhaps in the form of a well-informed and kind apologist who strategically, creatively and patiently shares evidential apologetics… also note literary apologetics, which I want to acknowledge as having some great value as well)

“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.” -- Sye Ten Bruggencate (see here) Is that necessarily so?

“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.” — Sye Ten Bruggencate (see here) Is that necessarily so?  I argue not.

Now, If you have been reading this series with a fine tooth comb, you will have noticed that I have largely been focusing about the oral word, which is certainly in harmony with the Scriptures passed down from reliable man to reliable man.  Is this an effort to de-emphasize the importance of the Scriptures on my part? (in fact, we recognize these as inspired, infallible, and wholly reliable not only because of Jesus’ acceptance of the O.T. and His promise of the N.T, but for deeper reasons yet, which I will address in my next series dealing in part with “TSSI” – see below). May it never be!***

My concern is rather that we – and by “we” I am especially thinking of some of my Lutheran brethren here – be aware of this: we should know that not all historical claims that really are true will be able to be “proven” by the methodologies of the modern historian (and this ties in directly with the concerns talked about in part I: skeptical modern theologies, of course, bow to the modern methodologies of the scientist and historian).  Even given that Christian apologists can make a good case that the Gospel message can be proven on the basis of probabilities, that does not mean we should make this concession without taking care to always explicitly acknowledge God’s gracious condescension… His patience and forebearance with us who are so slow to believe! (again, see the last footnote [****] in part II for more).  Note Jesus’ exasperation at our slowness in the New Testament in general and Luke 24 in particular.

Patience, forebearance, blessed condescension.

Patience, forebearance, blessed condescension.

Again, why is this so critical?  It is true, as Montgomery and other Lutherans apologists like to point out, that we do in fact make some decisions in our lives based on the probability – or likelihood – that this or that thing, situation, or person is and will be a secure anchor point. That said, this is not how we make many of our decisions nor is it, in the case of interpersonal relationships, how we make our most important decisions.**** Here, firm trust and character are essential, and probabilities do not enter our mind – or it they do, we pray for better in ourselves and others.

As best I can tell, there are aspects of Montgomery’s approach seem to be implicitly statingor at the very least readily invite this understanding that it is not responsible for human beings to depend on the historical testimony (that takes into account both facts that transpired on the ground and their true meaning – based on the fact of their verbal explanation on the ground) of reliable men – starting with eyewitnesses and being passed down – apart from the kind of proof (their testimony itself – which can be attacked but never refuted – is proof!) that meets ours or other’s methodological criteria.

Amen Mr. Parton!: “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).

Amen Mr. Parton!: “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).

Montgomery is a lawyer, and by all accounts a very good one.***** That said, just because the law must operate in this way, it does not mean that Christian apologetics needs to follow suit. I submit that approaches like those of Montgomery, unless carefully qualified (i.e., the “for the sake of argument…” is made explicit) will on the ground and in our hearts tend to bring with them an underlying epistemology – an approach towards knowledge as a whole (how do we know what we know) – that we do not want, or should not want, to be uncritical of.  Consider that if this account of what constitutes knowledge increasingly were to become more of an all-encompassing account, we would have difficulty saying, for example, that a person’s knowledge of their family history (of some import and life-shaping to them at least, with the potential to become this to others as well – to see this explored more in conversation with Montgomery’s book Where is History Going? see this footnote below: ******) can really be knowledge apart from proof that will be sufficient for the lawyer, trial jury, judge, historian, etc.

On the contrary, we can have every good reason, in certain circumstances, for trusting the witness and memory of other human beings – much less Almighty God himself who chooses to utilize reliable messengers for His purposes (I wrote more on the importance of trust in men – yes indeed! – for the Christian faith here). Yes, persons coming to faith in this historically-based message is a miracle from God alone, but in general, this process goes hand in hand with the presence of reliable men with a message from God (for a possible objection to this viewpoint that I have put forth here see ******* below).

“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.” -- Lutheran theologian Franz Peiper

“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.” — Lutheran theologian Franz Peiper

It seems to me that the kind of approach or framework that I have begun to lay out at the beginning of this post (also see part II) will allow for most any kind of statement of fact that an evidentialist apologist might think that he can and perhaps even should make. I think that what is different about the view I am talking about is that it sees apologetics primarily in the simple message that there is reliable eyewitness testimony (which God has also preserved for us in Scriptures that actually fit very well with what even secular historians say) and that this message is at the very least a “handmaid of the law” – in fact carrying out many of the same functions as God’s law (again, see the first footnote below discussing Acts 17:31).  Within this framework both a vigorous defense against arguments vs. the faith and positive arguments “making the case” can have a place********

It seems to me that this is basically looking at Mueller’s and Peiper’s position in the best light – “putting the best construction on it” so to speak. Speaking of construction, I want to be constructive in my criticism – building further on what I admit are some pretty bare bones here. It’s a start, and there will be more to come.

In fact, I plan to start doing this in a very short time in another series titled “*How* will we know the truth that sets us free? What is TSSI and is Jesus’ bodily resurrection the validation of His teachings?”  This is one that I have been working on for a very long while and hope you might consider checking it out as well.

In the meantime, please feel free to offer any criticism that you might have up to this point – I am eager to hear what you think.




*I am talking about making a logical and not chronological distinction here. For example, it is theoretically possible that at a given moment a statement that is meant to counter a person’s false argument and sin (for example, “….but God raised Christ from the dead that you would pay attention not to those teachers but Him!”) may, in fact, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be correctly perceived as having its origins in Gospel-centered love.  In other words, such a person has previously heard the particular Gospel message which creates faith – i.e. Christ’s death and resurrection saves us from sin, death and the power of the devil, giving us forgiveness, life and salvation – and this message now becomes efficacious through the Holy Spirit in the hearing of the more law-oriented or apologetical message.  The person is brought to faith by something that would only accuse another.  This might be why the former Issues ETC host, Don Matzat, made the following statement: “The goal of apologetics is evangelism.  The hope of the apologist is to convince the unbeliever of the truth of Christianity so the unbeliever will become a believer.”  Elsewhere in the same article Matzat less controversially states: “While presenting evidence for the historic truth of the Christian message will not bring a person to faith in Jesus Christ, it will at least cause that person to take another look at Christianity.” (“Apologetics in a Postmodern Age”, Issues ETC. Journal 2.5 (1997): 1.

Further, regarding the content of Acts 17:31, in a footnote in the last post, I wrote this:

“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 judgment 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.”

**And yes… as even some skeptics have discovered, it does not appear too difficult to make the case – using modern historical methodologies and legal argumentation – that Christ’s resurrection is the best (most probable, explanation) of the data all persons potentially have available to them. As many a Christian apologist’s experience has shown, this can definitely be “acoustic-improving” information. That said, see the last footnote [****] in part II.

***While Nathan Shannon, in his article about Cornelius Van Til, makes his point in a different context, it is certainly true that, “When we say ‘evidence’ we do not always mean a fingerprint or a phone record. A person can give evidence by testifying to what she has witnessed” (Shannon, WTJ 74 (2012): 348), Of course, here is where I emphasize that when it comes to testimony we do not always mean written testimony either!  Again, one can see from the last footnote [****] in part II that I am hardly de-emphasizing the Scripture. If one nevertheless thinks that I am in danger of downplaying these, they might well ask the 16th century Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz whether or not he was doing the same thing. Paul Strawn summarizes Chemnitz’s “eight kinds of traditions” of which the Scriptures are one: “The concept of a contemporaneous existence of the Word of God in a corrupted verbal form, and a pure written form, spawned Chemnitz’s explanation of traditiones in the second locus, De traditionibus. Here he lists the first of eight different types of traditiones as Scripture itself, i.e. the things that Christ and the Apostles preached orally and were later written down. Then follows: 2) the faithful transmission of the Scriptures; 3) the oral tradition of the Apostles (which by its very nature must agree with the contents of the New Testament canon); 4) the proper interpretation of the Scriptures received from the Apostles and “Apostolic men”; 5) dogmas that are not set forth in so many words in Scripture but are clearly apparent from a sampling of texts; 6) the consensus of true and pure antiquity; 7) rites and customs that are edifying and believed to be Apostolic, but cannot be proved from Scripture. Chemnitz rejects only the eighth kind of tradition: 8) traditions pertaining to faith and morals that cannot be proved with any testimony of Scripture; but which the Council of Trent commanded to be accepted and venerated with the same reverence and devotion as the Scripture. The important element of this last of the traitiones appears not to be the fact that such traditions of faith and morals not provable from Scripture actually existed, but that their status of equality with Scripture was foisted upon the church by the Council of Trent.” P. Strawn, Cyril of Alexandria as a Source for Martin Chemnitz, in Die Patristik in der Bibelexegese des 16. Jahrhunderts, Wolfenbu”ttleler Forschungen, Bd. 85, Hrsg. v. David C. Steinmetz, Wiesbaden 1999, p. 213-14. (bold mine)

Ideas of infallibility particularly come into play here when we talk about “putting it into writing” but there is more to the concept of course (but when have you heard even confessional Lutherans today talk much about this?)  Robert Preus, explicating John Gerhard, talks about how this idea of infallibility in the Church can go beyond the Scriptures as well: “in a sense it is true that the Church is infallible and the judge in spiritual matters, inasmuch as its faith is and must be grounded in Christ, but it is quite another thing to claim that a Church council or a Roman bishop cannot error”. (122, Preus, Inspiration of Scripture)
That said, here I think about something I heard on Issues ETC maybe some 16 years ago.  Norman Nagel was asking rhetorically about what the book of Romans said we were saved by: faith or the blood. He said both, but when we talk about the blood, faith has nothing else to talk about.  I think its like that with authority in the church.  It is both, but when we talk about the Scriptures the Church has nothing else to talk about…. (for more on this matter of interpretation, see my post, John 16:8-11 and ministerial vs. magisterial interpretation.

****For example, given that one man’s saintly wife is and has, both intentionally and unintentionally, shown herself to be (her presence is strong evidence for Christ’s presence among him), he sees and feels absolutely no need to entertain the possibility that she will enact “plan b” as regards their marriage. Here, what he knows if what he has yet to be shown is false – distrust and mistrust has not been earned.  Now, it is true that evidence may be presented which seems – on the face of it – to contradict such confidence, and from this point this challenge will need to be admitted, with decisions made (and each case being unique in its own way). None of this negates the main point however about how utter trust in this or that situation is not just reasonable but more than reasonable – and of course, even if this cannot be said of all married couples….

*****Again, this is not surprising.  Montgomery’s friend, fellow lawyer and Lutheran evidentialist apologist Craig Parton, says: “…nothing short of the sheer objectivity of Christian truth claims and the factual character of those claims makes Christian faith so appealing to the legally trained advocate.”– Craig Parton, The Defense Never Rests. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2003, p. 71.  Quoted in a recent article at 1517 the Legacy Project.

****** Why is this so important? A Christian should be able to uphold this kind of knowledge in general. And how much more should this be true of the Christian’s knowledge, which has been obtained not just by reliable men, but by God’s own Holy Spirit working through reliable men.

More answers to possible objections follow, based on a close reading of John Warwick Montgomery’s book, Where is History Going?

In his essay “Gordon Clark’s Historical Philosophy” in his book Where is History Going?, Montgomery asserts “The conviction that historical facts do carry their interpretation (i.e., that the facts in themselves provide adequate criteria for choosing among various interpretations of them) is essential both to Christian and general historiography.” (p. 164). I suggest that this is indeed often the case, but there may be some cases where this is not the case, or, at the very least, there is more than meets the eye. It seems to me that one thing that we need to keep in mind here is that Montgomery is talking about doing historiography – and not simply history (which can be understood in informal or more formal ways). I will explain more in the rest of this footnote.

Elsewhere in the essay Montgomery states: “the reason for [secular philosophy’s] failure [to produce an adequate account of history] does not have to be located (and must not be located) in the inability of historical facts to speak clearly apart from philosophical commitments. The difficulty is rather, as I have noted elsewhere, that ‘such a welter of historical data exists that we do not know how to relate all the facts to each other. Our lifetime is too short and our perspective is too limited.” (pp. 165 and 166). I would agree with this but simply argue that, in many cases, this has more to do with not knowing or being familiar with the appropriate living eyewitness testimony – including the Eyewitness Testimony Incarnate (that provides the proper factual testimony attributing the proper meaning to certain events, for example the resurrection) – than it does sifting through whatever facts that are available to us through written documents (and to some degree archaeology) per se.

When Montgomery goes on to say “the trouble with secular philosophy of history is not that it has looked into history instead of aprioristic first principles in endeavoring to understand the past; it is that the secularists have been deflected by their extra-historical commitments from looking at history objectively – and particularly from looking at the Christ of history objectively”, I appreciate what he says, but not because I think that it itself is an objective statement, but because I think it may sometimes be appropriate to challenge a particular unbeliever – one with a great appreciation for what is able to be accomplished when persons attempt to recognize and fight their biases – with this kind of a statement in order to get them to listen concerning Jesus Christ. I say this because I myself am certainly not objective, but motivated not by aprioristic first principles but a First Love.  Montgomery is another such living witness.

When Montgomery goes on to assert: “When the historical facts of Christ’s life, death and resurrection are allowed to speak for themselves, they lead to belief in His deity and to acceptance of His account of the total historical process”, I want to emphasize that a) they never do “speak for themselves” but have been spoken for by messengers (or in the Apostle Paul’s case, The Messenger), b) they do not always lead to belief in His deity but may only result in “historical faith” (I believe the good Dr. would concur) – see this post, particularly the end, for more and c) speaking about us knowing history as opposed to the scientific discipline of historiography, while the truth of the Christian faith – the Christian story – may well be thought about in terms of probabilities (Montgomery: “historical truth is synthetic and not analytic, i.e…. it is arrived at by the empirical examination of documents and therefore never attains the level of one hundred percent certainty”, p. 168), and I think there is a time and place for talking about it in this way (“for the sake of our argument…”), ideally, it is better that it is not thought of in this way, but rather in the sense that that good and reliable men – whose accounts are also bolstered by other reliable men – are simply to be trusted to be telling the truth. Trust in reliable persons is something too valuable to undermine through contrary ideas, exemplified in oxymoronic phrases like “trust but verify”. We may have confident knowledge of many things – intimate or not – that we may never be able to prove to another person apart from trust, which is in large part dependent on character (see footnotes here about how the first historicist, Vico, indirectly undermined character and trust). And when it comes to Christian faith, we are talking about God making Himself known in this process, and not apart from it.  Again, we can say this even if we are talking about a person who only has “historical faith” that the Christian story is true (rather than having true Christian faith, where there is a saving connection with God – where these things are believed to be true “for me” as well). The faith that the devils have is not based on probabilities!

Montgomery is right to say that “If one is incapable of discovering the meaning of historical events from the events, then one is incapable of finding the divine Christ in history, and history will most certainly reduce to ‘a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing”, but the key here is that we do not experience directly all events occurring in space and time ourselves, and do in fact depend on the testimony not so much of idiots (though now and then, we all do idiotic things and are blind to what we should see) but, fortuitously, reliable men entrusted to teach others…. (who can – or should be able to! – give us good reasons why Jesus Christ should be given priority attention over other religious leaders).

There is much in this chapter from Montgomery that I agree with – particularly many of his critiques vs. Clark’s presuppositionalism and preuppositionalism in general. I especially appreciate the first paragraph on p. 170 where he states “[Clark] does not see that causation, like the historical and scientific explanations that incorporate causal thinking, is no more than an empirical, synthetic construct which is employed ad hoc to deal with historical facts. Causal explanations are grounded in, and tested against, the facts for which they endeavor to account”. That said, here is where I simply state that unlike historiography, history really can, at bottom, be a non-theoretical exercise – just like understanding a person is a non-theoretical enterprise.  We understand someone not because we have a better theory (causation), but because we know a p/Person (hat tip to the philosopher Ray Monk). Our Christian faith, fundamentally, is not a hypothesis. In short, I agree with Montgomery when he says that we cannot “’begin with God’ (the Christian God) without benefit of objectively discoverable historical facts”, but I simply assert that testimony from reliable men is enough to qualify for this. For more reflection on these matters, see part III of my recent series on historicism, and this post where I note that, as regards trust in the Christian testimony, all empirical investigation and reasonable interpretation of the same has yet to suggest that distrust in the Christian messsage has been earned.

I hope it is clear that I am not entirely dismissive of Dr. Montgomery’s project. Far from it! In spite of all that I say above in this footnote, I also agree with him when he states: “the epistemological route by which one arrives at biblical truth does not determine the value of what one arrives at – any more than the use of a less than perfect map requires one to reach a city having corresponding inadequacies”. (p. 180) Again, my focus here is that when it comes to things like Christ’s life, death and resurrection, it is the map of reliable human testimony to this – and not the one produced by Christian historiographers – that we should be emphasizing (even as we do have in our back pocket the positive, “for the sake of argument”, “case for Christianity” based on probabilities – produced by Christian historiographers to utilize as we think is appropriate).  For it is not only their words, but His life-giving, history-describing-and-making words as well.  Here is where we will find our solid ground (if this sounds suspect I have written a post on the importance of trust in the church as well where this matter can be further explored) and we praise God that this reliable testimony, used by the Holy Spirit to convict men of sin (Acts 17:31 and John 16:8-11) is also preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures in a way that may be assailed but never defeated.  See the upcoming series on “TSSI” for more on this.

*******“But” – comes the objection – “will not this kind of un-scientific attitude dissuade Christians from digging into their faith – so as to have the ‘raw material’ so to speak, that others may use it to counter unbelief? If you point out that ‘trust but verify’ is actually an oxymoronic statement, are you not indirectly going to undermine the whole enterprise of evidential work that has been done?”

I don’t think so. We note that such evidence and the arguments that Christians might make concerning that evidence need not be born from any doubt or skepticism, but out of simple curiosity. In any case, I gladly acknowledge that those who do feel themselves asking these questions – whether for reasons of doubt or faith – will often find themselves better equipped to shut the mouths that might object to Christian faith. It still does not mean that we should indirectly encourage doubt with “trust but verify” approaches (note I do think that challenging non-Christians about their foundations is very appropriate).

********And while apologetics might reveal to sinners why we ask the doubting questions we do, it may also may simply help us see that our questions are fine – they are something any curious believer eager to learn more about their faith might ask – even as our reasons for asking them also might have the potential to be out of line (yes, I realize that we are sinner-saints and that our motivations can never be totally pure, but I do not think that discounts the distinction I am making here).

 Images: Parton: ; Peiper: ; Bruggencate:


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