I just read an interesting document, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and General Conference of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church’s 2001 “Report of the International Theological Dialogue between the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches” (hereafter, the Dialog Report). As was the case with the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, some evangelicals have (well, at least one evangelical has) seen the Seventh-Day Adventist faith of Ben Carson as disqualifying, though many more will say that Seventh-Day Adventism is not a “cult” than would say that Mormonism is not. When it comes to voting, this sort of thing has never been my focus. My view is that the compatibility with biblical principles of candidates’ values, particularly as those values have been shown in past political behavior and personal conduct, should be Bible believers’ focus when voting, not candidates’ formal religious affiliation; after all, our current president, whose pro-abortion credentials are unsurpassed and who celebrated the Supreme Court’s imposition of nonsensical “gay marriage” on all states with rainbow lighting across the White House, has never abandoned his “I’m a devout Christian” claim. Still, a suggestion by someone on Twitter that evangelicals should vote for Ted Cruz rather than Ben Carson because of the latter’s Seventh-Day Adventism did make me curious to know just what is so bad about Seventh-Day Adventism. Though online resources detailing all that Bible believers should find troubling about Seventh-Day Adventism abound, the central “Is it a cult?” question seems best and most concisely answered by point eight in the Dialog Report, in which dialog participants assert the following shared convictions:
We accept the Bible as the rule of faith and practice, the supreme witness to God’s saving grace in Christ.
We believe in the triune God.
We believe that God became truly human in Jesus Christ.
We believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God reconciles the whole created order to himself. By the work of Christ, God’s holiness is honoured and our sins forgiven.
We believe that God calls all people to a new and better life.
We believe that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to proclaim the Gospel of salvation to all people.
We believe that Christ calls us to work to bring hope, healing, and deliverance from spiritual and economic poverty.
We believe we stand in the succession of those who, through the ages, have faithfully proclaimed the Gospel of Christ.
We believe that the [Lord’s] Supper is integral to the [Church’s] worship and witness.
We acknowledge our debt to the Reformation with its biblical emphasis upon salvation by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus).
We welcome conversations with other Christian churches concerning doctrine and mission.
Admittedly, the “We acknowledge our debt to the Reformation with its biblical emphasis upon…” does not quite equal “We endorse the Reformation’s biblical emphasis upon…,” but the phrasing does admit that the emphasis is indeed biblical. As well, point thirteen of the Dialog Report states forthrightly that “Adventists hold to the Reformation principle of grace alone, faith alone and Christ alone.” On balance, it is difficult to see how a group that affirms all these assertions could merit the “cult” label, at least in its common pejorative (“this isn’t true Christian faith”) sense. (Formal anthropological use of the term “cult” can specify any smaller religious group distinguishable in doctrine or practice from the majority or mainline. This parallels the formal use of “myth” for any “sacred narrative,” whether or not one grants that it might be true.)
Dialog Report point twelve adds that “Adventists believe that the death of Christ on the cross provided the once-for-all atonement for sins, all-sufficient in its efficacy,” asserting that “Their distinctive view of the high priestly ministry of Christ in the heavenly sanctuary teaches that he is applying the ongoing benefits of his atonement, not adding any value to it.” Bible believers, particularly those who respect the “common faith” of Spirit-indwelt believers over time and so view skeptically doctrines that are new and distinctive, may find Seventh-Day Adventists views defective and troubling, but it at least seems that those views do not reach the point of denying the True Faith.
Point fourteen also merits reflection. It states that “Adventists believe that the biblical gift of prophecy was manifested in the life and ministry of Ellen G. White.” While we Reformed Bible believers find such a claim disturbing and unscriptural, it has to be admitted that many whom we consider Christian brethren and would not be inclined to call “cultists,” Pentecostals and charismatics, make similar claims for people in their groups. The point continues by noting that Adventists “regard her writings highly as providing ongoing counsel, devotional material, and biblical reflection.” Ditto Pentecostals and charismatics concerning present-day “revelations” by those in their midst. Point fourteen’s key and closing point adds this clarification: “However, they hold firmly to the principle of sola scriptura, teaching that the Bible is the rule of faith and practice that tests all other writings, including those of Ellen White.” Pentecostals and charismatics, at least those who have not fallen in with troubling fringe movements, grant the same supremacy and finality to the Bible. Pentecostal, charismatic, and Seventh-Day Adventist theologies may make us Reformed Bible believers cringe or bristle, or at least give us what-is-wrong-with-these-people headaches, but accusing them all of being in “cults” is not something most of us are inclined to do.
Helpful though portions of it might be for putting to rest one’s worries that Seventh-Day Adventism is a false-gospel cult, the Dialog Report does not qualify as a good representation of either Reformed doctrine or of a thoroughly Bible-believing approach to Scripture. For instance, after a paragraph rather nicely pointing out the important distinction between “predestination” as a religious term and “determinism” as a general or philosophical term (point seventeen) (I generally prefer to speak of “foreordination” rather than “predestination,” perhaps because it avoids the “determinism”-reminiscent “d” sound), the report enters into an exploration of “the perplexity caused by ‘double predestination’” that concludes by claiming that among the Reformed there now exists “a broad consensus to the effect that God’s electing grace is not to be construed fatalistically, but in the context of God’s undiscriminating love whereby all are called to salvation, to which call they may make their own, enabled, response.” One can construe this statement more than one way, I suppose, but the point of “their own, enabled, response” seems to be that all persons without exception are enabled by God to respond to the Gospel based on “their own” personal decisions on the matter. This sound like individual human sovereignty in salvation, Arminianism, not like divine sovereignty in salvation, Reformed faith, where God has mercy upon or hardens whom he will (Romans 9:18) for sometimes inscrutable reasons about which we mere mortals have no right to inquire (Romans 9:20). Saying that God’s love is “undiscriminating” also seems incompatible with Bible-believing Reformed faith. I’m willing to grant, in disagreement with some Reformed people, that saying “God loves everyone,” even those who will always be his enemies and will reside eternally in Hell, is justifiable: he at least “loves” all persons he has created in the sense that he so values them that he chooses to maintain their existence forever rather than annihilate them. (If one rejects the eternality of created persons, as do Seventh-Day Adventists and growing numbers of evangelicals, one can’t make this argument, of course. The common faith of traditional Bible believers has always held to such eternality, however.) One needn’t be Arminian to tell someone who might never become a Christian, “God loves you.” But to suggest that God’s general love toward everyone and everything he has made is the same as his special love for his elect, all those who have been or ever will be saved, to say that his love is “undiscriminating,” is pure nonsense from a Bible-believing Reformed perspective.
The Dialog Report also fails to qualify as a Bible-believing document by asserting as dogma positions questionable on biblical grounds and not clearly in accord with the common faith. For instance, it asserts that “The New Testament…teaches that women are equal recipients of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and should therefore exercise leadership roles in the church’s ministry.” It then notes that “Reformed representatives [participating in the dialog] emphasise that this includes the ordination of women to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament” (point forty). While there are indeed many today who identify Scripture as their supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and practice who also take this stance, this extreme egalitarian position has been most long and readily accepted by persons whose views of Scripture do not well comport with Bible-believing Reformed faith. (This doesn’t disprove the position, but does suggest viewing it with skepticism and approaching it with caution.) Does Scripture teach that God’s gifting of his elect through the Holy Spirit is “undiscriminating” as to gender (to borrow point seventeen’s wording), that every potential gift without exception might be assigned with equal likelihood to any believer regardless of gender? Though a fundamental equality between men and women, as between Jews and non-Jews, is evident in God’s view of his elect (Galatians 3:28), this suggests neither a necessary sameness in inherent natures or most appropriate functions, nor an equal freedom to take on various roles and responsibilities in one’s church and family. As naturally and traditionally interpreted, I Timothy 2:12-14 and Colossians 3:18,19, for example, do not comport well with the Dialog Report’s egalitarianism. Arguments interpreting these and other verses in a way that fits with such egalitarianism are plentiful, some even seeming to take seriously the idea that Scripture is the supreme and final authority in such matters, but the existence of such arguments hardly justifies the Dialog Report’s egalitarian dogmatism.
Persons tending leftward on the political spectrum have long sought to co-opt the Faith in service of their political agenda, even getting traction for their ideas in books from respected evangelical publishers, so prevalence of leftward-tending “social justice” concerns in the Dialog Report isn’t entirely surprising. (Whether those tending rightward have attempted similar co-opting, or have in fact set forth the political implication of scriptural principles fairly and accurately, is a question not relevant to review of the Dialog Report, since any leanings it expresses are leftward.) That leaders of whole large religious communions are willing to stake out positions on issues about which sincere believers within their communions disagree, while not entirely surprising, is disconcerting. Without doubt, sincere Bible believers will oppose all true “injustices,” will oppose any “ecological destruction” that humans can prevent by means that do not themselves risk causing greater harm than the problems they’re meant to correct, and will consider unacceptable all “racial, ethnic, [and] gender…discrimination” (in the sense of “discriminating against,” not in the sense of “discriminating” by recognizing differences and distinctions) (point 22). (The Dialog Report also condemns “religious discrimination,” but this is potentially problematic. Should the Christian hiring for a Christ-centered organization consider it wrong to discriminate against applicants who identify themselves as Satanists?) But must every true believer accept that “use of fossil fuels” is invariably bad, or that “global warming” is both a real and a human-caused phenomenon? (As an advocate of a majority-nuclear energy economy, I’m open to believing either or both of these ideas should the evidence warrant, but I don’t see belief in them as something leaders of any faith group should be asserting dogmatically. They are subjects for scientific and economic debate, not for dogmatizing by religious leaders or for demagoguing by political leaders.)
So, then, Bible-believing conservatives who realize Donald Trump must be opposed needn’t fear that selecting Carson as their candidate would mean legitimizing a false-gospel cult, even if they do believe (as I do not) that voting for people for political office means legitimizing their religious beliefs (it only means legitimizing their values). Though my own preference for a combination of government executive experience and true conservatism leaves me unexcited about the Carson option, when polls suggest no one with more experience than freshman Senators will be considered by most Republican primary voters, the Carson option gains some appeal.
Late in For Love of God’s Word (hereafter, FLGW), a condensed and revised version of their Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, Köstenberger and Patterson (hereafter, K&P) state the following about the book’s purpose: “In essence, this entire book is designed to set forth a responsible hermeneutical method that will enable the interpreter to derive the Bible’s own theology through patient, repeated study” (362). Since all Bible-believing Christians are duty-bound to be responsible interpreters of the words God inspired and has preserved for their instruction, guidance in responsible hermeneutics is something every Bible believer should value. K&P’s understanding of what sort of interpretation qualifies as “responsible” seems correct, on balance, and the interpretative method they propose seems, in general, sound, so Bible believers should find FLGW a worthwhile purchase and edifying reading. Summary lists of guidelines at the end of each chapter, some helpful tables of data (summarizing biblical chronology, for instance), a glossary, a Scripture index, and a brief subject index add to the book’s value.
Before surveying some of the book’s content to show why I felt I had to use hedge words like “on balance” and “in general” in the preceding paragraph, I note a concern raised by a statement late in the text. There seems to be a disconnect between Kregel Academic’s approach to marketing FLGW, which includes providing free copies of the book to persons who maintain Web sites that include book reviews, what publishers typically call “having a blog tour.” It seems an odd strategy, and this is the disconnect, to have a blog tour for a book that advises readers to “First, avoid blogs,” even if the book grants that one may reference a blog if it is maintained by “a recognized scholar” or by “a person whose materials have been proven valuable over time” (379). (Scholars “recognized” by whom and on what basis? “Proven valuable” to whom and according to what criteria? K&P do not say.) Since a person whose materials are not initially considered is never going to have them “proven valuable over time,” the advise is basically to only read blogs maintained by professional academics. The idea that the research, reflection, and arguments of persons outside the scholarly establishment should simply be ignored may be dominant among professional academics, but you’ll find the attitude very rare among, and typically viewed with hostility by, persons who maintain independent Web sites, whether they call those sites blogs or not. One may well lament the credulity with which some approach online repositories of opinion and reflection, whether those repositories are labeled blogs, forums, wikis, or something else, but a simple-minded “avoid blogs” directive does nothing to train anyone to assess research and arguments in terms of content. Even if one endorses the “avoid blogs” elitism, one must still wonder why Kregel’s marketing department thought it wise to include a book endorsing such elitism in its “free books for bloggers” program. Though there is much that I like about this book, my unwillingness to reward dumb marketing and elitism limits how positive a rating I can assign FLGW.
In the Preface (9-11), K&P identify FLGW’s broad intended audience (“high school, home school, and college students and anyone who is interested in a solid course of instruction on studying and applying God’s Word”), note that in the FLGW abridgment they “have retained all the essential core knowledge from” the unabridged text, and describe some of their formative influences (such as the teaching and guidance of Grant Osborne and D.A. Carson). In “A Personal Note to Teachers, Students, and Readers” (13), K&P briefly introduce the “hermeneutical triad” that underpins and guides their entire approach to Scripture’s interpretation. In this brief introduction, one encounters the first suggestion of a prioritizing of one point of the triad over others. Though the triangular graphic repeated in the following chapters might suggest that “history” and “literature” are equally fundamental, the bottom corners of a triad for which “theology” is the apex, discussion here and throughout the text indicates that K&P in fact see “history” as most fundamental: “The first element of the hermeneutical triad is history. Studying the historical setting provides a proper grounding….[since] the genres and language in which God chose to reveal himself reflect the historical context.” Once this grounding is provided, “Second comes literature. Studying the literary context is the focus of Bible study….we locate a passage’s place in the canon, determine its genre, and interpret it in keeping with its genre characteristics, doing justice to the language used.” After this, and building upon this, comes theology: determining the theology of the passage and formulating broader theological conclusions with reference to other passages.
Chapter 1, “Introducing the Hermeneutical Triad: History, Literature, and Theology” (14-27), not only does what the chapter title describes, but also emphasizes the necessity, the ethical imperative, to interpret Scripture properly, and notes some of the dangers that attend improper interpretation. (Kregel has opted to exclude the chapter objectives, chapter outline, and “you are here” hermeneutical triad graphic from the pagination of each chapter shown in the book’s Contents, identifying each chapter’s initial page as the first page of prose following these. My identification of chapter page ranges, in contrast, includes these chapter-opening materials.) Contrary to what one might hear in literature courses at the state university, the proper interpretation of any work of literature, in fact of any document, requires that one recover the meaning intended by the work’s author: “The rules of proper communication demand” that one focus upon “authorial intention,” that one seek “to understand the meaning [the author] intended to convey” (17). In ethical terms, proper “interpretation requires that we extend the same courtesy to any text or author that we would want others to extend to our statements and writings,” meaning, in the case of Scripture, that we must honor, not only “the intentions of the human authors of Scripture,” but also those of “God who chose to reveal himself through the Bible by his Holy Spirit.” One thing required by this, K&P note, is that one must “give careful consideration to the theology of the Bible itself and…interpret the parts in light of the canonical whole” (18).
Proper interpretation, K&P emphasize, can be likened to skilled craftsmanship: “No sloppy or shoddy work will do. Everything must be done in proper sequence, appropriate proportion, and with the purpose of producing an end product that pleases the one who commissioned the work. Background information [which can be put to “improper use” (20)], word meanings, the context of a given passage, and many other factors must be judiciously assessed if a valid interpretation is to be attained” (19). Believers’ attitude as they pursue this work should be one of humble submission: “Rather than adopting a critical stance toward Scripture, we should…submit to it as our final authority in all areas of life” (21).
While the references to interpreting “the parts in light of the canonical whole” and to the need to submit to Scripture “as our final authority in all areas of life” might lead one to expect K&P to suggest some way to let self-interpreting Scripture underpin and guide our understanding of extrascriptural historical material (data and the hypothetical reconstructions based upon data), the Preface’s treatment of history as foundational to, rather than founded upon, Scripture’s interpretation continues here: “As an interpreter sets out to explore a particular biblical text, he will first research its historical setting. After grounding his study in the real-life historical and cultural context of the biblical world, he will orient himself to the canonical landscape….[that is, the] proper salvation-historical context”; only after this does the interpreter examine “the literary context and word meanings” of the passage. Key terms here include “first,” “After,” and “only after.” At this point, a believer in Scripture Alone, the classical Protestant doctrine of the Reformation (normally expressed in obfuscatory Latin), must wonder: Do K&P hold that some historical and cultural background information essential to the correct understanding of God’s inspired words is not included in, either explicitly stated by or necessarily inferred from, those words of Scripture? As well: Do K&P maintain that background information not included in Scripture, information only obtainable through the empirical work and interpretive theorizing of fallen and finite human beings (archaeologists, historians, etc.), is essential to correct understanding of the inspired text, even necessarily precedes the first efforts to unpack that text’s meaning?
K&P do point out that “Only the interpreter who depends on the Holy Spirit in his interpretive quest will likely be successful in discerning God’ special, Spirit-appraised revelation” (22). (They also recognize the indispensability of the Holy Spirit to enable successful and obedient application of Scripture’s teachings to the interpreter’s life [Ibid.]) It does not appear, however, that they believe the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, joined to such background information as is included within Scripture itself, is sufficient to permit correct interpretation. K&P seem consistently to hold that at least some extrascriptural background information (humans’ uninspired and necessarily probabilistic interpretation of empirical data) is a prerequisite to correct interpretation. Perhaps they would point, as I’ve seen others do, to the need for translation across languages, and to the historically uncertain meaning of some rare and ancient terms used in Scripture, as indisputable proof that such is indeed the case. (In fact, they do just this in the next chapter .) How this all fits with the Scripture Alone doctrine (which, as professing Evangelicals, K&P presumably embrace) is not clear; perhaps some discussion of the matter would have strengthened FLGW.
The remainder of FLGW is divided into three parts, one for each point of the triad. Part one, “History,” includes only Chapter 2, “Setting the Stage: Historical-Cultural Background” (30-54). Since K&P see historical and cultural background as the essential first step, the most fundamental step, of Bible interpretation, they naturally cover this point of the triad first. They do make an effort to nuance their view so as to avoid too strong an emphasis on background information: “Certainly,” they state, “background information should never override what is stated explicitly in the text. Conversely, understanding the background of a given passage is often vital for proper interpretation and application” (34). Does this “background of a given passage” that is “vital” include only the information provided by the inspired text itself (which, as it happens, is the sort of background most focused upon in the chapter), or does it include extrabiblical historical and cultural background information, the uninspired deliverances of human empirical efforts? K&P seem to believe the latter: “It is commonly acknowledged,” they write, “that it is vital to study Scripture in its proper context, and that context, in turn, properly conceived, consists of both historical and literary facets; so there is no need to justify the necessity of responsible historical research as part of the interpretive process.” Further, belief in “The necessity of historical research also underlies major reference works such as study Bibles…commentaries” and the like (34). Whether common acknowledgement (great prevalence) of a belief, and availability of reference works motivated by the same belief, really makes justification of the belief unnecessary seems questionable. Interestingly, K&P themselves indicate that believers err if they honor “modern or postmodern presuppositions” at the expense of humble submission to Scripture (21). Is not much of the “historical research” they counsel drawing upon informed by modern empiricist assumptions about the nature of human knowledge and how it must be obtained and justified?
The extent to which K&P think the extrabiblical background is essential might be open to question. The first directive in their summary “Guidelines for Interpreting Historical-Cultural Background” is “Determine the scope of the historical account. Look for links with other scriptural passages, especially those relating to the same event(s).” Extrabiblical data only enters in directive two: “Compare the biblical record with external data for additional information and illumination” (53). I might prefer to see the second directive read something like “Compare the biblical record with alleged external data and, where that data comports with what Scripture clearly reveals, seek additional information and illumination from that data,” but I’m pleased to see the Bible given priority. I’m also pleased that K&P emphasize that the primeval history of Genesis 1-11 is true history: “If these are not historical realities, then the Christian faith is merely one among many mythological understandings of the world” (35). I also appreciate their nuanced wording concerning the focus of Genesis 1-2: “The purpose is to demonstrate to Israel that their covenant God…is also the Creator of the entire universe. In this context, locating the creation of the world at an exact point of time in the past is secondary….” The welcome nuance here is that K&P identify creation chronology as of “secondary” importance, not as “unimportant,” which is what advocates of the Central Meaning (or Central Purpose) Fallacy would have done. (This fallacy, which seems obvious but which I’m not sure anyone else has yet identified in print, suggests that meanings and implications of a scriptural passage may be disregarded if they are not central or primary. I’ve previously called it the Main Concern Fally.)
In their conclusion to the chapter, K&P quote approvingly a statement by Grant Osborne concerning “the interpreter’s task in assessing the ancient historical-cultural background” of a passage. That statement concludes as follows: “The cultural aspects presupposed in the passage help interpreters get behind the words to the underlying message, understood by the original readers but hidden to the modern reader” (52). The way this is worded, it appears that Osborne believes that Scripture as inspired lacks information essential to (not just enriching) its understanding; after all, if the “cultural aspects presupposed” in a passage were evident from Scripture itself, it would be incorrect to say the message is “hidden to the modern reader.” Even the reader with an accurately translated Bible, or the reader with accurate knowledge of the Bible’s original languages, it seems, is unable to fully and accurately understand God’s inspired words based solely on the information the full collection of those words, the Bible, provides. No doubt this is happy news for the publishers of study aids for rich Westerners, but it might trouble Westerners of very limited means and non-Westerners barely able to acquire a decent Bible translation. It might also trouble believers in Scripture Alone who take time to reflect on the full implications of making extrabiblical material essential to biblical understanding.
Part 2, “Literature,” comprises Chapters 3-13. dividing them into three units: Unit 1, “Canon” (Chapters 3, 4); Unit 2, “Genre” (Chapters 5-11); and Unit 3, “Language” (Chapters 12, 13). Though Scripture’s interpretation must be “properly grounded…in an investigation of its historical setting,” these facets of Scripture’s “literary dimension” constitute “the major focus” of FLGW (61). These chapters look at Scripture starting with its larger and more general, and ending with its smallest and most specific, features, “In keeping with the bedrock hermeneutical principle of interpreting the parts in light of the whole” (Ibid.). The overall treatment is sound and helpful and should prove useful to Bible-believing readers. Rather than bog the review down with a lot of summary, I will simply point out some noteworthy items.
In the first “Canon” chapter, Chapter 3, “The Old Testament Canon: Law, Prophets, and Writings” (58-81), K&P state the following: “it may be safely said that careful historical inquiry and research have demonstrated that at each step of its formation the Old Testament accurately represents the area and era with which it is concerned. Its truthfulness in the case of data that can be verified further suggests that where it claims to be the word of the Lord, the Old Testament can be trusted” (62). The possibility I suggested earlier, that K&P hold to certain modern empiricist assumptions about the nature of human knowledge and how it must be obtained and justified, seems supported by this statement. Note the order of authority, what justifies what, in the statement: knowledge acquired by human empirical investigation, “careful historical inquiry,” verifies the truthfulness of those statements of Scripture open to verification and thereby, the implication seems to be, justifies our believing in the truth of those statements; this, in turn, “suggests” that we are also justified believing in the truth of those statements of Scripture that cannot be verified. The assumption seems to be that if a document can be shown trustworthy in verifiable “earthly things,” then one is justified believing whatever unverifiable assertions the document makes about “heavenly things,” to borrow the wording of John 3:12, a verse that seems to carry the contrary implication that believing testimony about “heavenly things” in fact requires greater faith than believing testimony about earthly things. If one can’t believe verifiable testimony about earthly things, John 3:12 seems to imply, one certainly won’t be able to believe unverifiable testimony about heavenly things; but, the verse also seems to imply, just because one can justifiably believe verifiable testimony about earthly things doesn’t mean one should also believe unverifiable testimony about heavenly things. The latter requires more faith than the former. The verifiable may comport with and so confirm or encourage unverifiable faith, but it cannot justify it. Evidence-based “faith,” as opposed to faith-based trust in and interpretation of evidence, always seems to run into this problem: the base (“careful historical inquiry”) is too small for what one needs it to support (faith that trusts unverifiable statements in Scripture, such as those identifying it as God’s own words). K&P’s apologetically-motived promotion of an empiricist theory of knowledge does nothing to detract from the usefulness of their guidance for interpreting Scripture (once one has accepted that it is indeed God’s Word), of course, but it does suggest understanding Scripture’s authority, and Bible-believing trust in that authority, in a way that may work against the never-doubting, no-compromise faithfulness that humble submission to Scripture’s authority requires and that K&P seem elsewhere to encourage.
This chapter also includes discussion of traditional efforts to partition the Mosaic legislation in various ways. Concerning this, K&P write: “The difficulty of assigning individual laws to specific categories has made scholars consider an alternative approach. Increasingly, they are beginning to view Old Testament laws in relation to the narrative context in which they are found” (63-4). K&P then add this: “Therefore…the careful interpreter should see [the laws of Moses] as part of the broad narrative in which they are found” (64). The chain of inference here is noteworthy: scholars today increasingly do A; therefore, careful interpreters should do A. However useful the categories traditionally used for the Mosaic legislation might have been for organizing our thinking about and discussion of God’s laws, the partitioning, because imposed upon Scripture rather than drawn from it or necessarily implied by it, has always struck some Bible believers as unsatisfactory. The current scholarly trend away from such partitioning may, thus, be very laudable and worthy of imitation. It is not laudable or worthy of imitation because it happens to be what scholars are doing, however, no matter what K&P suggest. An assumption disturbingly prevalent among Christian scholars and apologists, an assumption that is either lazy or elitist, is that statements about what “scholars” or “experts” currently believe or do can legitimately stand in place of arguments. Trends in opinion or practice within one or another scholarly or expert subculture do not automatically merit imitation or acceptance; until sound arguments in support of them are adduced, such trends carry no special authority. They merit a hearing that merely popular trends may not, certainly, but that is all. All cultures, including ones organized around scholarly pursuits or subject-matter expertise, are at constant risk of misguided group trends, often the result of some unsound presupposition no one has yet thought to question and which, typically, the nature of the culture involved makes it unlikely that anyone within the culture ever will question.
The second “Canon” chapter, Chapter 4, “The New Testament Canon: Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse” (82-98), continues the prior chapter’s discussion of the broad sweep of Scripture as a whole (salvation history with its various covenants, progressive revelation, and so on). As was true of the prior chapter, and as will be true of succeeding chapters, Bible believers will find little to object to in K&P’s interpretive guidelines. The end-of-chapter summation of these guidelines includes the following: “Note not only the historical progression of New Testament teaching but also the topical interconnection between passages on similar or related topics, in keeping with the Reformation principle that Scripture is its own interpreter” (97). Though we’ve already seen that, in K&P’s understanding, Scripture itself is certainly not Scripture’s only interpreter (extrabiblical historical and cultural data, independently interpreted by humans, is also an interpreter of Scripture), a hermeneutical approach that emphasizes this Reformation principle cannot go far wrong.
The chapter also, as one would expect from its title, discusses believers’ reception of the New Testament canon. Discussions of how believers came historically to recognize and receive the New Testament canon often tell one a good deal about authors’ understanding of how the faithful do or should arrive at and justify their beliefs. Certain questions invariably occur to me when I review such discussions. Do correct Christian beliefs, such as foundational recognition of God’s words as God’s words, come into being as the conclusion of chains of inference from evidence and arguments, or is the self-attesting character and Spirit’s witness to God’s own truth more fundamental? Are correct Christian beliefs grounded upon, or merely confirmed by, evidence and arguments? K&P relate how “focus on the apostles as Jesus’s appointed representatives proved decisive in the church’s recognition of the New Testament canon. Matthew and John,” they add, “were accepted on account of their apostolic authorship, Mark and Luke-Acts on account of the authors’ connections to leading apostles (Peter and Paul).” As well, “Paul’s letters were accepted on the basis of his apostolic office (as well as Hebrews). The Petrine and Johannine epistles, too, were recognized as apostolic, and the letters of James and Jude were penned by Jesus’s half-brothers. Apostolicity, and, by extension ‘the rule of faith’ (i.e. the apostles’ teaching), was the primary criterion by which the church recognized the divine inspiration and authority of the books that came to make up the New Testament” (87). Though K&P do not make explicit why James and Jude’s being Jesus’s blood relatives was taken to ensure the apostolic status of their writings, presumably the thinking is that this close association with the Lord was seen as just as good as appointment to the apostolic office or close connection to the Apostles. Since history, particularly ancient history, typically tells us most about the thinking of the writing elite and comparatively little (if anything) about the thinking of the seldom-writing common people, the persons who set forth these criteria in support of accepting certain books (which, perhaps, had already been accepted for some time by common believers) were the writing elite. Had the common people received the various New Testament books as God’s own words on the basis of these criteria offered by the writing elite, reasoning from the books’ apparent authorship to their divine inspiration and authority? Or had they found the words of the books to carry in them, as God himself spoke through them, a self-attesting character that the faithful among them, to whom the Holy Spirit also witnessed confirming the words’ divine origin and authority, could not help but recognize? Was their recognition of what words were from God based upon, or did it only find welcome confirmation from, the arguments of the writing elite?
These queries may seem hopelessly speculative, since the reality is that all we can know about the thought processes of past Christians is what we have found recorded for us in documents from their time, and non-writers, by definition, leave no written documents. Even the common person who can write (relatively rare in history) seldom leaves many documents for posterity; after all, who is motivated to save what prior common people wrote? If writing elites chose to argue for New Testament books’ canonical status on the basis of apostolic authorship (authorship associated with the Lord or the Apostles), whether they themselves or the common believers of their day (and preceding them) actually came personally to accept the books (and all the words in them) on some other and more fundamental basis (self-attesting authority and Spirit confirmation) seems a question closed to historical inquiry. Still, perhaps some edification might be gained by reflecting upon the possibilities.
The “Genre” unit comprises the following chapters: Chapter 5, “Enjoying a Good Story: Old Testament Historical Narrative” (100-119); Chapter 6, “A Word from the Wise: Poetry and Wisdom” (120-59); Chapter 7, “Back to the Future: Prophecy” (160-87); Chapter 8, “Hearing the Good News: New Testament Historical Narrative (Gospels and Acts)” (188-211); Chapter 9, “Calling for Discernment: Parables” (212-35); Chapter 10, “Going by the Letter: Epistles” (236-67); Chapter 11, “Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Literature (Revelation)” (268-300). These chapters helpfully describe the various genres (types) of literature in Scripture and how properly to interpret them. Bible believers serious about both the Scripture Alone doctrine and “the Reformation principle that Scripture is its own interpreter” (97) would, no doubt, like to see K&P show how the rules for properly interpreting Scripture’s various literary genres can be derived from Scripture itself. Such is not an aspect of K&P’s discussion, however. These chapters lay out the various genres, describe their features, and provide sound guidance for interpreting them; the chapters do not suggest scriptural justifications for the interpretive guidelines themselves.
Though the interpretive guidelines seem sound and the information interesting, there are places in these chapters where the interpretive relevance of information provided is unclear. “What difference does this information make to my understanding of the text?” I found myself asking more than once. In a discussion of the poetic structure of John 1:1-5, for instance, K&P write: “What is the impact of such imagery as life, light, and darkness? How does an appreciation of terseness and concreteness help you understand [?] and feel more deeply the theological concepts that John is communicating? We suggest that in asking yourself questions such as these you will gain a new perspective and appreciation of the poetic skill with which John opened his Gospel” (135). And this improves my understanding of what John is teaching in his Gospel…how? Understanding, unlike feeling and appreciation, is intellectual and verbal. While the reading experience might change as a result of focusing on John’s poetic styling, while the passage might then prove more easy to remember, how intellectual, verbal understanding of all that John in asserting, of what some would call the “propositional content” of the passage, would be affected by my poetic appreciation is not made clear. It is not clear to me why a book on biblical interpretation should include guidance on biblical appreciation. Perhaps K&P could offer persuasive arguments in favor of such inclusion, but they do not.
“Most commonly,” K&P state somewhat later, “Hebrew rhyming is a matter of repeated similar endings. Thus in Isaiah 33:22, the fourfold repetition of…[a certain] suffix…forms a clear rhyming pattern, which is missed in translation” (142). Fascinating. And awareness of this rhyming scheme should affect my interpretation of the passage in what way, precisely? K&P do not say. Nor do they explain the interpretive significance of Paul’s use of rhyming, alliteration, and other techniques in his epistles (144). One can’t help but get the impression at times that K&P are noting interesting curiosities that will never affect one’s interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps FLGW should have been abridged a bit more than it was.
In addition to outlining sound interpretive principles and noting various curiosities of unclear interpretive relevance, these chapters also include further attestation to K&P’s empiricist leanings. One example is the following: “Although some have questioned the authenticity of the parables of Jesus in the Gospels, there is ample reason for confidence in the parables’ ability to provide some of the most authentic and reliable teaching from Jesus. One of the proofs of this authenticity is the closeness in language and content to other attested sayings of Jesus” (224-5). This late in the text, when we are well into discussion of self-authenticating (Spirit-authenticated) Scripture’s meaning (as that meaning finds expression through various genres requiring different interpretive approaches), this retreat to neutral-sounding, empirically driven apologetics seems out of place. Critical challenges to the parables’ authenticity seems irrelevant to what the parables mean, so there seems no good reason to include this discussion here.
As well, these chapters include a statement on Paul’s use of the Old Testament that seems to call for additional discussion that is lacking. “Paul’s use and interpretation of the Old Testament may at times be difficult to understand in light of our modern rules for determining meaning,” K&P write. “But what seems to us a strange interpretation may have represented conventional hermeneutical procedure to Paul’s contemporaries….Paul, like his contemporaries, sought to bring an Old Testament passage or prediction into a new historical and theological context, which involved some shift in meaning while remaining faithful to the message in its original context” (249). Now, in the conservative theological circles I frequent, the strangeness of some of Paul’s “interpretation[s]” is typically explained by identifying them as applications rather than interpretations. In such circles, these “difficult to understand” statements by Paul are seen as hermeneutically permissible, not because they accord with the “conventional hermeneutical procedure” of “Paul’s contemporaries,” but because they are not interpretations, but are creative applications of passages for which Paul may not state the interpretation. The way K&P choose to state things suggests that it might be permissible to modify one’s approach to interpreting Scripture based upon whatever happens to be the conventional procedure obtaining in one’s time and culture. Another implication of identifying Paul’s applications as “interpretations” would seem to be to endorse the hermeneutical procedure yielding them as still valid, since that procedure has been endorsed by the example of the inspired text itself.
The “Language” unit includes Chapter 12, “Context is King: Discerning Discourse Structure” (302-25), and Chapter 13, “A Matter of Semantics: Discerning Word Meanings” (326-53). Chapter 12 is one of the most interesting, and one of the most useful, in the text. It concerns the various ways for discerning the boundaries within scriptural discourse so as the better grasp Scripture’s meaning. (The significance of structural features in some genres, unexplained earlier and so of unclear interpretive relevance when discussed, may become apparent here, as one reflects on how these structural features may signal changes from one topic or subtopic to another.) The fundamental insight behind the chapter is this: “The proper textual unit at which meaning is to be discerned is not the individual word, the phrase, or even the sentence, but the larger discourse, that is, the paragraph level and ultimately the entire document of which a given word, phrase, or sentence is a part” (305). Chapter 13, which deals with discerning the meaning of individual words, something the prior chapter would suggest should rely much more on the specific discourse context than on what original-language references reveal is the range of possible meanings for a word in a range of contexts. An important aspect of the chapter is discussion of twelve common fallacies attending so-called “word studies.” One such fallacy, actually a class of fallacies, involves the context-ignoring restriction or expansion of a word’s semantic field (range of possible meanings). In a variation of semantic field expansion called “illegitimate totality transfer….a word’s entire semantic range is improperly considered to be part of the term’s meaning in a specific context when…only one of several possible meanings obtain in that particular instance [fit the context]” (347). To use an example other than those adduced by K&P, consider how some handle the Genesis creation account’s word for “day” (yom).
Part 3, “Theology,” comprises two chapters: Chapter 14, “Making the Connection: Getting Our Theology from the Bible” (356-71); and Chapter 15, “Getting Down to Earth: Using the Tools, Applying the Word” (372-91). The purpose of all the interpretation K&P have been instructing readers how to do is, of course, to arrive at a progressively more complete understanding of all that Scripture teaches and to apply its teachings more and more to one’s thought and conduct. In addition to discussion of biblical theology, as contrasted to systematic theology and application, this chapter includes discussion of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. One useful observation, noteworthy given unsatisfactory earlier discussion of Paul’s “hermeneutical procedure” (above, 249), concerns “whether or not we should expect to be able to duplicate the use of the Old Testament by the New Testament writers….On the one hand,” K&P write, “we would expect the New Testament use of the Old to conform to historical-grammatical principles of exegesis that are reproducible by contemporary interpreters. At the same time, the New Testament writers operated under divine inspiration….[This] provides the New Testament interpretations…with a type of authority that cannot legitimately be claimed by anyone today. For this reason, we will do well to exercise caution and to claim authority only for interpretations of the Old Testament that are made explicit in the New Testament” (368).
Additionally, the book’s closing chapter advises students of Scripture to “be prepared to swim against the stream of tradition” while at the same time to “Be humble” and to “Take on a submissive stance toward Scripture” (389, 388). I see a disconnect here, though a less obvious one than the “dumb marketing” disconnect noted at the beginning of this review. A while back, one prominent individual left Evangelicalism in favor of Roman Catholicism, citing as part of his reason exasperation with the need in Evangelicalism to “reinvent the wheel” in every generation. I share some of this gentleman’s exasperation. It is not clear to me how one can label “humble” an attitude that sets up one’s own judgment, or the judgment of some favored group of contemporary scholars (such as “recognized” scholars professing Evangelical commitment), as more deserving of respect than the God-guided thinking and reflection of Holy-Spirit-indwelt believers in all walks of life over long periods (“tradition”). “Humble” submission to contemporary scholars, which most often (I suspect) means not-so-humble selection of contemporary scholars who happen to draw the conclusions one finds most personally appealing, doesn’t strike me as quite the same thing as humble submission to God’s own words in God-preserved Scripture as God-indwelt true believers have, as a group tending toward certain convictions (a “common faith”) over time under God’s guidance, traditionally understood it. (I borrow this usage of the phrase “common faith” from the late Edward F. Hills, who employed it in his defense of the received or traditional text types of the Old and New Testaments, and whose books, I recently discovered, are still available from their original publisher: The Christian Research Press, Ltd., P.O. Box 13023, Des Moines, IA 50310-0023.) The radical spirit that would reject all that God has guided the faithful to believe and do over the long years since establishing his Church, the spirit that would try to rework everything from first-century scratch, has never struck me as either humble or wise. In practical terms, it seems, more often than not, that Roman Catholics hold to the priesthood of priests, Evangelicals to the priesthood of scholars, and no one at all to the official Protestant and Evangelical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
In saying this, I don’t mean to be anti-intellect or anti-intellectual (anti-scholar). Firm Bible believers have often been accused of being so, occasionally, perhaps, with justification. It should be emphasized, therefore, that when scholars (such as K&P) provide information and insights consonant with Scripture’s plain meanings and with the Spirit-guided judgment of God’s people over long periods, believers would be foolish not to draw upon such scholars’ work. One should also keep in mind, however, that academia is by nature elitist (to be a professional academic is to be among the elite in some field) and that elitism naturally works against consistent and serious application of the doctrine that all true believers are priests with the potential both for God-guided true understanding of Scripture and for sinfulness-inspired errors and simple mistakes. Humble respect for the God-guided thinking and reflection of Holy-Spirit-indwelt believers in all walks of life over long periods, for “tradition,” is one way to mitigate the individual-specific influences of human sinfulness and imperfection.
(Of course, what passes for “tradition” in some circles is just a set of opinions advocated by elites of the past, whether those elites have been priestly, scholarly-intellectual, or both. Discernment of the “common faith” of past generations is not always easy. Exploration of this issue, however, is beyond the scope of this review.)
For the Love of God’s Word, then, provides much sound and useful guidance on how to interpret Scripture responsibly and, with persistence, rightly. Certain empiricist leanings evident in the text, and the authors’ failure to harmonize their belief that uninspired material from outside Scripture is required in order to correctly understand Scripture (that such material is not merely a welcome supplement to one’s understanding but is essential to it) with their beliefs that the doctrine of Scripture Alone is true (which one assumes they believe given that they are Evangelicals) and that Scripture is its own interpreter (which they state that they believe), do detract from the book, but not in a way that lessens the value of most of its hermeneutical guidelines. Therefore, I judge the book worthy of at least a mildly positive rating.
This review may also appear, at least for a time, less nicely formatted and perhaps abridged, on Amazon and, perhaps (and perhaps more abridged), on GoodReads.
Montgomery, John Warwick. History, Law and Christianity. Corona, CA: NRP Books, 2014 (prior edition copyrights were 1964, 1991, and 2002). Paperback. 102+xv pages. ISBN 978-1-945500-01-5.
While my philosophical and theological commitment are not Montgomery’s—I am an increasingly committed presuppositionalist; he is the quintessential evidentialist—I still found History, Law and Christianity worthwhile, if occasionally disagreeable, reading. Though its evidentialist stance—which is blatant, persistent, and uncompromising—would make me uncomfortable giving the book to non-Christians, I can recommend it to presuppositionalist Christians looking for a rigorous yet concise overview of the evidentialist viewpoint. Christians already committed to evidentialism, of course, will welcome addition of this risen-again classic to their libraries.
The book comprises two sections, one on “Historical Evidence” (1-44), developed out of a series of lectures Montgomery gave in response to Professor Avrum Stroll’s “Did Jesus Really Exist?” lecture (reproduced as Appendix A, 79-93) and one on “Legal Evidence” (45-76), originally a chapter in a book on human rights. In addition to these main sections, the book includes a 2014 foreword by Craig A. Parton (ix-xii), a 2001 introduction by Montgomery (xii-xv), two appendices (A, already mentioned, and B, a letter from Edwin M. Yamauchi [95-6], related to textual criticism), and a list of suggested readings (97-102). History, Law and Christianity has no index.
Parton’s foreword, which nicely summarizes Montgomery’s approach in the book’s two main sections and clearly sets forth his evidentialist philosophy, contains one remark meriting comment. Parton writes: “with respect to probability reasoning, Montgomery presents the position that the case for Christianity is ultimately a case based on establishing the facticity of certain events….If certain events did not occur, Christianity is a sham. Period. Facts never rise to the level of formal, mathematical proof….100 percent certainty only comes in matters of deductive logic or pure mathematics.” So, he concludes, “One weighs probabilities, looks at the facts…, and then a decision must be rendered. One must never demand of religious claims a level of certainty not demanded in any other domain” (xi, emphasis Parton’s). Interestingly, Parton does not say that if certain events did occur, then Christianity is true or likely true; instead, he emphasizes what would falsify Christianity. Also noteworthy are this statement’s placement of ultimate responsibility for determining the likelihood that Christianity is true on the human individual and its assumption that “a decision must be rendered,” that is, that agnosticism is not an option. Also interesting is the assertion, not argued but assumed, that an individual “must never demand of religious claims a level of factual certainty not demanded in any other domain” (xi).
Both the idea that one is obligated to make a choice on this subject, and that the choice one makes must not require of religious claims any greater factual certainty than one expects of other domains (determination of the best diet to follow, say), seem open to challenge. On the latter, it seems people routinely, and rightly, require different degrees of factual certainty in different domains depending on how important it is to them to ensure right decisions and avoid wrong decisions in those domains. When a decision involves minimal inconvenience and little risk, and where changing one’s mind later is easy, we invariably demand far less factual certainty before making a choice than when a decision involves a high level of inconvenience or much risk, or where changing our minds later might not be so easy. Religious commitment, if one takes it seriously and tries to apply it to one’s life, ranks very high in inconvenience. Because it requires significant changes to one’s life, serious religious commitment ranks low on the easy-to-change-later scale. These aspects of the religious domain seem to favor the common practice of requiring a higher level of certainty before one will commit to a religion than one requires to, say (to stay with our prior example), commit to a certain dietary regimen. Pascal’s Wager, on the other hand (to import something not mentioned by Parton or Montgomery), suggests that, when risk is considered, one might be well advised to lower rather than raise one’s requirements when dealing with religious questions; applying Pascal’s prudential reflections to the religious pluralism of today, one might be best advised to simply compare the claims of various religions and embrace the least unlikely, even if one deems its likelihood quite low. If ultimate responsibility lies with individuals, then practical concern for their own welfare should perhaps incline them to set the bar of factual certainty lower than Parton and Montgomery (“Montgomery stresses,” Parton notes approvingly, “that the ‘burden of proof’ is actually on the Christian to establish the case for Christianity” [xi]). From a practical standpoint, Pascal’s Wager also seems to favor Parton’s and Montgomery’s assumption that “a decision must [or at least should] be rendered,” since there is nothing to be gained by failing to embrace any religion—aside from transitory freedom to indulge proclivities at odds with the religion one finds most likely true, of course. (I suspect neither Parton nor Montgomery would appreciate my introduction of Pascal here, even if it does strengthen their argument.)
Montgomery’s 2001 introduction (xiii-xv) gives readers additional early indication of the philosophy driving his approach. Concerning the book’s first, historical, section, Montgomery recalls (not for the last time) how when he “argued [in a debate] that so good was the historical picture of Jesus that, to eliminate it, one would have—literally—to throw out one’s knowledge of the classical world in general, Professor…Stroll replied, ‘Fine, I shall throw out my knowledge of the classical world,’” to which the chairman of the classics department at the professor’s school strenuously objected (xiii). The consistent indication of all references to this episode is that one should think, “Oh, what a silly man Professor Stroll was being to a adopt such high evidential requirements as to negate all we know about the classical world in general.” The assumption throughout is that the “knowledge of the classical world in general” asserted by historians cannot possibly be subject to philosophical challenge or any doubt meriting the label “reasonable.” Stroll’s willingness, at least during this impromptu response, to extend his skepticism about the historical Jesus to ancient history more generally, rather than being lauded as at least self-consistent, is lifted up to ridicule. The presuppositionalist must wonder, however, whether a radical skepticism about history, even more radical perhaps than what Stroll was willing (if only momentarily) to adopt, might not in fact comport better with a worldview lacking biblical Christian presuppositions than does the comfortable self-assurance of secular historians. On Montgomery’s account, it is historical method in general that is most trustworthy; the assertions of Scripture merit trust only as they can be substantiated by historical method.
Another interesting item in the introduction concerns the second section of the book. Concerning that section’s original role in a book about human rights, he writes: “The logic is that, if the only possible foundation for human rights is transcendental and revelational (as I show), it is imperative to demonstrate evidentially that God did in fact reveal himself in the human sphere” (xiv). The presuppositionalist in me immediately wonders what the foundation is for trust in evidence and human demonstration. Granted one is only justified believing in human rights if one can show a transcendental basis for this belief, is it not the case that trust in the human faculties that perceive and interpret evidence also requires transcendental justification? If one is permitted to take the reliability of these human faculties (sense perception, reason) for granted, why shouldn’t one take the rights for granted, as well?
Finally, in his brief dismissal of Postmodernism, Montgomery says that “if the Postmodernist were correct, no practical knowledge, based on experience and evidence, would be possible.” Montgomery finds this objectionable because “No one in reality ever lives this way” and “Each and every one of us must assume the reliability of our evidential examinations of the world in order to live in it” (xv). This is true enough, but practical necessity is not proof of truth. Presuppositionalist hero Cornelius Van Til once pointed out (as is often noted) that, though unbelievers can count, they cannot account for their counting—and this, on Van Til’s understanding, shows that there is something wrong with unbelievers’ whole approach to knowledge. If one adopts Montgomery’s approach, one simply dismisses this as silly because, as a matter of practical living, no one ever doubts his ability to count or thinks that ability needs to be accounted for if it is to be justified and its conclusions called “knowledge.” Since practical living in the world requires that we assume the reliability of our counting—that we trust the intellectual faculties that enable us to count—the whole question of whether our trust in ourselves fits with or contradicts our comprehensive belief system (worldview) may simply be ignored.
The first section of the text proper, “Historical Evidence,” includes five chapters. The first chapter, “Who Is Jesus Christ?” (3-5), notes that Montgomery and Professor Stroll agree that the truth or falsity of Christianity is a matter of facts, both agreeing with Millar Burrows that any who would claim “the affirmations of Christian faith…are not dependent on reason or evidence” are in error and that “Any historical question about the real Jesus who lived in Palestine nineteen centuries ago is therefore fundamentally important” (5, quoting Burrows’ 1958 More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls). The second chapter, “Four Historical-Philosophical Errors” (7-10), faults Professor Stroll’s “Did Jesus Really Exist?” (79-93) for the following errors: (1) relying on judgments by certain modern “authorities” rather than following “The proper scholarly procedure [which] is, of course, to face the documentary problems directly, by way of the accepted canons of historical and literary method” (7); (2) neglecting primary documents, particularly Paul’s letters (which predate the Gospels) (8-9); (3) reasoning in a circle by first assuming miracles impossible then, on the basis of this assumption, identifying miracles in the Gospels as evidence that they are untrustworthy as historical documents; and (4) suggesting that first century “messianic fever” makes plausible the legendary elevation of Jesus to Godhood and Messiahship, even though “Historically it can be proven beyond question that, on every important point, Jesus’ conception of himself as Messiah differed radically from the conceptions held by all parties among the Jews” (10). Within the evidentialist system of assumptions—where reference to “accepted canons of historical and literary method” never prompts the response, “Acceptable to whom? Acceptable on what transcendental basis?”—these chapters are persuasive. One might wonder whether one should ever claim a matter of history “can be proven beyond question,” of course.
The third chapter, “Are the New Testament Documents Historically Trustworthy?” (11-20) seeks to show that, in terms of “the tests of reliability employed in general historiography,” the documents making up the New Testament merit acceptance as generally reliable historical documents. Montgomery wishes to emphasize that, in this approach, “we do not naively assume the ‘inspiration’ or ‘infallibility’ of the New Testament records….We will [instead] regard the documents…only as documents, and we will treat them as we would any other historical materials” (11). While some of us see nothing naïve about taking God’s own words, which as such deserve greater trust than any alternative authority we might use to show them trustworthy, as our ultimate and starting authority, there is nothing necessarily wrong with exploring, as an intellectual exercise, where a different ultimate and starting authority and alternative starting assumptions lead. In Montgomery’s case, we begin our investigation by “naively” accepting the reliability of our various faculties, the correctness of the methods agreed to by members of the historians’ subculture, and the correctness of applying to God-breathed (or, in terms of this approach’s working assumptions, potentially God-breathed) writings the same rules of analysis found correct and reliable when applied to merely humans writings. The tests to be applied are these: (1) the bibliographic test, “analysis of the textual tradition by which a document reaches us” (11-13); (2) the internal evidence test, in which one assumes that “one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies,” then examines the document for such disqualifying properties (13-15); (3) the external evidence test, which compares what the New Testament documents say with what can be learned from “inscriptions and other independent evidence,” such as secular historical accounts and writings of early church fathers (15-17). In terms of the assumptions adopted, those of historians, Montgomery makes a strong case that the New Testament documents are indeed reliable historical documents, and so must be taken as seriously as any other historical documents when determining what the Jesus of history actually taught and did. Montgomery’s treatment also includes a refutation of form criticism, a critical methodology on which Professor Stroll relied heavily (form critics were his preferred “modern authorities”) (17-19). Naturalistically biased and radically subjective, the methodology proves lacking in redeeming qualities. One possible, if weak, challenge one might offer to Montgomery’s arguments would concern test 2 (internal evidence). The innocent-till-proven-guilty assumption underlying test 2 is surely the most practical if one wants to draw historical conclusions from ancient documents, but it is hard to see how one can refute someone who adopts a contrary guilty-till-proven-innocent “hermeneutic of suspicion.” If someone fails to apply an even hand, treating some ancient documents as presumptively doubtful and others as presumptively trustworthy, he certainly must be called upon to justify or abandon his bias. Radical skepticism toward ancient documents in general, though irksome and impractical, seems harder to refute.
Chapter four, “God Closes In” (21-31), reemphasizes some of Montgomery’s basic assumptions and approach and shows that the the main New Testament documents, those shown historically reliable in the prior chapters, portray Jesus as someone who presented himself as, and was believed by his followers to be, God himself. Montgomery emphasizes again that “the documentary attestation for these [the New Testament] records is so strong that a denial of their reliability necessarily carries with it total skepticism toward the history and literature of the classical world” (21). He also asserts, in accord with earlier statements, that his “line of argument…depends in no sense on theology. It rests solely and squarely upon historical method, the kind of method all of us…have to use in analyzing historical data” (21). As at the start, Montgomery admits no authority more ultimate than historical method, no theological or philosophical foundation logically prior to historical method, nothing upon which historical method depends for its justification. Historical method, apparently, is worldview-neutral, a final authority all can and must trust, since (it is assumed) it is simply unacceptable either to adopt a stance of total skepticism or to “naively” treat God’s own words in Scripture as one’s starting point and ultimate authority. Only one’s own assumed-reliable faculties and what they, under the guidance of accepted historical methodology, can do with evidence may rightly serve as one’s ultimate authority. Whether or not one agrees with Montgomery’s evidentialist philosophy, one must grant that the historical case for Jesus’s having claimed, and his followers’ having believed him, to be God is as well supported as many alleged ancient events no one, save the occasional radical skeptic, sees any reason to doubt. Those who grant the validity of historical methodology do seem obligated to accept that Jesus’s claim to be God was not a legendary invention or a misconstrual by loyal but not-too-bright followers.
Chapter five, “An Historian’s Appeal” (33-44), discusses the four possibilities given Jesus’s claim to be God: (1) that Jesus made the claim dishonestly, and so was a charlatan; (2) that Jesus believed he was God when he wasn’t, making him a lunatic; and (3) that Jesus never actually made the claim, but that “his disciples put this claim in his mouth,” making the disciples liars, crazy people, or not-too-bright exaggerators; and (4) Jesus made the claim and the claim was, and is, true. Montgomery, of course, argues for 4. Since Montgomery has already shown that the historical evidence strongly favors belief that Jesus did in fact claim to be God, all that remains to be shown in this chapter is that there are good historical reasons to believe that he in fact is God. After examining alternatives 1 and 2 and finding them wanting (33-40), Montgomery sets forth what he considers the best historical evidence that Jesus was (is) is fact God: historical evidence that Jesus’s resurrection really happened (40-3). Since he has already shown that the New Testament documents are historically reliable, the main burden of Montgomery’s discussion at this point is to urge the illegitimacy of an arbitrary bias against the possibility of a miracle like the resurrection. His fundamental idea is that “The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred” (41), which he maintains (with supporting quotations from historians) is the standard assumption of the historical methodology he takes for granted (41-2). Claiming that an event well substantiated in reliable historical documents, such as Jesus’s resurrection, could not have happened because it violates “natural law” is, he holds, not permissible (41). Since even laboratory scientists cannot simply rule out data because they judge it “impossible” given what they believe the laws of nature to be—otherwise, how would incorrect beliefs about the laws of nature ever be falsified?—Montgomery’s refusal to permit naturalistic bias into historical investigation strikes me as both plausible and persuasive (at least within the evidentialist presuppositional framework that he shares in common with secular historians).
From the historical likelihood that Jesus’s resurrection actually occurred, Montgomery infers that Jesus was (is) in fact God as he claimed to be. As Montgomery sees it, “we must go to the one who rose to find the explanation” of the resurrection, and Jesus’s explanation, “though we may not like it, is that only God himself, the Lord of life, could conquer the power of death” (42). This last step in Montgomery’s argument seems quite weak. So far as I can see, we have no reason to assume that the subjects of rare occurrences should invariably possess special insight into the nature or cause of those occurrences. The lucky single survivor of a plane crash seldom is the best suited to explain why he happened to survive; if anyone could tell us (which is unlikely), it might be someone who could infer from the pattern of wreckage and the black box data that this passenger just happened (in terms of relevant physical laws) to be in the perfect location in the plane to beat the odds. (Arguably, this would answer the question of how rather than why. The why would remain a mystery absent revelation from the divine Interpreter.) That the lucky individual in question did in fact survive the crash could be historically verified, drawing together eyewitness accounts of his boarding the plane, airline ticketing and boarding data, eyewitness testimony to the recovery of his injured but living body from the wreckage, and post-crash hospital records. If the individual had predicted the plane would crash and he would survive, and had added the claim that this miraculous survival would validate his claim to be God, would most of us be inclined to conclude the man’s claim to be God was in fact validated by the “miracle”? In a religiously-neutral environment lacking at least certain monotheistic presuppositions, I’m not sure we would.
Say we imagine a New Age universe where individual consciousness influences the fabric of reality in weird ways. In such a universe, believing oneself God so strongly as to believe one will rise from the dead (or just survive a plane crash) could very well be the cause of one’s actually rising (or surviving). Since our “knowledge” of the past is limited to the small sampling of past facts for which current evidence remains (most past facts have left no sign in any written or archaeological record; just think for a moment of how many people have lived and how many events have occurred of which there is today no evidence at all), we really can’t assert that other resurrections have not occurred. Who knows? For that matter, most current facts remain inaccessible to human observers because the universe, assuming there is only one, is very large and we, even as we extend ourselves with various measuring devices and assumption-dependent inferences from what those devices record, are very small. Once one jettisons the biblical Christian presupposition that the creation is necessarily uniformly ordered, lawful, and intelligible because no other sort of universe fits with the God Scripture describes and in whom we place our faith, one is under no compulsion to grant that uniform order, lawfulness, or intelligibility extend beyond one’s own little area of observation and one’s own brief period of observation—and even that seeming uniformity and lawful intelligibility might be the delusion of misleading faculties rather than anything genuine, much less anything necessarily universal or permanent. In this order of things, references to “sanity” and “lunacy” are meaningless, so considering Jesus a “lunatic” for thinking himself God would be no slight.
If this kind of thinking strikes us as ridiculous, a radical violation of “common sense,” that is only because we live in a culture that, however secular it may aspire and strive to be, is still very much influenced by a long Bible-influenced Christian heritage. Even cultures without our Western Christian background have their ultimate origins in peoples exposed to God’s spoken revelation to Noah and his forebears, and to traditions (however corrupted) about the nature of the world and past events originating in the same common background of all humankind recorded in the early chapters of Genesis. If one can genuinely break away from the assumptions this background makes seem so natural, as one really should if one does not accept the Bible-believing Christian worldview with which these assumptions fit and in terms of which they find their justifying explanation, weird New Age ideas and a host of other modes of thought begin to seem plausible. Of course, this seeming plausibility never rings wholly true, since all humans are prevented by God’s common grace from wholly blinding themselves to God’s self-revelation in the world around them and within themselves. Still, some people seem able to take such “ridiculous” thinking very seriously, at least when it comes to choosing their “spiritual” beliefs (and preferred entertainments).
Exploration of the “ridiculous” thinking that a consistently non-Christian “neutral” autonomous perspective makes plausible aside, Montgomery himself actually makes at least one broad philosophical observation that effectively strips the resurrection of its Jesus-really-is-God-as-he-claimed evidential function. He writes:
But can the modern man accept a “miracle” such as the resurrection? The answer is a surprising one. The resurrection has to be accepted by us just because we are modern men—men living in the Einsteinian-relativistic age. For us, unlike people of the Newtonian epoch, the universe is no longer a tight, safe, predictable playing field in which we know all the rules. Since Einstein, no modern has had the right to rule out the possibility of events because of prior knowledge of “natural law.” The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred. The problem of “miracles,” then, must be solved in the realm of historical investigation….And note that an historian, in facing an alleged “miracle,” is really facing nothing new. All historical events are unique, and the test of their facticity can be only the accepted documentary approach we have followed here. No historian has a right to a closed system of natural causation, for as the Cornell logician Max Black has shown, the very concept of cause is “a peculiar, unsystematic, and erratic notion,” and therefore “any attempt to state a ‘universal law of causation’ must prove futile.” (41-2, ending with quote from Black’s 1962 Models and Metaphors)
The ironical quotation marks in this passage, around “natural law” and “miracle,” in combination with all that the passage asserts, perhaps say more than Montgomery should have said if he wanted his use of the resurrection to prove Jesus’s Godhood to appear valid on a worldview-neutral, universal basis. On this “modern man” understanding, what have customarily been called “miracles” are now mere rare events, things unpredictable from the patterns of regular behavior we have so far observed in nature (patterns of regularity we formerly thought expressed “natural law”), but still part of the infinite realm of possibilities: “For the critical historian nothing is impossible” (42, quoting Ethelbert Stauffer’s 1960 Jesus and His Story). If one embraces this understanding, it seems strange that one should also hold to the assumption that all that happens must be explainable, so that all one must do is (1) determine the most probable explanation from among those so far proposed, then (2) embrace that explanation as correct. A universe unburdened by law-limited possibility and clear rules of causation permits countless unique events wholly impossible for humans to explain. Absent the lawful order presupposed by those with faith in the biblical God (albeit a lawful order more complex and less intuitive than once supposed), events and phenomena like resurrection, spontaneous healing, accurate awareness of distant and future people and events, are neither impossible nor proof of divine intervention: they’re just weird, and weird stuff happens.
Montgomery closes his historical section with an appeal. Siding with “Heidegger, Sartre and other contemporary existentialist” in the belief that “all life is decision, and no man can sit on the fence,” condemning noncommittal agnostics and noting that “The atheist at least has recognized the necessity of taking a position on ultimate matters” (43), Montgomery asserts that “all of us, must make decisions constantly, and the only adequate guide is probability—since absolute certainty lies only in the realms of pure logic and mathematics, where, by definition, one encounters no matters of fact at all” (44). Presumably, Montgomery does not claim “absolute certainty” that “the only adequate guide” to decision making is probability; yet, oddly enough, he does not tell readers how probable it is that “the only adequate guide [in decision making] is probability.” “If probability does in fact support [Jesus’s] claims…then we must act in behalf of them,” he concludes, noting how Jesus himself maintained that one was either for or against him (44). Of course, one must accept Jesus’s claims before one accepts Jesus’s assertion that one must choose for or against him, mustn’t one? As well, oddly enough, Montgomery says “we must act,” not “we probably must act.” More accurate than any of these (and recalling my mention of Pascal) might be, “if we are concerned about our own welfare and thinking pragmatically, we should act.” This may not be as strong an appeal as Montgomery intends, but it is not without force.
The second section, “Legal Evidence” (45-76), contains a single chapter, “Christianity Juridically Defended” (47-76). Montgomery’s evidentialist stance remains evident, and is made even more explicit, in this final chapter. Even revelation is not certain truth, as the presuppositionalist would hold (God’s word “is truth” [John 17:17]), but a set of “revelational truth-claim[s]” to be validated by “the very reasoning employed in the law to determine questions of fact” (47). The “testability” of Christianity’s truth claims is central: “the truth of its absolute claims rests squarely on certain historical facts open to ordinary investigation” (47). Montgomery, following Mortimer Adler (and many others), finds appealing “the legal standards of proof by preponderance of evidence and proof beyond reasonable doubt” (50). Since “Legal rules of evidence are a reflection of ‘natural reason’” (50, quoting a 1978 article by Jerome Hall), one who assumes “natural reason” trustworthy (if in need of some methodological rigor to minimize errors) will naturally find its methods appealing. From within the biblical Christian presuppositionalist framework, there is much to be said for use of this mode of reasoning when investigating historical questions. From a perspective providing no metaphysical justification for trust in “natural reason,” on the other hand, its value isn’t as clear.
The concepts of “preponderance of evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” strike the presuppositionalist as not so obvious and unproblematic as evidentialists like Montgomery suppose. It is certainly true that a finite body of evidence may, as it is most naturally interpreted by most persons who deal with it, seem on balance to better comport with one “here’s what happened” story than another. So, “preponderance of the evidence,” as a shorthand for “preponderance of the most natural interpretations of such limited evidence as is currently under consideration,” is a real phenomenon. That the body of evidence under consideration is always a sampling of an infinite universe of evidence that currently does or once may have existed, some of which might not be irrelevant to the current question, seems to require making all “preponderance of the evidence” decisions provisional, assuming one cannot simply remain agnostic on a given question. On the basis of whatever evidence one has available at a certain time, one makes provisional decisions, decisions perpetually subject to revision or replacement in light of new evidence (or reconsideration of one’s interpretation of the old), when one must; at other times, one may admit agnosticism. All this hinges, of course, on the legitimacy of trusting how most persons “most naturally” deal with given evidence. This equates to a trust in natural human faculties upon which human interpretation of evidence depends. The presuppositionalist asks: Is trust in these faculties (sensory, perceptual, intellectual) justified in terms of any and every worldview? If one does not presuppose that the biblical Christian view of things is true, if one does not even presuppose (say) the truth of some more generalized monotheistic system, is one justified simply trusting that these natural human faculties can generally be trusted? Doubt that this is the case seems warranted.
“Beyond a reasonable doubt” seems more obviously worldview-dependent, since it hangs entirely on one’s conception of what is “reasonable” when it comes to doubt. Within the Christian framework, where human faculties are known to be given by a truthful and loving God and so to be generally reliable (only “generally” reliable because our fallen state makes them subject to misuse, including misuse of which the misuser may be unaware), the “reasonable doubt” concept makes perfect sense and can be heartily embraced. All persons should indeed be able to come to agreement on what sorts of doubts are and are not reasonable within this worldview. Can any coherent idea of when the real doubts of any person cease to be “reasonable” be formulated on worldview-neutral grounds, however? Since to be worldview-neutral is to be without grounds of any sort for any ideas (so says the presuppositionalist), the answer seems to be “no.” If I doubt and take my doubt seriously, who are you to tell me my doubt isn’t “reasonable”? What puts me under any obligation to accept your idea of the “reasonable”? For that matter, why do I even need to accept the idea that being “reasonable” is the only thing that makes a doubt worth taking seriously? What if I doubt this faculty reason itself? Why shouldn’t I: it’s just a chance-evolved faculty, after all, or so I’m told. Yes, yes, these sorts of questions, which challenge reason itself while continuing to utilize reason (taking for granted, for instance, that there really is a difference between “accepting” and “rejecting” an idea, which presupposes the law of contradiction), are (in terms of reason) “self-referentially incoherent.” However, if one’s worldview provides no basis for trusting such human faculties as reason, there is nothing necessarily wrong with being self-referentially incoherent; for all one knows, only self-referentially incoherent statements can be true. Yes, this kind of thinking is “nuts,” but that’s the point: worldview-neutral thinking is nonsense. Who are you, anyway, to claim being “nuts” or “nonsense” is undesirable? (By the way, some might prefer to speak of the human faculty as “reasoning” or “rationality,” and to use “reason” to refer only to the abstracted description of how that faculty may be properly exercised. Referring to the faculty itself as “reason,” as in such phrases as “deliverances of reason,” is well established, however.)
It is by no means necessary to get into this kind of presuppositional discussion with every non-Christian. Most non-Christians in our culture are still sufficiently under the influence of our biblical Christian heritage to make a purely evidential appeal like Montgomery’s very effective. The one danger (not an insignificant one) is that persons who embrace Christianity on these grounds will never wholly and humbly, as trusting children (Matthew 18:3-4), submit to Scripture alone as their ultimate authority (more precisely, as the only infallible, sufficient, and clear verbal communication from their actual ultimate authority, the Triune God). A whole range of failures of professing Christian to “speak the same thing” and “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10) can be traced to the failure of many to place their every thought under Scripture’s authority (2 Corinthians 10:5). On Montgomery’s evidentialist understanding, autonomous non-Christian thought is not fundamentally in error, in error even where it seems to reason correctly because its reasoning does not cohere with its professed starting assumptions and overall belief system, but only fails to go far enough or draws some incorrect higher-level conclusions: “At one point in his speech [in Athens], Paul asserted that human life is a product of divine creation, ‘as even some of your [Stoic] poets have said’ (Acts 17:28), thereby making clear that classical natural law thinking was correct as far as it went….Its completion could be found in Jesus” (48; “Stoic” clarification Montgomery’s). (Paul’s pointing to something the pagans believed as in fact true, which Paul knew to be the case on biblical grounds, is construed by Montgomery as Paul’s way of saying that the pagans’ belief was justified on the grounds of their pagan presuppositions and the “natural law thinking” by which they supported the belief in terms of those presuppositions. This construal is not necessary, nor does it seem likely. Affirming that someone’s belief is true implies no endorsement of his way of arriving at that belief.) If one embraces Christianity with this understanding, one naturally will see no need to radically reconstruct one’s cognitive structure on a rigorously biblical basis. The “faith” one possesses in this case is wholly the product of one’s autonomous reasoning on neutral grounds, independent of God’s verbal revelation. It is the product of human decision based upon probabilistic reasoning about evidence, a reasoned commitment to what one judges most likely true in terms of the evidence one has so far considered. This cannot be a “faith that is so firm ([as] Job’s) that it excludes the slightest shadow of doubt and persists even in the face of evidence that [in writer Jerome Hall’s opinion] on rational grounds is plainly [read: seemingly to Hall] contradictory” (50, quoting Hall); so, naturally, Montgomery writes, “We are not persuaded that Job’s faith was quite as firm—or as irrational—as Hall suggests” (50 n.56). The association of doubt-free firmness and irrationality here is telling: “faith” of this sort is always a provisional thing, a tentative human opinion subject to revision in light of potential future evidence.
Is such “faith” the faith through which God saves, faith that is not of ourselves but is “the gift of God,” faith that is not produced by any human work and so about which no human “should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)? “Faith” established and maintained on Montgomery’s grounds certainly seems like a human work and cause for boasting. Even persons who have not authored “more than sixty books in six languages” and do not hold “eleven earned degrees” as Montgomery does (back cover) seem well within their rights to boast if their skill in reasoning and talent for sifting through and assessing evidence have allowed them to establish and maintain the faith through which God effects salvation. Without their cleverness, after all, God would be powerless to save! Could it be that so many professing Christians spend their entire Christians lives with nagging doubts and uncertainties about the most fundamental matters, and that so many other professing Christians wholly abandon the Faith, because the only “faith” they ever have is this autonomously established and maintained thing, what some call “reasonable faith,” that has never saved (never been the means through which God effected the eternal salvation of) anyone? This evidentialist “faith” might often serve as a form of preparation for salvation, as something God finds useful to include in the lives of some of his elect before he grants them new life and saving faith, but the evidentialist idea that this autonomously established assent, even when combined with willful commitment to begin ordering one’s conduct along Christian lines, is in fact saving faith, seems incorrect.
If saving faith, true faith, is not voluntary human commitment to a course of action or lifestyle based on rational assessment of public evidence, what is it? Consider this definition (perhaps a bit rough and preliminary): the faith through which God saves his people by grace, “saving faith” for short, is the product of grace alone, an undoubting trust grounded firmly in God-given awareness of indubitable spiritual truth. This faith is wholly consonant with all rightly interpreted evidence, to be sure, but it is not “based on” evidence; rather, it is the basis upon which one trusts one’s God-given senses and the sensations they receive, one’s God-given perceptual apparatus and the evidence it constructs from sensations, one’s rational faculty and how it interprets such evidence, and so on. The saved believer does not trust his God because he first trusted his own faculties and the world around him and, given this starting point of self and world, came to consider God probably real and his Word probably trustworthy; instead, the saved believer, by God’s grace, trusts God and his Word first of all and most of all, and on this basis trusts his faculties to the extent God’s Word seems to justify and understands the world to be what Scripture helps him understand it to be. (The ordering here is a matter of logical priority, of what justifies what, not of temporal ordering. Temporally, many who end up true believers may not initially realize their only good reason for trusting their faculties is their faith in the God who gave them those faculties.)
No “leap of faith” is proposed here: the idea of a “leap of faith” owes to the understanding of saving faith as a human work. On this understanding, since evidence of Christianity’s truth never rises to a level compelling assent—alternative explanations are always possible, even if not very plausible—one must invariably “leap” beyond the evidence to the wholehearted, permanent commitment that is saving faith. Those whom God sovereignly saves make no such leap; if there is a chasm between human-formed opinions and saving faith, then it is God alone who bridges the gap: true believers do not leap over the chasm; they are thrown (or flown) across it.
This issue aside, the final section is neither more nor less persuasive than the one preceding it; in essence, it is the same argument from a different angle. One thing it does add is an illuminating discussion on handling testimonial evidence (54-63), which is, of course, the sort of evidence we find in the New Testament. The bottom line here is that dishonest, or even just inaccurate, testimony could not have stood up to the hostile challenges of Christianity’s formative years. Eyewitnesses who rejected the Faith were around at the same time the eyewitnesses who accepted it were promoting it and making their various claims, such as that Jesus had risen from the dead and been seen by multiple persons on multiple occasions after doing so. This chapter could have the added benefit of warning off potential perjurers: lying is a much more complicated maneuver than telling the truth, and the attorney(s) cross examining you are well trained to trip you up; best not try it.
As in the first section of the book, Montgomery here infers Jesus’s Godhood from his resurrection, holding that “Surely, if only Jesus was raised, he is in a far better position…to interpret or explain it” (74). This assertion is no more evidently true or likely here than it was in the historical section. This section adds the inference that, since Jesus has been shown to be God, the “stamp of approval” he places on the Bible should prompt us to place our trust in the Bible as infallible. Presumably, this trust should only be as strong as our trust in the evidentialist arguments up to this point; so, “place our tentative trust in the Bible as probably infallible” would probably be more accurate wording for what Montgomery believes he has proven we should do.
On balance, then, History, Law and Christianity is interesting, worthwhile reading. Though its commitment to evidentialism does not allow me to recommend it to non-Christians or Christians not well established in a thoroughly faithful, Bible-based, presuppositionalist way of thinking, I think it good reading for committed Bible believers whose grounding in faithful presuppositionalism is firm enough to permit exploration of the evidentialist perspective. Committed evidentialists, of course, will love it. I’ll pray for them.
This review will also appear, abridged and less nicely formatted, on Amazon and, in more abridged form, on GoodReads.
Keathley, Kenneth D., and Mark F. Rooker. 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution. 40 Questions, series ed. Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2014. Paperback, 430 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-2941-5.
Introduction: General Overview and Assessment
In this book, a fairly comprehensive survey of debated questions related to creation and evolution, particularly as those questions are addressed by evangelicals, authors Keathley and Rooker (hereafter, K&R) survey and assess the various extant opinions in a manner that attempts, more successfully in some chapters than in others, to be “fair and balanced” rather than polemical. K&R’s efforts at fairness and balance notwithstanding, reading the whole 40 Questions text (hereafter, 40Qs) does give one a clear impression of what views K&R prefer in debates about how the early chapters of Genesis should be read, how or if the dominant opinions of contemporary scientists should affect biblical hermeneutics, how important it is to take or not take a strong position on these issues, and how this should all affect one’s approach to apologetics.
If the impression one gets from reading 40Qs is correct, K&R’s judgment is that, at present, the most natural reading of Scripture is still biblical creationism (BC). (This is the terminology I and others advocate because it places proper emphasis on what motivates BC: humble, childlike submission [Matthew 18:3, etc.] to the plain or natural sense of Scripture, even when considering historical and scientific questions. The authors, in agreement with dominant usage, call this young-earth creationism, or YEC. In this review, I will use the terminology I advocate.) The only biblical difficulty they agree exists for this reading (the only one not resolved fairly easily, at any rate) is the great deal of activity that seems to have taken place on the sixth day of the creation week. Most alternative readings of the Genesis creation account (such as the day-age, temple inauguration, gap, framework, and historical creationism theories) show themselves, in the chapters (“questions”) that discuss them, to be fraught with more significant biblical difficulties than BC’s too-much-stuff-on-day-six issue. Though the authors commend the more Bible-centered of these alternatives (historical creationism comes to mind), Scripture itself prevents them from claiming that any non-BC position fits Scripture so naturally and well as BC. Notably, however, a metaphor-for-literal-but-ineffable-pre-Fall-reality theory is not criticized, but only presented as a “mediating” view open to persons who are persuaded that the Genesis creation days must (because of the demands of biblical wording and context) be understood as normal-length days (164). (The lack of significant criticism of this “mediating” position suggests that it might be the OEC position that the authors presently deem most cogent. One must wonder, though: what exactly does a metaphor communicate if the literal reality it is alleged to describe is wholly beyond verbal description?) Also notably, K&R, like such past opponents of BC as Gleason Archer, do sometimes call the BC reading “cursory” or the like (I believe Archer’s term was “superficial”), even though their own chapters studying the various approaches show that BC has strong biblical justification on close reading, not just when reading is “cursory.” Since this is not a “Genesis debate” book, and since chapters are not specifically assigned to one author or the other, this inconsistency of tone is troubling. Readers are informed early-on (23) that each author “leans to” a different position, one (Rooker) toward BC (“YEC”) and one (Keathley) toward OEC, but nowhere is it suggested that either author disagrees with what they have chosen jointly to assert in their 40Qs collaboration.
While K&R generally (“cursory reading” inconsistency aside) seem willing to grant the Scripture-alone case to BC, they also clearly believe that scientific support for BC is scarce to nonexistent: they think that BC is and, one gets the distinct impression, should embrace being a “fideistic” position that is simply untestable because it relies on miracles like the global Flood and an initially mature creation with “apparent age.” Old Earth Creationism (OEC), on the other hand, has (they believe) very strong scientific support (even if various systems offered to go with OEC don’t seem true on biblical grounds alone). Evolutionary Creationism (EC), while it can claim the support of most of the scientific data that K&R believe supports OEC, has considerably weaker biblical justification than non-evolutionary OEC. In fact, the authors seem inclined to think that progressive creationism (God created intermittently over long periods, with limited “evolutionary” development of creatures occurring during times when God wasn’t creating) fits better with the scientific data than does full-on evolutionism (whether that of EC or Darwinism, the latter of which K&R judge an ideology unsustainable on either scientific or philosophical grounds). On related matters: (1) though they admit BC’s belief in a global Flood has good biblical support, they consider the local Flood theory rational and acceptable on biblical grounds, and they are unpersuaded by the scientific (geological) case for the global Flood (and seem to wish BC-motivated Flood geologists would just knock it off and admit their view is fideistic and impossible to support scientifically); (2) they endorse the idea that the Genesis genealogies contain gaps of unknown duration, ruling out strict chronology based on those genealogies.
Clearly, a good deal of research and thought has gone into this text. As a result, it does contain much useful information. Its identification by name of advocates of various viewpoints, and its references to key texts and articles promoting those viewpoints, are two examples that may alone make the book a worthwhile purchase for some readers and for libraries. Researchers will find the lack of a subject index annoying, I think, though the main topics can readily be located using the table of contents (9-10). No doubt the lack of an index of persons mentioned will also displease some. (These indexes are lacking in my complimentary review copy, at least. Perhaps some future printing will include them.) Nevertheless, persons desiring a comprehensive survey of currently debated issues might decide that 40Qs serves their purposes nicely. I can only give the book a mildly positive rating (three stars on the standard five-star scale), however, because (1) a fundamental aspect of its overall approach is deeply flawed; (2) its treatment of BC, and of the Bible-believing presuppositionalism (BBP) that often goes with it, is unsatisfactory (as to BBP and BC generally, and in failing to address a longstanding BC concern with terminology); and (3) it has other shortcoming that might be noted. ^
A fundamental aspect of 40Qs that seems especially flawed is K&R’s attempt to frame the differences between advocates of BC, OEC, and EC as disagreements over “apologetic approach” only. These three viewpoints, which all adopt very different approaches to God’s infallible written Word, are included in a list of “apologetic approaches” along with Intelligent Design (ID), which takes no position at all on God’s Word (nor, in fact, on whether the “intelligence” inferred to lie behind certain phenomena in nature is the God of the Bible). Disagreements about how God created, or about what Scripture means when it touches on the subject, K&R maintain, are disagreements about “apologetic approach,” apologetic strategy, only. If it is a variety of “creationism,” it is apologetic approach, not doctrine. Only the question of whether God created is a matter of doctrine, “the doctrine of creation”; everything else is just strategy (“approach”). To be more precise, the “doctrine of creation,” as K&R describe it, includes the following propositions: God created the world out of nothing; only God is eternal, meaning creation began in, and includes, time; God is distinct from creation; God did not create out of necessity; God did not have to create this particular world, but chose of his own free will to do so; God created a world that is consistent with his nature and character; God is sovereign over the world; God continues to be actively involved with the world, being not only its Creator but its Sustainer.
Even on the expanded “to be more precise” description of “the doctrine of creation,” however, the idea that “everything else is just strategy” is neither persuasive nor plausible. Everything that Scripture teaches, all that is directly stated or that “by good and necessary consequence” may be inferred from what is directly stated, is doctrine. When people disagree about what Scripture may be claimed to teach or imply, as when people disagree about whether or not God really did create absolutely everything in the space of six days of the sort experienced in a normal week (Exodus 20:9-11), their disagreement very definitely is doctrinal. This is why many churches include specific positions on the issue in their doctrinal statements. If two BC advocates disagree with one another about whether they should (1) do an internal critique of an opponent’s worldview, pointing out how it takes for granted presuppositions that actually don’t fit with it but are “borrowed” from the Bible-believing worldview, or (2) draw upon ID arguments to show how the presuppositions that opponent takes for granted make God’s existence impossible to deny rationally, that is a difference over apologetic strategy. Disagreements about how scientific data should be explained in the Bible-first BC context may also be deemed differences over apologetic approach, as may differences between approaches of any two OEC advocates. If one Christian thinks the Bible must be humbly accepted in its most natural sense and the data of science interpreted in light of that sense (BC), whereas another thinks the data of science has a natural (objective, worldview-neutral) sense in terms of which an unclear Bible must be reinterpreted (OEC, EC), that is a difference over doctrine.
Even so, I appreciate K&R’ effort to show that Christians who fail to embrace BC do still agree with biblical creationists on the doctrine that God created. (All aspects of the “to be more precise” description of the doctrine noted above may be seen as implicit in the “God” part of the identifier “doctrine that God created,” since it is understood in context that the God of the Bible is in view, and the “to be more precise” points simply unpack what being the God of the Bible entails.) Where they disagree is on the doctrine of how God created. It is misleading to call either of these separate doctrines “the doctrine of creation,” but that is what K&R have chosen to do. Perhaps this is longstanding usage, but that doesn’t make it any less misleading. The debate here is definitely a matter of doctrine, not just apologetics. By adopting the usage they do, K&R bias their presentation in favor of those who, in complete disagreement with advocates of BC, claim the Bible doesn’t mean to say anything about how God created, only that he created. This biased and misleading framing of the issue makes 40Qs, for all its wealth of information and critical reflection, a deeply flawed book. It is also strange, since K&R do not themselves seem to believe that “the Bible doesn’t mean to say anything about how God created, only that he created.” When one’s desire to be irenic and make peace between disagreeing Christians (a laudable motive, no doubt) makes one introduce biases into one’s work that contradict one’s own convictions, might it be said that peacemaking has been carried too far? Of course, my impression that K&R do not themselves believe “the Bible doesn’t mean to say anything about how God created, only that he created” could be mistaken; perhaps one or the other of them believes exactly that. Were this the case, the bias would then be less strange, though no less objectionable.
Unsatisfactory Treatment of Biblical Creationism and Bible-Believing Presuppositionalism ^
The book is also flawed in its consideration of BC and BBP. K&R observe that “most” BC advocates are presuppositionalists, often to a degree K&R think verges on, or passes wholly over into, the “blind faith” of fideism. They write: “The presuppositionalist believes that the validity of one’s presuppositions must eventually be tested by using the laws of logic and be demonstrated by a consistency with the evidential findings. Fideism, by contrast, does not believe one’s presuppositions can be tested” (20). Were presuppositionalist pioneer Cornelius Van Til and his star pupil, Greg Bahnsen, available for comment, I think they would find this description objectionable. By insisting that presuppositions must be tested for “consistency with the evidential findings,” for instance, K&R disallow any form of “presuppositionalism” that is more than evidentialism with some presuppositional analysis thrown in. As for testing “using the laws of logic,” the stance of Van Tilian presuppositionalists (the only “real” presuppositionalists were one to ask the late Dr. Bahnsen) is that the Christian worldview with its BBP is the only belief system with which trust in the laws of logic makes sense, the only system that can account for those laws. Calling them “laws” or suggesting they be used to “test” anything before one has adopted BBP is, on Van Tilian grounds, nonsense.
Okay, I just threw around some terms I should probably clarify. First, I spoke of “the Christian worldview with its BBP.” Van Tilians will typically just say, “the Christian worldview,” and leave it at that, though the growth in popularity of that term among non-Van Tilians inclines me to think “with its BBP” must be specified. Words like “worldview” and “presuppositions” are used very freely in discussion of these issues, so perhaps I should clarify them also. Sometimes it sounds like the two terms are meant as synonyms. A worldview, however, is a comprehensive belief system: it includes and owes its existence and content to some set of presuppositions (or, as some, though not usually Van Tilians, put it, an unproven and unprovable set of axioms), of which adherents of the worldview may have little conscious awareness (prior to careful and uncomfortable reflection), but it is not limited to those presuppositions. The correctness of presuppositions cannot be tested by any worldview-neutral (“objective”) criteria because, simply put, there are no such criteria. All criteria express and function within worldviews. K&R’s suggestion that presuppositions must be tested for compliance with “evidence,” thus, misses a fundamental point of BBP. Presuppositions can be tested, but not by “evidence”: they can be tested for whether or not they cohere with the worldviews of which they are a part. When a worldview and its presuppositions cannot be brought into coherence, either through modification of the presuppositions to fit the rest of the worldview, or through modification of the rest of the worldview to fit the presuppositions, the worldview fails. The faith of Christians who advocate BBP is that every non-BBP worldview, including “Christian” worldviews that reject BBP in favor of the presuppositions of secular empiricists, Thomistic philosophers, or others, will fail upon analysis, whereas the BBP worldview will not. (Typically, as I’ve noted, BBP advocates speak simply of “the Christian worldview.” This usage is misleading, however, since persons who do not embrace BBP also speak of “the Christian worldview” as they incorporate limited presuppositional analysis into their non-BBP work. Since true Christians share many important beliefs in common, speaking of “the Christian worldview” is very tempting. As is clear from K&R’s text, however, Christians’ comprehensive belief systems, their worldviews, differ in ways that are not insignificant.)
Another term that requires comment is “evidentialism.” This is the term Van Tilians have typically applied to the approaches of those who reject BBP. This simple terminology doesn’t always satisfy those to whom it is applied since they, thinking solely in terms of apologetics, know approaches among them vary, from “minimal facts” historical apologetics, to basically Thomistic “classical” apologetics, to properly “evidentialist” apologetics that John Locke might have embraced. For Van Tilian BBP advocates, however, broader questions of epistemology, of how one can rightly claim to know anything at all and how one should go about managing one’s beliefs in view of this, cannot be placed in a separate compartment from one’s apologetics. When one adopts BBP, one cannot separate “doctrine” and “apologetic approach” in the way K&R do: doctrine is all that Scripture, rightly understood, teaches, and this is foundational to and determinative of one’s apologetics.
To highlight just how different BBP is from the empiricist-leaning way of thinking that is the automatic, seldom-questioned, default cognitive strategy in our post-Enlightenment culture, one only need survey K&R’s frequent use of phrases like “evidence indicates,” “evidence points in the direction of,” and “scientific data shows” in contexts of naïve acceptance, with no hint of uncertainty that data and evidence really do “indicate” and “point.” Such statements reflect what Van Til identified as biblically-unsound belief in “brute factuality.” This belief posits a realm of neutral or objective “facts” or “data” that “speak for themselves”: “data” or “evidence” that “points” in some direction. Adherents of BBP reject the idea that God’s creation contains any such brute facts. Facts and interpretations can be distinguished and talked about separately, of course, but facts are never free of interpretation. Every fact, or datum, or evidence any human person perceives or thinks about will inevitably be perceived or thought about in terms of some interpretation or other, in obedient submission to God, in rebellion against God, or (most commonly in the non-idealized real world) in an inconsistent mixture of submission and rebellion. In terms of BBP, the previously quoted phrases must be reworded if they are to be accurate: “evidence, as I select and interpret it in accord with my believing or unbelieving or inconsistent presuppositions, indicates”; “evidence, as I select and interpret it in accord with my…presuppositions, points in the direction of”; and “scientific data, as I select and interpret it in accord with my…presuppositions, shows.” To drive the implication of these statements home more clearly, they may be reworded as follows: “my presupposition-guided selection and interpretation of evidence indicates” or “…points in the direction of” or “…shows.”
Concerning “presupposition-guided selection…of data,” this doesn’t have to involve self-serving selectivity that intentionally ignores data that one hasn’t yet figured out how to fit into one’s way of thinking. Though evidentialists on every side of every debate invariably complain about the other side’s selective use of available data, the reality in the for-all-practical-purposes infinite created realm in which we live (finite from God’s perspective [Psalm 147:4], infinite from ours) is that there is always infinitely more data out there than any evidential “cumulative case” argument takes into account (K&R speak positively of cumulative case arguments in various places in 40Qs), and any item in that infinite mass of mostly-unknown data might confound even the most seemingly airtight evidential argument. To a few of us, “cumulative case” arguments, and induction (empirical reasoning) in general, seem to take advantage of the finitude of human awareness to make people feel like they “know” things it isn’t possible to know on empirical grounds—at least absent some big assumptions one isn’t entitled to make lacking a prior justifying revelation from God. Thus, a major problem with many uses of the book of Scripture / book of nature approach (according to which humans are to acquire and integrate knowledge from these “two books”), which K&R identify as the view of all who believe rightly interpreted nature and rightly interpreted Scripture must agree (“concordists”), is that, whereas Scripture is a finite collection of words breathed out by God for the purpose of communication, nature is a so-far-as-humans-are-concerned infinite collection of entities, phenomena, and regular patterns of activity (“laws”) meant to glorify God and to astound and humble his creatures, no doubt, and to make known some broad truths about God (he is powerful beyond imagining and so on), but not to communicate a specific body of verbal truths. Biblical creationists don’t mind the “two books” metaphor (they are concordists), but the typical approach of OEC advocates like Hugh Ross (whose name and arguments appear frequently in 40Qs), read too much into the “two books” metaphor, as K&R seem to recognize (126).
As persons with evident presuppositional commitments to some degree of worldview-neutral “brute factuality,” K&R find the uncompromising commitment of biblical creationists with their BBP irksome, likening it to the equally irksome bias of Darwinists: “Both [adherents of BC and Darwinism] refuse to let the empirical data cause them to step away from their original philosophical commitments.” On the bright side, they add, “Theistic evolutionists [EC adherents] and [non-evolutionary] old-earth creationists [OEC adherents], by contrast, most readily allow the scientific data to affect their respective interpretive models” (18). Why refusal to step away from an original philosophical commitment to belief in “brute factuality” and the empiricism that goes with it is more laudable than refusal to step away from primary commitment to God’s own words in Scripture in their most natural sense, without importation of extrabiblical information no original recipient could have known, is unclear. But such is K&R’s assessment of the situation.
For BBP adherents, in contrast, essential to both biblically correct doctrinal beliefs and God-honoring apologetics is the bringing of one’s intellectual life, in particular one’s presuppositional framework and the comprehensive worldview growing out of it, into conformity with—into childlike, trusting submission to—God’s verbally-expressed and infallible revelation, the Bible. On this view, one must not simply take for granted the epistemological assumptions and cognitive strategies one’s culture happens to have made the unquestioned defaults of most people including oneself. (I believe students of the Sociology of Knowledge call these a culture’s “plausibility structures.”) Believing Bible study (to borrow the title of an old book), and consistently faithful study of every topic, requires a thorough bottom-up reconstruction of one’s thinking. (Plausibility structures must be restructured to conform with Scripture, not taken for granted.) In my view, this process doesn’t rule out, as an apologetic exercise, engaging in evidentialist explorations of where the unquestioned defaults in a culture happen to lead; it does, however, rule out making such explorations the basis of one’s doctrine, of one’s interpretation of Scripture; much more does it rule out making such evidentialist explorations the basis of one’s faith.
Re: “this process doesn’t rule out, as an apologetic exercise, engaging in evidentialist explorations of where the unquestioned defaults in a culture happen to lead.” This would also apply to subcultures, such as those of historians and practitioners of “origins science.” (Origins science makes inferences about the past from evidence in the present. Operational science, based on present-day observations, proposes theories that make predictions that can be tested through repeatable experiments. The former gives us colorful stories about the evolution of stars, planets, and life; the latter gives us cars, airplanes, medicines, and other useful things. This distinction, especially favored by BC advocates, is mentioned at various points in 40Qs.) One can deny persuasive historical “proofs of the resurrection” by rejecting the presuppositions that make historical knowledge possible; if, however, one insists on holding on to those presuppositions, one is obligated to take seriously historical arguments favoring the claim that Jesus’s resurrection really happened. One can deny the persuasive force of ID’s fine-tuning argument (397-407) by jettisoning presuppositions essential to the practice of origins science (trust in the laws of probability, for example), but if one insists on retaining these presuppositions one must also contend with the inferences to intelligence they seem to demand. These arguments are no substitute for believers’ whole-person commitment to Scripture’s authority over their presuppositions and every thought and action, but I see no harm in their utilization as mental exercises when dealing with unbelievers who embrace the presuppositions of the relevant subcultures.
So, getting back to the topic at hand, on K&R’s account, one may only avoid being a “blind faith” fideist by embracing evidentialism. The only way for BBP adherents to not be fideists, in other words, is for them to become evidentialists who use analysis of presuppositions as part of a broader evidentialist approach. “Brute factuality” must be one’s ultimate authority or else one is a fideist. Personally, the label “fideist” doesn’t bother me since, freed of the scholarly pompousness of Latin, “fideism” is just “faith-ism,” and surely faith-alone Bible believers should find this label less offensive than “empiricism,” “rationalism,” or “scientism.” (It sure beats “agnosticism,” which is the label I’d still be applying to my own “belief” system had I never happened upon BBP.) Is faith that precedes and informs one’s approach to “evidence” rightly labeled “blind”? Only on presuppositionally evidentialist grounds. From the BBP perspective, considerations of “evidence” unguided by Bible-informed faith are what should be called “blind.”
In terms of BBP, then, a Bible-believing Christian should never grant that “evidence” or “data” could call into question the comprehensive Christian thought system grounded in Scripture (the BBP Christian worldview). The presuppositional framework that determines one’s worldview also determines what one labels “evidence” or “data” and how one may and should interpret that evidence or data. In the BBP system, the Bible is the ultimate authority, so the lesser authority of interpreted natural evidence (“natural revelation”) will always be understood in light of the Bible. (More precisely, the Triune God speaking in Scripture is the ultimate authority. Since in Scripture alone God speaks clearly, verbally to his people, it is Scripture alone that effectively functions as Christians’ ultimate authority.) For them, to force upon Scripture any interpretation not evident from Scripture itself as its original believing recipients could have been expected to understand it, such as an interpretation guided by contemporary secular interpretations of natural (scientific) evidence (as secular thinkers understand “evidence”), would be to set up something other than Scripture (in this case, “scientific evidence” as secularly construed) as the ultimate authority. (Direct “experiences of God,” by the way, would have the same epistemic status as the experiences yielding scientific evidence: one could not use them to justify reinterpretation of Scripture; instead, one would have to both validate and interpret them on the basis of Scripture.) Biblical creationists committed to BBP are quite capable of modifying their views on the basis of evidence, biblical evidence. Other “evidence” won’t do.
As already noted, BBP adherents believe that all worldviews other than the Christian (the BBP Christian) will prove, upon analysis, to fail, if consistently maintained, to provide the necessary grounds for rational thought or the intelligibility of anything. Often they will claim that this “proves” Christianity or the Bible true, or that this is “proof that God exists.” Neither of these claims is true, of course, since it is possible to embrace irrationality and unintelligibility. The choice one is presented with is between (1) the Christian system and all that goes with it (the Bible as ultimate authority, etc.), and (2) ultimate skepticism (skeptical even about itself), meaninglessness, chaos…madness. Showing someone that this is the choice they must make, which is all that presuppositional appeals can do (if one agrees that they can do this), does not “prove” anything. Unpleasant and impractical though it may be, impossible to live by as it clearly is, 2 is an option. It is intellectual and emotional suicide, true, and actual physical suicide is not unlikely to follow, but these undesirable implications following choice 2 do not “prove” choice 1 “true.” Ultimate authorities, and the presuppositional systems (and so worldviews) that arise out of them, cannot be “proven,” because they are themselves the basis and provide the criteria for all acts of proving conducted within them—and there are no acts of proving that do not take place within and in terms of a given worldview. If this is fideism, then we might all lament that the human condition is one of inescapable fideism, a state wholly repulsive to our prideful, would-be autonomous spirits. No amount of lamenting will change our situation, however.
K&R’s treatment of BC also proves unsatisfactory by failing to acknowledge an issue of terminology that many BC advocates consider very important. Though they identify Answers in Genesis (AIG) as the leading BC organization (16), K&R neither adopt nor comment upon that organization’s rejection of the terms “macroevolution” and “microevolution,” and in fact later adopt those terms (without mention of BC objections) in their discussions of evolution and ID (Questions 32-40, 313-407, opting for the hyphenated versions of the terms, “micro-evolution” and “macro-evolution”).
AIG repeatedly emphasizes the importance of avoiding these terms. On their “Terms to Know” page (accessed 17 April 2015) they identify each as “a term used by evolutionists,” clearly implying that non-evolutionists should avoid the terms: “Macroevolution is a term used by evolutionists to describe the alleged, unobservable change of one kind of organism to another kind by natural selection acting on the accumulation of mutations over vast periods of time”; “Microevolution is a term used by evolutionists to describe relatively small changes in genetic variation that can be observed in populations.” In a no-byline 2009 post (“When Do False Dichotomies Ever Mesh?” dated 04 July 2009, accessed 17 April 2015), objection to the terms is again emphasized. Describing how a reporter misunderstood both Creation Museum displays and explanatory remarks by Dr. Andrew Snelling, this post notes how the reporter’s article “imports something Answers in Genesis does not say and actually recommends against: the microevolution/macroevolution dichotomy. [Reporter Kenneth] Chang’s disproof of that dichotomy demonstrates just why we don’t use it: ‘If dog to fox is microevolution, then it seems that hominid to human would also be microevolution,’ he writes.” The next paragraph adds: “What really matters is not the size of changes, but rather whether changes add information to a creature’s genome. Observational science tells us that all the ‘evolutionary’ changes we observe either keep genetic information constant or reduce it. That’s the opposite of what molecules-to-man evolution would require.” The misleading terminology resulted in Chang “looking at all changes equally” and so failing to see that “the issue is the origin of genetic information, which has only been observed to originate from an intelligent source.”
2011 and 2012 posts by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell further emphasize AIG’s objection to the terminology (“Flies with Lice,” dated 28 May 2011, accessed 17 April 2015; “Salmon: Rapid Evolution,” dated 28 July 2012, accessed 17 April 2015). In the former, Mitchell objects to identification of “speciation,” formation of new species, as “macroevolution,” since it is within-kind variation that does not involve (so far as anyone has observed or can demonstrate) addition of useful genomic information. In the latter, Mitchell writes: “Implicit in the term microevolution…is the idea that the sorts of change observed in the salmon could eventually add up to produce non-fish, given enough time. As creation scientists, therefore, we tend to avoid the use of the term microevolution because evolutionists often say that macroevolution—the supposed evolution of one kind of organism into another—is just ‘microevolution writ large.’ In other words,” she clarifies, “they tend to use the observable and often rapid occurrence of genetic changes and variation within created kinds of organisms as evidence that new genetic information can be acquired to enable evolution of new kinds of organisms.” After noting how K. Giberson and F. Collins use just such reasoning (citing their The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions[Downers Grove: IVP, 2011], 45), Mitchell writes: “Macroevolution, however, has not been observed. Mutations may certainly contribute to genetic variation, but they represent a loss of information….And since the reshuffling of existing genetic information and its mutations does not provide the information to evolve new organisms, it is not logical to use observable microevolution [including speciation, as she notes in the 2011 post] as evidence for the occurrence of unobservable macroevolution. Such a ‘proof’ is analogous to…expecting to profit by selling all products at a loss but making up for losses in volume.”
Nor is this objection to the terms at all new. In a book excerpt dated 1994, Dr. Gary Parker writes: “in an attempt to be as ‘nice’ as possible, I used to say I accepted ‘micro-evolution’….But then a friend cautioned me that that could be confusing. Saying I accept micro-evolution, a ‘little evolution,’ might make some think that if only I believed in enough time, a little evolution (‘micro-evolution’) would lead to a lot of evolution (‘macro-evolution’). Nothing could be further from the truth”; rather, “great variation within kind (‘micro’) by itself could never, even in infinite time, lead to macro-evolution.” He adds a bit later: “God seems to have endowed the first of each created kind with dazzling genetic variability and the Hardy-Weinberg Law, the fundamental law of population genetics, acts to conserve that created variability.” Further along, he adds (now speaking specifically of humankind’s potential for variation): “To the extent that these things depend on gene combination….God’s plan at creation is still unfolding before our very eyes. That’s not evolution (adding something not there before), that’s ‘entelechy’—creativity written ahead of time in the fabulous genetic code of DNA!” (“Chapter 2: Mutation-Selection in Biblical Perspective,” dated 01 January 1994, part of Parker’s book Creation: Facts of Life: How Real Science Reveals the Hand of God, accessed 17 April 2015).
If K&R really want to present the BC position fairly and accurately, and if they really consider AIG the leading BC organization, it’s difficult to see how they could simply ignore this longstanding concern with terminology. Also, K&R adopt objectionable definitions of the objectionable terms. “Macro-evolution is understood to be significant innovations which produce new species,” whereas “Micro-evolution occurs within prescribed limits” (313). Note how these definitions fail to address biblical creationists’ concerns: they focus solely on the size of changes, not on the fundamental nature of them (whether changes involve introduction of useful new genetic information); also, they suggest that speciation equals macroevolution, something specifically objected to in Dr. Mitchell’s 2011 AIG post. By rejecting or ignoring BC’s focus on created kinds in favor of the secular focus on species, K&R introduce a notable bias into their presentation. Since one can fairly easily imagine a detrimental mutation in an isolated population yielding a “new species” incapable of breeding and producing fertile offspring with others of its kind, speciation seems a pretty low bar for “macro-evolution” (nor am I sure taxonomists limit their application of variant “species” identifications to populations that could not interbreed if they were relocated to a shared environment). Of course, K&R require “significant innovations which produce new species,” so “new species” not resulting from “significant innovations” could be said not to qualify. Still, the way the definition is phrased will suggest to most readers that production of “new species” just does involve “significant innovations.”
Additional reasons for dissatisfaction with 40Qs might be noted. For instance, K&R suggest that BC advocates who utilize “mature creation” arguments are being inconsistent when they also point to “evidence” of the global Flood or a young earth. This suggestion grows out of the assumption that any maturity in the initial creation requires comprehensive maturity in the same. The only support offered for this assumption is that the first person to propose a scientifically motivated “mature creation” theory (Philip Henry Gosse, writing in 1857) held to such a comprehensive view. This argument isn’t at all persuasive. Why should the initial creation have had to be “mature” in all respects? Why should a BC feel bad about invoking the “mature creation” idea as a possible explanation for only some data? Is there no biblical basis, or Bible-based philosophical basis, for believing certain aspects of creation are more likely to have been created mature than others? K&R’s all-or-nothing approach seems entirely unjustified.
As an increasingly committed adherent of BBP (albeit BBP of a somewhat idiosyncratic and still developing form), I do confess to dissatisfaction with the evidentialist tone of some biblical creationists. As I’ve noted, evidential appeals within a presuppositional framework, conducted as exploratory exercises for apologetic purposes, are not problematic. Even Bahnsen allowed for evidential “debris clearing,” so long as it did not involve setting aside one’s BBP. Still, I admit I would prefer that BC adherents, and everyone else for that matter, make their presuppositional commitments more clear when they enter into debates.
Alas, BC advocates vary in how presuppositional or evidential they sound when presenting BC. Among such advocates, Flood geologist Andrew Snelling tends more toward the evidential side of things. Some years back, when I was transitioning from the evidentialism-fundamentalism of adolescence into the agnosticism-sometimes-atheism of early adulthood, I sent a letter to the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) expressing doubt about the possibility of making the Bible the foundation of all one’s thinking, something Henry Morris (I believe) had urged readers to do in an Acts & Facts or Impact article. I believe it was Dr. Snelling who wrote back to me with a complimentary letter expressing agreement with my generally evidentialist sentiments (if I do not misremember the letter or misconstrue its meaning). The big problem with maintaining “faith” on evidentialist grounds, I found, is that the strength of such “faith” never exceeds the confidence one has in one’s own intellectual powers and in the comprehensiveness of one’s facts and arguments. For my part, I’ve since decided that the widespread commitment to evidentialism among evangelicals like K&R indicates just how prevalent intellectual pride (I Corinthians 8:2) is in evangelicalism, particularly among its leaders and in the halls of Christian academia. What else but such pride would make apologists think “reasonable faith” something deserving greater emphasis than “faithful reason”?
My digression aside, I do find that a fundamental BBP manifests itself even in Dr. Snelling’s writing. “So why would hundreds, indeed thousands, of highly-trained scientists,” he asks, “not only believe Genesis to be reliable history, but base their scientific research on the details and implications of that history? Their acceptance of the Bible in its entirety as a record of the true history of the world,” he answers, “stems first and foremost from their Christian convictions” (Andrew A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past: Geology, Creation & the Flood, v. 1 [Dallas: ICR, 2009], 3). In Dr. Snelling’s case, the undercurrent of BBP is subtle and (in the portion of his book I’ve so far read) unacknowledged as he reviews “the scientific evidence that has convinced many today…that Genesis must be taken seriously as literal history” (Ibid., 10). Noting that “science cannot directly observe what happened in the past, so all we can do is infer from the evidence we observe in the present,” he seeks to show only that we are “entitled to conclude that evidence we observe today is consistent with what has been faithfully recorded for us by God in Genesis 1-11” (Ibid., 10-11). Had he yet committed fully and consciously to BBP, he would say instead that “evidence we observe today may be interpreted in a manner consistent with…Genesis 1-11,” since raw data or evidence is entirely meaningless, neither consistent nor inconsistent with anything, until it is given significance and relevance through interpretation. (Technically, since everything is exhaustively interpreted by God, it all does have meaning. However, until we learn and embrace God’s interpretation for ourselves, any piece of evidence we deal with is meaningless to us.)
Snelling’s emphasis on how “science cannot directly observe what happened in the past,” which reiterates above-quoted remarks by Mitchell, brings up another disappointing bias in 40Qs. This bias is relatively mild compared to biases already noted, but it does add to the cumulative case (!) that K&R fail in their effort to be fair and balanced. They write: “Astronomy is unique among the natural sciences. Unlike geologists or paleontologists, astronomers do not merely use empirical data to construct theories about the past. When they look into their telescopes, astronomers do empirically observe the past” (215). This is not true, as I’ve heard biblical creationists point out on more than one occasion. K&R have here uncritically adopted an assertion OEC advocates, like unbelieving scientists, frequently make, but which a moment’s reflection shows to be untrue. Astronomers do not “observe the past”; they observe the effects that arriving light (electromagnetic radiation) is having on their telescopes in the present. They observe light reaching us now; they do not observe where and when the light originated. Both belief that events viewed in the night sky really occurred at some point in the past, and belief that those events occurred at a time in the past inferable from their distance and the speed of light (taking for granted that the speed of light is and has always been constant, this being a “law of nature” repeatedly confirmed and never falsified by human observers), are both inferences about the past from observations in the present. Many may think it silly or irrational to question these inferences, but surely clear thinking is not helped by refusal to admit that they are inferences.
One might also object to K&R’s suggestion that rejection of BC poses no threat to Christian spiritual life because so many prominent Christian leaders and scholars of the past and today endorse other viewpoints (201-2). Whenever the trends of thought in a culture or time tend in a direction other than a consistently biblical one, as they certainly have done in the West since the Enlightenment, the possibility must be entertained that Christian thinking, even the thinking of generally (even impressively) consistent believers, goes astray. A certain “secularism” in the thinking of B. B. Warfield (one of the examples K&R mention), for instance, was nicely documented by the late Dr. Theodore Letis (Van Tilian Lutheran) during his tragically-shortened academic career (Theodore P. Letis, The Ecclesiastical Text: Text Criticism, Biblical Authority and the Popular Mind, 2 ed. [Philadelphia: The Institute for Renaissance and Reformation Biblical Studies, 2000], 1-29, 50-8). Hero worship and misplaced trust, where respected leaders and subject-matter experts are treated as more certain and reliable authorities than God’s own Word, have been problems in the Christian community since the beginning (1 Corinthians 1:12). K&R’s “name dropping” refutation of biblical creationists’ worries can only contribute to the problem.
Persons with theological convictions similar to my own might also object to the book’s apparent endorsement of the “free will” answer to “the problem of evil,” at least to one aspect of it. While discussing the role of creation in the overall narrative of Scripture, K&R summarize a set of arguments or assertions offered by Augustus H. Strong in support of Christian optimism. The second of Strong’s four points they summarize as follows: “Second, sin has its origin in the free choices of the creature. God is in no way the origin of moral evil” (53, citing Strong’s Systematic Theology[Valley Forge, Judson, 1907], 405). Countless debates and texts indicate that most Christians find such an assertion perfectly acceptable. For better or worse, I do not. Moreover, were I an atheist or agnostic (both of which I professed to be at one point), I would find it an outrageous cop-out. If A is the origin of B, and B is the origin of C, then A is necessarily the ultimate origin of C, isn’t it? As comprehensively sovereign Creator and Sustainer of everything, God is the ultimate origin, and so ultimately responsible, for everything, moral evil perpetrated by his creations not excluded. Trying to speak of the God who creates, sustains, and sovereignly directs all things as merely “allowing” or “permitting” moral evil while not being the ultimate origin of, and person ultimately (though not directly) responsible for it, either implicitly compromises the “Godness of God,” or is fundamentally incoherent.
This does not mean that God is morally evil. If God sovereignly ordains that beings he has created should perpetrate moral evils (by their own free choice, not under compulsion, but still by eternal decree), all that is needed to free God from the charge of moral evil himself, or of approval of moral evil, is that he have a morally sufficient reason for ordaining what he has. The old Calvinist way of parsing matters, by speaking of God’s decretive will (what God actually foreordains, being all that comes to pass, including moral evil) and preceptive will (what God through his revelation shows to be right and good and desirable according to his holy character, the standard after which all creatures who would serve him should strive and by which all shall be judged), is perhaps as good as any. For those of us unwilling to make created beings more sovereign than God in any sphere, such as by making them rather than their Maker the ultimate origin of moral evil, the various “free will” evasions of God’s ultimate responsibility for absolutely everything ring hollow and invariably prove unsatisfying. They strike us as just one more manifestation of the contemporary tendency of Christians, particularly of those who consider themselves apologists, to emphasize reasonable faith (faith based upon and directed by independent, autonomous human reasoning) at the expense of faithful reason (reason based upon and directed by Bible-based Christian faith). Rather than seeking a Christian worldview foundation for their philosophy and science, such persons often believe they must have a philosophical or scientific (empirical) foundation for their Christian worldview.
This particular “shortcoming,” mentioned only in this full-length version of the review here on the Pious Eye site, has not affected my rating of the book or my willingness to recommend it. It does seem to me to merit comment, however, mainly because it is an issue I’m personally obsessed with—er, I mean, greatly interested in.
Closing Thoughts: A Suggested Rule of Thumb & Review Conclusion ^
A persisting difficulty for Bible believers trying to sift through works on Genesis, scholarly and otherwise, is that a large percentage of such works rely upon presuppositions contrary to those consistent Bible believers must embrace. One Bible-believing presupposition often contradicted is that our God who is truth and cannot lie must have breathed out his words in their original context intending that those who originally received them, if they were obedient to him and truly wanted to understand, would understand. The meaning of God’s communications through Scripture could be missed by the original recipients due to hardness of heart, due to sinful inclination to believe what God’s own Spirit was telling them was not so, but the original recipients would not misconstrue God’s meaning because they lacked some special knowledge, such as that provided by modern science, that would unlock a meaning they’d missed. (The sole exception would be communications originally given with the understanding that they were to be explained later; perhaps some prophetic passages fall into this category. Note, however, that faithful original recipients would understand the to-be-explained-later status of such communications, and that it is the completed Sacred Text itself that provides the keys to understanding these communications correctly when the time comes.) Many superficially plausible and persuasive theories, whether concerning interpretation of Genesis or other issues (interpretation of passages in Scripture addressing the roles of men and women in the family and church, say), may be quickly dismissed by simply taking a few moments to perceive that they reject this fundamental presupposition. It is neither possible nor desirable for Bible believers to give every theory a fair hearing and detailed analysis: If a theory contradicts fundamental presuppositions of Bible belief, it may rightly be dismissed without further study.
On the subject at hand, then, it seems to me that any proposal for interpreting the Genesis creation account, and the later worldwide Flood account, must be able to answer “yes” to the following question: “Can I believe everything the original recipients of this account (in Moses’s day) would have believed upon hearing it and still hold to the interpretation I’m proposing?” It also seems to me, given this, that any analysis of proposals for interpreting the Genesis creation account and worldwide Flood account must address this question for each of those proposals, rejecting as unworthy of Bible believers’ consideration all proposals for which a sincere “yes” answer is not possible. A great deal of confused insertion of post-biblical notions and information into one’s Bible reading might thereby be prevented. Would any hearer of the worldwide Flood account in Moses’s day have thought the Flood Noah faced was only local? Would any hearer of the Genesis creation account in Moses’s day have though that a long gap fell between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2, or that the “days” of the creation week were very long periods of time, or that the story was just an instructive “literary framework” that could not be taken to speak of real past events? If it cannot be plausibly argued that a proposal is compatible with the original recipients’ understanding of God’s communication to them through these accounts, the proposal in question needn’t further concern the sincere Bible believer. It is dead on arrival.
Had Keathley and Rooker adopted this rule of thumb before writing 40 Questions about Creation and Evolution, it would be a much shorter book, and one more consistently useful to committed Bible believers trying to bring all their thinking into alignment with Scripture as their ultimate authority. Of course, that isn’t how academic publishing works. Since it is an academic rather than popular or devotional work, I can only fault 40 Questions for its failure to be as impartial as is might have been, for failure to present the biblical (“young-earth”) creationist perspective as well as it might have done (though it does make more of an effort to do this than many books on the topic), and for other imperfections I’ve noted (and some I haven’t mentioned). Purchasers will find it interesting reading with quite a bit of useful information. Provided they read it critically, the book might also serve as a decent (though maybe not the best) introduction to the creation/evolution topic for persons new to the topic or new to books espousing views on the topic other than their own.
Abridged versions of this review will also appear on GoodReads and, less nicely formatted, on Amazon.^