Worthwhile Reading…For Some: History, Law and Christianity

history_law_christianity_cover_courstesy_publisherMontgomery, 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.

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One Response to Worthwhile Reading…For Some: History, Law and Christianity

  1. Pingback: History, Law and Christianity by John Warwick Montgomery Blog Tour | Cross Focused Reviews