Saturday, March 10, 2012

Empiricist vs. Presuppositionist Views of Christian Apologetics.

Here's a John Warwick Montgomery article from CTQ back in the 70s:


In it, he argues that the Lutheran Confessions are inherently oriented towards empiricist apologetics, rather than a presuppositionalist ones (the later he of course associates with Calvinism). Montgomery makes a number of errors throughout the article regarding his interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions. Notably, he fails to distinguish between reason's use in things below us (which is valid) and things above us (where it is not). Secondly, he also dismisses Edmund Schlink's perfectly valid claim that the Scriptures are not (in an ultimate sense) understandable apart from the center of the gospel. Again, he fails to distinguish between the inner and outer clarity as described by Luther, which forms the background and presupposition of Confessors' interpretation of the Scriptures.

These criticisms are issues for another blog post though, and I'd like deal with the question of presuppositionalist vs. empiricist Christian apologetics. Just to define our terms, presuppositionalist apologetics tends to be the position of Calvinists. According to Calvin, human beings all have a sense of divinity (sensus divinitatis) present within them, which therefore forms their view of the world. For this reason, Calvin notes, even when people are skeptical about the existence of divinity, they will act as if God exists. They will cry out to him in a storm or appeal to morality. Cornelius Van Til and some other modern Calvinists took this a step further. Van Til noted that when a Christian argues with a modern Atheist, the Atheist will inevitably say something like "Christianity is bad because it claims miracles, which violate the laws of nature. Also, Christians have done things (like burning witches and persecuting heretics) which are immoral!" The problem here, Van Til points out, is that the Atheist has just contradicted himself. He has posited both rational laws of nature and morality, which presupposes a rational creator God as their author. Christians can therefore argue with Atheists by showing them that there worldview is irrational, because he makes theistic presuppositions while having eliminated the existence of God.

Montgomery (along with a number of Evangelical philosophers) takes an opposite tack. They believe in empiricist apologetics. According to this way of thinking, Christianity is most credibly presented when the empirical evidence in its favor is mustered. Montgomery therefore makes arguments to show that the NT documents are credible and reliable. (As a side note: many of his arguments, I do not personally find very convincing- namely because I believe that he often times relies on conjecture or irrelevant facts that do not support his conclusions. Moreover, people like NT Wright, Kenneth Bailey, and Richard Bauckham have made considered better arguments in recent publications). When Montgomery is most convincing (in my opinion) is when he argues that the resurrection is the key to rationally validating Christianity. I've made the same argument myself: Jesus made certain claims about himself, the authority of the apostles, and the OT prophets. When he rose from the dead (a fact with a rather massive amount of evidence supporting it), he validated these claims of authority. Hence, one can (so to speak), take his claims about his own personal authority and that of the Bible to the theological bank.

What are we to make of this? If we examine the approaches carefully, what I would suggest is that they are not necessarily contradictory, but simply deal with different aspects of the Christian faith. First, the presuppositionalist perspective works best when applied to first article issues. Is there a creator God? Yes, of course, people act like there is one even when they deny it. This is an especially important argument to make in a post-Kantian, post-modern context. With the turn to the subject (in Kant) and the linguistic turn (after Wittgenstein) the entire unity between word and world, perception and reality have come undone. Ultimately, the only thing that could theoretically bring together our perceptions of morality, the laws of nature, and the relationship between word/world is the existence of a creator God who has created these things in harmony. Moreover, even secular people (who have no theoretical reason to believe in these harmonies) acts as if they exist. In fact, people literally could not get through their day if these presuppositions were wrong. This means, I believe, that Calvin and Van Til are essentially correct: people know God is the author of the laws of morality and nature, but ignore him. Unbelievers are therefore irrational in their unbelief. Paul makes the same argument in Romans 1.

This nevertheless does not take one very far. Ultimately, all we really get out of this is a kind of fuzzy theism. The Calvin and Van Til would of course admit this. Therefore, here, particularly with second article issues, the empiricist apologetic works best. It can be shown, for example, that Sodom and Gomorrah burned up around the time of Abraham. It can also be shown that the walls of Jericho fell at the time of Joshua- it can even be shown that it was harvest time, as the Bible clearly states that it was. Most importantly, the authority of the NT and OT are validated by Jesus' resurrection. Even if there are holes in our knowledge regarding the verifiability of certain events in salvation history (we cannot demonstrate, for example, that Abraham had two sons or that Sarah laughed when she heard that they would give birth to a child), the reliability of the Bible's reports of these events can be deduced as being inerrant from the fact of Jesus' own objectively valid claims about his own authority and about the authority of the Scriptures. Herein, I would claim, lies the value of Montgomery's approach.

12 comments:

  1. I found your article very helpful. Thank you.

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  2. I've often thought that Presuppositionalism is simply an evidentialist argument for a Post-Kantian world.

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  3. You understand Montgomery well and his motives. I would add that he has included Bauckham on his reading list for the Apologetics Academy after my recommendation. I'm not sure how much of this work he has integrated into his own work but JWM endorses it. Perhaps JWM has changed a bit over the years, despite seeming unmovable?

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  4. Having read apologetic works from various time periods, I find that their strength in their own time can be their weakness in another. Each generation has a new set of questions to ask. (One early apologist argued the how fitting having four Gospels was when there were four winds. This struck me as being a weak argument. But might it have been convincing in its own time?) Montgomery focused on answering questions that the early Analytic movement in philosophy posed. What I find most helpful in Montgomery is the outline of his argument. The more specific ways that facts get argued should probably change from generation to generation. (And I agree that Bauckham breaks new ground that improves upon what Montgomery offered.) That said, I am impressed with how well-chosen much of the material is in Montgomery's work History and Christianity. When I ordered H.J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Literature on the basis of Montgomery's citation, I found it to be of great help, despite its having been written in the 1930's.

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  5. Chris, To be honest I've read a fairly minimal number of his writings. What I was mainly commenting on when I said that I found a number of things he says unconvincing were some sections of "History and Christianity." Admittedly, this is an older work- but I did hear him repeating many of the arguments that I found problematic on a recent Issues, etc. program.

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  6. Well it is hard to base a good apologetic defense for the Bible without basing it on the gospel of Christ. From the Old to the New Testament, rituals, sacrifices, and the cult like form of religion ultimately lead to Christ.
    http://www.masterscience.webs.com

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. Dr. Kilcrease said,
    "This nevertheless does not take one very far. Ultimately, all we really get out of this is a kind of fuzzy theism. The Calvin and Van Til would of course admit this. Therefore, here, particularly with second article issues, the empiricist apologetic works best."
    Van Til argued vigorously (and IMHO compellingly) for anything but a fuzzy theism (Van Til used the term general theism, I think). Van Til said that anything other than Christian theism was an idolatrous apologetic and not worthy of the name, apologetic.
    He also argued that evidences (be they the Resurrection or Jesus' divinity) find there coherence only within the worldview given in nature and interpreted perfectly by the Scriptures; general and special revelation-together. There is more to this, but just at a quick scan at the first pages of Van Til's "The Defense of the Faith" would give this information in short order.
    John Frame takes this a bit further with his perspectival approach, but the essence is the same.

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  9. Bill, Thanks for the comment. I was well aware that Van Til defends the resurrection. I wasn't deny that- just pointing out that his starting point is the the worldview issue and not the event itself. Secondly, I'm not claiming that Van Til believes in a fuzzy theism. I'm just saying from my own point of view that's all you get based on natural reason apart from revelation. Actually, Calvin asserted this as well- his chief analogy for the relationship between revelation and reason was an old man putting on glasses and therefore being able to see writing that he could not otherwise.

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  10. Jack,

    Thanks for posting on this. Hope to read this later - and perhaps engage you a bit more on this later.

    +Nathan

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  11. Thank you for this great article, Dr. Kilcrease.

    You write, "Ultimately, the only thing that could theoretically bring together our perceptions of morality, the laws of nature, and the relationship between word/world is the existence of a creator God who has created these things in harmony. "

    This morning, while reading the scriptures, I was reflecting upon the time when I was an atheist. I wondered how I even managed to survive "without" God. I concluded my meditation with the thought that even as an atheist who tried to push God altogether out of my thinking, that it was impossible for me not to live in a world held together by God for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, God has created the "harmony" you explain in order to bring us Christ. Or, at least I think so. :)

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  12. Jack,

    I think this is a fine post - and don't disagree with your main contention here.

    This is where I'm most interested to learn more about your thoughts:

    "Montgomery makes a number of errors throughout the article regarding his interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions. Notably, he fails to distinguish between reason's use in things below us (which is valid) and things above us (where it is not). Secondly, he also dismisses Edmund Schlink's perfectly valid claim that the Scriptures are not (in an ultimate sense) understandable apart from the center of the gospel. Again, he fails to distinguish between the inner and outer clarity as described by Luther, which forms the background and presupposition of Confessors' interpretation of the Scriptures."

    Unpacking this would make a fine post. But, you may want to check out Montgomery's Tractatus first.... I think for the most part I like the Tractatus - I may have disagreed with just a couple of the propositions in there....

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