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“Ever Hearing But Never Understanding”

A Response to Mark Hutchins’s Critique of

John Warwick Montgomery’s Historical Apologetics

 

 

 

Craig Hazen

Graduate Program in Christian Apologetics

Biola University

La Mirada, California, USA

 

 

Nearly ten years ago I attended a scholarly symposium at a state university in southern California that featured a number of luminaries in the fields of religious studies and philosophy. The capstone paper to the symposium was one that I was really looking forward to because I knew that it would be utterly out of place at such a meeting. I knew in advance that it would be provocative because the presenter was an influential former professor of mine, John Warwick Montgomery. I doubt very much that many of the mainstream religion and philosophy scholars in attendance knew his name or had read any of his works, but the lecture hall was packed—probably due to the stimulating title of the paper: “The Search for Absolutes: A Sherlockian Inquiry.[1] In a very creative presentation, Montgomery made his arguments about discovering religious truth through the voices of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—as if he were reading a long lost manuscript penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, as one might imagine, Holmes was working his way through these important questions utilizing the factual and logical approaches for which this character is famous.

As the presentation went forward, however, some in the audience were visibly disturbed. One local religious studies professor sitting right across the aisle from me was a fair‑skinned fellow whose earlobes I noticed were turning various shades of purple. The lecture was obviously raising his blood pressure, but I was anxious to find out exactly why it was causing him so much difficulty. He didn’t let me wonder for long, because the moment the formal lecture was finished he jumped to his feet—even before time for questions was officially opened—and blurted out “Dr. Montgomery, you do tremendous damage to religion!”

Now, what exactly had Montgomery done to “damage religion” in this person’s mind? Montgomery had subjected religious questions and claims—those about ultimate reality and ultimate human concerns—to methodologies available to all of us. He employed techniques by which we all attempt to examine mundane questions and claims in everyday life. This local religious studies professor had clearly represented the sentiments of a number of people in the room that evening who were also decidedly uncomfortable to hear this approach to their field of study. If the tools and methods of the scientist, the historian, the lawyer, or the sleuth could legitimately be brought to bear on the actual truth claims made by the vast variety of religious groups around the world, the very ethos of an entire discipline would implode. Like matter and anti‑matter, faith and fact cannot come into real contact without destroying something. Indeed, the reason faith and fact are usually kept in separate, hermetically sealed compartments in the academy is two fold. First, it is postulated that, à la Immanuel Kant, facts and faith simply have no point of interaction by definition—to force them to deal with one another is simply a category mistake. Second, and I believe far more important because it is used to justify the irrationality of the first, it is fundamentally immoral to allow such interaction because it undermines the sacrosanct agenda of religious pluralism. After all, if the academy were to sanction the idea that facts, evidence, and rationality can play a legitimate role in deciding ultimate religious questions, some beliefs or entire religious traditions would be in serious jeopardy. There was palpable moral outrage in the lecture hall that evening, because Sherlock Holmes was snooping around in areas that were morally off limits to him according to the rulebook of pluralistic ideology.

If Montgomery attracted the ire of the religious studies establishment on that occasion, it is no wonder the Apostle Paul has become such an onerous figure in the recent wave of studies in Christian origins. Paul’s overt linking of faith and fact makes Montgomery’s look rather tame and nuanced. In what I consider to be one of the most bizarre passages in any of the sacred texts of the great religious traditions (I mean bizarre given the predisposition of religious studies folk against such notions and that the passage is unique in its message), Paul wrote “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” And just to make sure his readers in Corinth were not confused on this point the Apostle reiterated it several lines later writing “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (1Cor 15:14, 17). This bald-faced linking of an entire historical and global religious tradition to a single fact of history would not only unnerve religious pluralists in the mainstream academy, but it would also unfortunately surprise and unnerve most Christian clergy today. For those of us willing to admit that Paul’s New Testament writings speak authoritatively for the Christian tradition, we will simply have to come to terms with the fact that Christianity is indeed testable—a religion for which evidence and reason count in a dramatic way. But God does not appear to be the least bit insecure amidst the controversy, not hesitating to inspire His Apostle to throw down the gauntlet and not only unlock the door, but to throw it open and invite investigation of this remarkable event.

 

* * *

 

Nearly forty years ago, John Warwick Montgomery published a small but very influential book entitled simply, History and Christianity. The book had its origin as a set of lectures delivered at the University of British Columbia in January of 1963. Soon thereafter the material was published as a series of four magazine articles and finally in book form. This little volume may have garnered most of its original notoriety because it was quoted so often in the wildly popular books in the 1970s by the ubiquitous Christian apologist from Campus Crusade, Josh McDowell.[2] A great deal of anti-Christian attention has been paid to the popular-level material from McDowell. This makes perfect sense since McDowell’s were the publications that lay Christian apologists were quoting to the skeptics around the country. However, on occasion a more sophisticated skeptic has attempted to refute one of the scholarly sources of McDowell’s material, such as the works of Montgomery, which can be a much more difficult proposition.

One such attempt to critically examine Montgomery’s work has been floating on the internet for several years. The title of this piece is “Faith and History: A Critique of John Warwick Montgomorey’s [sic] Apologetics” by Mark Hutchins.[3] It is not a deep scholarly analysis, but it is illustrative of the kinds of popular criticism traditional historical apologetics has faced in the last half of the Twentieth Century. Hutchins’s essay also provides a good opportunity to look back and reevaluate the basic arguments of Montgomery’s influential little book to see if they are still sound and useful after almost forty years in print and forty years of critical attention.

Hutchins begins with an outline of Montgomery’s case—a case that Hutchins may not know has been rehearsed in one form or another in powerful ways since the time of the Enlightenment and the Deist controversies of the Eighteenth Century. These are not new arguments and have weathered far more sophisticated critiques than the one Hutchins assembles. Montgomery, a prolific scholar and author of over forty books and hundreds of articles, has produced several variations of his case for the life, death, resurrection, and divinity of the historical Jesus.[4] Indeed, one can certainly not conclude that one has overturned Montgomery’s position until one has dealt with much more than History and Christianity. Nevertheless, Hutchins does describe the case provided in this early work with a fair degree of accuracy. In brief, Montgomery argues the following points (my summary, not Hutchins’s):

 

1.Using standard tests derived from “general historiography and literary criticism” the New Testament documents “must be regarded as reliable sources of information” and “contain testimony to the life and claims of Jesus.”[5]

2.Upon a careful and objective reading of these trustworthy documents, “a consistent portrait of Jesus emerges,” he is a “divine being on whom our personal destiny depends.”[6]

3.After logical consideration of the possible interpretations of the New Testament data about his identity, “we are brought to affirm Jesus’ deity not only as a claim, but also as a fact.”[7]

4.In addition, “the factual character of the resurrection provided the disciples with the final proof of the truth of Jesus’ claim to deity and it provides the historian the only adequate explanation of the conquering power of Christianity after the death of its founder.”[8]

5.Although the resurrection is certainly a miracle, “the only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact it has occurred.” Miracles cannot be ruled out because of “an a priori causal schema.”[9]

6.Finally, “the weight of historical probability lies on the side of the validity of Jesus’ claim to be God incarnate” and “if probability does in fact support these claims … then we must act in behalf of them.” You truly have “nothing to lose and everything to gain.”[10]

 

Before getting into the details of Hutchins’s responses to Montgomery, I must first point out a general impression that his essay left with me. I must say that it is hard to take a critique like this seriously when one of the key critical methodologies is unabashed straw-man-ism. Hutchins has found that caricatures of Montgomery’s arguments are much easy to knock down than the real thing. Out of scholarly charity I would have let this slide had it occurred once, but because it is so pervasive, I felt obliged to point it out. Consider a sampling of such statements. Montgomery has a “reverent, almost naïve trust in the idea that history always gives us the truth.[11] (Why then would Montgomery insist on objective and reasonable standards by which to make judgments about what is accurate historically?[12]) “Montgomery’s desire is to have us read the New Testament as though it is a collection of instantaneous bulletins, reporting the news of Jesus as it happened.” (Why then would he admit that the earliest original written material about these events derives from 51-62 A.D.?[13]) “Montgomery implies … that the evangelists were somehow capable of being present every time such amazing phenomena occurred, and recorded these events with infallible accuracy.” (Why then would he again and again take such care to make the much more limited claim that based on objective criteria, these documents should be considered “reliable sources of information?”[14])

Perhaps the strongest piece of evidence that Hutchins was not the least bit interested in Montgomery’s actual argument, but rather a much weaker one of Hutchins’s own making, is when he equates Montgomery with the following “common circular defense of Christianity.” “I believe the Bible, because the Bible is the word of God. How do I know? Because it says so. … But why do I believe what it says? Because God wouldn’t lie, and it’s his word.” One cannot let this mistake of Hutchins slide for three reasons 1) Montgomery does not commit this fallacy, 2) Montgomery recognizes this fallacy when it is committed by others and says at the outset that he will take great pains to avoid this (“We won’t naively assume the ‘inspiration’ or ‘infallibility’ of the New Testament records and then by circular reasoning attempt to prove what we have previously assumed”[15]), and 3) properly avoiding this particular fallacy is a theme throughout all of Montgomery’s apologetic work—the only way to miss it is through gross negligence or intentional disregard on the part of an investigator. Unfortunately, this kind of straw-man-ism irrevocably taints the rest of Hutchins’s essay. One simply cannot trust a “critique” of another’s work if the critic has not had the courtesy to get the arguments that are under review right. Hutchins is not alone in this scholarly modus operandi. Many of the essays found on internet sites such as the “Internet Infidels” are rife with such problems. The situation cries out for a peer-review system at sites that contain essays like these so that such fundamental errors are not committed—errors that discredit the whole genre and the sites to which the essays are attached. We don’t mind if the writings of Christian scholars are critiqued—that is part of the academic enterprise. But at least critique the arguments we are offering and not a defective, manufactured version (this, of course, is an admonition to Christians as well not to make similar mistakes in critiquing non-Christian arguments).

I shall now address a few of the more specific problems that Hutchins finds in Montgomery’s History and Christianity. Hutchins, like many thoughtful critics of Christianity, properly recognizes if one wants to pull the plug on historical apologetics most quickly, one must defeat the Christian case for the reliability of the New Testament documents. If one can successfully call the documents into question as reliable sources of information, one has stopped most lines of apologetic argumentation dead in their tracks. No reliable testimony, no reliable picture of Jesus. No reliable picture of Jesus, no good reason to believe he was a divine being and resurrected savior of humankind. Hence, although Hutchins deals with other aspects of Montgomery’s arguments in History and Christianity, in this essay I will focus primarily on responding to Hutchins’s critique of Montgomery’s defense of the integrity of the New Testament witness to Christ.

Following Montgomery’s outline, Hutchins first goes after the reliability of the documents by calling into question the “bibliographical test” that Montgomery applies to them. This standard test measures such things as the time interval between the original writing of a document (the autograph) and the earliest extant manuscript as well as the number of manuscript copies available to modern investigators. In other words, it examines “the textual tradition by which a[n ancient] document reaches us.”[16] Based on the objective demonstrations provided by textual scholars such as Sir Fredric G. Kenyon, A. T. Robertson, and F. F. Bruce, Montgomery concludes that “to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament.”[17] After reviewing this test, Hutchins concludes that Montgomery “comes short of proving anything.” Such a statement seems odd in that a more objective demonstration would be difficult to imagine. Based on a scientific examination of the textual tradition there are far more manuscripts available (indeed, the comparison with other ancient documents is almost unfair) and the time between actual authorship and key extant manuscripts is miniscule compared to other works of antiquity. It is not controversial in the slightest to say, based on this measurement, that the New Testament documents rise to the top of the heap on comparative analysis. Isn’t that at least proving something? Yes, and something enormously valuable to scholars who study ancient documents of all kinds, not just religious texts.

Hutchins then writes that Montgomery “tells us that the earliest copies that have been found are closer to the original writings than the copies of classical literature.” “This is an interesting point,” Hutchins continues, “but it has no direct bearing upon the question of whether the authors wrote, or even intended to write, fact or fiction, or a mixture of both.” Hutchins is exactly right on this point. These data do not tell us anything about the intent of the authors. But Hutchins has himself missed the intent of the author (Montgomery) in that Montgomery’s argument on bibliographical data has nothing to do with author intent. The bibliographical test is an objective way to measure the relative integrity of the textual tradition. Whether or not the evangelists got the story right is another question—one that Montgomery takes up in logical order, that is, after the documents are found to be at least worthy of being admitted into evidence. Given Montgomery’s clear delineation of the logical steps, one wonders if this objection by Hutchins is not simply another species of straw-man-ism.

On a related note, one other issue bothers Hutchins about the dating of the original autographs. He thinks that the time interval between the “supposed” events of Jesus’ life and the recording of the events by the various New Testament writers “provides a generous period of time for numerous creative efforts on the part of the new Church leaders.” “Consequently,” he concludes, “numerous versions of Jesus showed up after a generation or two. A serious study of the New Testament, the ‘apocryphal’ Gospels, and other extra-biblical writings proves this point.” The idea that Jesus legends took hold that early is problematic (and by legend I mean a persistent and inflated picture of Jesus that was carried forward in a strong tradition). As to the time intervals, even Hutchins admits that the documents were written as early as 35 years after the Crucifixion, which means there were some still alive who had personal contact with these events while these documents were circulating—a difficult environment in which to incubate legends. However, the interval could actually have been as little as seventeen years if Jesus died in AD 33 and Paul wrote his first epistle (1 Thessalonians) in AD 50—a thoroughly plausible date in scholarly circles.[18] Is a 17 to 35 year interval enough time for legendary material to develop? Not according to the evidence we have for the genesis of such material. The perennially quoted scholar of first-century Greco-Roman history, A.N. Sherwin-White, measured such developments and concluded with regard to the NT materials that if they contained legendary accounts they would have had to accumulate at an utterly “unbelievable” rate.[19] In another comparative example of just how short an interval we are talking about with regard to the NT and the events it records, the relatively reliable biographers of Alexander the Great—Plutarch and Arrian—wrote more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. But, as historian Robin L. Fox pointed out, most of what we have come to know as legendary did not come about until hundreds of years after the work of Plutarch and Arrian.[20] The one necessary ingredient for the fermentation of legends is time and lots of it. In the case of the various accounts of the life of Jesus, that ingredient is sorely missing.

The existence of apocryphal (perhaps more accurately termed pseudepigraphal) pictures of Jesus that Hutchins believes are examples of legendary development is in reality an example of just the opposite. That is, the existence of such literature is an example of how legendary development is kept at bay for years and years just as in the case of Alexander. When books such as the so-called Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Truth, and so on, circulated in the early Church they were examined and rejected as inauthentic or nonauthoritative. But why? Because the Church was concerned about making sure they had an authentic picture of Jesus and turned away hundreds of other writings that had no connection to the Apostles or to Apostolic authority. I am not here trying to make a general case for canonicity, but simply pointing out that the early Church was concerned with false accounts about Jesus, had tools for identifying them, and rejected them when they were discovered. Inauthentic Jesus stories certainly existed very early, but they did not develop into legends. They were revealed for what they were at the time and could never gain a foothold because of the diligence of Church leaders in rooting out what Eusebius of Caesarea called “totally absurd” religious lore. The hundreds of rejected “gospels” that litter the first few centuries of the Church are a testimony to the careful authentication practices of the early Christians. They put a premium value on the writings of those who were known to have direct connections with the events.

Hutchins next turns his attention to the “internal test” Montgomery used to help establish the reliability of the NT documents. The internal test simply looks to the documents themselves to see if there is good evidence in the text that the purported author was the actual writer and had a connection to the events described. Montgomery quotes several relevant passages to demonstrate this, but Hutchins objects saying that passages such as “1 John 1:1-4 alludes to a personal acquaintance with the ‘word of life.’ But the wording here refers more to a mystical relationship with Christ, than a flesh-and-blood encounter.” One wonders exactly how Hutchins would know the proper interpretation of this passage given his utter skepticism concerning the text, but that is another issue. As for a refutation, one simply needs to quote the passage. Hutchins quotes only the phrase “word of life,” but the passage as a whole shows exactly the kind of internal evidence Montgomery believes is relevant. I shall only quote two of the four verses to demonstrate: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1-2, NIV). I know from Hutchins perspective this passage might not be impressive. However, having myself done a doctorate in religious studies and having had an opportunity to study and compare most of the sacred texts of the great religious traditions, I find these kinds of passages in the New Testament utterly compelling. You simply do not find this kind of empirical, verificationist language in the Bhagavad-gita, the Granth, the Tripitaka, or the Qur’an. The writers of the New Testament were obsessed with this kind or language because something astounding had happened right in their midst, in broad daylight for all to see. From this standpoint, this kind of language sets the New Testament apart as a unique type of religious literature—spiritually edifying and empirically testable.

Another objection is raised by Hutchins to the final test that Montgomery employs--the “external test.” Montgomery describes the test in this way: “Do other historical materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents?” Montgomery then proceeds to quote archaeologist Sir William Ramsay to establish the accuracy of Luke-Acts, and two prominent early Church Fathers, Papias and Irenaeus, to attest to the fact that the other authors of the Gospels had contact with the events they recorded. Hutchins’s only response to this is an offensive comment and a self-refuting point: “to use the early Church Fathers as objective corroboration is like calling upon Joseph Goebbles to give a neutral opinion about his fuhrer. … use of these ecclesiastics ignores the fact that all of them write from the standpoint of their own presumed convictions about Christ.” I shall ignore the offensive comment, but I shall not ignore the fact that Hutchins too writes from the standpoint of his own presumed convictions about Christ. That is why apologists like Montgomery focus on the evidence, so that people might be able to get beyond their own presumed convictions and arrive at conclusions that are clearly more objective. Ironically, the “presumed convictions about Christ” that Papias and Irenaeus may have been carrying had very little to do with their comments. In context, their comments do not display that they were at a critical juncture in a religious argument or in a description of a miraculous event in which an overflowing of their own “faith experience” might have been persuasive. In a rather mundane statement, Papias was simply reporting what he learned from the Apostle John himself about who wrote the Gospels, while Irenaeus was reporting what Polycarp knew about the Gospel authorship. And since Polycarp likewise studied at the feet of the aged Apostle John, their reports provide astounding external attestation as to the authorship of the Gospels.

At the end of his case against the reliability of the New Testament, Hutchins engages in what I shall call here “kitchen-sink-ism”—that is after using his entire repertoire he tosses in the kitchen sink as a last resort. Quoting Michael Grant quoting A. J. P. Taylor (with no source references for either), Hutchins exults in the following factoid: “…no man can recall past events without being affected by what has happened in between and … there is no reason why the evangelists should be expected to escape this tendency.” He then concludes from this that “faith necessarily colored all of their writing.” I think this statement tells us much more about Hutchins’s views of Christian scholarship than anything about the New Testament writers. Perhaps he thinks a Christian apologist would not agree with such a point? Hence, to clear up any confusion, I want to let him know that I do agree.[21] People’s views of history, including the Gospel writers’, are colored by faith, environment, facts, and a whole assortment of experiences. This is obvious and hence tells us nothing. The real issue is this: To what extent are the views colored? Again, why should we believe any of Hutchins’s conclusions about NT reliability and authorship since his views are likewise colored by his own faith and experience. I have very little doubt that Hutchins’s own faith commitment to the naturalistic worldview dramatically colors his assessment of what could have happened in the life of Jesus and the early Church. Is Hutchins therefore incapable of knowing or expressing what actually happened based on the evidence? Certainly not. But what he does say must be in principle open to investigation so that we can know it is something more than his own subjective expression. Throwing blanket condemnations over the statements of early Christians by saying that all of their writing was “necessarily colored” is just the kind of presuppositionalism that Christian scholars like Montgomery have been arguing against.

Obviously I do not think that Mark Hutchins succeeded in undermining Montgomery’s case for the historical reliability of the New Testament witness to Christ—indeed, I don’t think on many key points he even understood it. Since by clear and objective testing the documents are shown to be authentic and accurate renditions of the life, work, and person of Jesus, then the conclusion that Montgomery reached in History and Christianity nearly forty years ago still stands: “Jesus did rise, and thereby validated his claim to divinity. He was neither charlatan nor lunatic, and his followers were not fablemongers; they were witnesses to the incarnation of God, and Jesus was the God to whom they witnessed.[22]

 

*****FOOTNOTES*****

[1] This essay can be found in the recently published John Warwick Montgomery, The Transcendent Holmes (Ashcroft, British Columbia: Calabash Press, 2000).

[2] These books include Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972), More Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1975), and More Than a Carpenter (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1977) of which well over one million copies have been printed.

[3] This essay can be found at two internet sites: “The Non-Believer’s Page” at www.dcd.net/NBP/fandh1.html and on the “Internet Infidels” web site at www.infidels.org/library/modern/mark_hutchins/faith_and_history.html. In addition, there are links to this essay from a range of humanist web sites and even from one Muslim site.

[4] For a complete list of Montgomery’s writings up to 1996, see Bibliography of Dr. John Warwick Montgomery’s Writings (Edmonton, Alberta: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 1996).

[5] Montgomery, History and Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1971; reprint, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1986), 26, 43.

[6] Ibid., 57, 58.

[7] Ibid., 61.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Ibid., 75, 76.

[10] Ibid., 78, 79.

[11] All quotes from Hutchins are from his internet article “Faith and History.” Unfortunately, no pagination is available for this electronic publication.

[12] See Montgomery, History and Christianity, 25‑6.

[13] Ibid., 50.

[14] See for instance, ibid., 43.

[15] Ibid., 25.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid., 29.

[18] For just a few examples from recent scholarship see Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990); D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992); and Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).

[19] A. N. Sherwin‑White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 188‑91.

[20] Robin L. Fox, The Search for Alexander (Boston: Little, 1980).

[21] Montgomery himself agreed with this long ago. See his The Shape of the Past: A Christian Response to Secular Philosophies of History (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1962), 241.

[22] Montgomery, History and Christianity, 78.

 

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