Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Book Write-Up: Tractatus Logico-Theologicus, by John Warwick Montgomery

John Warwick Montgomery.  Tractatus Logico-Theologicus.  5th revised edition.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

John Warwick Montgomery is a Christian apologist, a Lutheran pastor, a lawyer, and a scholar.  He has earned degrees from Cornell, Berkeley, Wittenberg, the University of Essex, Cardiff, the University of Strasbourg, and the University of Chicago.

Tractatus Logico-Theologicus is a work of Christian apologetics, in that it argues that there is evidence for the Christian religion's claims, particularly the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Its structure is modeled on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in that it consists of numbered propositions.  Although Montgomery refers to Wittgenstein's thought throughout this book, often positively, Montgomery's conclusion is different from that of Wittgenstein.  To quote the back cover of the book:

"Wittgenstein's Tractatus, having demonstrated the limits of any non-transcendental attempt to understand the world, ended with the proposition, 'Of that which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.'  Montgomery, after setting forth in depth the overwhelming case for the very transcendental revelation for which Wittgenstein longed but never found, concludes: 'Whereof one can speak, thereof one must not be silent.'"

Montgomery starts off by arguing that the religions of the world are inconsistent and incompatible with each other, and thus they cannot all be right.  He contends that all he has to do is demonstrate evidence for one religion, Christianity, and that will show that the non-Christian religions are incorrect, especially in light of Christianity's exclusivist claims.

Montgomery then has to demonstrate that facts, evidence, and logic actually matter, against skeptical claims that we cannot truly know the outside world.  This section interacts with interesting questions, such as the question of whether we need to know everything in order to have true knowledge about anything.  Montgomery also raises the possibility that logic and facts can contradict each other.  Montgomery often speaks against logical contradictions, and yet he seems to acknowledge that there may be things in reality that strike us as illogical: light, for example, is both a particle and a wave.  Later in the book, this insight will allow him to justify certain mysteries in Christian doctrine.  On epistemology, Montgomery essentially ends up saying that we need to presume that we can know the outside world, in order for us to function in life; plus, we need to start somewhere, in terms of epistemology.  Even epistemological skeptics are claiming to know things about the world, when they are arguing for skepticism.

Montgomery's argument for Jesus' resurrection will be familiar to those who have read classic Christian apologetics.  Montgomery argues that the biblical Gospels are early and contain the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus.  He relies on Papias and church fathers who knew the apostles to argue that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony.  He thinks that the Gospel authors are telling the truth, since they were persecuted and would not die for a lie.  He states that the early Christians' claims received cross-examination because Christianity had opponents within the Jewish establishment in the first century, and yet none of the opponents were able to disprove or discredit what Christians said, so Christianity continued and grew.  Montgomery also maintains that the New Testament manuscripts reflect what was originally written down in the first century, and that they are closer in date to the originals than many other ancient writings are to their originals.  Montgomery criticizes those who are more skeptical about New Testament documents than they are about other ancient sources.

What may set Montgomery apart from many other Christian apologists is that Montgomery appeals to legal principles.  What counts as admissible testimony in a court of law?  How can we tell when a witness is lying?  Montgomery also notes that ancient documents can be admitted as evidence in court.  Montgomery deems the New Testament Gospels to be reliable, according to legal criteria.

Montgomery later discusses the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God.  Montgomery finds these arguments useful, yet he thinks that they have limitations.  They demonstrate that someone created the cosmos, but not that this someone had to be the biblical God.  For Montgomery, Jesus' resurrection validates the truth of the Bible, which Jesus upheld.

Montgomery maintains that the Christian revelation provides meaning to life and history.  He argues, for example, that humans by themselves cannot know which facts are significant or insignificant, for they by themselves do not know where history is going: what its goal and point is.  Christianity, however, has an answer to that.

Montgomery also discusses whether one can justify morality apart from a belief in God.  Interestingly, unlike many Christian apologists, he does not utterly dismiss the possibility that one can arrive at a secular foundation for morality.  He does believe, however, that humans on their own are incapable of living up to moral principles.

Montgomery addresses a variety of questions.  For example, is the Bible God's clear revelation, when it appears to be contradictory, and many people derive contradictory conclusions from it?  Montgomery argues that the Bible is clear: one can read it and understand it as one would other books.  Montgomery holds that the Bible contains no logical contradictions: things that cannot co-exist because they are contradictory.  He also states that Christians generally are united around the basics in the Christian creeds (i.e., Nicene).

Although I had read about Montgomery's thought before, I was unaware that he was a Lutheran.  In reading this book, there were things that stood out to me as distinctly Lutheran.  For example, Montgomery does not believe that the bread and the wine of the Lord's supper are mere symbols or metaphors for Christ's body and blood.  After all, Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that some of them have become weak or sick after partaking of the bread and wine unworthily (I Corinthians 11:30), and Montgomery thinks that shows the bread and wine are more than symbols!  Montgomery also believes in directing Christians to the Word and the sacraments for assurance rather than having them agonize and struggle over their spiritual condition.  Lutherans often make this point, in arguing against Calvinism.

Here are some thoughts about Montgomery's book:

A.  The book did well to draw from Wittgenstein's thought.  Montgomery was not simply using Wittgenstein as a launchpad for his apologetic agenda, for Wittgenstein was a significant part of the book.  Montgomery argued against the widely-held conception that the later Wittgenstein was more skeptical about our ability to understand the world than the earlier Wittgenstein.  Montgomery also refers to a discussion that Wittgenstein had about universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved in the end.  Wittgenstein could understand why the church rejected universalism, for, if everyone is saved in the end, that means our decisions now do not matter.  One can argue, I think, that the doctrine that the vast bulk of humanity will go to hell because they did not accept Jesus before they died can have the same sort of effect.  (It can lead to an attitude of "Who cares what life lessons the Buddhist learned?  He didn't have the right religion, so he's going to hell!")  Still, Montgomery's references to Wittgenstein's thought was informative, as was Mongtomery's quotation of and interaction with other historical thinkers (i.e., Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, etc.).

B.  On Montgomery's discussion of legal criteria, Richard Packham's critique of Montgomery's application of legal criteria is worth reading (see here).  Packham is an atheist and a lawyer.  He contends that the New Testament documents, overall, do not successfully meet legal criteria for verification, and he seems to imply that Montgomery is being selective about which legal criteria he chooses to focus on.  For Packham, reading the New Testament documents is not similar to calling witnesses to the witness stand, or even using ancient documents in court.

C.  Montgomery often seems to dismiss alternative explanations as lacking evidence, when the alternative explanations may show that there are other ways to interpret the "evidence" he presents than his own interpretation.  Montgomery is too casual in his dismissal of evolution and the historical-critical method.  He may have a point that the historical-critical method can get rather speculative because scholars disagree about what sources are in the Bible.  Still, that does not mean that his position is the correct one, or that an inerrantist approach to Scripture lacks problems.

D.  Related to (C.), there were times when Montgomery seemed to adopt a position out of convenience.  We need to believe that we can accurately know the outside world because where would we be without that belief?  We, as Christians, need to believe that the Bible is inerrant because, otherwise, how do we know any of its claims are true?  To his credit, Montgomery often wrestled with difficult issues and was hesitant to adopt views just because they accorded with where he wanted to go.  Yet, in terms of where he ended up, he did adopt positions out of convenience, more than once.  Just because inerrancy is more convenient for Christians who want to learn God's will from the Bible, that does not mean it lacks problems.

E.  Atheists have answers to arguments that Montgomery presents.  For example, Montgomery appeals to the Second Law of Thermodynamics to argue for God's existence.  Unlike a number of creationists (who, by the way, Montgomery cites as actual authorities), Montgomery actually demonstrates more understanding of the Second Law.  He states that, "in closed systems (systems not receiving energy from an outside source), the entropic process will result in 'heat death' in a finite time, i.e., a point will be reached in a finite period when there will be no 'workable' energy any longer available" (page 125).   Montgomery states that the universe is a closed system.  Had the universe not had a beginning at some point, Montgomery argues, it would have died of "heat death" by now; plus, there has to be some energy source outside of the universe giving it energy.  For Montgomery, that source is God. (UPDATE: I think I misunderstood parts of Montgomery's argument here.  Montgomery on page 125 says that, if the universe is eternal, then there must be something outside of the universe sustaining it, otherwise it would have died of heat death by now.  Montgomery believes that the universe had a beginning, but his point is that, even were the universe eternal, God, or some transcendent source of energy, would be necessary.)

There are other considerations, though.  According to physicist Mano Singham, pockets of order can emerge in an expanding universe (see here).  Some say that the universe's heat death will come a very long time in the future (see here).  Stephen Hawking at one point posited a scenario of a continuous alternation between a Big Bang and a Big Crunch, in which entropy decreased towards the Big Crunch, which would be followed by another Big Bang and another universe (see here).  My understanding (which, in terms of science, is limited) is that many scientists do not believe that the universe will end with a Big Crunch, but rather that it will wither away, rather uneventfully.  My point, though, is that there may be other factors besides what Montgomery is considering, so one cannot be too rigid.

F.  Do I accept Montgomery's argument for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection?  That is a good question, one that I may ask myself anytime I read or listen to Christian apologetic arguments.  For now, I will just say that Montgomery's presentation struck me as too neat, or at least as presuming that reality is too neat.  There are a variety of considerations: the existence of Christian forgeries in the ancient world; how even "un-orthodox" Christians claimed ties to the apostles; miracle claims in non-Christian cultures; the question of whether Jesus' resurrection makes all non-Christian religions false and Scripture inerrant; how Christian stories were developed and added to over time, and how new stories were invented; etc.  I still am open to the possibility that the early Christians experienced something that they interpreted as supernatural, and that they had abnormal experiences (i.e., healings, miracles).

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