apologetics

“The Shape of the Past” by John Warwick Montgomery- A Christian Historiography?

John Warwick Montgomery is a Christian apologist who is perhaps best-known for his defense of the method of evidentialism and attacks on presuppositionalism. The Shape of the Past is a work that outlines a Christian historiography–a Christian way of reporting history. I first read it maybe a decade ago or so and remembered it being fairly impactful to my own development. I read it again recently and was struck by how my perceptions of it changed. While I still believe it to be useful book in some ways, I also found difficulties in others. Montgomery’s central theses developing a supposed Christian philosophy of history are problematic.

The first four chapters of the book focus on definitions of history and historiography, an intriguing look at history as time travel, classical conceptions of historiography, and modern histography [modern at the time- 1975]. These present a survey of some major approaches to history and historiography, while highlighting a few problems Montgomery identifies without what he’s going to build up as a central development of historical writing and research. For example, early on Montgomry notes that historians at some point must make decisions about motivations, acts, etc. such that they are making decisions about what is “humanly possible” or probable. But whither the criteria for “humanly possible”? Ultimately, he argues, “the historian’s conception of human nature stems from his general philosophy of life…” (14). Historians, on this problem, must have a sound philosophy of life in order to make sound judgments about historical events.

Montgomery here is clearly on to something, but he fails to take seriously enough his own noted problem. If, as he says, historians are dependent upon their philosophy and background beliefs in order to make determinations about history, how is objectivity in history possible? While it can largely be agreed that historical events did happen, the exacting details of how they happened are much harder to pin down. And if an historian states that, say, a specific soldier on the battlefield at Gettysburg turned right when he in fact turned left, what does this mean for the “objectivity” of history and the truth thereof? Does this undercut the rest of the historian’s narrative? How much of it is discredited by “minor” details being wrong? And if historical evaluation depends so much upon one’s philosophy of life, how does one even begin to judge said evaluations? Most of these questions don’t get answered (and some aren’t even asked) in the book.

To be fair, Montgomery isn’t trying to answer questions he didn’t ask. I bring them up because they seem a logical extension of the problems he himself points out with history, and it would be interesting to see his answers to them. He does, however, turn to objectivity in history. How are Christians different in this regard?

“The Christian Answer” is the title of Chapter Five, which purports to offer a Christian solution to this difficulty. To get there, Montgomery insists that Christianity can provide the valid interpretation of history because its truth is “‘accessible to science’ and rests upon an objective foundation”; namely, he argues that the Christian worldview rests upon “the objective, historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (138). However, to get to the point that resurrection is an “objective, historical truth,” he uses a very brief evidentialist style argument: that the Gospels “are found to be trustworthy historical documents”; that they report Jesus “exercis[ing] divine prerogatives”; that they describe Christ’s bodily resurrection “in minute detail”*; that the resurrection “cannot be discounted on a priori grounds” [emphasis removed]; that Christ spoke the truth regarding the OT and confirms the NT; and that “It follows from the preceding that all Biblical assertions bearing on philosophy of history are to be regarded as revealed truth” (138-139).

Examining each of these steps in detail is beyond my scope here. Instead, I want to reflect on the reasoning. The problem at hand is: how do we find objectivity in Christianity to give us a valid interpretation of history? The answer is a purported historical fact. But how do we validly interpret that question of the resurrection? So far as I can tell, Montgomery is insisting that it is an historical fact. But the question he’s seeking to answer is whether Christianity can provide an objective basis for historical interpretation, and then he answers that with an historical interpretation: that the resurrection is objective fact. It’s a circle, and I’m not sure how it is supposed to escape that circle. I don’t see a way out of this circle. Even if one introduced some hidden premises about historical reasoning to get to the historicity of the resurrection, that would undercut his argument that Christianity is the objective arbiter of historical interpretation by introducing some external mechanism for that same evaluation. It seems hopeless to me.[1]

Now, it is possible to simply state that Montgomery’s argument here has failed, but that Christianity is valuable in historiography because it can give an objective (or at least “better” by some measure) way of interpreting history. While that would undermine much of his argument, it would leave one free to delve into the questions of what Christianity brings to the table as an evaluative tool. Montgomery does list several “principles of Christian historical interpretation,” and some of these are indeed valuable. For example, under metaphysical principles, he notes that Christianity gives the possibility to historical intepretation that history is inherently meaningful due to “God’s… activity” (145). This would take some effort to hash out, but it seems a potentially fruitful path to pursue.

Other principles he gives seem almost hopelessly naïve, in my opinion. For example, he argues that “human nature is constant” on Christianity, and so “the Christian historian has the assurance that a common ground exists between himself and the [people] of past ages whom he studies…” (148). So, he lists Louis XVI as one possibility for the Christian historian to be able to “confidently interpret motives” due to this constancy of human nature (ibid). Even conceding that human nature is constant, one would wonder how that alone would make it possible to determine the motives of Louis XVI with such confidence, especially if purely based upon that premise. After all, the vast chasm between my own experience and that of Louis XVI makes even the smallest decisions we have to make entirely different. Because I have made so few decisions that even resemble decisions with which Louis XVI was presented, that should give me at least some caution in drawing out his motivations for specific tasks. Other criteria Montgomery presents are helpful, but some need additional caveats.

Ultimately, The Shape of the Past is a frustratingly tantalizing read. Montgomery’s writing style is winsome and matter-of-fact. He writes in an easy manner about all sorts of scholarly topics. The central theses, however, remain unproven and possibly viciously circular. His criteria for Christian historians are a mixed bag. It’s unclear to this reader that Montgomery truly provides a reason to suppose Christianity is superior to other historiographic methods when it comes to objectivity in history. A specifically Christian historiography might be possible and even desirable, but it will need to be heavily supplemented from here.

*Interestingly, Mark does not do this unless one accepts the longer ending as genuine.

[1] Montgomery does note several potential objections to his view, but none of them hint at the circularity inherent in this reasoning: 1. We need an objective standard for historical evaluation; 2. historical evaluation shows that the resurrection is objectively true; 3. therefore, Christianity can be the objective standard for historical evaluation.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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