Viewing History

Article by

Founder & Teacher,

The Shape of the Christian Past: A Christian Response to Secular Philosophies of History by John Warwick Montgomery, Bethany Fellowship, Minneapolis, 1976 390 pp., $4.95

"If the historian holds the view expressed by…Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, that 'man is incapable of sin, sickness, and death' and 'evil is but an illusion, and error has no real basis,' he will almost certainly be incapable of adequately interpreting Hitler's career." This sentence illustrates the first half of Montgomery's thesis, namely, that the historian's view of human nature and his set of values "stem from his 'sovereign decision'-and from his general religio-philosophical beliefs-and these views always precede and influence his historical studies." The second half of this thesis is this: "If we would have a sound philosophy of history, our 'sovereign decision' must be a decision for Jesus Christ."

Montgomery's book has two parts. Part I ("Philosophical Historiography") attempts to define history and historiography, to set forth and criticize the major views of historiography from Heroditus down to Niebuhr, Tillich, and Voegelin (but not so far as Moltmann and Pannenberg), and finally to validate the Christian worldview and summarize "scriptural principles of historiography." Part II ("Critical and Epistemological Essays") is a loose collection of eight essays "for the clarification, expansion, and support of positions take in Part I." They include critiques of Giovanni Vico, William James, Emil Brunner, and Karl Marx. Other subjects treated are "Constructive Religious Empiricism," the dependability of the gospels (by F. J. Barnes), and the meaning of Matthew 16:13-19. The only difference between this edition and the original 1962 edition of this book is the addition of a defense of Montgomery's view of history by Paul Feinberg.

If, as Montgomery says, one's "religio-philosophical beliefs" influence one's writing of history then the first task of the historian is "to evaluate the evidence presented in behalf of the most compelling philosophical systems, and then to make a choice among them." Montgomery has chosen the Christian worldview because it is "accessible to science" and rests upon "an objective foundation which will stand up under the most exacting criticism." The "most fundamental issue of all" and, therefore the heart of Montgomery's book is "the validation of the Christian worldview."

Validation does not mean "absolute proof" since "the very nature of empirical investigation precludes absolute proof." "The basis is only one of probability not certainty, but probability is the sole ground on which finite human beings can make any decisions… Since it does not keep us from making decision in non-religious matters, it should not immobilize us when religious commitment is involved." Therefore, "the rational man must decide on his worldview in terms of empirical probability."

Accordingly, Montgomery argues from empirical data (1) that the gospels are reliable historical sources for the life and words of Jesus, (2) that the evidence for the resurrection of Christ (as E. Stauffer has shown) is convincing, (3) that the divinity of Christ is thus verified so that "He speaks truth concerning the absolute divine authority of the Old Testament, and of the soon to be written New Testament." The crucial conclusion, then, for historiography is that "all Biblical assertions bearing on philosophy of history are to be regarded as revealed truth, and that all human attempts at historical interpretation are to be judged for truth-value on the basis of harmony with scriptural revelation."

Montgomery's great strength is his power of critical analysis which penetrates incisively to a system's weakness. Hence his survey of historiography and his critique of contemporary thinkers is very valuable. The weakness of his book lies in the oversimplified demonstration of his own position. The seven objections he raises to his own conclusion are all of a general and philosophical nature, and as long as he speaks in philosophical generalities about the nature of history and faith he does well. But what he seems not to realize is that the real objections to his conclusions today are coming from the specific finds of gospel criticism and exegesis. It is doubtful whether generalizations about the date and authorship of the gospels will be sufficient to answer the concrete findings of form- and redaction-criticism. A more detailed interaction with these findings is needed.