I seldom engage in sermonising in the context of a theological journal. This Introduction, however, will be an exception. I am compelled to comment on strange lacunae in evangelical personal conduct and homiletics: the remarkable disregard of two key biblical passages, namely, Matthew 18:15-17 and Romans 8:28.
Matthew 18. Here Jesus provides the locus classicus for handling disagreements and criticisms between and among believers. The principle set forth is crystal clear: one must first go to the individual whom one considers to have erred and endeavour to clear up the matter there; only if this does not achieve the proper end does one take the matter to others, carrying it to a wider audience. Sounds simple enough, yes?
However, in my experience, this fundamental rule of decency and respect for the other person is generally honoured only in the breach. Let me give a few egregious examples.
Our neighbours were selling their house. Their estate agent (American lingo: realtor) brought a couple to view the house. The couple were effusive in their praise for the house and said that it was ideal for their family. Two weeks later the estate agent informed the owners that the couple were not going to make an offer, and listed all the negative comments that they had made to him. Why did the couple not give this information directly to the owners, thus keeping them from false hopes and facilitating their showing the property to others? That couple, by the way, made a great point of the fact that they were strong evangelical believers.
A close acquaintance went through a messy divorce over a decade ago and then moved out of state. The ex-wife secured an attractive remunerative position in a large church, and refused contact with the ex-husband: her telephone number was unlisted and she told the adult children not to give her address to the ex-husband. The latter therefore ceased to provide spousal support. Twelve years later, the husband came on a short business trip to the state where she was living, and the ex-wife learned of it. While he was there, she had him served with a contempt suit for non-payment of support. In that particular jurisdiction (unlike many) the ex-wife’s neglect to press her claim for support for so many years—an equitable laches defense—was unavailable to the husband, so he was subjected to a bench warrant for his arrest. The ex-wife claimed to be Christian believer. Why did she not simply contact the ex-husband, reveal her financial need, if such there was, and ask for the resumption of support or assistance? Of course, if the ex-husband had then refused, the legal route would have been appropriate. The approach she did take in the matter caused immense and entirely unnecessary hurt.
Here’s a very personal one. A student of mine who on more than one occasion has attended our International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, held every July in Strasbourg, France (www.apologeticsacademy.eu), sent me a photocopy of pages 97-98 of Presbyterian radio evangelist Steve Brown’s book, How To Talk So People Will Listen (Baker Book House). There the author states (1) that I debated the late Bishop James Pike, (2) that I treated him harshly, (3) that “after the debate with Montgomery, Pike was driven further and further from his Christian roots,” and (4) that the proper approach should have been that of Francis Schaeffer, whose loving approach to Pike in a subsequent debate with him moved Pike to the point of openness to the gospel.
In actual fact, I never had a formal “debate” with Bishop Pike. Pike and I were participants in a conference at McMaster University in Canada, where I delivered a paper dealing with his theology; this is the lead essay in my book, The Suicide of Christian Theology. We of course dialogued at that conference, but there was never a debate.
Schaeffer did debate Pike in Chicago. After that debate occurred, one of the sponsors (who had been involved in my prior debate with death-of-God theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer at the University of Chicago), wrote me in Europe and said that my misgivings about the Pike-Schaeffer debate had been fully justified: Schaeffer had tried so hard “to love Pike into the Kingdom” that uncommitted people in the audience had been heard to say on leaving, “Well, after all, they really believed the same thing.” (So much for Reformed “sweetness and light” versus Lutheran lack of the same ??) At McMaster, Pike told me that he was going to Israel (with his mistress, Diana Kennedy) to “write the definitive biography of Jesus” and that, unlike the rest of us, “he had often been under the hot Palestinian sun and therefore understood St Paul’s exaggerations.” Subsequently, Pike died under that same sun. It seemed that the Bishop was hardly in the mood to be converted, at L’Abri or anywhere else, under Francis Schaeffer’s ministry.
To be sure, the issue with Steve Brown was not Schaeffer’s debating style or his supposed influence on Bishop Pike. It was Brown’s unwarranted criticism of me. He engaged in what legally is called “negligent defamation”—which could readily have been avoided had he had the minimal courtesy to check his facts with me before publication. On being informed of all this, Baker Book House—to avoid litigation—inserted a qualified corrigendum slip in the few remaining copies of the book still on hand and promised to remove all reference to me in the next edition (whilst retaining, incredibly, the unfounded Pike-Schaeffer story). But the original edition of Brown’s book had been in circulation since 1993, a paperback edition was issued in 1999, and there had been an audio version obtainable from audible.com. Thus for a decade these false and harmful allegations have been circulated in the evangelical community—without the least concern to observe the strictures of Matthew 18. Brown himself has categorically refused to publish a retraction on his website or post an apology at the Reformed Theological Seminary where he teaches. Fortunately, How To Talk So People Will Listen is the kind of low-grade popular theology which has little impact on thinking people; but scriptural principle is not to be shelved just because of that.
Romans 8:28. This verse teaches that God brings the best out of whatever situation the believer encounters. This means that for believers life is not the Shakespearean “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” but a tale being told by a God who loves us so much that he actually died for us. Even the consequences of our mistakes and sins are the best possible ones under the hand of God.
As 18th century English barrister, poet, and hymn writer William Cowper put it:
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
God treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Note that such promises nowhere exist for unbelievers. Their lives are correctly characterised by atheistic existentialist philosophers (Martin Heidegger, et al.) and littérateurs such as Jean-Paul Sartre as “meaningless”—with the appropriate accompanying psychological characteristic of Angst: agony, misery.
Why is this fact not employed in personal witness as one of the strongest arguments for becoming a Christian? Everyone wants his or her life to count for something: there is probably no human desire as strong as this. But I have never heard an evangelistic sermon make this point.
Isn’t it strange, when one considers Matthew 18 and Romans 8:28, that those who are so strong in maintaining the inerrancy of the entire biblical text seem so often able to ignore what it is actually saying? Maybe the old Black adage has more truth in it than is generally supposed: “All dem dat’s talkin’ bout heaven ain’t necessarily a-goin’ there” . . .
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The present issue of the Global Journal focuses on one of our favourite subjects: relevant Christian apologetics. The Editor’s previously unpublished essay, “Defending the Hope That Is in Us: Apologetics for the 21st Century,” was delivered as an invitational lecture at the Hope for Europe conference of the Evangelical Alliance, held in Budapest, Hungary, 27 April—1 May 2002. Readers of this issue are presented with the English text (German and Russian versions are available on the Editor’s personal website: www.jwm.christendom.co.uk). We cannot supply our readers with goulash or Tokay wine from the Budapest conference, but this essay is guaranteed to be stimulating compensation!
Lloyd Olson has contributed an important paper, “The Existence of God: An Apologetic Refuting Scientific Mysticism”; and James Dietz, a Fellow of our International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism and Human Rights, deals with the vital question of probability reasoning in the presentation of apologetic evidence: “Christianity for the Technically Inclined: Risk Assessment, Probability and Prophecy.” Finally, Canadian scholars Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe, in their essay, “Tom Paine’s Age of Reason and Modern Unbelief,” critique one of the most influential non-Christian books of modern times and in doing so derive lessons for today’s defenders of the faith.
— John Warwick Montgomery