A Message from Pastor Hale
My wife and I were surprised last spring by the offer to be sponsored to go to the well-known apologetics academy for 11 days in Strasbourg, France. We decided to try and make it work, despite the fact we already had a family vacation planned, beginning just days after we would be getting back from Europe. But this unknown benefactor, connected with the Christian News paper I help edit, and his generosity, convinced us to try and make the most of the opportunity.
We found out in May we would need to take Rose with us. Even the original trip was rushed, since we did not have current passports, but getting Rose prepared was especially hurried. Our original accommodations would not allow a baby, but we eventually found a room to rent.
Rose did not enjoy the flight from Omaha to Chicago, but was much better for the longer flight to Paris. We took a high speed train to Strasbourg and stayed there for our entire stay, except for a bus tour daytrip to some small, historic towns in the Alsace region with the 20 or so Academy participants.
Most days had six hours of lectures, which were quite good, but the not having air conditioning made it less enjoyable during the heat of the day. The teachers at the Academy were Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, Craig Parton, Dr. Donald T. Williams, and André Eggen. Dr. Montgomery, who is from America originally, but has lived in France for some time, is a well published LCMS pastor/lawyer/scholar within Protestant circles, well known for his teaching on apologetics. He had a hand in defending the literal truth of Scripture way back in the 1960’s and 1970’s during the difficult days of the LCMS. He was ordained in the LCMS in 1965.
Craig Parton is a lawyer in California who found his way to the LCMS and has several apologetics books published by CPH. Dr. Donald T. Williams is not Lutheran, but is a gifted teacher of apologetics and university professor of English in Georgia. He specializes in the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The last professor was a layman from France, who holds a Ph.D. in animal genetics. His perspective on the state of Christianity in France was very helpful, along with his approach to defending our creation by God. He spoke to how Christian history and symbolism is still part of the French culture, but perhaps there are only 1 -2% practicing Christians in his own country, much like the rest of liberal Europe. America is surely following the sad example of Europe in this regard.
Apologetics means a public “defense” – not “I’m sorry for what I believe.” (We have the “Apology to the Augsburg Confession” in our Book of Concord, which is a more detailed argument backing up the earlier Augsburg Confession). It is an intellectual and rational activity. Not all Christians think apologetics is good. While it is not everything, nor does it replace straightforward biblical proclamation, defining the topic carefully helps illuminate how Christians can rationally defend and present the truth clearly.
The main Bible text dealing with defending the faith is “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” from 1 Pet. 3:15. The context of that passage is suffering and persecution. In the midst of living as Christians we stand out for not taking the easy way out of difficulty, but rejoicing in the hope God has given us. Our hope is not baseless or a mere wish, we have definite reasons and evidences for our faith – Christ is risen from the dead, and we have His sure verbally communicated promises.
Not every Christian can explain detailed points of doctrine or is able to publicly debate unbelievers, but every believer should know why they believe Christianity is true and the only way to God and eternal life. Faith is personal, we cannot appeal to another person’s faith or internal viewpoint to buttress our own. Our hope is not a mere wish or fantasy, we rely on Christ’s words, explained in plain language to us in preaching and Scripture. We should be able to reason and speak according to the ability God has given us, which is not the same for everyone – but that is no excuse to be ignorant or to refuse to learn. We should not say I believe “just because” of some happenstance tradition or circumstance.
We live in a rational and anti-rational age. The charge of rationalism, trusting in reason unduly and completely, is a serious one. But Christianity is not based on our emotional and undefinable reaction to Jesus. We have real doctrinal content presented in the words of Scripture. We can deal with doctrinal errors and contradictions to Christianity head-on. Not just by quoting the Bible, but by knowing that all truth is God’s and whatever is against God’s Word must be wrong on its own merits – to everyone, not just the spiritual people with the right “worldview.”
The personal faith of the individual Christian is invisible, but the basis of our faith is real worldly facts. Unlike other religions, we have trust in things that actually happened in history. Our “spiritual” facts of faith are also real parts of normal earthly history, and can be approached that way. And they must be, since we are under attack by those who would make Christ – His life for sinners, death for sin, and resurrection for man’s justification – mere myths and fiction. The Bible points to historical witnesses and events that were open for all to see – not just those with the Spirit.
A strong Christian will be able to talk about their faith and interact with the world, including its errors and heresies. If church is the only place one is Christian, Christ is not set apart as Lord of the person and his whole life. Christ does not box himself into some spiritual corner, all things are spiritual to one who is spiritual. “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one” (1 Cor. 2:15). A large part of apologetics is knowing heresies – not believing them, but being fortified enough to study them and defend the truth of Jesus by refuting them. Most heresies – attacks against the faith – are seemingly rational and fit in with the mood of the age.
We must be prepared for the satanic teachings that we hear in the world. We should not be scared of errors, as if the content of our faith is not superior. If not prepared and on the lookout for false teachings, we will subtlety accept them unawares. Passive seclusion and being afraid of every worldly teacher claiming divine authority is escapism, not the product of a robust faith and scriptural knowledge. We have the truth of Christ, and the God-given ability to communicate it. We are not helplessly dependent on everyone who uses the name of Jesus piously, or even every pastor with a seminary diploma (or better). The Bible is replete with admonitions that every believer is to learn and eat the solid meat of God’s Word, so that we are all able to teach one another. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
When talking to unbelievers we do not just quote Scripture and avoid them until they believe. Christianity is what we were made for – and explains the deepest mysteries of the world. God’s truth is the ultimate truth, with the answers all sinners seek, even if they don’t admit it or realize it.
Christianity describes God who became man for us – it has tangible connections with this world – since our God entered history. To spiritualize the Gospel, thinking it has no relation to this physical world, is to deny the very incarnation – the center of Christianity. Yes, reason is sorely abused, but we are not anti-rationalists, but must submit reason to the truth of Christ, to use it in the right way. Christianity touches all areas of life, including every thought and idea. The truth is simple but errors are often very intricate and complicate the biblical description of things. Jesus is Lord of the universe, not simply your perspective. It is quite easy to bottle up Jesus as a theoretical, hypothetical idea, rather than submitting to Him as Creator of all things. So we must interact with errors and those who disagree with us.
Ideas are not enough, but the person renewed in Spirit is new in body and mind. Too often we might be tempted to think winning the argument is enough. But God wants people – bodies and souls – to be His. Winning the day in an unloving way is not a reflection of Christ’s love. But letting people believe wrongly and not challenging error is also disastrous. Without the Spirit and power of the Gospel, an argument or presentation of evidence cannot do anything spiritual for an unbeliever. I learned that Sunday school was originally founded for children who worked in factories and so could not attend any school at all. Children were taught reading, because without the ability to read and write, it is impossible to dig deep into Scripture for oneself and be firmly grounded on the holy words of God.
Without solid reasoning and knowledge of the truth, Christians retreat into flimsy emotions and superstition. This can be termed the “pentecostilization of Christianity” – meaning many nonpentecostals by church confession are pentecostals in the heart, equating feelings with the basis of truth, without knowing it. “Jesus is the only God with a date in history.” If our faith is only internal, without connection to the physical world, then we cannot rationally discuss it – but that, however, is not the Christianity of the Bible.
A large portion of the course dealt with historical criticism, an area I have done some work in previously. This secular method of minimizing the author, deconstructing the text (making it say the opposite by reading uncharitably between the lines), and robbing Holy Scripture of its majestic authority is quite prevalent in Christianity today. This has come unfortunately from academics inside the church – even from seminary professors and pastors. It treats the Bible as something less than the Word of God that cannot be fully trusted in every single word. When the authority of Holy Scripture, and confidence in it, is diminished, the very foundation for all Christian doctrine is eroded.
A lot of this nonsense started in secular approaches to literature, after the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th century. New post-modern approaches (I was even taught a bit of this at seminary) deny the effectiveness of communication through the written or spoken word by making all words wishy-washy. But the fact that we can abuse language, does not mean God cannot speak clearly or with authority to us. That, however, does not mean that we as sinners will understand it (especially if we don’t know the language, etc.).
It was well said that we should not assume that any self-proclaimed Christian school (or church, or person, for that matter) is necessarily Christian in substance. A lot of these techniques (like the now popular critical race theory, or older critical literary theory) are proclaimed to be “neutral” methods. The way they abuse Shakespeare or the constitution becomes simply blasphemy when they apply these schemes to God’s Word. One LCMS seminary professor published a CPH book on the Gospel of Matthew, based on his PhD dissertation, approaching that scriptural book as entirely fiction, even though he also claimed, as a throw-away aside, to actually believe it is true personally (Jerusalem and Parousia: Jesus' Eschatological Discourse in Matthew's Gospel). His technique – how he treated God’s word rationally – was to treat it as a fairy tale with no real connection or earthly import for the modern reader. That denies its authority in practice, while theoretically is can still be called “God’s holy Word.”
How you treat and speak of God’s word is a confession. Methods of reading and interpretation – dealing with the holy God Himself – are not neutral. We must not just judge an institution by its name, historical, or legal connection – we must know what is actually being taught – and compare it to God’s Word. In the post-modern intellectual sphere, “truth” is considered just a ploy for power and a political attempt to get something. But the truth of Jesus has a doctrinal content and authority over all sinners.
We also looked at other religions and their foundations. We do not fear false gods, since we know they are not true gods, but rather the false teachings of demons. We can critique other beliefs and teachings in a rational way. Many eastern religions, such as Hinduism, tend to minimize the human personality. They teach that all desire is bad and to be gotten rid of. Only Christianity teaches the fulfillment of the person, and his desires, rather than their destruction, even in heaven.
Christianity is unique in that it stands or falls on its historical claims. 1 Cor. 15 states this very plainly: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Without the singular teaching of Christ’s rising, there is no hope for anyone, no matter how pious they are or how much they think they sincerely believe. That means that unlike other religions, Christianity is falsifiable. If the facts it depends on are not actually true, we have no reason to believe we have the truth and are actually lost.
“Climate change” faith was presented as an example of something not falsifiable: if every single weather event and pattern is assumed to be evidence of climate change, then nothing is – and it cannot be disproved, since it is rather a first principle, not a conclusion based on solid evidence, for the world. But the very nature of Christianity allows for us to deal with its truth in an earthly, evidential way, as if in a neutral courtroom seeking plain facts. We have more than our own believing to rely on.
Dr. Montgomery has spent much time defending Scripture in the form it has come to us. We don’t have the original autographs written by the inspired apostles, but we have thousands of manuscripts, some partial fragments going back to the second century – more than any other ancient work in recorded history. Modern critics assume the opposite, starting with satanic assumptions like God is not allowed to partake in history, so that miracles are ruled out ahead of time. That is a poor starting point to investigate the Bible or do interpretation of it. It is not neutral in the least, despite being presented in academic garb. For hundreds of years, antiChristian philosophers have tried to say that history cannot establish truth or that all miracles are unreasonable. But ruling out something before the evidence is even considered is more than a little biased. Only God can make god-like judgments, like the modern critic wishes to do, replacing the one they judge in intellectual rebellion.
The author C.S. Lewis was the subject of our lectures also. He was an adult convert to Christianity, a great writer, and a Christian celebrity in his day. He was Anglican and had his doctrinal problems to be sure, but was one of the greatest apologists of the 20th century. He used all sorts of defenses against the encroaching paganism to which Europe has succumbed nowadays. False ideas and excuses to not be Christian can be broken down with sound reasoning. We are not helpless infants in the world of ideas. Destroying these intellectual barriers does not automatically mean a person coming to faith, but this can help aid the Gospel in being heard and the Spirit working faith. “You can’t argue to God, you can only argue from God.” After some reflection, I have come to think that apologetics might be just as helpful for the believer, as the dealing with the unbeliever, if not more.
After a bit of philosophical apologetics, a good dose of historical and legal apologetics, we learned some scientific apologetics. Hearing the approach of one living in the midst of a very pagan society, as we are becoming in America, was helpful. Christians are painted as ignorant and dumb and believing in wild fairy-tales – despite the fact that many of the first scientists were believers and set out to show God’s genius design in creation. We live in an age of scientism, where material explanations from nature supposedly explain everything – the explanation of a god is not needed. Yet evolution, a key ingredient of modern paganism, is increasingly under attack in the secular realm. The Christian should know evolution well – so he can pinpoint its weaknesses and how improbable it is in scientific terms. Science is always changing (evolving) based on the accepted evidence, but God’s revealed truth does not. Evolution can give no meaning to life, and death must be accepted as a necessary and normal fact (even good, since it weeds out the weak and bad mutations). Only we have the answer to death – resurrection to eternal life. Death is an intruder and the punishment that Christ accepted on behalf of mortal sinners – not just a given part of nature to accept without qualms.
This world is cursed by sin, but God’s fingerprints remain on everything. We spent quite a bit of time showing how nature (God’s creation) knows more than us. Engineers often copy things in creation, since they show amazing design characteristics that we would not think of on our own. Nature speaks of the glory and eternity of God (Rom. 1), but we often do not listen.
One example is the gecko. A gecko's foot has nearly five hundred thousand hairs, each only a tenth of the diameter of a human hair, allowing this creature to go upside down. The hairs interact with surfaces in a special way, which is better than anything man has created with all his efforts. This was no accident! We have an extraordinary architect. We also discussed genetics and the changes within species (termed natural selection), as with the many breeds of dogs. Yet, these small changes are quite fast chronologically. Giving more time for evolution to occur does not answer the question of how one species does not become another. Evolution is a big lie built upon a small fact. But we should not be scared of it. There is no real power in error. We were told that the incredible information storage capacity in DNA is better than anything man has made technologically.
Dr. Montgomery, a brilliant and learned man (now in his 90’s) was very quotable: “There are as many apologetics in the world as there are facts.” In science we are given special words to explain things, that don’t really explain anything. A technical description is not a real explanation, and certainly not causation or purpose. But many are satisfied with a scientific soundbite that has the air of authority and expertise. He said that apologetics should start and end with the Gospel – it is not a method or process that one can just mechanically apply.
Every person has a starting point, a basis for what they believe. The non-Christian has a religious outlook on life, just not the right one. It is based on misplaced faith or superstition to some extent, since it is false. We can analyze these and approach them from the true perspective which Christianity gives us – since everything else must be ultimately false and unfulfilling. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “the unbeliever has his doctrine against miracles.” People don’t become less religious, they embrace as creatures created to love and believe, false religious superstitions.
Truth is not just being personally certain, rather the statements we hold to actually correspond to reality. We discussed the problem of evil and various philosophical ideas that try to replace Christianity. The truth we hold to did not come from us, or our efforts, it was revealed from above by God. It does not have to be proven, but it means nothing else can be. That is a great help and comfort for the Christian. But the loss of trust in scriptural authority has led to the great decline in the church, meaning a loss of confidence in the Gospel. We can’t avoid questions of fact.
Much time was spent on legal apologetics and human rights also, as well has biblical authority. “There is no inerrant Gospel in an errant Scripture.” In a session on medical apologetics, we discussed the need for hospitality, not simply accepting sin and death as the final word, but witnessing to our hope in the restored world to come when Christ returns. The value of life is under significant attack in all areas of culture. But Christianity gives value to all the suffering, even that of the dying, through Christ’s creative and redemptive work.
It is not a coincidence that many hospitals have Christian names and origins – since we are to have the compassion that Christ, our God, had on the sick. Sin, illness, and disability are not from God, nor are they intended to be our fulfillment or end, rather it is man, through Satan’s temptation, that brought sin into the world. This fact changes how we look at life – its beginning and end, since God brings it forth and has the only authority to end it. Suicide, euthanasia, and abortion are unchristian at their core. They reflect a pagan view of the world and life itself, confessing that man’s existence has no intrinsic value or meaning. These grave sins are symptoms of people living without purpose and hope. God does not remove all suffering, but He gives us hope in the new heaven and earth He has promised.
In the same vein, marriage is not about fulfilling one’s desires, but serving within God’s institution, according to the purposes of marriage He created. We don’t make children, but husband and wife participate in God’s creation of new life. They are not ours, but His.
That hopefully gives you a sample and overview of the content we were taught. We did get to do typical sight-seeing excursions and had some unique eating and drinking experiences, but it was most encouraging to socialize with the other attendees from the U.S., Canada, and from Africa. Some were pastors (mostly LCMS and WELS), some were laymen (Lutheran and nonLutheran), but all took the Word of God seriously and cared deeply about defending its truth. Ironically it happened in a very pagan region that was once quite Christian.
The very magnificent large and ornate cathedral in Strasbourg was the tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874. Mozart played on the organ in the church a half-block from our lecture hall. John Calvin stayed just a street over for a year. We even got to see Luther’s handwriting, in the editing of one of his publications in a nearby library. The history was historic, and the sights beautiful, but the experience helped us appreciate the people of God at Zion, who treasure and want to defend the truth of the Gospel, all the more.