As I grew up in the church I had a lot of questions about things of faith. It wasn’t until I got to university that the need to find answers to such questions became much more pressing. My discovery of “Christian apologetics” was incredibly helpful. I was overjoyed to find books like Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ, William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and Josh McDowell’s More than a Carpenter. Such books gave me a confidence that my faith was something more than simply what I was taught or had always believed. I could be a believer and still use my brain.
A funny thing happened on the way to…wherever I am now – I became a bit skeptical of apologetics. The more I read and studied, the more I realized that the answers I had first discovered were not as cut-and-dried as I first thought. Or at least, they seemed satisfying to me but not to other people just as smart (I mean, just plain smarter) then me. I was looking for full-proof certainty, an answer to every question, and I was coming to believe this was elusive.
Another thing that made me skeptical was that apologetics was often very simplistic. Some Christian apologists would talk and act as if their case had no holes or questionable points. It was as if the costs were so high in the debate that to admit any weakness was to lose the whole thing. This was obvious to me as I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Unbelievable. In this podcast a Catholic and Protestant were debating sola scriptura. While I would tend to agree with the Protestant, his refusal to see any of the legitimate challenges posed by his Catholic interlocutor was depressing. As I listened, I wondered if he really believed his answers and if he realized he was not really answering the Catholic debaters questions.
This leads me to the book The End of Apologetics by Myron Penner. Penner’s book put into words much of the cynicism I have developed with apologetics over the years. At one point he tells a story of meeting two young, boisterous apologists. Then these two learned that Penner’s friend was not a Christian. They immediately launched into their newfound knowledge, pushing a case for the Christian faith. The man did not convert in light of their air-tight presentation, no doubt feeling a bit dehumanized, as they failed to take into account his reasons for not being a Christian.. And this is one of the problems with modern apologetics – rather then listening to the individual person, entering into the relationship and specificity of life, it mows down people with claims of universal truth.
Penner argues that apologetics is a threat to Christians because, as it is often done today, it is totally influenced by the modern, Enlightenment worldview. Many Christian apologists write and speak as if this view of the world, its use of logic primarily, is part and parcel of a Christian worldview. The very idea that we can all leave our individual lives and enter into a neutral public space where we leave our biases behind and approach discussion objectively is swallowed uncritically by apologists. Upon examination, informed by a post-modern view of the world, we see the flaws in this worldview and with it the flaws in apologetics. Yet modern apologists are blinded to these flaws, even seeing them as part of the gospel to be defended (i.e., defending universal truth). Anyway, Penner writes:
All of this paves the way for Moreland to draw his conclusion that Christian intellectuals have the moral and spiritual responsibility to defend not just the truths of the Christian faith but also the very philosophical systems and concepts that make it possible to assert them as knowledge (according to modern criteria). Penner, Myron B. (2013-07-01). End of Apologetics, The: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Kindle Locations 650-653). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
In other words, the problem is that much Christian apologetics ends up defending a specific philosophy rather then the gospel. And speaking of philosophy, this book is a bit academic and heavy on the philosophy. (By the way, once Penner started quoting Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age he had me.) It was more challenging then I expected. The target is not Christians who have just read a Lee Strobel book or two and attended some apologetics conferences at their church. Instead it targets pastors and seminary students. I guess the goal is to reach such people, to help them change their view of apologetics and for this to work top-down in the church.
There were a few questions I was left with. Penner critiques the modern, Enlightenment view from a post-modern view. Certainly the modern view needs critiquing, but I wonder if Penner has uncritically accepted his own view? Penner emphasizes that postmodernism is an ethos, not just a philosophical view (as many try to reduce it to). He argues it is a condition of our culture. How does his argument translate to another culture? I can imagine someone in 20 years coming along and using the Bible (as Penner does) to say that both the modern and post-modern views are flawed. Of course, perhaps Penner would be okay with this as I think part of his point is that we are trying to reach a post-modern culture with a modern apologetic. Such misfiring is not working.
Also, I wish Penner had spent more time giving a picture of what positive use apologetics could have. It is not like modern Christianity invented it. What about the apologists in the early church? What about the arguments of medieval philosophers? Penner would agree that there is a place for reason and thinking in faith, I just wish he had spent more time showing what this would look like. What role does answering questions have in his formulation? How ought a Christian go about engaging a person with whom she disagrees?
Overall, this is a great book. It deserves a reading from pastors and campus ministers. Honestly, it probably deserves a second reading to fully grasp all the points. But hey, that is part of what makes it a great book.