Book Review: The End of Apologetics

apologetics reviews

Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013) (Follow this link to get the book in electronic format from Logos.)

Full disclosure: I do not publicly label myself an “apologist.” However, in some ways that’s what I am just by virtue of many of the things that I do and say, and there are others who refer to me that way. At times I defend the truth claims of Christianity against criticisms, and at times I offer reasons for thinking that those claims are true. That is what “apologetics” means here. I have my share of problems with the “apologetics culture,” if I can speak of any such thing. But I appreciate the fact that I can separate apologetics per se from the various cultural forms in which it is expressed.

Myron Penner quite openly does not have this appreciation, or indeed much regard at all for the practice of Christian apologetics. What follows is my review of his book where he explains himself. The review is not exhaustive, so there may well be times where somebody reading this review might note “but you didn’t note that Penner says….” I probably did not. But I have read it, and if I didn’t mention it here it’s because I think that what I do say here takes it into account.

Further disclosure: Given some of my reservations about certain aspects of the apologetics culture, I expected that I might find at least a considerable amount of agreement with this book. But I may as well honestly say that I did not. I disagreed with nearly all of it, and also found it disagreeable (those two reactions are quite different from each other).

Here goes…

What is the author saying?

Let me start with a rough overview of the message of this book. The point of the book is that we should be deeply suspicious of – and in fact not take part in – the endeavour of Christian apologetics.

Apologetics – the practice of presenting arguments or evidence for the truth of Christian belief, arguments or evidence that we expect somebody who is not a Christian to take seriously and perhaps be persuaded by – is a distinctly modernist enterprise. In a postmodern world, the appeal to reason to establish the plausibility of Christian belief is problematic because in truth there is no shared concept of reason. Penner draws an analogy between the endeavour of apologetics and that of ethics. As Alasdair MacIntyre said in After Virtue, people continue to talk about ethics in terms of some moral claims being true and others false as though we had a shared concept of goodness, but in reality we do not. Similarly, says Penner, while people (namely apologists) may talk about evidence for religious belief as though we had a shared concept of reason, in reality we do not.

Penner draws heavily on Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and his distinction between a genius and an apostle. A genius has the status of a genius because he is skilled or learned. But an apostle has authority on the grounds of a divine calling. Kierkegaard used the example of St Paul:

Paul must not appeal to his brilliance, since in that case he is a fool; he must not become involved in a purely esthetic or philosophic discussion of the content of the doctrine, since in that case he is absentminded. No, he must appeal to his divine authority and precisely through it, while he willingly sacrifices life and everything, prevent all impertinent esthetic and philosophical superficial observations against the form and content of the doctrine.1

Apologetics, Penner thinks, takes the role of the genius over the apostle, accepting the terms of reference used by the modern secular paradigm and modern secular objections, responding to them “as if these objections had some sort of claim on the legitimacy of faith.” Apologetics, says Penner, “attempts to ground faith in genius or secular reason” and does nothing to help us cope or combat modern nihilism.

Really, Penner says, apologists and modern secular sceptics agree more than they disagree, because “Faith for either side boils down to a kind of positive scientific knowledge that tends to reduce the substance of faith to an intellectual debate over the reasonableness of a theoretical entity: the proposition “God exists”. ” And both groups buy into the notion that there is a way of uncovering and knowing the objective truth, which we can in turn form into propositions that contain it, proving the truth of what we say to those who would prefer not to agree with us, but must do so, once we have made our rational case.

The participants in the Judeo-Christian tradition should want nothing to do with this way of doing things, says Penner, for the Judeo-Christian tradition

has its origins in revelation—with an event expressed in language (text) that is interpreted within the tradition and not by means of rational “first principles” (Greek philosophy). Ours is the God-who-speaks and reveals. The first moment of critical reflection in this tradition, then, is to wait and listen—to hear from God. Subsequently, the Judeo-Christian logos (word, reason) is one that always exhausts human reason and always comes to us from the outside. It is never a word (a reason) that rests on human rational capacities, but displays the circular relation between believing and understanding that Ricoeur identifies as the basic character of hermeneutics.

Rather than trying to argue people into our point of view (a task that Penner calls “violence”), we should accept the truth that “the truth” is only meaningful if we can show that it is true to somebody by attesting to it with our lives. We are called to witness to the truth, to embody it and to live it out, and that truth can only be transmitted in a limited, “relative,” culturally conditioned (rather than “objective”) way (a stance that Penner refers to as “perspectivism”). And so the truth is not really something to be stated propositionally but rather something done:

Christian truth is an aleitheia—an uncovering, disclosing, or making visible the very presence of God among us. And this uncovering is concrete and actual, not abstract and intellectual. Christian truth-telling, therefore, is a field of performance and an acting or living out of the truth that is edifying and upbuilding. This is not merely an objective apprehension or formal acknowledgment—we must win these truths for ourselves and make them our own. It is not an instant calculation that is over and then done with, but the undertaking of a lifetime.

If there is any sort of proof that we can reach for, says Penner, it is in the pudding of our lives, for it is there that truths are demonstrated, and not by arguments that appeal to truths that we can all accept on an objective basis:

There is no objective piece of evidence or argument that conclusively verifies Christian truth claims because by nature they are not objective entities. This does not mean we have no reasons for belief or we cannot reason about faith. We can, as Vanhoozer has said, “verify or corroborate biblical wisdom in situations where, in the light of a Christian vision of the whole, we are able to act well”.”

Points of agreement

There is culture of apologetics that is actually pretty toxic. Penner relates an encounter where he and a friend encountered a couple of young seminary students. Upon learning that his friend was not a Christian, they (or so I gather) practically exploded with eagerness to use their apologetics chops on this man, in spite of him making it clear that he wasn’t interested. They would not hear it, Penner relates. This was a battle, and they were going to both create and win the fight.

His friend, understandably, objected to this treatment. He was treated impersonally, like a task or a proposition. I can relate. It’s easy to find examples – the internet is easy picking – of people who are eager to try out their apologetics chops and live the life of a (keyboard) warrior. It’s especially embarrassing – although this is me speaking now, not Penner – to see those who are like children who have just discovered their father’s gun but who have no idea how to use it. Zeal and patience often do not make good bedfellows, and as the saying goes, when all you’ve got is a hammer, suddenly everything looks like a nail.

Similarly, I (and many, many of those involved in any sort of apologetics) share Penner’s concern that we simply must not allow faith and knowledge of God (not knowledge about God but knowledge of God) to be reduced to a mere intellectual exercise in the public area of arguing with non-believers. It is for good reason that this subject is directly addressed by apologists themselves, because it is a risk. Apologetics is naturally attractive to people who are full of themselves, think they are clever and like to argue. But so too is the now (ironically) institutionally entrenched practice of anti-intellectualism in Christian thought, where the mere mention of the word “rational” is cause for deep suspicion.

Points of disagreement or unclarity

I will have more to say about the more striking ways in which I cannot share the author’s perspective below. But here I will say a few things about areas where I think the author is mistaken, or areas where the book could have been clearer.

How rational is too rational? Is it possible to, while living out the truth, accidentally venture too far into communication that is too concerned with speaking the objective truth to those who don’t currently share it?

One question that I wondered about several times is: “Where are the boundaries of what the author takes to be problematic apologetics?” Of course the boundaries may be hard to discern, and it is possible that the uncertainty I experienced was due to the author speaking primarily about what he is against, and not with much clarity about what he is advocating as an alternative. How rational is too rational? Is it possible to, while living out the truth, accidentally venture too far into communication that is too concerned with speaking the objective truth to those who don’t currently share it? Presumably there are limits, but what is OK and what is not in Penner’s view did seem (to me, at least) to be more than a little fuzzy.

The author’s appeal to MacIntyre on virtue may come as a surprise to many readers who are familiar with MacIntyre’s work and with the modern literature on the metaphysics of morality. The point of MacIntyre’s observation that people continue to speak as though the shared concept of value and virtue were alive and well can in fact be used for a distinctly apologetical purpose. The point of the moral argument for the existence of God is precisely that we do talk as though there were moral truths in an “old world” sense even though many of us operate from within a metaphysical outlook that cannot account for such truths. This fact in turn is a prompt to people who find themselves in this position to revise their metaphysical commitments, since it should seem so obvious to them that the moral truths they cherish matter more – and more likely reflect reality – than their non-religious outlook.

As much as I appreciated Penner’s relating of his and his friend’s encounter with a couple of zealous young apologists, and although he drew some teaching points from it that warrant remembering often, as was often the case in the book, he started with an observation few would doubt and drew conclusions from those observations that either fail to be clearly warranted or else which tell against his own position just as much as against any other. He reflects:

Stories like John’s reinforce for me that, typically, we do not come to belief by dint of mere rational persuasion. The reasons I have faith—or any other belief—and that it appears acceptable to me have to be put in the context of my lived experience and all the various construals of the world, myself, God, others, and so on. I have to accept my faith in order to feel at home with it. The context in which we accept beliefs (or have faith) are varied, personal, and rarely fall under our direct, conscious, rational control. And I hazard to say we collectively experience in our spiritual lives the same “breach of naïveté,” as Charles Taylor might say, that makes faith difficult for John. This is yet another symptom of our condition of secularity that exposes faith and makes it vulnerable from a number of directions—not just to objections of rational coherence.

The observation is so very true, and certainly deserves to be heard by lovers of apologetics: There is so much more than rational reasoning at work when we adopt new beliefs. Emotional factors, psychological factors, social factors and so on loom large here – although of course there is recourse on the part of the apologists to the thought that we should discipline and chasten ourselves (whether we do or not), evaluating ourselves and our response to all these factors as much as we evaluate the reasons we are considering. The thing to say, apologists would protest (and, I think, correctly so) is that this is not a reason for not engaging in apologetics. Rather this is a call to do apologetics better, thinking more holistically and acting more irenically towards those with whom we interact.

That aside, the notion of “vulnerability” here is no more a problem for a modern apologist than for a premodern apologist or indeed the postmodern Christian opponent of apologetics. Faith is not only vulnerable to intellectual objections but also to a whole range of factors within our experience and our construal of the world.

The lived, experienced reality that “God is love” can come crashing down for someone whose life takes an unexpected turn into tragedy. But does this experienced tragedy then become their truth – that God is not love?

The lived, experienced reality that “God is love” can come crashing down for someone whose life takes an unexpected turn into tragedy. But does this experienced tragedy then become their truth – that God is not love? Since the love of God may no longer feel real to them, what do we say, that they should accept that it is no longer real? Presumably Penner does not think so, but this illustrates well the way that experience must interact with reason in a holistic way. This multi-faceted vulnerability no more means that we should stop addressing the secular intellectual objections on their own terms than it means that we should stop addressing people in their lived experience of the world on their own terms.

Penner’s handling of the issue of objective truth and meaning may frustrate some readers. He objects to the view that he attributes to apologists, that we can, in objective terms, show that Christianity is true. This is not really possible, says Penner, because:

Absolute, timeless Truth is God’s alone. We perceive things from our various perspectives, within time, with these limited and changing bodies, and from the social contexts we inhabit. We won’t, in other words, get to the bottom of reality to perceive reality as it really is apart from how it is for us. Second, pursuing truth exclusively in an objective way can also be problematic because it stymies our interests as persons or subjects. It limits our ability to be in the Truth. Propositions or statements considered in isolation from the persons who hold them and how they are held are meaningless and irrelevant to us. The more I seek to objectify the world and myself, the more I lose my self. And what does it profit a person if they gain the maximal set of justified, true beliefs but lose their own self?

But surely it is not enough to observe that an absolute, untarnished view of the truth belongs to God alone and then to imply that this means that there is nothing that we can know in a really objective sense. Indeed, Penner does not want to say that we cannot speak of the truth in an objective sense, although his path to that denial will appear rather contorted to some: Let us forget about truth as a matter of correspondence, and think of it instead as a matter of “edification,” he says. “What matters about truth,” he says, “is that it builds me up, is true for me, and is the kind of thing that connects to my deepest concerns as a self.” We then proclaim this truth to others in the hope that it will edify them, too – but of course it will only do so if they share more or less “the same commitments, values, and vocabularies.” The contortion I refer to is what looks like a move from a concept of what truth is (namely, claims that correspond to reality) to a concept of why the truth about God is important or matters (namely, it is edifying). But in fact these two concepts are compatible. Even if we grant that truth is desirable to the extent that it edifies, why should we deny that truth is a matter of correspondence? Moreover, why should we believe that the whole point of believing the truth is to be edified? I can easily agree that there is an edifying feature of believing the truth in general, but is there a good reason for thinking that there is no such thing as a truth that tears down and does not edify? Penner does not offer any clear reason for thinking that this is so. Nor, for that matter, does Penner want to say that the truth is just whatever does edify me. We should not “merely select the illusion that appeals best to our temperament and embrace it with passion.” But here comes a rub: There may be multiple stories about the truth that would be edifying if true. On what grounds should I choose one over the other? The response that many would naturally offer is “because one is true and the other is not!” But Penner is working specifically against what he calls beliefs that are couched in “epistemology,” that is, the discerning of what is objectively true and what is not. I appreciate that Penner says quite clearly that he does not “mean Christianity has nothing of what we might call an objective reality apart from its subjective appropriation.” But if the best that we can do is relate our faith to others in a way that edifies them, what do we say if we are asked if this is the truth or merely a pleasant illusion?

The take-home point for me from the above was that apologists do not need to claim that they are utterly impartial and objective. They need only maintain that they can establish some truths in a way that is defensible based on some of the shared beliefs and values of those with whom they are in dialogue. Of course nobody in the apologetics enterprise has ever claimed that they have discovered some sort of silver bullet of objectivity that should be able to convince everybody, no matter what their life story or prior commitments. So it will likely seem to many readers that Penner is distinguishing his approach to a fairly extraordinary approach that few apologists, if any, actually employ.

In fact Penner is at his best – that is, his most edifying – when he is saying things that do not mark out a point of difference from modern apologetics at all. For example:

We can, of course, say objectively “true” things directly—like, for example, that it is −27°C outside this morning or that God was in Jesus Christ reconciling to himself the world. The point, however, is first that these sorts of objective “facts” or statements are only approximately true and are made from a finite, contingent perspective. And second, objective truths are only edifying when appropriately ironized and connected to our deeper values, interests, and concerns about being a good person (or living well). That is, these objective truths (qua objective) are not ultimate, absolute, or the exclusive form truth must eventually take for us to be in the truth.

There is no conflict between the idea of truth as objective – and our ability to relay it objectively – and the value judgement that we ought to do so in a way that edifies, showing how the truth matters to our fellows in dialogue, based on our fundamental shared values. But how is any of this part of a cumulative case against the use of apologetics?

Well said. There is no conflict between the idea of truth as objective – and our ability to relay it objectively – and the value judgement that we ought to do so in a way that edifies, showing how the truth matters to our fellows in dialogue, based on our fundamental shared values. But how is any of this part of a cumulative case against the use of apologetics? Must an apologist deny this?

Moreover, we have to question (and actually, seriously doubt) the suggestion that there is no shared concept of reason anymore. There surely is. If we are going to view reason as a parallel to virtue in this regard, then why should we not, instead of eschewing reason in our discussions, use reason as a signpost to God in precisely the way that many apologists have – just as they appeal to moral value? Indeed a number of apologists have done just this. C S. Lewis famously did so with his “argument from reason.” In the Reformed world, the transcendental argument for God’s existence maintains that taking God’s existence for granted is a prerequisite for the ability to account for reason – and yet non-believers take reason for granted. So it is by no means obvious that if reason finds itself in a similar position to virtue, doubt is somehow cast on the modern apologetic endeavour.

Throughout the book Penner’s approach bears the hallmark of a very blunt either / or dichotomy when it comes to how we commend the faith. We must address secular reason or we must commend the faith as something lived out.

Throughout the book Penner’s approach bears the hallmark of a very blunt either / or dichotomy when it comes to how we commend the faith. We must address secular reason or we must commend the faith as something lived out. We must think that our faith rests in the hands of the genius (surely a caricature – who says this?) or else we must believe that there are (or were?) people who are called to be Apostles, bringing revelation. He tells us that “what our age needs is not a scientific or theoretical answer to intellectual challenges of belief but a personal response to the spiritual problems of people who have been unable to receive and have faith.” But why must we insist, not just on the inclusion of the latter, but the exclusion of the former? How much better a good deal of this book could have been if it had taken the more modest stance of calling the reader to appreciate that the faith is so much more than intellectual, instead of eschewing intellectual defence of the faith in this way.

Another example of Penner making a point that he apparently takes to profoundly tell against apologetics (but really does not): After discussing the alleged lack of objective evidence for the truth of Christianity, Penner says, drawing on the support of others: “But as Terry Eagleton reminds us, faith for Christians is a gift and this means Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons for their beliefs.” Now this quite seriously misunderstands the nature of apologetics – and perhaps the nature of faith. True, it is part of the Christian outlook (especially in an Augustinian or Calvinist outlook) that faith itself is a gift. But faith in this sense is a fiduciary thing – a thing of trust in God. “Faith” in this sense certainly does not equate to “the things that we believe to be facts.” So even if faith or trust in God is a gift, it certainly does not follow that we are not in conscious possession of reasons for the things that we believe. Now it may be true that for many things we believe, we are not in full possession of all the reasons for why we believe them. This is true of “basic” beliefs. But that is another story. This claim about the nature of faith certainly offers little support in the war against apologetics. In making this argument Penner also appears to misunderstand the nature of apologetics. Apologetics does not purport to be a means by which the recipients of the arguments get “faith,” in any sense in which “faith” is a gift. To treat apologists as offering a means of actually granting faith to people via arguments would be an inexcusable misrepresentation.

What is more, a similar type of misrepresentation or misunderstanding of the apologetic task lurks in Penner’s appeal to Kierkegaard’s genius / apostle distinction. It is true that an apostle speaks with an authority that a genius does not, but apologists are not presuming to usurp the authority of an apostle. Indeed, they (or at least, I) do not believe that anyone can claim the authority of an apostle. In fact in another place Penner acknowledges that witnesses to the truth like us do not literally speak with the authority of a prophet. So why fault the apologists for failing to do so? Indeed, apologetics is, and is meant as, an intellectual exercise. Surely in other intellectual pursuits Penner agrees that the genius should make use of his – genius! Science, mathematics, history, architecture…. but not claims about God? Is that a room in our minds that we must shut off from our intellectual faculties? Is this forbidden ground for the genius?

Here we have to seriously question the postmodern approach that Penner takes to faith – but perhaps not to other things. Reason and the appeal to evidence is no way to promote claims that Christians, as Christians, take to be true. But is this the approach that we take to crossing the street? Or to medicine, architecture or aviation? Surely to do so would be a death sentence. In spite of all of his postmodern talk about how we should approach discourse about religious beliefs, Penner cannot but be a modernist on everyday life. But this divide – between the ordinary affairs of life that we address via reason and the senses, and religious claims that we dare not address this way because they do not admit of public, rational discourse, is a thoroughly modern concept, one that is (almost) at home in the Vienna circle of Rudolf Carnap and friends or A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists. Making the truth claims of Christianity – insofar as those claims are claims about metaphysics, morality or history – an arbitrary exception to the way that we think in general is surely a demanding claim that calls for a justification.

In reality Penner’s writing exercise itself seems to illustrate that for all his talk about not being able to be truly or fully objective and calling us to see truth primarily as something that edifies, he really does recognise the value of engaging in language and reasoning with people who disagree with many of the things that they believe in an effort to get them to change their minds even though they may not initially wish to do so. At least this must be the case if he hopes to change the mind of anybody who was previously more sympathetic to apologetics that Penner might wish. If taken at his word, Penner gives us reason to wonder why he is even trying to persuade us. “To understand me,” he says, “someone will have to spend time mastering the language game I speak, as well as carefully attending to my life. And their ability to understand me will depend on the degree to which they accomplish these actions.”

But if the degree to which I have attended to Penner’s life (i.e. not at all) is enough for him to reasonably hope that I will understand him, why is it not enough that apologists can hope to be understood by those who have mastered their language game (namely, anyone who takes a modernist approach to the language of evidence – quite a lot of people, as it turns out)?

But I have not – and I suspect most readers have not – spent any time at all attending to Penner’s life, let alone “carefully” so. But if the degree to which I have attended to Penner’s life (i.e. not at all) is enough for him to reasonably hope that I will understand him, why is it not enough that apologists can hope to be understood by those who have mastered their language game (namely, anyone who takes a modernist approach to the language of evidence – quite a lot of people, as it turns out)?

Is the problem, then, simply one of degree? Is it legitimate to engage in arguments about why people should stop thinking and acting in a particular way about apologetics, but not legitimate to engage in arguments about why people should change their mind about the truth of Christianity – because that’s a much bigger deal?

At times Penner’s argument (whether explicit or implict) seems to be simply that apologetics is not for everyone. In his chapter on the “politics of witness” he recalls the condescending treatment dished out by colonial officers to native residents of the colonised Congo. Speaking of Mabiala Kenzo, a Congolese-Canadian theologian, Penner asks, somewhat incredulously:

how does one in circumstances like Kenzo’s in colonial Africa receive the Christian gospel—the Good News of Jesus—so that it actually is good news? How do they hear that God in Jesus was enfleshed and became just like them so that they might know God and the love of God and be in the truth? Do they need to hear an elaborate defense of the Western theological concepts and categories? Or do they need a gospel witness that comes to them in and through their own cultural categories and ways of making sense of the world?

There are several issues here. Firstly, this is not really about apologetics, but just about theological orthodoxy. Secondly, this is not really about rational persuasion but about the reception of the Good News – the embrace of the Gospel. But lastly, supposing that this incredulity could be applied with equal force to the need for people in places like the colonial Congo to be able to engage in the type of apologetics practiced in places like the USA or the UK, surely at most we have here an illustration of the principle that what is appropriate in one cultural milieu may not be appropriate in another.

Now, I think we can be justifiably sceptical about any claim that other cultures have nothing in common with our own, so that no apologetic endeavour that may be appropriate in our own may also be appropriate in theirs (see for example Athanasius’ treatise on the Incarnation for examples of objections to the resurrection of Jesus that apologists today can easily find themselves encountering). But the example of the Congo just invites this reply: “OK, let’s grant that western apologetics might not be appropriate at all to those in the colonial Congo. But what about non-believing historians who place great weight on the discipline and practices of responsible historiography? What about scientists? What about philosophers who regularly take beliefs seriously on the grounds that there are rational arguments for them? How do they hear about the creator, the moral lawgiver, the risen Nazarene, in ways that ar real to them?”

While there are, doubtless, cultures for whom modernity is a foreign tongue, why think that the culture in which apologetics takes place is such a culture?

While there are, doubtless, cultures for whom modernity is a foreign tongue, why think that the culture in which apologetics takes place is such a culture? Given the pains that Penner is at to tear down the very method of apologetics per se, I was left wondering just what role culture really plays in his outlook. Is culture something that can only be used to rule out the appropriateness of apologetics, but never to commend it as useful?

Lastly and perhaps surprisingly, I was left without a direct, explicit answer to the question of what is actually wrong with modern apologetics per se. I saw that we should not treat people as objects, that we should not presume a kind of objectivity that we just don’t have, that we should regard the other as a person and so on. But so much of this was stated in the abstract, without – ironically – addressing apologists in a manner that cares about their lived experience. Is it the case that, given a supposedly modern approach to evidence, there is no evidence for any of the truth claims of Christianity? Is it that there is evidence but – if we discover it – we should not point out this fact because this involves some sort of wrongdoing? Is it that, because of the postmodern condition, the appeal approach to evidence cannot work or is not appropriate? At times it sounds as though Penner is saying all of these although a far clearer and direct argument to this effect would have been helpful (see the next section on this). What should I do if I start to think that there is a very good intellectual reason to consider the truth of what I believe about God? Am I permitted to tell people or must I keep it under the proverbial bushel so as to avoid transgressing the postmodern notion that there is no common language here? Should I tell people with the caveat that they couldn’t possibly find it compelling, even though I think it’s pretty sound?

While I was writing this review I was blessed to be told by somebody that my writing and / or speaking (writing and speaking that I have to admit has a decidedly modern tone) was part of the reason that they came to faith in Christ. What a wonderful thing to hear, but what an awkward position to be in, by Penner’s lights! What should I do? Contact her and plead my case that she should not find what I say persuasive, for I was illegitimately taking for a granted a common ground that amounted to “blasphemy” (see below for that remark)? should I tell her now to forget everything I said because it falls afoul of the tendency to reduce God to a mere proposition? What should we do if we encounter what we think are genuinely good grounds for belief that Christianity is true, or that its critics have gotten things wrong? Surely we cannot be being asked to strip away half of ourselves – supposing that we are the sort of person who actually finds an intellectual examination of our faith invigorating and even revitalising.

One point that I noticed along the way and thought worthy of mention is also here: Penner is a theologian, and by way of his appeal to the “apostle” and by his description of Christianity as a hermeneutical faith he gives us the impression that revelation looms large in his thinking about faith and how we go about it. Now, I understand that this book is not an articulation of the faith. But surely, one would think, what (if anything) Christian revelation – the bible – had to say about the question of the role of reason and rational persuasion in our witness should be of some importance. Certainly many of those who write on behalf of the apologetics enterprise have things to say about whether or not apologetics is a biblical practice. I was a little surprised that Penner did not have more to say here.

But who is he writing for?

One of the things that many readers of modern apologetics appreciate is the explicitness and directness of its approach. This is also one of the appeals (for me at least) of analytic philosophy as opposed to continental philosophy: You know what the author means because he tells you directly what he means. It may be no accident that postmodernity is likely to resonate with fans of continental philosophy for more or less the same reason that Penner’s book, just by virtue of the way the subject matter is explained, will not resonate with fans of modernity, analytic philosophy or apologetics. I can still remember telling my ethics lecturer how painful it was to read Nietzsche: He waffles, mumbles, wanders and rambles before getting to the point, so that you’re fed up before he even gets there, thinking “Oh come on just say it!” By the time he has said it, you’ve invested far more effort than the point was worth.

Fans of modernity, apologetics or analytic philosophy may experience a similar sensation when reading this book against apologetics. Much of it will seem opaque, like the build-up to some point that we’re expecting, but often it seems as though the point doesn’t actually arrive. All of this may be ideal fodder for postmodern students who want to put (forgive the irritating tone, but to be honest, the tendency is maddening) trendy or sophisticated sounding distance between themselves and those conservative, misguided apologists. For all the references to doing the truth, living the truth, how we confess the truth, how we should witness and so one – all of which sounds very good – we are never told how in fact we should live, how we should tell or how we should witness. The language is almost serving as a stand-in for the meat that one would have hoped to discover. The language almost reaches fever pitch when Penner starts discussing apologetics as coercion and violence (!), since it is an attempt to lever people into a position into which they do not wish to be levered.

Of course, all of this is the language of postmodern protest (a point only amplified in Penner’s section on the politics of witness which has clear overtones of liberation theology). But the protest, one would hope, would offer some positive guidance. The modern apologist, as I see it, will find none here, while the postmodernist may share many of the sentiments here, even if they are not clear on what is being proposed.

Existential Comics manages to convey what a conversation with this text feels like to somebody with largely “modernist” habits of communication – appropriately, by using Kierkegaard.

The challenge of charity

The previous question – of who the intended audience is, leads to this last – and actually, least pleasant – point. Regrettably, the one outstanding impression that Penner left on me after having read this book is this: If he is writing primarily to people who reject the apologetics endeavour or who simply want to be introduced to it along with any risks that it involves, then this book poisons the well, considerably misrepresenting the work of those the author seeks to criticise. But if, on the other hand, he is writing to persuade those who are already interested and engaged in apologetics of the modern Evangelical sort, he will surely fail, presenting to them a mirror image of themselves that they will be unable to recognise, angering them at the level of gracelessness and even apparent dishonesty (or so they are bound to see it), and viewing the author as someone whose polemical rancour easily bests any of the same that he attributes to them.

It is a shame, but the lack of charity and the extraordinary measure of misrepresentation contained in The End of Apologetics coloured my impression of the book as a whole. In truth, however, such a great deal of the book contained misrepresentation that its prevalence alone would explain why the whole book seems tainted by it. It is hard to imagine that the author, given his experience and breadth of learning, genuinely does not know any better. If he does not (and I suppose this should be my hope), then the book reveals a shocking lack of insight into and empathy for the subjects of his criticism and what they have set out to do in the endeavour of apologetics. The reality is that so much of what I want to say about his interaction with contemporary apologetics consists of a plea – like that of a helpless bystander observing a brutal attack – for the author to step back and stop putting the boot into a helpless victim that (in this book, at least) is not even allowed to defend herself.

Penner’s critique of apologetics depends crucially on his characterisation of apologetics as purely intellectual and, so it seems, cold, impersonal and disinterested in relationships with people and their real needs.

Penner’s critique of apologetics depends crucially on his characterisation of apologetics as purely intellectual and, so it seems, cold, impersonal and disinterested in relationships with people and their real needs. There is no doubt that people could attempt to do apologetics in this manner, but the obvious question is: Why on earth would they? On a number of occasions scholars widely regarded as apologists have gone out of their way to stress that this is not the case, and even to demonstrate just why it is not so. Penner is aware of this, but instead of taking these examples as a corrective against the extreme depiction of apologetics that he peddles, he invests effort into telling the reader that these explanations are not really true, that things are as bad as he says they are, and to construe the explanations in a way that he must know that the writers would not have approved of.

For example, Alvin Plantinga (not somebody who markets himself as an “apologist”) has a fairly well known argument for how we may be justified in holding beliefs – namely basic beliefs – without offering evidence or arguments for them, based on the way that we personally encounter the circumstances under which those beliefs are formed. William Lane Craig appropriates this argument, explaining that the witness of the Holy Spirit can give us knowledge even in the absence of arguments. One would have thought that this would be a stance that Penner would embrace with open arms: Knowledge gained through lived experience, not requiring a cold, rational, modernist justification.

Almost amazingly, Penner immediately charges this view with maintaining that:

For most of us, God’s existence is, in fact, inherently dubious and anything but self-evident. We require arguments and evidence for belief in God, and, failing that, we at least need a very good explanation (an epistemology perhaps) of how it is that belief in God is reasonable and counts as knowledge for us.

But this quite evidently is not so. Those who believe in God in the manner that Craig explains do not “require an explanation” of how that belief counts as knowledge. The point of Plantinga’s argument is not that people who have basic belief in God are in a position to explain how it is that that belief counts as knowledge. True, that is what Plantinga is doing as an epistemologist, but in doing so he is setting out to explain what happens in everyday life even though people don’t know that or how it happens. Penner’s charge is akin to claiming that an optician is claiming that we cannot have any trust in our eyesight until we know how the eye works! But of course the optician says no such thing. He merely tells us what is going on in the everyday lives of those who see, whether they can give a detailed account of it or not.

At one juncture Penner observes that William Lane Craig does make it quite explicit that he wants people to focus, not just on winning an argument, but instead on the need of a person with whom they are in dialogue:

There is the danger that in evangelism we may focus our attention on the argument instead of on the unbeliever. In doing evangelism we must never let apologetics distract us from our primary aim of communicating the gospel. Indeed, I’d say that with most people there’s no need to use apologetics at all. Only use rational argumentation after sharing the gospel and when the unbeliever still has questions. If you tell him, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” and he says he doesn’t believe in God, don’t get bogged down at that point in trying to prove the existence of God to him. Tell him, “Well, at this point I’m not trying to convince you that what the Bible says is true; I’m just trying to share with you what the Bible says. After I’ve done that, then perhaps we can come back to whether there are good reasons to believe that what it says is true.” Remember our primary aim in evangelism is to present Christ.2

It is not easy to press a mindset like this into the mould into which Penner is pressing apologetics: Detached, purely rationalistic, treating the truth about Christ like mere abstract propositions and so on. But at just the juncture that Craig offers caution against precisely the kind of mistake that Penner should want us to avoid, Penner simply will not let Craig say it!

This elicits a worry, though: Why is the category Craig uses to identify the major focus of apologetic interest “the unbeliever” and not the person? On closer examination, there is a fairly pronounced tension between Craig’s admonition that the goal of witness is to “present Christ,” his insistence that the truth of Christianity (Christ himself?) is packaged objectively in propositions, and his warning regarding the danger of focusing on arguments. Given Craig’s method and approach, what does it mean to focus on “the unbeliever” when one presents the gospel? Craig’s concept of Christian witness boils down to the transmission of specific propositions regarding God, Jesus Christ, self, and the world to “the unbeliever” so “the unbeliever” may rationally come to accept them. So how does one not focus on the argument while doing this? The primary apologetic and evangelistic goal here is to change “the unbeliever’s” mind rather than edify the person.

This is surely a strained and unreasonable criticism to make. Elsewhere in the book – and not when following the lead of those he is criticisng, Penner himself describes the intended recipients of apologetic arguments by saying that “the unbeliever is not essentially a mind that happens to have a body—a “thing that thinks” whose telos (end or goal) is fulfilled when it contemplates or acknowledges the correct propositions. Rather, humans are embodied persons…” Should we take him to task for regarding the other as simply “the unbeliever” and not a person? Surely not. It is perfectly natural to speak this way when talking about people with whom you are in a particular kind of dialogue precisely because the point of that dialogue (rather than some other kind of dialogue) is that they do not believe as you do. Neither Penner nor Craig is demeaning or dehumanising non-believers by speaking this way. Moreover, why does this sort of criticism not also tell against Penner’s own notion of truth as something to which we witness via our lives? How does one not take our focus off Christ and onto ourselves when doing this? I say this not to offer a serious criticism of this notion of truth, just to note that this is a strained and tenacious objection. Can we, instead of just focusing on winning an argument, focus on our concern for the person with whom we are dialoging in genuine love and concern that they meet Christ? Of course we can! Penner seems determined to not only set up and describe the sort of pitfalls that apologetics inevitably (allegedly) tends towards, but he is willing to re-tell the story that apologists themselves tell about their intentions and methods to make darn sure that no matter what they say, they emerge from his analysis as having fallen into precisely those pitfalls.

Penner’s alternative is primarily one where we live out the convictions of our faith. But imagine if somebody were to seize on this and to accuse Penner of being a legalist, demanding that the only way to be a Christian is to “forget that we are broken and always in need of grace, to make a show of our own righteousness and to lord our difference over those who are different from us.” This would be outlandish and unkind in the extreme. Penner would not recognise himself in an ungracious description like this. But why does Penner not see that just this kind of treatment is at play when he says:

This sort of concern for “the unbeliever” is reminiscent of the sales manager who reminds her sales representatives that it is all about “the customer,” while making it clear that this is not meant to extend to the customer’s personal life—and even more to the customer’s financial well-being, which might well be better off without the salesperson’s “concern.” For all practical purposes, then, “the unbeliever” is a “faceless” entity who is defined by unbelief.

Or:

In Marcel’s terms, treating people this way places them at my disposal, so that they exist for me. I cease to be responsive to them as fellow persons.

Or consider Penner’s assessment of Craig’s distancing himself from theological rationalism:

The modern conflict between liberal and conservative Christianity plays a critical part in Craig’s story about coming to his apologetic method. When Craig disparages the “theological rationalism” of the Christian college he attended, he quite clearly means they are of the liberal bent, willing to revise Christian belief according to the dictates of modern reason and culture. The method Craig hits upon, however, is to his mind free from this rationalism because it acknowledges a rather traditional role for the Holy Spirit and supernatural revelation in the epistemic process. What Craig fails to see, however, is that his (conservative) agenda is defined just as much by modernity as the “theological rationalism” he opposes—and is every bit as complicit with its assumptions.

What? The assumptions from which Craig has distanced himself are those that deny the reality or activity of the supernatural. In what way can Craig possibly be seen as complicit with these assumptions? Here is simply a case of extraordinary overstatement: Penner notes that Craig does not hold to the metaphysical assumptions of theological rationalism, but retains a rational model of discourse and evidence, and declares with remarkable sweep that Craig is “every bit as complicit with its assumptions.” This is unhelpful at best.

Or:

“Speaking theologically, we could say that accepting the modern paradigm as I have described it is tantamount to conceptual idolatry and methodological blasphemy.” Blasphemy? This may be true if apologetics, as Penner insinuates in this context, was an attempt to replace “belief in God” in the sense of knowing and trusting God as he is revealed through the community of faith (although not personally via the Spirit? Penner does not say) with mere intellectual assent. But of course apologists are seeking no such thing! Apologetics is the task of explaining intellectual reasons for believing true propositions about God, and addressing intellectual objections. That is what it does. Criticising apologetics because it fails to supply faith, or because it is not based on authoritative revelation, is rather like the old saying about education:

“if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Similarly, if you judge apologetics by its inability to save and transform people, you will find it disappointing. For that matter you may also find biblical scholarship, science, history and art disappointing.

“if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Similarly, if you judge apologetics by its inability to save and transform people, you will find it disappointing. For that matter you may also find biblical scholarship, science, history and art disappointing.

One of the things that I do not like about certain neighbourhoods within the apologetics culture – one of the things that is an instant turnoff – is the will to caricature others (this is especially marked in self-styled “discernment ministries”). But as is often the case, the mirror image of one extreme is generally another extreme that has all the same problems, even if they are facing in the other direction. There were simply far too many moments in reading this book where I found myself involuntarily rolling my eyes (whether literally or by doing the mental equivalent!). So much of this is unnecessary, unhelpful and frankly alienating. There is a tremendous irony here in that Penner treats the apologists against whom he writes with so much more sense of being “the other” (the enemy?) and with so much detachment that he simply does not seem to know them – or want to know them. Large swathes of the book could have been cut away (or at a bare minimum, re-written) had it been written with a more irenic and sympathetic approach. This could have been a book called “Saving apologetics: bringing balance,” and Penner could have perhaps offered much more in much less space, but instead we are left with a longer work stuffed full of an absolutely unsympathetic treatment of those with whom Penner does not see eye to eye.

There is a certain irony to the fact that – when writing on irony itself – Penner cites Rorty’s observation that anything can be made to look bad or good simply by redescribing it in an alternative vocabulary. This is a practice that Penner himself has used liberally here. I like to be criticised thoughtfully. I enjoy a good challenge. But I could not appreciate this one.

Should you buy the book? Here is where things get tricky. It all depends on what you want it for. I wanted it because I want to understand the reasons why people, Christian people in particular, do not think apologetics is appropriate. The more I know of those reasons the less I tend to think of them, but understanding what people think is a good in itself. If you want to understand the intellectual landscape then yes, absolutely. Get this book. But in an unfortunate irony, if you want to be served by the truth in the way that Myron Penner would have us seek the truth: To encounter it as something lived out and as something edifying, then I do not think you will find what you need here. And yet, there is value in understanding why.  The author does (deliberately, I would think) pitch the work with some inaccessible verbiage (here the influence of continental writers and the impression of profundity that such language brings is thick), which will place it outside of the interest of many readers, but those who want to understand both apologetics and its critics, I am fairly sure that this is going to become a standard critique that you ought to familiarise yourself with.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Kierkegaard, “Two Ethical-Religious Essays” in Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (ed), The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 341. []
  2. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008, 3rd ed.), 57. []
{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Joseph Dear March 19, 2014, 10:13 am

    Okay, but why don’t you tell us what you really think 😛

  • Mark March 19, 2014, 10:13 am

    Glenn, I have seen several reviews of this book online (at apologetics websites), and this one is easily the best. And in spite of you clearly taking issue with Penner’s treatment of apologists (which mirrors the way “liberals” so often treat evangelicals, with more hostility and less charity than their conservative targets), I think you showed restraint. Kudos!

  • Myron Penner March 21, 2014, 3:32 am

    Hi Glenn. Thanks for taking the time to read my book and write down your thoughts – especially so thoroughly. (Regrettably, I am not going to respond here with corresponding throughness.) While I am not sure you have sufficiently appreciated the essential point of the book (viz. the postmodern turn from which it is written – or better, that it tries to enact), many of your points are insightful and I appreciate the opportunity to rethink what I wrote. I am particularly sensitive to the charge of my being graceless & uncharitable and I hope that it is not true. I am not sure that your saying it makes it so. Other critics have said the opposite (but certainly there are yet others who agree with you). Whatever the case, I certainly do not wish to be unloving or refuse to be graceful and tried very hard to avoid attacking people. But at the same time I am hostile to the modern apologetic project and describe it in stark terms. Sometimes upbuilding is rigorous. It is critical to keep in mind that I am not against arguments or evidence but against a discourse grounded in them and the concommitant view of reason that crowns it with the potency to place us in the truth. I am trying to describe the situation in such a way that that becomes starkly contrasted with an alternative view. So, in that sense, I am not trying to be “fair” but to undercut it and work to discredit it. I don’t find that disingenuous or uncharitable, however jolting or abrasive it may be.

  • Glenn March 21, 2014, 1:27 pm

    Thanks for popping in Myron. I like to find things upon which to agree, so we’ve certainly got that much: We agree that my saying that many of the remarks in the book are uncharitable does not make it so. In fact, I would go further than saying that I am “not sure” that my saying so makes it so. I’m absolutely certain that my saying so doesn’t make it so. 🙂

    For what it’s worth, I think we ought to be fair even to those whose project we are seeking to undermine. Otherwise we simply end up being told by them that what we have undermined is not their project at all, but rather some other project in which they have no interest. As you can tell (but might not agree with me), this is (part of) what I think happened, unfortunately, in this book.

  • Rodney April 1, 2014, 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the review Glenn – it was on my reading list, but now I know I don’t need to read it!

    I have to say that I think you were far too kind in your treatment of the author’s post-modern tendency towards obscurity and failure to get to the point. You likened him to Nietzsche who:

    “… waffles, mumbles, wanders and rambles before getting to the point, so that you’re fed up before he even gets there, thinking “Oh come on just say it!” By the time he has said it, you’ve invested far more effort than the point was worth.”

    And say about Penner’s work itself:

    “the postmodernist may share many of the sentiments here, even if they are not clear on what is being proposed.”

    I have walked away from dialogues with people who insist on treating language and communication with such contempt. I just can’t stand it when people re-define otherwise perfectly understood words (like “violence”) and use what seems like deliberate obfuscation while pretending to have some deep point to make. When that happens – my BS detectors are screaming so loudly that I just can’t concentrate on whatever point they are labouring so hard to make.

    Every reader should be far too busy to give time to an author who cannot communicate their ideas clearly.

    Just an afterthought: It’s ironic that the post-modernist focuses so much on “language” and the difficulties we have in communicating across “linguistic boundaries” and “cultural narratives”. Sometimes I wonder if they are aren’t the very cause of the effect they are trying to describe.

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