By Dave Dentel
If you’ve recently considered taking a closer look at Christian apologetics, and you’re browsing for a book to inspire your studies, I’ve got just the title to avoid.
First, a caveat. As a critique of certain methods of contemporary Christian witness, Myron Bradley Penner’s The End of Apologetics offers much that is worth thinking about. If you can wade through its excessively scholarly verbiage.
I found the book listed as recommended reading on a university website. I was exploring a degree program, and I hoped that by perusing a clear and joyful defense of the gospel I would get over my shock at the price of tuition and find the courage to apply as a student.
That didn’t happen.
Will the Real Truth Please Stand Up?
Penner’s work failed to stoke ardor for joining those seeking to craft a better argument in favor of Christianity because that is its intent. Writing from the perspective of a self-avowed post-modernist, Penner insists that modern apologists haven’t just failed to uncover the undeniable truths they so covet, but that the techniques they use harm people and undermine faith.
The author’s primary criticism rests on a philosophical position that is not easy to understand. As a post-modernist, he argues that truth is not some external thing to be identified, claimed, and then imposed on others. He says truth is more like a way of living, something that shapes us as we explore what it means for our lives. He goes on to state that this exploration of truth cannot come to fruition unless it is conducted within a community, which for Christians is the church.
As such, he makes good points that followers of Christ should take to heart. Our witness should not be based merely on devising logical treatises or finding ironclad facts with which we can browbeat nonbelievers into assenting to the gospel. Instead, Penner urges us to employ what he calls prophetic witness, which combines scripture, personal testimony, and regard for the perspectives of others.
He writes: “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.”
Penner says that most of all, Christian witness should be edifying. It should be spoken in love and always meant to build up, not tear down.
Critiquing the Critic
But here’s where his exhortations begin to collapse on themselves. Because his book is no mere academic exercise, nor is it a collection of friendly suggestions.
Penner is so incensed by modern apologists—their quest for objectivity and alleged disdain for dissenting perspectives—that he accuses them of violence and idolatry.
He claims that apologists commit hubris by posing as experts, by invoking reason instead of God’s word, and by leveraging the power of mass media to battle rhetorically with their opponents.
“And when Christians engage in these debates or ‘defenses’ of the faith,” Penner asks, “do they not risk relegating Christian belief to the level of a consumer product that is bought and sold?”
Maybe. But here’s the problem. In this critique, as with his other objections, Penner’s commitment to a particular intellectual position not only blinds him to truths that should be obvious, but it puts him in league with those he chastises.
Penner rails against apologists for setting themselves up as experts, for example. But he doesn’t mind puffing up his own scholarly credentials by repeatedly citing intellectual bigwigs such as Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche—thinkers who, I might add, were decidedly anti-Christian.
The author also fails to see the irony in accusing others of tainting the gospel by employing the media and other modern tools of opinion making—while putting forward his own best argument in a book intended for mass distribution.
As for Penner’s view of what constitutes truth, he is on to something when he echoes the apostle Paul by declaring that in this life our understanding is limited, that “we know in part.”
And though he agrees that reason is useful and that objective knowledge can be obtained in our current reality (at least to a degree that he is reticent to specify), he refuses to regard logic or science as proper tools for helping people get closer to God.
This is a pity. Enemies of faith show no reluctance to wield these methods for knowing as weapons in their battle against belief—and for advancing policies aimed at silencing theists.
It stands to reason that Christians should be free to employ these same methods to reclaim truth and point others to its ultimate source—the God of the Bible.