This week, I am presenting a paper at the 2021 meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled “‘Something Divine Mingled Among Them’: Care for the Poor and the Parentless as Ecclesial Apologetic in the Second Century.”
For those who are interested, here is the paper and the slideshow:
Here’s the introduction, in case you’re not yet sure if you want to read the entire paper:
Apologetics is in crisis.
Apologetics may even be approaching its demise—or at least that’s what the title of a recent book seems to suggest.
The End of Apologetics were the words that greeted me from the front cover of this particular text. The sentiment probably should have concerned me more than it did. The end of apologetics could seriously complicate my life, after all, since my livelihood depends in part on this discipline for which graveside services are apparently being planned.
As I read this work from philosopher and pastor Myron Bradley Penner, I was relieved to learn that it’s not the entirety of apologetics that is headed down the same driveway as the dodo and the diplodocus. It is only—in Penner’s words—“the Enlightenment project of attempting to establish a rational foundation for Christian belief” that is drawing its final breaths. Apparently, the more appropriate title—The End of Establishing a Rational Foundation for Christianity after the Enlightenment—failed to warm the hearts of the publisher’s marketing team.
According to Penner, no rational common ground remains today on which the Christian and the non-Christian can meet. To seek any rational common ground is to grant that ground to secularity. As a result, apologetics that attempts to mount an argument from any shared rational foundation could be, according to this book, “the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today.”
The use of rational arguments is “a kind of violence,” Penner says, that rips a person’s cognitive commitments out of the larger context of his or her life. Christians cannot correct this crisis simply by using rational arguments within the larger context of a relationship with an unbeliever. The arguments themselves are the problem in a postmodern age because such arguments reduce a person to his or her status of rational belief or unbelief. When an apologist attempts to use a rational argument to convince someone to become a follower of Jesus, the rational form of the apologetic contradicts the relational content of the message. The End of Apologetics sees rational apologetics as an approach which is not embodied in a community, which reduces listeners to their rational commitments, and which unnecessarily separates form and content.
What apologetics should see as its purpose is, according to Penner’s proposal, to interpret society “back to itself theologically in such a way that both the difference between the way of the world and the Christian way of the cross is made clear.” The result would be a uniquely postmodern witness in which the content becomes indistinguishable from the form. A Christian who witnesses in this way declares to the world, “This is the truth I have encountered that has edified me. Take a look at my life, who I am and see if you think that it’s true. And I believe that if you consider your own life and appropriate this truth, you will find it edifying for you too.” Such a witness requires not only an individual but also a community “in which truthful speech is made evident by the quality and character of their practices and life together.” The church’s living testimony to the way of the cross reveals the deficiencies in the way of the world.
What I wish to challenge in this context is not the critique of rational apologetics in The End of Apologetics but the post-epistemological solution that the book presents as the only effective form of witness in a secular age. The effectiveness of the dialogical relationship that Penner proposes as an apologetic could certainly constitute one aspect of an effective witness. Yet this approach is presented as the best possible apologetic in a postmodern age, to the exclusion of all others. In this, The End of Apologetics seems to have traded one reductionism for another. In the same way that certain expressions of rational apologetics might reduce the human person to his or her rational commitments, the apologetics of edification that Penner proposes would seem to reduce the hearer to his or her relational perceptions and experiences, if this method were practiced exclusively.
Furthermore, in Penner’s model of apologetics, the evidence that is recognizable and accessible to those outside of Christ in a secular context seems limited to the work of the Word in the lives and conversations of Christians. This evidence, while certainly not unimportant, leaves little place for history, reason, defenses of Holy Scripture, or arguments from the order of the cosmos—each one of which has, in different times and ways, characterized the church’s apologetic strategies long before the Enlightenment was ever a gleam in any philosopher’s eye. In an attempt to reject the types of rational apologetics that succeeded the Enlightenment, The End of Apologetics ends up abandoning vast tracts of the Christian tradition that flourished prior to the Enlightenment.
The Exit Door You’re Looking For May Be Behind You
All of which brings us to a premodern alternative that The End of Apologetics leaves unconsidered. An examination of premodern Christian apologetics reveals a variety of approaches that address the precise problems that Penner perceives in post-Enlightenment rational apologetics. Many of these approaches were embodied in community and addressed hearers as embodied and relational beings. The End of Apologetics brushes aside any possibility of premodern solutions by merely mentioning that “the material connections that gave rise to modernity testify to the inability of premodern views of the world to sustain themselves.“ However, this casual dismissal of a premodern view of the world does not negate the possibility that some patterns from the premodern church’s witness in hostile cultural contexts might still provide a solution that counteracts the dilemmas raised by the conditions of secularity.
With that in mind, I wish to suggest a possibility for apologetics that’s repeated thousands of times each day on airport runways during pre-flight safety briefings: “Remember, the exit door you’re looking for could be behind you.” The escape from the problems pointed out in The End of Apologetics may not be in front of us in the form of a postmodern apologetic but behind us in the earliest Christian centuries.