A KIERKEGAARDIAN LOOK AT MODERN APOLOGETICS: A Book Review of The End of Apologetics by Myron Penner

The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Myron Bradley Penner. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 180 pp. $16.60. ISBN 978-0-8010-3598-2.

            Christian apologetics, broadly defined, is the defense of the truth of Christianity. In this definition there are three terms that need further elaboration: defense, truth, and Christianity. The vast majority of faithful Christian witnesses throughout the history of the Christian church have understood this definition of Christian apologetics as referring to the demonstration (in action and speech) of the truth (broadly understood as the notion that the truth claims of Christianity, which include claims that can be analysed by the historian, archaeologist, theologian and philosopher, when put to the test will be found to accurately reflect both past history and present reality) of Christianity (the sum total of beliefs that are believed by Christians and which affect their lives, intellects and understanding of the world).

It is no secret that both the basic philosophical assumptions that underlie this demonstration, as well as the ways in which this demonstration is carried out, have changed over the years. If we were to put brackets around the various changes we might generally note the methods and assumptions of the early and medieval church (roughly 33-1400s),[1] the methods and assumptions of the modern era (roughly 1400s-1800s), and, more recently, the methods and assumptions of contemporary Christianity (roughly 1800s-now). It should come as no surprise to realize that the different historical divisions of Christian apologetics match, roughly the historical divisions of philosophy and theology. Man is not an island unto himself, and the great thinkers of Christianity – the great theologians, philosophers and apologists – have influenced and been influenced by the other great thinkers that either preceded them or were their contemporaries. One should always be suspicious of someone who says they are not influenced by anybody other than the scriptures.[2] Myron Bradley Penner, working within this broad historical scheme, has written The End of Apologetics because he is convinced that returning to a pre-modern way of understanding Christianity is untenable, the modern understanding of Christianity is riddled with errors, and, therefore, that if Christians are to continue being true witnesses of Christ in our contemporary world, then we must embrace a post-modern understanding of our world and of Christianity. In this book review I will begin by noting the author’s purpose and basic contention, I will then note how he goes about trying to convince us of the truth of his claims.[3] Finally I will give a brief overview of the relative importance, contingent truth and subjective use of the author’s prophetic appeal.

Myron Penner does not hide the fact that he is primarily influenced by Soren Kierkegaard.[4] What he does not reveal, but which is obvious to the attentive reader, is that he is also heavily influenced by Heidegger and his followers. Penner is a thoroughly existentialist, “post-modern”,[5] thinker, who happens to accept, as true,[6] the claims of Christianity.[7] This book is essentially an attack on modern apologetics.[8] Even the inattentive reader will feel the author’s frustration with the contemporary apologetics enterprise. The overall theme of the book can be summed up as, “how we say or believe something is as important as what we say or believe.”[9] The basic argument of the book is presented in the form of a tri-lemma.[10] Penner certainly agrees with the claim that even today we need to present a defense of the Christian faith. He notes that there are three possible ways of approaching this defense: a pre-modern stance, a modern stance, or some form of post-modern stance. Penner then claims that returning to a pre-modern (pre-1400) understanding is no longer a tenable approach.[11] This would mean that we must either use the Modern approach or the Post-modern approach. Penner begins by noting that he assumes (the truth of?) a post-modern view,[12] and then spends about half of this book attempting to show that the Modern approach is not tenable. According to Penner he will not be presenting arguments, but attempting to show that the modern perspective is untenable by attempting “to make the modern apologetic paradigm look bad by using different metaphors than those it employs and, in a sense, by changing the subject in the hope that I might outflank objections by painting a picture that resonates deeply with Christians.”[13] In other words he wishes to attack the modern view a form of reductio ad absurdum. The author seeks to demonstrate that modern apologetics is based upon a faulty epistemological foundation. On this point I tend to agree with the author that modern epistemology, which can be traced back to René Descartes, and which attempts to found itself on concepts instead of Being, is bankrupt, and causes more problems than solutions. It should be noted, however, that even if modern Christian apologetics has a faulty or weak starting point, this does not mean that all of its claims are therefore false, or that that its attempts to defend the truth of Christianity are ways of denying Christ.[14] Penner proposes that the modern enterprise of apologetics is a fractured conglomeration of pre-modern claims that are held together with the glue and tape of modern epistemological categories. If, as many philosophers and historians of philosophy have been claiming for years, almost all of contemporary philosophical problems can be retraced to Descartes (and perhaps Suarez); and if modern apologetics relies upon the philosophical understanding of this world that was the direct result of Descartes philosophical system; then contemporary apologetics will be in as much trouble as contemporary philosophy. The author’s claim, in light of the above, is that Christians need, therefore, a new way of defending the faith.[15] If the Pre-modern stance and the modern stance are both untenable, then the Post-modern stance is the only stance left. The other half of the book is used to explain how Penner understands the notion of a post-modern witness to Christianity.

The book is divided into an Introduction, 5 chapters and an Epilogue. In chapter 1 Penner attacks the modern apologetics enterprise primarily by attempting to demonstrate that a number of well-known contemporary apologists, and methods,[16] are incoherent in their claims. Chapter 2 is an exposition of Kierkegaard’s view of apologetics, and his distinction between the genius and the apostle. In chapter 3 Penner begins discussing his understanding of what it means to be a Christian witness. Chapters 4 and 5 continue this discussion of Christian witness with an eye to the question of truth and the presentation of truth to others. In chapter 4 Penner revisits contemporary apologetics and attempts to show that it holds a false view of truth. In chapter 5 Penner explains how Christian witness is “political”.[17]

This book a well-written and interesting read. Unfortunately the index is not very helpful for further research, so I would advise that, if one wishes to read this book in order to understand it, the reader notes the pages on which important concepts and claims can be found. The author also brings up a number of important points concerning how Christians should interact with those who disagree with them.[18] The general theme of the book is, “how we say or believe something is as important as what we say or believe.”[19] This is a fair point,[20] and insomuch as he is discussing the importance of lovingly interacting with other as people, not as prey, but as persons, he has a lot to teach the reader. However, that being said, his argument falls prey to two major difficulties: (1) he does not successfully demonstrate that contemporary apologetics, based as it is on modern philosophy, is inherently false, and (2) he simply assumes that the pre-modern stance is untenable. As such his argument, presented in the form of a tri-lemma, fails.

It is my belief that this book sows the seeds of the destruction of the truth of Christianity. The authors’ position that truth is that which edifies, implies that only that which edifies is true. One of the questions that I would ask to such a claim is, how do you determine what truly is edifying, and what is not edifying? Is this determined by the individual person, by a society or culture, by some belief system, by Myron Penner? If we have no way of knowing what it means to edify, then we have no way of determining which beliefs edify and which don’t, and, therefore, no way of knowing which beliefs are true, and which aren’t. If this is the case, then Islam may be true, and Christianity false. Atheism may be true and all other belief systems false. The author takes on so many difficult concepts in this work that one could give an unending list of major difficulties and important questions that his work brings to the mind of the attentive reader. The author of this book would have benefited greatly from extended intentional interaction with Aquinas, and serious interaction with the Question of Being as asked by Aristotle and Aquinas.

I find that, though I enjoyed reading the book, I cannot recommend it to anyone who does not already have a good foundation in Christian philosophy and apologetics. I could see this book as a useful addition in an advanced course on apologetics and post-modern thought.

[1]The modern period is typically said to begin in the 1500s, however, it seems to me that the modern philosophical reformation would not have been possible if it had not been for the philosophical environment of the 1400s.

[2]The reality is, especially since the introduction of public schooling, that every educated person (possessing at least a basic elementary education) has been influenced by the way of thinking of those great thinkers, that either preceded them or were their contemporaries, before they even realized that they were being influenced. Not only that, but if they went to church at a young age, and were taught by a pastor or Sunday school teacher, then their way of understanding the world was influenced by these educated people whose thinking was, in turn, influenced by the great thinkers, that either preceded them or were their contemporaries. Anyone who does not study the history of thought (philosophy and theology) and who has not submitted their own thoughts to critical analysis will be enslaved to the thoughts of those who taught them in their youth, and those who continue to teach them.

[3]The irony of this sentence will be immediately evident to anybody who attentively reads this book.

[4]Myron Bradley Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2013), 13.

[5]Penner defines Post-modern as, “a kind of self-reflexive condition that emerges as modernity becomes conscious or aware of itself as modernity…a condition, or set of attitudes, dispositions, and practices, that is aware of itself as modern and aware that modernity’s claims to rational superiority are deeply problematic. (Ibid., 13.)”

[6]Truth, for Penner, is that which is edifying (Ibid., 140.). “If some piece of communication – whether an argument or a propositional assertion – is not edifying, it is not the truth. (Ibid., 41.)”

[7]According to Penner the truth claims of Christianity are, “second-order, contingent, perspectival truths that do not give us God’s perspective on himself, but nevertheless are normative for us. (Ibid., 123.) Concerning “second-order” truth, see Ibid., 114-115. Such truth is possible, but not necessarily, false. The question that I would ask at this point is, does a “truth claim” that is potentially false, qualify as truth, error or just opinion?

[8]Ibid., 4.

[9]Ibid., 140.

[10]I personally find the logical way in which he presents his arguments somewhat ironic.

[11]Ibid., 8fn19, 73-74. The author does not argue for this claim, nor explain why pre-modernity is no longer tenable. He simply claims that it is untenable.

[12]Ibid., 14.

[13]Ibid., 14-15.

[14]Ibid., 162-163.

[15]Ibid., 12.

[16]He bases his analysis of the methods of apologetics on the book edited by Steven B. Cowan, Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000). He claims that all of the methods presented in these books are essentially modern, even presuppositionalism (Ibid., 36fn37). I would note that presuppositionalism is modern in the same sense that Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and their followers are modern. They are modern in that they accept (in some cases blindly) Kant’s critique of knowledge. In this sense Penner himself is modern. However, in a deeper sense, presuppositionalism, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Penner are all post-modern in that they all accept a hermeneutics of reality, the notion that man’s knowledge of whatever he can know is necessarily influenced by a basic set of unanalysable and untestable beliefs from which he cannot escape. That is, there is no objective (outside position) from which man can analyse or test his “worldview” or “interpretative structure”.

[17]Ibid., 139.

[18]Interestingly enough I found that the author’s way of interacting with some of the great contemporary Christian apologists (such as William Lane Craig, Douglas Groothius, etc.) was inappropriate. The author was constantly claiming that they act out of wrong motivations and intentions. He was constantly complaining that their methods of apologetics demonstrate that they don’t care about the people they are addressing as people, but only about the argument (cf. Ibid., 149-150.). It was my impression that nobody can know the motivations or intentions of another. As such Penners complaints are misplaced and inappropriate.

[19]Ibid., 140.

[20]So long as it be noted that how a person believes x is no guarantee that God will justify them. On the contrary, if x is not the gospel, then regardless of how a person believes x, they will not be saved. Therefore, there is a very important sense in which the theme of the book is, itself, false. How you believe is not nearly as important as what you believe. However, there is sense in which it is true that how you believe x will show whether or not you really believe x. For example, if belief system x claims that one must love their neighbour, and treat them as one would wish to be treated; and if I claim to believe system x; then I should love my neighbour and treat them as I wish to be treated. If I don’t do so, then my actions provide good evidence that I don’t believe system x. Note, what it means to love one’s neighbour, should not be defined by one’s neighbour.

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