A Review of
The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context
Myron Bradley Penner
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2013
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Reviewed by Thomas D. Tatterfield
What is the nature of Christian belief in a postmodern world and how does this change the way Christians bear witness? Myron Bradley Penner proposes that Christians must disavow their allegiance to the “modern apologetic paradigm” (12) in which the apologetic task is primarily performed through participating in “the Enlightenment project of attempting to establish rational foundations for Christian belief” (7). In order to imagine a way forward, Søren Kierkegaard is invited to serve as a guide of sorts, allowing him to both shape a critique of modern apologetics and offer a more fitting approach for Christian witness in our postmodern world (12-3). Kierkegaard, while being an important voice of insight to move the argument forward, is joined by a chorus of philosophers who offer helpful insights along the way.
The initial aim is to expose the fundamental flaws latent in the modern apologetic paradigm by examining the work of William Lane Craig (chapter 1). Drawing on Charles Taylor, Penner reveals the ways in which Craig’s approach has deep roots in our modern “condition of secularity” (26). With Craig’s assumption of a “public sphere” where objective rational discourse can take place and with his reliance upon modern epistemology, it is shown that though Craig claims classical roots, his apologetic method is fundamentally secular in nature (27-9). The role of reason in the modern world has caused what Penner calls an “objective-universal-neutral complex” (OUNCE), leading apologists to see truth as captured in objective propositions accessible to everyone because of the universality of reason (32). If one understands OUNCE then it becomes clear why Craig’s project becomes a form of “secular apologetics” in which modern epistemology must be defended in order to protect Christian truth, which exists in propositional form (32). Modern apologetic reliance upon OUNCE is most evident in its vociferous attacks aimed toward postmodernism (38). To embrace the postmodern critique of modernism would be nothing less than to undermine the nature of Christian truth. It is this model of apologetics Penner is determined to renounce and it is from the very problems inherent within this approach that he seeks to launch a proposal for a postmodern solution.
Penner, in chapter 2, seeks to provide an alternative vision for Christian witness by considering Kierkegaard’s critique of apologetics, which is derived from his distinction between “genius” and “apostle” (49). The modern apologetic method espoused by Craig and other moderns is performable solely by geniuses—those with superior cognitive prowess allowing for the construction of convincing arguments. The problem, Penner observes, is that what counts in any given culture as genius is ultimately determined by popular consensus( 55). Modern apologetics, then, is especially susceptible to ideological control because power and culture influence the standards by which someone is deemed brilliant and therefore labeled a genius. In this approach, not everyone is able to participate in the apologetic task only those who are equipped with the proper arguments and exceptional intelligence can “defend” Christian faith (82). Since the model of “genius” is problematically susceptible to power and turns Christian witness into an elite enterprise achievable for a minority of Christians, Kiergegaard suggests the model of “apostle”. The “apostle” receives their authority not from their superior argumentative abilities and academic stature, but because they bear witness to what they have experienced, being given the task to speak truthfully in their context instead of arguing universal truth in propositional form.