Penner, Myron Bradley. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 180 pp. $19.99.
In this brief two-part series, I will interact extensively with Myron B. Penner’s The End of Apologetics, published in 2013 by Baker Academic. The primary content of these blog posts has previously been published in Philosophia Christi 17.1 (2015): 241-47. In this initial blog essay, I will summarize the primary thrust and arguments in Penner’s book, and in my follow-up I will engage in a spirited critique of his work.
Myron Penner earned his Bachelor and Master’s degrees at Liberty University before completing a Ph.D. at the University of Edinburgh. He has served on faculty at Prairie Bible College (Three Hills, Alberta, Canada), and as an Anglican priest in my hometown, Edmonton, Alberta. Penner currently is pastor of Trinity International Church in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. The End of Apologetics is Penner’s polemic diatribe opposing the modern apologetic enterprise, exemplified (for Penner) most clearly by William Lane Craig. Penner’s overarching thesis is that in our postmodern context, apologetic endeavors mired in the concerns and paradigms of Enlightenment modernity are doomed to failure—indeed, they are a “curse,” and the one who utilizes them “is a second Judas who betrays the Christ.” (9) To replace Craig’s modern apologetics, Penner advocates a post-modern Christian witness that edifies by adhering to an ethic of belief and witness.
The End of Apologetics consists of an introduction and five substantial chapters. Penner’s robust Introduction (‘Against Apologetics’) sets the tone and agenda for the rest of the work. Relying heavily on Kierkegaard’s critique of (for him) contemporary Christianity, Penner insists that, given our postmodern context, a new way forward is needed. He gives a cursory definition of postmodernity “as a kind of self-reflexive condition that emerges as modernity becomes conscious or aware of itself as modernity.” (13) Rather than defending the coherence or benefits of postmodernism, Penner presupposes postmodernism as a starting point to see what happens to Christian apologetics and witness. (14-15)
In Chapter 1 (‘Apologetic Amnesia’), Penner launches his trenchant critique of Craig’s contemporary apologetics. Penner highlights Craig’s distinction between knowing Christianity is true (via the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit) and showing others that Christianity is true (via rational arguments and empirical evidence). Craig’s apologetic goal, Penner says, is combining rational arguments for Christianity with reasonable responses to attacks against Christianity to demonstrate that Christianity is the most plausible worldview one could adopt. Penner then chastises Craig for utilizing an apologetic method that makes sense only to “someone thoroughly immersed in the perspective of modernity.” (26) Penner employs Charles Taylor’s identification of secular modernity to argue that Craig is caught playing within an anti-Christian worldview. Furthermore, Penner argues, Craig is convinced that “being a Christian amounts to giving intellectual assent to specific propositions.” (31, 42) Finally, Craig is not defending the Gospel “or even an aspect of Christian doctrine,” but rather a set of modernist philosophical assumptions. (42) Penner insists that modern apologists have departed drastically from the examples set by “the church’s earliest apologists,” (44) although he unfortunately provides no examples of early apologetics.
Penner proceeds (Chapter 2, ‘Apologetics, Suspicion, and Faith’) to castigate the modern emphasis upon expert testimony, or what Kierkegaard calls ‘the genius.’ The modern genius, Kierkegaard says, “becomes the default authority” who dictates what is and is not reasonable to believe and practice. (50-51) Penner juxtaposes the modern genius/expert with his preferred apostle/prophet, who “appeals not to reason but to revelation.” (51) Among the problems with the genius/expert model is the failure to recognize the finite and fallible nature of human reason; instead, reason is seen to be untarnished and able to obtain objective absolute truth on its own strength. (54-57) Accepting that modern paradigm, Penner says, is “tantamount to conceptual idolatry and methodological blasphemy,” and renders belief in God entirely dispensable. (62) Penner then suggests that we replace modernism’s concern for epistemological justification with a postmodern concern for hermeneutics. (67-68) He notes that Christianity is inherently hermeneutical because of its emphasis on written texts and the textual basis in the revealed Word of God. (71)
In Chapter 3 (‘Irony, Witness, and the Ethics of Belief’), Penner turns his attention to edification. The prophet, Penner insists, receives his message from God and delivers it directly to situated individuals, and emphatically does not “waste a lot of time or energy arguing with their audience about whether their message is rationally justified.” (85) He then states that the prophet’s example shows that it is not merely the content of our message (or beliefs) that matters, but also the manner of delivery. (87) Hence, an ethics of belief (contrary to modernist apologetics) focuses upon how we live, not what we believe. Penner then ties in Rorty’s notion of irony, noting that language is incapable of describing reality truly. (96-97) The postmodernist therefore turns from the pursuit of ‘objective’ truth to ‘edifying’ speech, which shares what has been found to be true in one’s own life and seeks to build others up by sharing that subjectively-appropriated truth. (97-99) Hence, Christian witness is not argumentative in form, but rather confessional. (100-03)
Penner turns his attention in Chapter 4 to the nature of truth and its place in apologetics and witness (‘Witness and Truth’). His goal: “I now wish to redescribe truth by changing metaphors from ‘correspondence’ to edification.” (110) According to Penner, the notion of truth as correspondence is a modernist compromise, caving into secular anti-Christian epistemology. As such, a turn to edification helps reclaim the proper Christian understanding of truth. Penner insists that the move to edification is not a total abandonment of objective truth: instead, he redefines objective truth as the communal, shared aspect of individual edification. (110-11) His primary desire is to move beyond the modernist infatuation with an unobtainable metaphysical truth. (113-15) Penner suggests that Christian witness (and apologetics) be understood via the analogy of attestation rather than argumentation. (124) That attestation, in turn, has more to do with our lives than with the truth-claims we profess. (125-26)
In his final chapter (Chapter 5, ‘The Politics of Witness’), Penner seeks to tie everything together by advocating a new ethics of witness that eschews modernist argumentation (which he pejoratively calls coercion) in favor of non-rational appeal. (143-44) First, Penner connects colonial oppression and exploitation to Christian apologetics (137-38), although he never explains or defends that assertion. Second, he insists that any communicative act that is not edifying cannot be (or convey) the truth. (140-41) That leads to his stark dichotomy between coercion and appeal. In a rare invocation of Scripture, Penner utilizes 1 Corinthians to insist that Paul never seeks to rationally compel Christian belief, nor stresses his own superiority or authority; rather, he identifies himself with his readers and appeals to them as brothers and sisters. (146-47) At this point, I found myself asking whether Penner has read all of Paul! Second Corinthians 10-12 is traditionally understood as Paul’s adamant defense of his apostolic authority. Paul’s apologetic example throughout the book of Acts clearly exemplifies a reasoning ministry that, while not coercive, is certainly intended to be persuasive in bringing about recognition of the truthfulness of Christianity and, ideally, conversion to the faith. As one example, in Acts 17:2-3, Paul “reasons” with a Jewish audience, “explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” Penner notes that apologetic discourse can be guilty of rhetorical violence by being indifferent to the dialogue partner as an individual subject. (148) He returns to his emphasis on edification, charging that Christian witness (including apologetics) is done in agape love, and accordingly can only build up, never tear down. (154-55) In closing, he notes that his edifying notion of truth may cause considerable consternation, upheaval, and even trauma (168), but nonetheless provides the only promising way forward “with the hope and the means to confess the truth of Jesus as Lord faithfully in these postmodern times.” (171)
In a second post this week, I will critically analyze much of the content of The End of Apologetics. Stay tuned!