Penner, Myron Bradley. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 180 pp. $19.99.
In my last blog post, I summarized the primary arguments of Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics, a polemic diatribe opposing the modern apologetic enterprise. 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. Having outlined the contours of his book, I would like, in this post, to engage in a spirited critique of his thought, method, and means.
The End of Apologetics is among the most challenging, perplexing, and frustrating books that I have read in recent memory. While there are helpful elements to Penner’s treatise (e.g., the emphasis on person-relative sensitivity in apologetic conversation; the importance of how, not just what, we believe, share, and proclaim), the positives are greatly outweighed by the negatives.In the remainder of this review, I will briefly lay out seven minor critiques, then spend more time on two major problems.
First, Penner promises to show a new way forward in apologetics, but fails to fulfill that vow. Instead, he castigates and rejects contemporary apologetic models, and replaces them with ‘witness’ and ‘confession.’ Second, Penner’s presentation of postmodernity (14-15) is unhelpful. On the one hand, Penner never outlines what he presumes postmodernism to be. On the other hand, while he attacks Craig et al for unwittingly buying into an anti-Christian modernist paradigm of rationality, he seems blind to the unedifying impact that atheistic postmodern thinkers (e.g., Richard Rorty and Jacques Derrida, who both show up positively throughout the work) have had upon himself. Third, and along the same lines, Penner’s rejection of the correspondence theory of truth smacks of postmodern relativism (despite his protestations to the contrary); while he seeks to preserve a nation of objectivity in truth, he manages to do so only by redefinition—his objectivity is merely a social (or cultural) relativism, not anything that resembles the external world.
Fourth, The End of Apologetics is riddled with inaccurate, unnecessary, and mean-spirited potshots against the “apologetics industry.” (65) He regularly accuses contemporary apologists of engaging in their ministry motivated (in part at least) by financial gain and worldly acclaim. (8, 64-65) I am unsure how these attacks contribute to his goal of edification; I am also confident that Penner would be rightfully insulted if someone accused him of writing multiple books promoting a postmodern turn out of financial greed or the desire to build an industry. Fifth, Penner makes unsupported and unsustainable accusations against apologists like Craig. For example, he baldly asserts that “conservatives and liberals alike end up revising Christian faith quite dramatically.” (34, fn. 32) Nowhere, however, does he support that argument explicitly; implicitly, the accusation (against conservatives like Craig) seems to be that they redefine Christianity such that “being a Christian amounts to giving intellectual assent to specific propositions.” (31) If that is the accusation, however, then it appears to be entirely unsustainable given the body of Craig’s apologetic and theological work. Furthermore, he asserts that Craig has reason stand in judgment over Scripture, whereas Craig explicitly argues to the contrary. In the passage of Reasonable Faith that Penner interacts with, Craig emphatically rejects the magisterial use of reason, in which “reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence.” In its place, Craig urges a ministerial place for rationality, “when reason submits to and serves the gospel.” Further, “Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding.” (See Craig, Reasonable Faith, 48.)
Sixth, Penner’s point with edification probably backfires on him. If edification can only build up (as he insists in Chapter 2), then when Penner’s own words in this book come across to readers like me in an attacking, tearing down, or offensive manner, by his own admission Penner could therefore not be communicating truth. Elsewhere, Penner is very ambivalent about the nature of speech and edification, sometimes suggesting that prophetic speech can rebuke, and in the conclusion pointing out that truth, even edifying truth, can be traumatic. If we accept that claim, then all that Penner says in Chapters 2 and 3 is undone—modern apologetics can be edifying (that is, concerned for the well-being of the other) even when the dialogue partner does not receive or interpret such speech as edifying for them. Penner is caught in a dilemma: either modern apologists can speak truthfully in ways that might not be positively received, or else Penner himself cannot be speaking truthfully in The End of Apologetics given the harshness of his critique, and the admittedly negative way that many of his words will be received. Seventh, Penner mischaracterizes contemporary apologetics, and is ambivalent about what he calls “apologetics simpliciter.” (7) The apologetics he opposes is “the Enlightenment project of attempting to establish rational foundations for Christian belief,” (7) while he claims that apologetics simpliciter [which he professes to support and practice] is “to defend Christian faith from specific charges of ‘falsehood, inconsistency, or credulity.’” (7, fn. 17) But today, a chief charge against Christianity’s “credibility” is precisely that it lacks rational foundations. Thus, it would seem, by Penner’s own standards, what he castigates as ‘modernist apologetics’ is actually apologetics simpliciter. Beneath that surface, however, it seems that Penner does not embrace apologetics simpliciter either—there is nothing in The End of Apologetics that interacts positively or approvingly with any apologetic example in any age.
This final critique leads to one of my major difficulties with The End of Apologetics. Penner entirely fails to address biblical, ante-Nicene, and medieval apologetics. In fact, there are startlingly few biblical references at all, and no interaction with what are often considered to be key apologetic texts (e.g., 1 Pet 3; Acts 14, 17, 22, 26; 1 Cor 15). At several points, I found myself responding to Penner’s arguments and assertions: “What about Paul?” For example, Penner insists that Craig’s apologetic paradigm, with its focus on demonstrating “the truth of my Christian faith to the unbelieving world” (24) in such a way that Christianity is “the most plausible worldview a sufficiently informed, normal adult can adopt,” (25) can only be adopted “by someone thoroughly immersed in the perspective of modernity.” (26) The Apostle Paul, however, seemed to be thoroughly concerned with both aspects (see, e.g., Acts 14, 17, 22, and 26), as did early apologists like Justin Martyr and Origen.
Penner rhetorically asks whether an apostle, having heard God speak, would “bother to make clever arguments” or “feel the need to show Christianity is true in an objective, rational way?” (81) Again, my response is to wish that Penner would read Paul, or a work like Copan and Litwak’s The Gospel in the Marketplace of Ideas (IVP, 2014), which interacts extensively with Paul’s Mars Hill address in Acts 17:16-34 to show how Paul constructs an exquisite rhetorical argument that meets Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on their own turf. The bottom line, in my estimation, is that contemporary apologists like Craig build their paradigms for apologetic encounters and dialogue upon the biblical mandate and the examples of Jesus, Paul, and early church fathers. I was, frankly, disappointed with Penner’s failure to interact with the biblical texts that modern apologists identify as central to their task and goals.
It also seems that Penner’s genius/expert objection against modern apologists either fails or backfires. Penner invokes Kierkegaard’s identification of geniuses, and suggests that modern apologetics depends upon having identified “experts” who serve as authorities for “our beliefs and practices.” (49) Penner encourages us to rely on apostles instead, who receive words directly from God. (51-52) Looking through church history, however, we see the regular appearance of giants of the faith who served as philosophical and/or theological authorities for the church (e.g., Clement, Ignatius, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, etc). Penner suggests that Craig et al set themselves up as ‘geniuses’ that laypeople must hearken to; but it seems to me that their key desire is really to educate and equip laypeople to do apologetic ministry themselves, and not to continue relying on the ‘apologetic experts.’ In The End of Apologetics, Penner interacts extensively with Paul Ricouer, Alasdair MacIntyre, Kierkegaard, Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, Charles Taylor, Gabriel Marcel, and Merold Westphal (among others). Each is a challenging read, and the layperson is dependent upon Penner’s reading and interpretation. Penner can easily be accused of ‘setting himself up’ as an expert in the area of applying their insights to faithful Christian witness in a postmodern era. For that matter, I suspect Penner has no problem trusting (at least generally) the expertise/genius of the medical doctors who treat him and the engineers who design and build bridges, elevators, etc. In short, appeals to authority or expertise (or even genius) are inevitable, even in the realm of philosophical theology.
In closing, while Penner’s work contains helpful analyses of several modern and postmodern thinkers and enunciates the antipathy that many have towards apologetics, The End of Apologetics is unfortunately riddled with conceptual and factual problems both large and small. His misunderstanding of contemporary apologetic ministries, combined with his apparent neglect of biblical and historical apologetics, severely mar his treatise. Our age does need a faithful Christian witness, but Penner fails to provide it.