Myron B. Penner, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, June, 2013. 192 pp. Paperback, $19.99
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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!
Myron Penner is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Edmonton, Alberta. 1 He has previously taught at Prairie College and Graduate School as well as editing Christianity and The Postmodern Turn: Six Views. 2
In the End of Apologetics, Penner is writing in order to effect a paradigm shift in how we approach apologetics. Rather than strictly calling for an end to apologetics across the board, he is hoping for an end to a certain approach to apologetics that (to him) doesn’t seem to work in the postmodern context we find ourselves in.
In the conclusion to his introduction, Penner says,
I am writing this book from the vantage point of a member of the Christian community – the church – and I write it for my own edification as well as that of the church catholic. This is therapy as well as theory. I trust it will be obvious that, while I am engaging in a polemic against a certain form of Christian apologetic discourse, my ultimate goal is to open a pathway for faithful witness, not to close down its possibility. As Jacques Derrida noted that his deconstructive project was a labor of love, so too this book is written to build up, not (just) tear down. My hope is the exhortative function of this book will speak also to those who profess no faith – a word of woe to (some of) those within the church, and a word of witness to those outside it (19).
As readers will see in the first chapter, the particular form of Christian apologetics is so-called “classical apologetics” and the figure who is the point of departure is William Lane Craig. Since Penner has accepted much of the postmodern critique of the modern epistemological framework, he doesn’t want to see Christian apologetics held captive to this way of thinking:
The degree to which contemporary apologetics (and apologists) share this aim of modern thought and attempt to make Christian beliefs rationally warranted (or justified) according to the modern project in terms of OUNCE [“objective-universal-neutral-complex” Penner’s shorthand for the modern philosophical paradigm], is the same degree to which they are a version of secular apologetics. I use the term “secular apologetics” for this kind of project because this sort of apologetics does not need to appeal to a higher transcendent ground for Christian truths and instead justifies them exclusively in immanent human reason. This is, in other words, exactly the kind of reason-giving practice one would expect to find in the modern secular condition (36).
Penner goes on to explain in the second chapter that he thinks this approach to apologetics “subtly undermines the very gospel it seeks to defend and does not offer use a good alternative to the skepticism and ultimate meaninglessness of the modern secular condition” (49). It is here in this chapter that Kierkegaard starts making regular appearances as a conversation partner. Particularly here he is invoked to clarify the distinction between a genius and an apostle (the former being bad, the latter of course being good). We are tempted by the modern philosophical paradigm to approach the apologetic enterprise as “geniuses” with all the answers, instead of being apostles who are sent with a message and are merely the messenger. Along this line of thinking, Penner suggests that “Christianity, then, is much more a way or an invitation to live (walk, grow) in the truth than it is a doctrine or set of beliefs (a position) whose truth we can grasp and cognitively master, as the modern apologetic paradigm seems to imply” (66). As he then concludes, “I am against the apologetic culture of experts that is funded by the modern secular condition, with its assumption that genius is the highest authority for belief and the reasonability of a belief – and my ability to demonstrate it – is the only thing that makes something worthy of my acceptance” (72).
In chapter 3, Penners turns from deconstructing the genius approach to reconstructing an apostle’s approach. Here, he wants to place edification at the center of inquiry, rather than reason giving or arguments. Edification, in Penner’s estimation, is of fundamental importance to the apologetic enterprise. Given that, you can see how he wouldn’t be keen on debates and the typical apologetic encounters. As he puts it,
If our approach to Christian belief is not to remain lost in epistemological abstraction and objectivity, and if we are to find a prophetic model of witness that will be able to come forth as edification – as a spiritual activity that is itself an expression of faith – then our account of Christian belief will need to be couched in terms of an ethics of belief and not just an epistemology (91).
From here, he introduces the role that irony plays in apologetics. Penner wants irony introduced as a way of exploiting the discrepancy between the agreed rules for rational discourse and how things really are (92). When used prophetically (as in how the prophets used it), it can be a way forward for us in a postmodern context to embody the Word that we announce (101). Ultimately, Penner would like the focus to be on the ethics of belief rather than the epistemology of belief.
In chapter 4, Penner continues his case that witness to the truth as something edifies you entails recommending it to someone else a potentially true or edifying for them as well (111). The main focus of this chapter is reframing our understanding of “truth after metaphysics.” In other words, how to think of truth without objectifying it. His goal in the chapter is to “redescribe truth from the perspective of subjectivity so that it is immune from the charge of arbitrariness, relativism, or denial of objectivity (or what passes for that)” (129). Penner wants to actual have both together, that is a chastened approach to objectivity that is sensitive to the subjective nature of knowing.
In chapter 5, he moves on the politics of witness, which he sees as more appeal and less coercion. He wants apologetics to be “person-preserving” rather than running roughshod over others in the pursuit of “victory,” and so commit “apologetic violence.” Throughout this chapter, the focus is on how to actually pursue apologetics given the qualifications he has spent the book nuancing. As he finally concludes,
My aim in this book is to place us in a position to acknowledge the topsy-turvy fragmentation of our (post)modern world that has gone down the rabbit hole with Alice, without trying to deny or suppress the unsettling nature of our contemporary situation. I think it can be shown that it is a fundamental mistake for us, at this juncture, to carry forward the modern paradigm and mount a damage control operation that attempts to make sense of and control the chaos by reconstructing Christian belief in terms amenable to the modern epistemological project (171).
A major strength of Penner’s book is his clarity of writing. He is dealing with complex subjects and does so in a very accessible way. Another is his clear love for apologetics, and spreading the truth of Christ in a way that is person-affirming. You can see that like Derrida, his is a labor of love. Finally, he provides concise critiques of some of the excesses of modernity, and to the extent that Christians have bought into them and/or wedded them to their apologetic approach, Penner’s book provides a good corrective. In some ways, I’m sympathetic to his project, since a major motivational factor is to actually make apologetics more effective, rather than eradicate it. But, sympathetic though I am, there are a few weaknesses worth noting.
First, though Penner uses Craig’s entry in the Counterpoints Five Views on Apologetics, he seems wholly unaware of the presuppositional approach, much less practitioners like Van Til, Bahnsen, or Frame (not to mention Edgar, or Oliphint). Van Til was critique modernity before postmodernity was even around, so many of the critiques leveled against Craig’s approach wouldn’t fly when dealing with presuppositional or covenantal apologetics. I think it is a better way forward in the postmodern context, and Penner’s work would have been stronger had he interacted with this approach at all, either to critique it from his vantage point, or distinguish how his approach is different/better.
Second, without being simplistic, I think Penner’s approach is self-defeating. I have a hard time not seeing Penner writing a book full of epistemological arguments to be doing some of the very thing he says not to do. In his apologetic for a certain type of apologetics, Penner doesn’t follow his own advice, and really couldn’t given the nature of book writing. While I think much of his advice for actually doing apologetics can be helpful (and even imported into a different epistemological framework), the act of encapsulating his arguments into a book is seems to undercut his consistent application of his own approach to knowledge, argumentation, and apologetics. I doubt Penner would agree with this assessment, but I also don’t think he is fully broken out of the modernist framework he is trying to encourage others to break out of.
Though I enjoyed this book, I don’t know how much an impact it will ultimately have on me. Had I been a sold-out disciple to Craig’s Classical Apologetics, this book might have produced more cognitive dissonance on my end. As it is, I found myself saying, “Yes, but..” a lot as I read. I like much of what Penner said, and am sympathetic with his motivations, but ultimately, I don’t find his solution convincing. His diagnosis didn’t take full account of the different ways to approach apologetics without capitulating to the modernist project and his own attempt to move forward didn’t quite break free either. In the end, postmodernism is something all Christians need to reckon with, especially when it comes to apologetics. Penner’s book provides some insights, and is especially helpful when it comes to apologetics on a personal level that is sensitive to the existential issues involved. Put into a different epistemological framework, one that is neither modern nor postmodern, but rather covenantal, his wisdom will get the most mileage in actual apologetic encounters.