Is Modern Apologetics a Threat to Faith? –  A Preview of Saturday’s Debate

By Julie Roys
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14235“Apologetics itself might be the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today.”  So says Myron Bradley Penner, an Anglican priest and author of “The End of Apologetics:  Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context.”  This is a pretty bold assertion, especially given that apologetics is widely revered in many evangelical circles, as are its top proponents – people like Ravi Zacharias, Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig.  Many, myself included, have found apologetics useful in strengthening our faith.  And, some have come to faith thanks to the work of faithful Christian apologists.

Yet, Penner’s critique is thoughtful and penetrating, and received an Award of Merit by Christianity Today in 2014. His book also is getting a hearing on Christian college campuses, including the Moody Bible Institute where a student recently told me he read the book for a class. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Penner’s premise or conclusions, his arguments are worth consideration. This is why I’ve invited one the main targets of his criticism, William Lane Craig, to join me this Saturday on Up For Debate. As a brief preview, here are some of Penner’s top arguments:

1. Modern apologetics is based on a secular and idolatrous modernist worldview, which makes human reason the final arbiter of what’s true and false.

“I am against apologetics because its modern forms undercut the very gospel it wishes to protect. . . . (W)hen the modern epistemological paradigm treats human reason as the source and ground for truth – as a replacement for a premodern reliance on God and other sources of belief outside oneself – then our most important values, such as God, truth, meaning and even reason itself, are undermined.”

2. Apologetics professionalizes belief, creating the impression that the only people qualified to witness are the experts.

“I wish to replace the professionalization of belief that inevitably occurs in modernity, where the only people qualified to witness, really, are the experts or ‘geniuses’ who are brilliant enough to figure out clever apologetic arguments and strategies that show the epistemic superiority of Christian belief (or the Christian worldview).  Instead, I suggest we change our metaphor or model of the apologist to that of the prophet or apostle who comes to us proclaiming a word they received from a personal encounter with God.”

3. To apologists, truth is objective and something reflected in statements that can be proven or justified. But, truth is often arrived at subjectively and is communicated best when it’s lived out.

“We can never show the light of Christ and the truths that edify us except through our words and actions – and in an important sense these truths do not exist for us, or those to whom we witness, apart from our full testimony.  We will not have the truths that edify us, nor will we be a witness to them, apart from our fully assuming them and living them so that they shape our words and actions. This means that the gospel truth ultimately takes the form of a community that displays the gospel truth and makes it possible to imagine a world in which they exist.” 

4. Apologists commit a kind of rhetorical violence by treating unbelievers as objects “defined by their intellectual positions on Christian doctrine,” rather than relating to them persons.

“I commit this first kind of apologetic violence when I treat those without my faith en masse under a universal category, such as ‘unbeliever,’ so that their individual subjectivity is effectively erased or ignored. . . . (T)his happens in apologetic situations when the primary emphasis is on which propositions or beliefs a person is presently holding and what reasons (or epistemological justification) they have for those beliefs.”

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8 thoughts on “Is Modern Apologetics a Threat to Faith? –  A Preview of Saturday’s Debate”

  1. Great show Julie but It’s still unclear to me whether Mr. Penner’s issues are with Apologetics or with certain individual apologists. Thanks for referencing 2 Cor 10:5. My thoughts exactly.

  2. Julie, the picture you’ve posted is not of the author of “The End of Apologetics” — Myron Bradley Penner, a Canadian theologian who does work in continental theology. The picture you’ve posted is of me, Myron Arthur Penner, a Canadian philosopher who does work in philosophy of religion, science, and epistemology. It’s an understandable mistake, but please remove my picture from the post. Some kind of posted note might be nice too.

    Best,

    Myron A. Penner
    Professor of Philosophy, Trinity Western University
    Langley, BC, Canada

  3. I think God uses different ways to present the Gospel and His Word to various people from all walks of life. I know of some who started second guessing their beliefs by watching these debates between Christian apologists and atheists, and it eventually led them to faith in Christ. If it is Holy Spirit led and God gets all the glory then not sure what the issue might be– as it can be not just apologists who use “violence” to try and “force” someone to believe.

  4. Penner’s argument is Schleiermacher condensed. The essence of his proposal is that religious experience or feeling—not rational reflection before or after that feeling—is what religion IS. Rational description of that experience is valid whether Hindu, Christian, or any other construct is employed to express it. It doesn’t take long to recognize an alien spirit in this approach to the preaching and teaching found in the New Testament.

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