Is Christian Apologetics Secular and Unbiblical? An interview with Myron Penner

Is Christian Apologetics Secular and Unbiblical? An interview with Myron Penner June 10, 2013

Today’s post is an interview with Myron Penner (PhD, University of Edinburgh), author of the upcoming The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context, slated to be released July 1.

Penner is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Edmonton, Alberta. He previously taught at Prairie College and Graduate School and served as a human development worker. He is the editor of Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views and coauthor of A New Kind of Conversation: Blogging Toward a Postmodern Faith.

Penner’s thesis is thoughtful and provocative. He argues that the modern apologetic enterprise is no longer valid, in that tends toward an unbiblical and unchristian form of Christian witness and does not have the ability to attest truthfully to Christ in our postmodern context. Christians to need change their well-entrenched but ineffective vocabulary and move toward a new way of conceiving the apologetic task, characterized by love and grounded in God’s revelation. (See fuller description on the publisher’s website.)

Q: To begin with, what sort of book is this and why did you write it?

I adopt what I call a “postmodern” perspective in this book, which I realize is a bit of a contentious place to start. But I mean something very specific by that. By postmodern I mean the awareness of the contingency or the problematic nature of the so-called modern project.

Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-55

And I wrote the book because that’s where I am at. I no longer see how modern apologetics (and by that I mean the attempt to give reasons for Christian belief that are objective, universal, and neutral) is really all that helpful – for me or anyone else.

It began for me when I came across Søren Kierkegaard’s statement that whoever came up with the idea of defending Christianity in modernity is a second Judas who betrays the Christ under the guise of a friendly kiss; only, he adds, the apologist’s treachery (unlike Judas’s) is “the treason of stupidity.” At first this shocked and fascinated me. I wanted to try to understand what Kierkegaard meant by that, because it somehow sounded right to me. So I wrote the book.

Q: What would you say is the conceptual core of your book?

The key to my book lies in my assertion that modern reason – which I describe as objective, universal, and neutral – is something distinct from other conceptions of reason. It, therefore, is just one way of thinking about human reason, not the way. It is also a secular way to understand reason because we imagine it to be immune or separable from faith.

We usually just assume that what we believe counts as a good reason to believe something is natural, obvious, and the only way to think about it. But I find that assumption mistaken and deeply problematic. And ultimately, I believe that this way of thinking about reason is not the best way to be faithful to biblical faith. So I suggest that it is time to change paradigms.

I am therefore against apologetics insofar as it suggests – explicitly or implicitly – that what makes Christianity believable or worthy of our belief is that it is somehow grounded in human rational capabilities. There are all sorts of problems that come when we try to ground anything – but especially the Gospel – in the modern form of reason. And I try to spell out some of those problems in the book.

Q: When do you mean by saying you are against apologetics?

It all hinges on Kierkegaard’s distinction between a genius and an apostle. Kierkegaard sees quite clearly that the modern form of authority for belief derives from genius – or what we might call “experts,” leaders in their fields. We believe what they tell us to believe because they know more than the rest of us they are more brilliant, intelligent, rational, insightful, etc.

Kierkegaard contrasts this with the Christian source of belief which comes from apostles, who differ from genius in that they do not ground their authority in their own talents or merits. Their message comes from God so the reasons they give are grounded differently than those of the genius.

We believe the Christian message is true, Kierkegaard says, not because it is brilliant or rationally grounded (in the modern sense), but because it is true, it comes from God. So I am really against the entire modern epistemological paradigm that produces modern apologetics, because it attempts to ground faith in genius or secular reason. The problem with modern apologetics is that, because it operates from the same (secular) grounds as modernity, it offers no real solution to modern issues.

Q: So, is apologetics always bad? Some people (e.g., university students) seem to be helped by apologetics when they go through periods of doubt. Can’t apologetics be used to bolster people’s faith? What would you say to someone who said that apologetics has really helped them in their Christian life?

No, I am against a specific way of thinking about faith – and really an entire way of imagining the world, including God, ourselves, and other people – not the act of responding to specific questions about Christian belief or practice. So I am not against what might be called “mere apologetics.”

I am not a fideist who thinks Christian belief negates or is against human reason, or that faith is opposed to any critical reflection on its beliefs whatsoever. I object to an exclusive emphasis on the modern form of reason because it empties faith of its Christian content and robs it of its authority. In this way Kierkegaard’s genius/apostle distinction suggests modern apologetics is itself a symptom of the nihilism (or meaninglessness) that is at the core of modern thought.

Modern apologetics is part of the modern paradigm. Thus, modern apologetics does nothing to help us cope with modern spiritual problems – it just perpetuates them.

So, if someone tells me they have been helped in their Christian life by apologetics, I say, “Wonderful!” But I would just like them to be very careful to distinguish this being helped by modern apologetics from it telling us the truth about God or ourselves or faith. I don’t think it necessarily does.

Q: But the discourse of Christian apologetics has a rich history prior to modernity, dating back to St. Paul in the New Testament and Justyn Martyr in the 2nd century, and running all the way up to St. Anselm (12th century) and St. Thomas (13th century). Are you saying that Christian apologists got it wrong through the centuries?


No, I am not against all apologetic discourse – just the kind that tries to imagine the foundations of Christian belief in terms of modern epistemology. As I suggested above, we continually forget or ignore or suppress the fact that the way we see the world and our assumptions about human reason and the way it relates to faith is just one way to think about those things.

Ancient and medieval Christian apologists thought of the world and God and human reason in very different ways than we do. They literally could not imagine that our reasons for believing things conform to the dictates of modern secular reason. When, for example, medieval theologians engage in “natural theology” (arguments for God’s existence) they do so from within a specific set of assumptions, practices, and beliefs of a community of faith.

Q: In the book, you talk about “apologetic violence.” What do you mean by that?

Well, two things, really. First, apologetic violence happens at the personal level when apologetic arguments are used to treat people badly. Arguments don’t just “prove.” They may perform a wide variety of functions and can be used to do a lot more than advance a conclusion. When they are used to demean, ridicule, show-up, or hurt another person in any way, I call that a form of violence.

Second, apologetic violence can also happen at the social level when Christian apologetic practice merely reinforces and defends a given set of power relations operative within an unjust social structure. We then overlook real people and proclaim to them the “truths” of the gospel packaged in “universal” concepts and categories (as well as practices) to which they cannot relate in any personal way and which have often played some role in their mistreatment or exploitation.

An apologetic argument for Christian truths in those situations will be received as an implicit justification for the wrong that has been done the established powers. This is perhaps an even more insidious form of apologetic violence because it is generally invisible. It permeates our everyday practices and beliefs, and lurks just below the surface.

The point I want to make about apologetic violence is that when it happens at one or both of the above levels, then it is not the Gospel that is being defended or advanced.

Q:  Explain what you mean in your last chapter about “The Politics of Witness.” 

Following up on the second kind of apologetic violence – the social kind – it becomes possible to see how Christian witness (and apologetics) is also political.

The kind of politics operative here is what I call a deep politics, however, for I am not talking about leveraging power within some structure of governance. I am speaking at a more profound level of the relations that exist between persons that constitute them as a people—the level at which values and purposes give rise to explicit political structures that govern the relations between persons and how they conduct their common life together. Deep politics concerns public power and power relations between private persons.

So when I say the Christian witness is political, I mean the concern about ideological or systemic apologetic violence connects Christian witness to the issues of deep politics. Against modern apologetics, a postmodern prophetic witness acknowledges that there is no space outside political power in which we can persuade people. The deep politics of modernity allows modern apologetics to imagine itself as operating apolitically, as dealing only with the rational justifications.


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  • “The key to my book lies in my assertion that modern reason – which I describe as objective, universal, and neutral – is something distinct from other conceptions of reason. . . . I am therefore against apologetics insofar as it suggests – explicitly or implicitly – that what makes Christianity believable or worthy of our belief is that it is somehow grounded in human rational capabilities.” It seems Penner is rejecting classical or evidential apologetics here. I’m not sure that he is also against presuppositionalism.

    • pennerm

      While the acknowledgment of the crucial role of presuppositions in human thought makes it much closer to the kind of view I describe in the book, it’s not quite what I am after. By my account, presuppositional apologetics—particularly Francis Schaeffer’s—is thoroughly modern so far as it continues the modern preoccupation with epistemology.

  • Sam Smeaton

    Am I missing something here? Would Penner argue that we shouldn’t engage the claims of modern-anti theism on the grounds that doing so would be “secular”?

    I don’t see the justification for asserting that modern reason “robs” Christianity of authority and content. How? How does showing the reasonable grounds for belief in God and the Resurrection of Jesus empty faith of it’s content? Anybody want to clarify this for me? I guess I need to read the book.

    • pennerm

      his sam. your question is, as you intuit, an important part of the argument of the book.

      • Sam Smeaton

        Yeah, and I am one of those people who had serious struggles with his faith, and was brought to a lot of joy upon concluding that there are very valid reasons to believe in the Resurrection and the Existence of God. MAny of these arguments are rather old, though, from Augustine, to Aquinas, to Anselm. Are their cases for God’s existence in the category that you find problematic?

        • pennerm

          some of the arguments are better than others – they all have a relative rhetorical merit and could be part of a Christian witness as i understand it. my biggest issue is with the theoretical status of the arguments of natural theology – why we make them, what we think they accomplish for us, and in which contexts we deploy them. i tend to think of the pieces of reasoning that we call “natural theology” more like grammatical comments about how Christians think about the world – they are pieces of Christian reasoning that show us how the world makes Christian sense. so i don’t really see them as making “a case,” if by that we mean their primary value is to be rationally coercive to all-comers. that is precisely the way of thinking about apologetic arguments i’d like to move away from.

          • OrthoRocksDude

            “rationally coercive”? When is presenting a convincing argument acceptable then? Should a Christian never present an argument for Christianity?

            From all the atheists and agnostics that have positive things to say about William Lane Craig, I doubt they would call him “rationally coercive.”

    • In my opinion, anti-theism should be attacked via its own premises, and shown to be of no more rigor than belief in Jesus when using its epistemology. Instead of strengthening the idea of belief—which is the most common tactic in apologetics—I think we must show empiricism to be founded on much weaker ground than its proponents claim.

      Briefly, philosophers tried to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless statements with a ‘demarcation criterion’, such that religious-talk could be forever dismissed. This failed miserably. The best that atheist evangelists do is say that science should be trusted because it works. That is their most sure footing: “it works”. Belief in Christ can be shown to “work”, and therefore be just as tenable as science under their epistemology.

      Of course, we believe that there can be stronger basis than “it works”. That’s fine. What the empiricist has really done is just weaken all belief—he/she has simply made every statement ‘tentative’. Ultimately, I see this change as irrelevant, because it doesn’t allow the empiricist to claim higher ground. Merely arguing that there is a higher ground (God) is something often done in apologetics, but I think that working with your opponents’ presuppositions can often be more powerful.

      • plectrophenax

        This is roughly the place I got to. Science does not claim to describe reality; as you say, it works. Fine. Then religion also works, but in a different way. I’m not sure there is any way of describing reality that is not a guess, but then we are all equal!

  • copyrightman

    Excellent. Sounds similar to this recent title, which is quite good:

  • Rick

    While the type of apologetics he criticizes might not be effective for some people, it still may work for others, and the one doing apologetics needs to be able to determine what is best for his/her audience.

  • Craig Vick

    Most of the prominent post modernist philosophers don’t like the term ‘post modernist’. This is, perhaps in part, an aversion to labels, but for some, like Derrida, it’s because they want to highlight both a continuity and a discontinuity with modernity. In that light, where might you see a continuity between what apologetics should be and the modern project?

    • pennerm

      good question, craig. sorry i neglected to respond earlier. i don’t really like the term “postmodernist” either, but it signals for me an awareness of the problems attached to the modern project while not appealing to some sort of premodern worldview.

      anyway, as to your question: in the book i note that there’s (for me, at least) no getting around modernity – we have to acknowledge and cope with it. the problems of modernity – which are partly philosophical, but mostly connected to our practices and forms of life – are those which we need to deal with. the deepest issue connected to this is the incipient nihilism or deep sense of meaningless that characterizes our modern forms of life and the disconnectedness we experience from the world, others, God, and even ourselves and our own bodies. in the book i identify one of the key problems with modern apologetics as its inability to cope with this issue.

      i don’t know if this is what you’re getting at. did i answer your question?

      • Craig Vick

        Thanks Dr. Penner, Your answer is better formed than my question. I’m anxious to read your book. I like that you don’t turn the ‘disconnectedness we experience’ into a weapon along the lines of “See, Christianity is true because without it we’re alienated and disconnected.” I guess what I’m trying to explore is that we’re modern, whether we like it or not, and hence we share that alienation and sense of meaninglessness.

  • Caleb G.

    I heard Myron’s name recently because he moderated a debate in Edmonton between Randal Rauser and John Loftus.
    Here is Randal’s take on Myron’s moderating at that debate:
    I have not yet listened to the debate, so I cannot take a position on this issue yet.

    • pennerm

      hey caleb (et al.). i gave a very brief response to randal’s reply to me on his blogsite. check the comments.

  • John W. Morehead

    I appreciate aspects of this discussion very much. Of particular interest is the ideea of “apologetic violence.” While the term may push the issue too far, and I’m more
    comfortable with a term like “predatory apologetics,” but the idea is the same and I agree with his basic premise. In my view Evangelicals engage in apologetic violence on a personal level, no matter how well meaning and “evangelistic,” when they engage in apologetic argument or doctrine over person, or when they engage in identity contestation through confrontational “preaching” in the sacred spaces of others, whether among Mormons at General Conference and various pageants, or among Muslims at the annual Arab American festival in Dearborn, Michigan. On a social level, I am sensitive to this as well, and in some of my conversations with
    Pagans I have been reminded that this may also be playing out among Evangelicals in regard to minority religions in America. Looks like a great discussion for reflective Evangelicals.

  • Greg M.

    Dr. Penner,

    If you were to have an evangelically-minded conversation with an atheist about Jesus Christ, what would that look like?



    • pennerm

      hi greg. that would depend in large measure on the interests and personal situation (existential, cognitive, social, general history, etc.) of the one with whom i would be talking. but in general it would consist in my making jesus relevant to her or his situation.

      • Greg M

        Thanks for responding. Two follow up questions if you don’t mind!

        1. What does your method look like in action? How do you make Jesus relevant to an atheist that also leads that person to God? Have you done that before? Do you have any stories to tell?

        2. Would you describe your way as the way, or a way? If the point is to make Jesus relevant to a person, would you ever use the sort of apologetics you say needs to “end” if that way makes Jesus relevant to them?

        • pennerm

          thx again, greg.

          1. i don’t have “a method” so much as i have a set of concerns – namely, that i edify (or build up) the person in the love of Jesus, which ultimately leads them to encounter him for themselves. the closest thing to a method for this i can point to is incarnation, which takes on the very form of life of the “other” in order to reconcile that person. st paul also uses this method when he lives, eats, works, and worships alongside those to whom he witnesses to the truth of Resurrection. and yes, i believe i have participated in that project – of edifying others in the love of Jesus. i have even had that affirmed by some people. it’s all pretty pedestrian stuff, tho, usually.

          2. seeing as i am not overly prescriptive in terms of content, i think i will say that this is *the* way the Gospel truth is witnessed to. and yes, there are times when some of the specific pieces of reasoning used in apologetics may be used in the process i just described. but as i said below in reply to Sam, “i tend to think of the pieces of reasoning that we call ‘natural theology’ more like grammatical comments about how Christians think about the world – they are pieces of Christian reasoning that show us how the world makes Christian sense. so i don’t really see them as making ‘a case’, if by that we mean their primary value is to be rationally coercive to all-comers. that is precisely the way of thinking about apologetic arguments i’d like to move away from.”

  • Susan Gerard

    I’m not a philosopher or a theologian, so what I have to contribute to this discussion is meager. But here goes.

    Whenever anything in God’s kingdom is done with/for power, violence (intellectual, emotional or physical), selfishness, pride, or any ungodly motive, it is harmful not only to the body of Christ but to all observers. It is not only the ‘violent’ apologists who should desist, but many preachers and others in the body as well. We should all be ‘apostles’ first.

    I find nothing objectionable in apologetics (perhaps what you would call ‘mere’ apologetics). Our lives should be an apologetic for our faith, but since they are so often not, we need godly apologists as well.

  • toddh

    Looks really good, make it available on Kindle!

    • pennerm

      i am told a kindle version is out – or coming soon!

      • toddh

        Very good, thanks!

  • James

    I like John Stackhouse’s term ‘humble’ apologetics–it does not pretend too much. E. P. Sander’s valuable (unpretentious) work, The Historical Figure of Jesus, runs along that line. He argues admittedly from a modern, scientific stance–“to dig through the layers of Christian devotion and to recover the historical core.” “This is difficult work,” according to Sanders. On the question of resurrection, he demures. “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” Sanders’ reserve as a historian allows him to go no further. He respects the limits of the modern project but there is a tone in his work that seems to run deeper. I suspect he is a ‘believing’ Christian. Maybe Myron is implying evangelical apologetics should take a cue from Sanders (whether or not we agree with his conclusions). There may be a larger reality out there than that accessible by modern tools; work within the limits.

  • Guest

    Good interview Myron. I am proud to have had you as a teacher. :). If I can get specific, and I know your goal is not to defame anyone or go against the work of other apologists, my question is… would you consider the work of William lane Craig for instance an example of this type of apologetics where one uses the secular demand for reason as a paradigm for epistemology? He is very strong on things like the cosmological argument and so on. Is this the kind of apologetics that you think needs to change? And again I am not asking for you to attack the person just wondering about the methods?

    • pennerm

      hi garret. thx for your kind words. i’m glad to have had you as a student! as to bill craig, in the book i use his method as sort of representative of the type of apologetics i am against. i suppose it is a backhanded compliment, in that i view him as the pre-eminent voice. so your intuitions are correct…

      • Then I think you clearly misunderstand Craig because he most certainly does not endorse the position being critiqued here. Consider just one example:

        “This same debate between certain Eastern mystical modes of thought and classical logical thinking is being re-played in the debate between modernism and radical post-modernism. I want to say clearly that I carry no brief for Enlightenment theological rationalism. According to this modernist viewpoint, religious beliefs are rational if and only if one has evidence on which those beliefs are based. While I am convinced that there is sufficient evidence to make Christian belief rational, I do not believe that such evidence is necessary for Christian belief to be rational.6 Not only is theological rationalism predicated on an epistemological foundationalism which is overly restrictive and finally self-refuting, but the Christian belief system itself teaches that the ground of our knowledge of the truth of the Christian faith is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8. 15-16; I Jn. 5. 7-9). Argumentation and evidence may serve as confirmations of Christian beliefs and as means of showing to others the truth of those beliefs, but they are not properly the foundation of those beliefs. In a sense, then, my own religious epistemology could be called post-modern, and the provisional character of systematic consistency accords with intellectual humility advocated by post-modernism.

        Read more:

        Craig endorses Plantinga’s critique of the position that you need
        to give reasons for Christian belief that are objective, universal, and neutral. I am unaware of any Modern apologist who believes this.

  • garrett

    Good interview Myron. If I can get specific, and I know your goal is not to defame anyone or go against the work of other apologists, my question is… would you consider the work of William lane Craig for instance an example of this type of apologetics where one uses the secular demand for reason as a paradigm for epistemology? He is very strong on things like the cosmological argument and so on. Is this the kind of apologetics that you think needs to change? And again I am not asking for you to attack the person just wondering about the methods?

  • Kevin Harris

    I just cannot imagine writing an apologetic against apologetics! At the end of the day, that’s what it is! Not to be snarky, but did word not get up to Canada that Postmodernism never happened? Unless you want to throw out Acts 17 and a host of other passages, I would delay the publishing of this book!

  • Jacob

    Postmodern apologetics or atheist-christianity. Anything that is postmodernist necessarily fails face down as self-refuting incoherent junk. Read this instead

    • Jacob –

      You might be interested in engaging with Jamie Smith’s book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?. Jamie is a philosopher-theologian and professor at Calvin College. So he’s a pretty strong reformed, evangelical. However, he argues that, while postmodernism might be an enemy to our modernism, it does not have to be seen as an enemy of the church. It is quite interesting, rather than ‘incoherent junk’.

      In the end, I don’t think Penner (above) or Smith, or myself for that fact, would argue that everything is simply relative and subjective. We can adequately and reasonably engage with truth, God’s truth in Scripture. However, we (as finite and fallen people) cannot work in the realm of objective and absolute. We trust that only One can do that. So it calls for a little bit of a step back, a bit of humility, and to step into the amazing ocean of God’s grace and faith in Christ as we engage this world. We have a certainty of faith, but not a modernist, empirical certainity.

      • Jacob

        Sorry there is no humility in accepting fallacious arguments, which are based on attack on classical logic who believe 2+2=9 etc. It is always inconsistent and fallacious. Watered down whitewashed stripped from its truth Christianity is no Christianity. Logic and reasoning, and the Bible doesn’t give anyone liberty to enjoy such foolish nonsense which claims to hold truth reasonable by attacking reasons in the first place. Please start studying that website’s material ReasonableFaith, read the article itself. The book of Jamie smith may be the same thing that this guy is arguing. Nonsense remains nonsense if uttered by anyone. Also try to listen the great debate of WLC vs John Dominic Crossan, on youtube, you will see his postmodern principle and how Craig humiliates his peter pan faith.

        -Jacob Apologist.

        • Jacob –

          I would appreciate a little more engagement than simply claiming this all as ‘fallacious’, ‘watered down’, ‘whitewashed’, ‘stripped from its truth’, etc. I would say such is easy to remark without delving into actual thoughts, concerns and claims. Anyone could claim this about any such topic that doesn’t fit their own personal perspective.

          Could we ask by starting with a couple of questions:

          1) What do you basically disagree with from Penner’s interview above (besides possibly the word ‘postmodern’)?

          2) Have you read Penner’s or Smith’s work, which will more thoroughly explain?

          3) What is it particularly that makes you fearful of or possibly abhor postmodernism?

          4) Lastly, did you know there is a difference between extreme postmodern antirealism and a balanced practical postmodernism?

          Just some things to possibly engage with and talk through.

      • ExAstrologer

        Maybe we can’t “work in the realm of of objective and absolute” but certainly our faith rests on the objective and absolute. If not, then it is not the gospel and there is nothing of value there.

        • Ex –

          You said: If not, then it is not the gospel and there is nothing of value there. I understand what you are saying, but I don’t think we ultimately rest in what WE say things MUST be. Still, I do agree that our faith rests in the objective One, God alone. But this is a faith journey, not an empirically evidenced journey.

          • ExAstrologer

            Yes, it’s a faith journey but it’s backed up by the evidence for a Creator, evidence for man’s sin, and evidence for God’s word. I’m not resting in what I say must be, but what God says. It can’t just be “I believe” because everyone says that from all kinds of beliefs. There is more evidence for the truth of Christianity, for instance, than for the beliefs of Buddhism (I was involved with Buddhism for a number of years).

          • Ex –

            I continue to agree. But the evidence WE work with is not absolutely objective, since we are very finite and fallen. I think there is a difference between certainty of faith and empirically evidence certainty. Of course, we at times do walk with doubt. But overall, we walk in the realm of a certainty of faith, and that works in a holistic measure, not just mathematical language. As Eugene Peterson once said:

            “I sometimes marvel that God chose to risk his revelation in the ambiguities of language. If he had wanted to make sure that the truth was absolutely clear, without any possibility of misunderstanding, he should have revealed his truth by means of mathematics. Mathematics is the most precise, unambiguous language that we have. But then, of course, you can’t say “I love you” in algebra.”

          • ExAstrologer

            Okay, then how does this look when presenting the gospel? Frankly, what you say makes it seem like we can’t offer anything based on objective truth. Is that correct? Is it just “truth as I understand it” or “truth as I believe it?” If so, then we have nothing better to offer in the realm of certainty and become just another voice among millions. I disagree with Peterson’s statement. I don’t think words are that ambiguous. If they are, then the Bible can say anything we want it to and we would never agree on any of the essential doctrines.

          • ExAstrologer

            Also, Peterson’s statement becomes self-refuting since he’s using language to say language is ambiguous.

    • Jacob Apologist

      Another crucial article in response to such palatable Gospel, is this. Please read this all. The shame of Palatable Gospel. – by a great apologist, Dr Michael Brown

  • Clay Jones

    You do realize, Myron, that most of us full-time apologists begin our apologetic witness by refuting postmodernism, right?

    • Clay –

      I also used to be very skeptical of postmodernism, or even worse, I thought it was anti-Christian. But now I realise that is because a) it was regularly communicated as evil and b) I never understood it properly. Now I realise that there is a balanced postmodernism, rather than antirealist postmodernism that we normally think of as the only perspective. This balanced, practical postmodernism recognises we can adequately and reasonably engage with truth. However we are not God and we cannot, as fallen & finite, engage in the realm of objective absolute.

      In the end, this is a faith journey in Christ. Not an empirical journey in Christ. Even in the age to come, will we be absolute? We will be sinless, but we will be learning more and more about the incomprehensible one for all eternity. How much more in this present age?

    • Sometimes I wonder how much of postmodernism was a reaction to modernists who claimed as true, things which were false. How slaves, women, and the poor are to be treated could be examples. It would be interesting to try and build the case that all other options for trying to convince Christians they had wrong ideas failed, so the convincers went with the nuclear option of postmodernism.

      • labruer –

        I’d say every perspective/movement has some aspect of reaction against a previous perspective/movement that had solidified itself in society. In the end, I believe the church of modernism did its best to engage in a post-Enlightenment culture where the scientific method became THE standard by which we judge things. However, a shift has taken place in society over the past few decades and the church has been but needs to continue to ready itself to engage our current culture. And while some things can be overly reactionary, like antirealism, there is a more balanced postmodern perspective, which I keep referring to in these comments.

  • Todd

    Thanks for describing this book. It sounds interesting. Kyle Roberts of Bethel Seminary also recently published a wonderful book that covers similar issues – Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God. et-Kierkegaard-Postmodern-People/dp/1610972228/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1371069576&sr=8-1&keywords=kyle+roberts+kierkegaard

  • Palatable Gospel

    There’s a story I often tell to illustrate the folly of trying to preach a palatable gospel.

    A doctor made an amazing scientific breakthrough, perhaps the greatest of
    all time. He discovered a cure for cancer that was 100% successful, and
    it worked for all forms and all stages of cancer. Perhaps the most
    incredible thing of all was that just one dose of the medicine would
    cure the cancer for life.

    The only problem was that the medicine
    had to be taken in pill form; each pill cost $1 million dollars, the
    pill was huge and very difficult to swallow, and it left a terrible,
    bitter taste that lasted for seven days.

    Of course, the research and development team was ecstatic over the discovery, and they met with the doctor, telling him he had to make three simple changes for his breakthrough to be successful: He needed to figure out a way to reduce
    the cost of each pill so it would sell for $10,000 per dose; he needed
    to reduce the size of the pill so people wouldn’t choke on it; and he
    needed to remove the bitter taste.

    After two years of hard work,
    the doctor called the team back, announcing he had succeeded on all
    fronts. With the new formula he had developed, each pill would cost just
    $10,000, it would be packaged in a small gel cap, and it would actually
    have a pleasant aftertaste.

    There was only problem. The pill no longer cured cancer!

    And that is exactly what we have done with the gospel. We have tried to
    make the narrow gate wide and tried to make the cross of Christ popular,
    thinking somehow we would get more people “saved.” But our message no
    longer saves!

    We have tried to make Jesus acceptable to sinners
    rather than making sinners acceptable to Him, removing the call to
    submit to His lordship and live a new life in Him. And we have redefined
    repentance, reducing it to a mere change of mind rather than a change
    of direction—specifically, a turning from sin and a turning to the Lord,
    an about face by the grace of God and the power of the Spirit.

    Today, we just say to people, “Change your mind about Jesus!”—but that is only a small part of the gospel message.

    Belief in Jesus is now presented as a good insurance policy and packaged as a
    great deal, at that: “Just give up your guilt and depression, and in
    exchange receive success, prosperity and eternal life!”

    May I ask you to show me one example of a message like that preached to the lost anywhere in the book of Acts? Or do we think we know better than the

    Was there a reason that Paul, when reaching out to a
    lost sinner and speaking about “faith in Christ Jesus,” also spoke to
    him “about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (Acts
    24:24-25)? Is this part of our gospel message?

    Of course, we should be people of compassion, reaching out to the lost with hearts overflowing with genuine love and care. And of course we should exercise
    wisdom and cultural sensitivity. But we do not win the lost by becoming
    like the lost; we win the lost by becoming like Jesus—and by presenting
    the Jesus of the Scriptures and the gospel of the Scriptures, whether
    it brings offense or reproach or mockery.

    Paul wrote that when
    Jesus returns, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey
    the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). How often do we think of
    the gospel as something to be “obeyed”?

    More than one generation
    ago, A.W. Tozer noted, “The trouble is the whole ‘Accept Christ’
    attitude is likely to be wrong. It shows Christ applying to us rather
    than us to Him. It makes Him stand hat-in-hand awaiting our verdict on
    Him, instead of our kneeling with troubled hearts awaiting His verdict
    on us. It may even permit us to accept Christ by an impulse of mind or
    emotions, painlessly, at no loss to our ego and no inconvenience to our
    usual way of life.”

    It’s time we get back to the New Testament
    gospel, exalting both the holiness of God and the love of God,
    presenting Jesus as both Lord and Savior (in that order), and preaching a
    message that is foolishness to those who perish but is the power of God
    to those who believe (1 Cor. 1:18).

    Let’s preach the truth
    without compromise, empowered by the Spirit, filled with compassion and
    unashamed of Jesus and the cross, and God Himself will back the message
    about His Son.

  • Nate

    Sometimes I get the feeling Penner has something against reason itself; i.e., you’re against ‘objective, universal and neutral’ use of reason. So Christianity is objective and universally true (right?), but reason, in Christianity’s defense, is not. What does that even mean?

    Other times I think your ‘big point’ is to insert ‘community of belief’ into the equation as though this is the key to distinguish true apologetics from modern apologetics. With this in mind you attempt to save the apologetic enterprise by speaking of ‘mere apologetics’. How does one distinguish from ‘mere’ and ‘modern’ apologetics? You’re quite foggy on this.

    For the person who has been helped by modern apologetics, you say, “Wonderful.” But then you want to distinguish ‘being helped’ from thinking it has communicated the truth. This seems like the old Barthian antithesis between ‘encounter’ revelation and ‘propositional’ revelation. You seem to want to sever reason from faith without doing injury to reason. Ironically, this is the critique of modernism you offer, i.e., the severance of reason from faith; yet you seem to be engaged in this very thing.

    On a more sympathetic note, Calvin thought it wrong-headed to try to establish faith by means of proofs, which has my sympathy, but one does not need the rhetoric of being against concepts such as: objective and universally true. Ironically, this is the critique of modernism that you seem to offer. But I’ll have to find the book and read more.

  • Jemima

    I’m really not sure apologetics is approaching an “end” — look at the demand for ministries like RZIM, who seem to find their work increasing (among secular audiences) rather than decreasing. Check out their Summer School ( — for their take on apologetics. And that’s the issue, isn’t it — I suspect Penner’s quibble is more with a certain “model” of apologetics. Baby, bathwater etc.

  • “And I wrote the book because that’s where I am at. I no longer see how modern apologetics (and by that I mean the attempt to give reasons for Christian belief that are objective, universal, and neutral) is really all that helpful – for me or anyone else.” I know of no modern apologist who believes one should or can give reasons that are both objective, and universal and neutral. So this is just a straw man.

    In fact Alvin Plantinga one of the leading Christian analytic philosophers of the 20th century and problem the philosopher with the most influence on modern Christian apologetics, specifically rejects this view. Once again we see post modernists work with a caricature of how contemporary epistemologists understand the role of reason. Similarly, presuppositionalists of the stripe of Van Til and Schaffer rejected this view. Even contemporary evidentialists like Bill Craig reject this understanding.

    Once again, it seems post modernists work with a caricature of modernism which they claim inaccurately describes all epistemological positions outside of the post modernist paradigma. This view in fact probably was only held by people like Hume and Descartes in the 17th century, the problems are well recognised by contemporary epistemologists and few even in what would be called “modernist” thinking hold that view at all.

  • James

    THE BIGGEST PROBLEM with people like this is THEY, personally, dont see the full evidence so they dont think you can use evidence.
    Now, there is the obvious truth that God places the fact of Christ in Christians minds–as Christ said..if anyone wants to know if Christ is who he says he is…do His will. So we KNOW.
    But to suggest that this is a leap arising from *nothing is absurd. I think this is just a lame attempt at selling a book and by competing with guys like Craig he is sure to have publicity.

  • Outlaw Josie Wales

    I think I understand what he is trying to say, although I don’t want to put words in his mouth, I think his intentions are coming through to me. And although he doesn’t articulate what he means beyond wearing his heart on his sleeve, I think I get it.
    When I started reading Dr. Craig’s website I was intrigued, and I wondered in amazement, “How could I have missed so much of this stuff? Man, I really need to become familiar with this whole field of Apologetics!” I’m 55 and have been a disciple of Christ, and in love with my Savior all of my life.
    Well, after reading most of Dr. Craig’s writings, I’ve come to a huge check in my spirit about the harm that this kind of area of study can reinforce in people looking for answers to the mysteries of God, and saving grace in Jesus Christ. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not attributing malintentions to Craig’s ministry. I think I understand his social and educational background. He’s a brilliant man, incredibly articulate, and a huge nerd. I mean this playfully. Because of this, he can seem arrogant, intimidating, and self-righteous, to the point of appearing to be smug. Let’s face it, he argues fantastically.
    Let me make my point, sorry it’s taken so long, but I wanted to preface this because there is so much misunderstanding, I believe. Here is my point, and I think maybe it’s Penner’s too, and it will be biblical. No one comes to the Father but by the Son. No one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the witness of the Holy Spirit. Paul said that he preaches Christ crucified. He offered no other proof.
    There is not another thing, thought, rationale, reading, reinforcement, fact, data that anyone needs to add to, bolster, or complete their faith in the One True God.
    I wrote to Dr. Craig’s ministry stating this, and received a smug letter in reply. My question was not threatening nor preachy. In Luke, when the rich man looked up to father Abraham from the grave and asked him to send someone to his kin to warn them them of their fate,
    29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
    30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
    31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
    And it shall be so.
    My conclusion is that we should study scriptures to become a workman approved, to be ready to give an argument for our faith. Beware, however, to begin to even think that our intellects can justify faith in the Living God.

  • JustSay’n

    Great article. The unbeliever is like a blind man who says “I don’t see light, so light does not exist.” When in fact if he would seek to be cured of his blindness, he would see that light does exist. So, why do we expect that we can talk him into believing in something he refuses to believe in when his entire framework of understanding is based on sense data?