I just finished reading Myron Bradley Penner’s book, The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Generally, I’m a fan of Christian apologetics so I knew I would disagree with the author’s main argument right out the gate. However, I’m open to changing my mind, and had heard decent reviews of this book so figured I’d pick it up as a sort of intellectual challenge.
Penner’s argument is that we shouldn’t do Christian apologetics anymore. Or at the very least, we should be doing it very different. He makes a pretty interesting argument on page 59 when quoting Terry Eagleton, Penner points out that,
“Christian apologists and the New Atheists are, in fact, mirror images of each other. Faith for either side boils down to a kind of positive scientific knowledge that tends to reduce the substance of faith to an intellectual debate over the reasonableness of a theoretical entity: the proposition ‘God exists.'”
Penner can say this because he believes the overwhelming majority of Christian apologists rely too heavily on the epistemological paradigm of modernity (as do the New Atheists) and thus Christian apologetics is no longer very helpful now that we find ourselves living in a postmodern society. Penner would say in our (modernistic) attempts to justify (and prove!) Christianity to be logical, rational and “true”, we are missing our postmodern audiences. Penner believes we should switch from an epistemological to a hermeneutical strategy. Our Christian witness should be more focused on personal and meaningful appeals vs. debate-style coercions. We should focus more on edification rather than justification. Our witness should be characterized more by the sympathetic, prophetic, and apocalyptic than the logical, scientific, or rational.
While I agree that the majority of apologists probably (and unwittingly) behold themselves too heavily to a modernistic understanding of reality, I think Penner pushes his argument too far. It’s not as if there aren’t still major echoes of modernity in the hearts and minds of current audiences – even educated ones – whether we like it or not and whether that is a good thing, or not. Additionally, Penner makes it seem that we could pick between a hermeneutical stance and an epistemological one, as if one is NOT reliant on the other. Anyways, in the end I still think Christian apologetics is a worthwhile endeavor and so Penner hasn’t convinced me. But he did open my eyes to one of the strongest critiques of apologetics I’ve ever heard – he does this by pointing to Kierkegaard.
Penner argues Christian apologetics does more harm than good because the apologist debater functions something like an expert witness who is uniquely qualified and highly trained – and therefore especially qualified – to articulate and defend Christian truth in a way the rest of us cannot. Penner believes the apologetic industry buys into the “culture of experts” that in the end hurts us more than helps.
Kierkegaard addresses this modern secular condition by drawing a very careful distinction between a genius and an apostle. For Kierkegaard, a genius is something like our concept of an “expert.” A genius is the highest person on the intellectual totem pole, the first in our pecking order of whom to believe. They are the “leaders in the field.” They know more than the rest of their peers (and us), and their claims carry with them the weight of rational deliberation, insight and brilliance. What separates them from us is that they are MORE brilliant, intelligent, and rational than we are, and this supposedly puts them in a better position to ascertain the truth. They are ahead of the curve, so to speak, so these geniuses seek to speak authoritatively about how the rest of us believe.
Kierkegaard then connects the modern emphasis on genius and the modern concept of reason. At the end of the day, the modern appeal to genius (or expertise) as the final authority for belief and practice directly corresponds to the authority accorded human reason (as objective, universal, and neutral) which is of course, a primarily modern concept – separate from both premodern and postmodern viewpoints, respectively.
The apostle on the other hand, appeals not to reason but to revelation as the basis on which claims are warranted. A genius is born, Kierkegaard points out, while an apostle is called. Whereas genius is a quality that distinguishes a person from other humans comparatively – by being MORE rational or brilliant or intelligent – the apostle’s constitutive identity comes only from the call of God.
Subsequently, the apostle’s message is one that no one else can improve upon or add to because it is dependent on God’s action alone. There is nothing extraordinary about apostles prior to their call to apostleship. Apostleship does not depend on any particular human abilities. In this sense, every human being is equally capable of being an apostle, regardless of their circumstance or natural endowments – because their source is God Himself and God’s revelation. The apostle is authoritative NOT because it is demonstrably rational or exceptionally brilliant, but because it has a word from God.
Notice, God’s word in this context does not come to us as the result of human calculation. It is not particularly brilliant but at the same time it cannot be improved upon, nor will it ever become obsolete. Because it’s God’s Word! Additionally, the apostle doesn’t need to play to the crowd en masse, while the genius must. The genius cannot ground its claims in any way that is final or absolute outside of the rational consensus of “the power-craving crowd”. The genius succeeds (or, is legitimized) when it achieves the widest possible number of adherents. All the while the apostle doesn’t need the crowd because the apostle is already speaking a different message anyways – a word from the divine outside.
Penner believes “the privileging of geniuses means apostles lose their voice.” And he also believes the Christian apologetic industry, with its tours, books, dvds, and degrees perpetuates the climate of geniuses and even encourages it. Another way of saying it is that Penner thinks apologetics is a celebrity-driven enterprise – which ends up more as a unique form of Christian idolatry vs an example of Christian salt and light.
Kierkegaard (and Penner along with him) believes Christians should be fighting AGAINST the modernistic phenomenas, not WITH it. Kierkegaard objects to Christian apologetics partially because it is reliant on the entire modern epistemological paradigm which was never Biblical to begin with! Penner despises the fact that “Christian apologetics” attempts to ground faith in genius or secular reasons. He believes modernity and all modern enterprises empty faith of its Christian content and robs it of its true authority. In this way the genius/apostle distinction suggests modern apologetics is ITSELF a symptom of the incipient nihilism at the core of modern thought. It is not the solution, Christian apologetics is the problem.
So, to summarize: We don’t need more geniuses, we need more apostles!
Now there is an argument of weight – I’ll be working on that one for the next little while. Gotta love Kierkegaard’s constant twists of insight.