A Critical Review of Myron Penner’s “The End of Apologetics”

By James M. Rochford

14235Theologian Myron Penner (not to be confused with philosopher Myron A. Penner) recently released a 193 page book against apologetics—titled The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Publishing Group, 2013).[1] It isn’t difficult to discern the central thesis of Penner’s book. He writes,

This is a book about apologetics. Or, more precisely, it is a book against apologetics. (p.4)

Apologetics itself might be the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today. (p.12)

I suggest modern Christian apologetics subtly undermines the very gospel it seeks to defend and does not offer us a good alternative to the skepticism and ultimate meaninglessness of the modern secular condition. (p.49)

Penner even compares the modern day apologist with the modern day atheist—both of whom “deny Christ.” He writes,

The lesson of apologetic violence is that there is more than one way to deny Christ in modernity. There is the straightforward way of the atheist… or it may be done indirectly, perhaps even with sincerity, by a Christian who uses the objective truths of Christianity to do things that are themselves unloving and unedifying. (pp. 162-163)

In his book, Penner openly attacks the work of Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig, Douglas Groothuis, and J.P. Moreland. And surprisingly, the book has received rather positive reviews. In the 2014 book awards, Christianity Today gave Penner’s book an “award merit.” Others, such as Louis Markos—professor at Houston Baptist University—have also come forward to endorse the book.

end-of-apologeticsWe are surprised (or outraged!) at the fact that Christianity Today would award Penner’s book an “award merit,” when it makes claims such as these. We found Penner’s work to be as incoherent to the philosopher, as it is damaging to the practitioner. His work is an affront to both theology and theopraxy. In this review, we will critique ten central aspects of Penner’s work:

1. Penner claims revelation as his basis, but seldom quotes Scripture

Penner emphasizes the need to place revelation over reason (p.51). But after a careful reading of The End of Apologetics, we found less than a dozen explicit references to Scripture in the entire book.[2] By contrast, Penner references philosopher Soren Kierkegaard nearly 100 times. For a book that claims to be rooted in the revelation of God, it’s odd that Penner doesn’t appeal to Scripture to make his case.

2. Penner ignores the biblical texts that support Christian apologetics

If Penner wants evangelicals to abandon apologetics, then he needs to offer a convincing exegesis of the clear biblical passages that support this practice. However, far from this, Penner never even cites these passages.

As we have already argued in our recent work Evidence Unseen: Exposing the Myth of Blind Faith, apologetics are not a modernist—but a biblical—endeavor. Jesus appealed to evidence—such as his miracles, his resurrection, and his fulfillment of messianic prophecy—in order to validate his divinity (Lk. 24:25-27; 44-46). He repeatedly used rational arguments to make his case (Mt. 7:11; 10:25; 12:12; Luke 12:24, 28). Jesus debated publicly with skeptics, and listeners would notice that he had “answered well” (Mk. 12:28 NLT). Even though critics would try to “trap” Jesus with arguments (Mt. 22:15), he was able to retort so persuasively that they “were amazed” (Mt. 22:22). In fact, Jesus’ arguments were so good that in one case he utterly “silenced” his opponents in debate (Mt. 22:34, 46).

The NT authors utilized apologetics (Acts 25:16; 1 Cor. 9:3; Phil. 1:7, 17). Peter writes, “Always be ready to make a defense [Greek apologia] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). Penner claims that “Paul steadfastly resists any form of persuasion with the Corinthians other than the message of the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit.” (p.146) And yet, Paul wrote to the Corinthians that believers are to “knock down the strongholds of human reasoning,” destroying “false arguments” against God (2 Cor. 10:5 NLT). Moreover, Paul himself “reasoned” and “persuaded” with skeptical people on his missionary journeys (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 26:28), and his opponents “couldn’t refute his proofs that Jesus was indeed the Messiah” (Acts 9:22). In fact, his arguments were so good that he “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28). Even at the end of his life, Paul claimed that Christianity was “true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25).

None of these passages are exposited or even mentioned by Penner. This alone should be damning to Penner’s central thesis. That is, if apologetics are such an ungodly endeavor, then why is this practice described and prescribed all throughout the New Testament?

3. Penner does not offer evidence for his postmodern view; he merely assumes it

What reason have we to believe in Penner’s view? According to him, the answer is simple: none. He writes, “Rather than arguing for the superiority of postmodernism, I assume postmodernism as a starting point and try to make this standpoint intelligible.” (p.14) We appreciate Penner’s consistency here: namely, if he offered evidence for his view, he would be acting against his own postmodern underpinnings. But we have to note that this has been a consistent critique of postmodern thinking. As Moreland and DeWeese have written, postmodern thinkers typically “offer no argument, and one looks in vain for arguments for such claims in other postconservative writers. They seem to regard the claim as self-evident; to assert it is to prove it.”[3]

But why should we believe in Penner’s postmodern perspective? Other religions assert their claims to spirituality as well. What makes Penner’s view any different? Penner writes, “[Christianity] enables me to interpret my life fruitfully and the world meaningfully through the practices, categories, and language of Christian faith, so that I have a more authentic understanding of myself and a sense of wholeness to my life.” (p.76) However, practitioners from other religions make identical claims. What reason do we have to adjudicate between these claims?

4. Penner denies the importance of reason and truth

truth_000Penner wants his view of truth to be “immune from the charge of arbitrariness, relativism, or denial of objectivity.” (p.129) And yet, he seems to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth, because elsewhere he writes,

Reason is not a timeless, universal, or unchanging judge that is unaffected by its concrete circumstances. Human reason is thoroughly immanent and as such does not occupy a transcendent perspective. (p.53)

We can, of course, say objectively “true” things directly—like, for example, that it is –27 ° C outside this morning or that God was in Jesus Christ reconciling to himself the world. The point, however, is first that these sorts of objective “facts” or statements are only approximately true and are made from a finite, contingent perspective. (p.99)

Contingent “approximations” are all we finite, fallible creatures have available to us. Absolute, timeless Truth is God’s alone. We perceive things from our various perspectives, within time, with these limited and changing bodies, and from the social contexts we inhabit. We won’t, in other words, get to the bottom of reality to perceive reality as it really is apart from how it is for us. (pp.109-110)

Prophetic speech is not universally prophetic. Addressed to others outside the situation and specific context of the audience, prophetic witness may be superfluous and even unedifying—and to that extent untrue, in my sense. (p.131)

Prophetic speech has a specific audience in mind. The prophet is preaching, you will recall, to persons and has a word tailored to them and their situation. In the same way, Christian witness does not proclaim a set of timeless and necessary truths. To this person or audience prophetic witness presents this truth that can be edifying for them. (p.131)

The-Last-Battle-CoverIt shouldn’t surprise us to discover that Penner alludes to the fact that those outside of Christ will be saved. He cites C.S. Lewis’ story from The Last Battle (a favorite for postmodern or emergent writers!), where the character Emeth is saved—even though he was worshipping Tash—a false god (pp.140-141). Of course, Lewis was writing fiction—not theology. But Penner seems to affirm Lewis’ view in the story that unbelievers will go to heaven for having the right sincerity in their faith—even if they lacked the proper object of faith.

And speaking of unbelievers, it seems that Penner regards this title as a veritable swear word. He writes,

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. (pp.148-149)

When I engage “the unbeliever,” I am less concerned with who they are; how their cultural concepts, categories, and symbols function to convey the gospel; where they are in their spiritual journey; or why they believe and think like they do, than I am with whether they acknowledge a specific set of beliefs. And I certainly do not treat them as those through whom the voice of God may speak to me or even as those from whom I may learn or who may inform my life and perspective in some way. They simply are “unbelievers.” (p.151)

Reason’s function, then, is not to ground our truths but to explain them. Reason depends on a (logically) prior Truth to situate it. (p.170)

But we wonder if Penner realizes that the term “unbeliever” comes directly from Scripture (Lk. 12:46; 1 Cor. 6:6; 7:12; 10:27; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Tim. 5:8). Did the authors of Scripture err in using this term to describe those without faith?

5. Penner claims that apologetics are abusive

While we would admit that apologetics can (and have) been used abusively by believers, Penner takes this further. He writes, “Not only can apologetics curse; it actually is a curse.” (p.9) In typical postmodern fashion, he favors “conversation and dialogue,” as opposed to “debate.” (p.68) He writes,

My focus will be on what I argue about—the conclusions and propositions, the facts and the evidence to support them, and whether my opponent and I believe them—not how I engage another person. And, in the end, it will be difficult to escape the conclusion that my primary objective in an apologetic encounter is winning the argument. (p.143)

In the end, these exercises of “reason” seem to function in a manner that is virtually indistinguishable from ideological power plays. We—the “power-crazed crowd,” as Kierkegaard would say—become a law and reason unto ourselves: we determine what is reasonable, we decide the correct form of belief, and we assume the right to label those who disagree with us not only as ignorant and irrational but also as immoral and depraved. (p.61)

on guardWe would, of course, agree that apologetics can be used abusively. But is this a good enough reason to reject their use altogether? We believe that this is equivalent to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Years ago, C.S. Lewis observed, “Nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemed to him to be at least probable arguments for Theism.”[4] More recently, William Lane Craig writes, “Lee Strobel recently remarked to me that he has lost count of the number of people who have come to Christ through his books… Nor has it been my experience that apologetics is ineffective in evangelism. We continually are thrilled to see people committing their lives to Christ through presentations of the gospel coupled with apologetics.”[5]

We concur with these observations. In our campus ministry, we regularly see people coming to Christ through apologetics presentations and literature. It is a postmodern myth that people no longer care about reason and evidence. While apologetics can be used abusively, this should cause us to counsel the apologist—not to throw out apologetics.

6. Penner seeks to replace a correspondent view of truth with an “edification view”

This, in our opinion, is the most bizarre part of Penner’s work. He writes, “I now wish to redescribe truth by changing metaphors from ‘correspondence’ to edification.” (p.110) He abhors J.P. Moreland’s case for a correspondent view of truth as “transparently ideological” (p.61; footnote 127)

But Scripture often speaks of truth in the abstract, correspondent sense.[6] For instance, the Bible teaches that God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), God is the God of truth (Ps. 31:15), God’s word is truth (Jn. 17:17), the Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” (Jn. 14:17; 15:26; 16:13), and Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). Of the false prophets, Jeremiah writes, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie” (Jer. 8:8). 17 of the 22 letters of the NT (including Rev. 2-3) mention false teachers. All of this presupposes that truth can be known in a correspondent sense, and falsehood should be rejected.

7. Penner exaggerates the inability of language to communicate truth

reclaiming-the-center-confronting-evangelical-acco_publication1While our human language cannot transmit truth perfectly, it can still transmit truth sufficiently and accurately. But Penner exaggerates this, when he writes, “We cannot equate our speech about God with the being of God. Instead, we appropriate the words and creeds we receive as true because they capture us, mold and shape us, and make us true.” (p.95) Regarding J.P. Moreland’s correspondent view of truth, he writes, “One trouble with a view such as this, of course, is that it still has the difficulty of explaining how the sentences we use to express our thoughts are true.” (p.113; footnote 234) But we see at least two problems with this view:

First, if language is really that poor of a vehicle for transmitting truth, then why write a book about it? This seems self-defeating. Moreover, when Penner reads this review of his book, we doubt that he will make the mistake of interpreting our words as favorable. But if this is the case, then it demonstrates the fact that language can transmit truth and interpretation is possible. As Groothuis has written, “While deconstructionists of various stripes claim that texts have no fixed and objective meaning, they still object when others ‘misinterpret’ their own writings.”[7] This is not only self-defeating; it is hypocritical.

Second, if we “cannot equate our speech about God with the being of God,” then this would radically depreciate the inspiration of Scripture. That is, what use is an inspired text, if we cannot interpret it? We admit that not everything in Scripture is clear and understandable. Certain parts of the Bible are difficult to interpret (2 Pet. 3:15-16). But most of the Bible does not fit into this category. Readers of Scripture quickly discover that the main doctrines are clearly taught and emphasized—over and over. For instance, Isaiah writes, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5). After reading this, ask yourself: How many different ways are there to interpret this verse? Does it tell us that there is one God, or many? Postmodern thinkers—like Penner—usually focus on the 10% of obscure passages in the Bible, rather than the 90% that is clear, straightforward and understandable.

8. Penner offers many false dilemmas throughout his book

It surprises us to see such blatant, logical fallacies, which are legion throughout his book. No doubt, Penner’s most common fallacy is the false dilemma:

The earliest Christian apologists saw theology not just as a rational principle… but as intimately connected to a wider way of living and being together that embodies the truth of the gospel. (p.45)

The focus of modern apologetics is on epistemic justification of belief as the apologetic bottom-line rather than on the personal edification of those whom we encounter. (p.87)

What our age needs is not a scientific or theoretical answer to intellectual challenges of belief but a personal response to the spiritual problems of people who have been unable to receive and have faith. (p.88)

But the actual witnesses—the actual people, their lives—display or show the truth of what they announce and not just their words. (p.101)

As a witness, I proclaim the truth not only with my lips but by my life. (p.102)

Attestation is… [an] epistemological “belief that”; it is, rather, a more subjective “belief in,” which nevertheless is in no way inferior to knowledge. (p.124)

When our concern is with how we believe, not only what we believe, and when being in the truth is just as important as possessing it, then our Christian witness must be such that it is edifying to those who receive our witness. (p.138)

In each of these statements above, why can’t it be both? Why can’t we be confident in our rational justification and be filled with love and compassion for others? As Paul writes, we are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It shouldn’t be one or the other; it should be both.

9. Penner mischaracterizes his opponents in their character and beliefs

Penner (deliberately?) mischaracterizes the position of modern apologists in a classic straw man fallacy throughout his book:

First, he claims that modern apologists are unconcerned about how our faith should affect our way of life. He writes,

What is at the bottom of our Christian belief, for modern apologists, is not a set of practices—a way of life, a confession, etc.—but a set of propositional asseverations that can be epistemically justified. And that is what it means for them to have faith. (p.42)

This is really an attack on the character of modern apologists today. Penner is really claiming that philosophers like W.L. Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Douglas Groothuis (whom he cites repeatedly throughout the book) are not concerned with living out their faith, rather they are just concerned with a set of logical propositions. This is as offensive to this author, as it is misguided. This neither characterizes the lives of these men, any more than it articulates their view of faith.

Second, he claims that modern apologists believe that they are unbiased. He writes that W.L. Craig and other apologists believe that their arguments and evidences are “free from bias or partisanship.” (p.32) Of course, W.L. Craig would not hold that he is free from bias. No one is free from bias. But bias does not inherently eliminate truth. As we have written elsewhere:

Imagine talking to Michael Jordan’s mother about her son’s basketball abilities. Of course, Michael Jordan’s mother would probably say that her son was the best basketball player in N.B.A. history. A polite listener might smile and tell her, “That’s very nice, Mrs. Jordan, but aren’t you a little biased in your opinion of your son? You are his mother after all.” Of course, Michael Jordan’s mother is biased, but her statement is also true! In the same way, we shouldn’t discredit someone’s views based purely on their bias, but rather, based on their truth and evidence.[8]

Third, he claims that modern apologists support Western, white cultural imperialism. Penner writes,

As a Christian witness, am I called to be an apostle of Western (and white) values—or some other specific set of conceptual and linguistic formulations that give expression to the dominant cultural expression of Christianity? Is my goal as a witness to convert people from other cultures to the thought forms of Western culture and to approximate Western, European Christian behavior as best they can? (pp.136-137)

This is such a gross mischaracterization of the field of Christian apologists that it hardly warrants a retort. But simply put, the spread of Christian truth does not imply the spread of Christian culture. That is, we can spread the truth of God without spreading Western or white cultural customs. This is a key problem in Penner’s thinking: He equates the use of reason and evidence with “dominance,” “mastery,” “control,” (p.46) “coercion,” “force,” “intimidation,” and “militancy.” (p.143-144) He describes this approach to Christian witness as an attempt to “coerce my neighbor.” This proves that “I really don’t love my neighbor as I love myself.” (p.147).

But ask yourself: Is this the way that I would characterize one of William Lane Craig’s debates? Is Craig really a bully, who is seeking to militantly dominate others?

10. Penner believes that appealing to academic authorities (whom he calls geniuses) is a faulty way to substantiate our beliefs

Penner writes, “We trust geniuses and experts and treat them as authorities because they present us with the highest expression of what is reasonable for us to believe.” (pp.50-51) Penner argues that the apostles did not appeal to authorities or intellectuals; instead, they appealed to their calling from God. He writes,

The apostle, however, 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. (p.51)

Of course, this ignores the various passages that we have already cited, where the apostles did appeal to reason. He continues:

The apostolic message does not have authority because it is demonstrably rational or exceptionally brilliant but because it is a word from God. God’s word does not come to us as the result of human calculation or brilliance and cannot be improved upon, nor will it ever become obsolete. The truths of revelation are not realities humans will inevitably discover through their research projects, nor will they be able to assimilate them into their collective potential. (p.51)

Here Penner confuses the truths of Scripture (which cannot come through human reason) with the defense of Scripture (which can come through human reason). Penner continues,

One of the problems with appealing to reason is that our beliefs are “always (in theory) provisional and potentially reversible. Human reason simply gives us the best answer we have so far, and not anything like the final truth about the matter.” (pp.52-53)

What Penner fails to notice is that this is true of all of our beliefs. We are not given the luxury of certainty in any area of life (with the exception of logical truths or truths by definition). We believe that W.L. Craig’s Reformed epistemology offers a way for us to retain our faith—in spite of contrary evidence. But Penner didn’t offer convincing evidences against this. He continues elsewhere,

Instead, I want to pattern our apologetic efforts after apostles who do not ground their message in their own genius but in a transcendent word from God. (p.82)

If we really want to follow the apostles, then we should engage in apologetics as they did. But Penner sees no need to quote the various passages where the apostles engaged in reason, evidence, and debate. He would rather cite from Søren Kierkegaard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.

Conclusion

The purpose of this review was not to offer a cogent epistemology or an able hermeneutic for the texts of Scripture. Others have done this more effectively than us (see below “Further Resources”). Instead, the purpose of this review was to show that Penner’s postmodern dialectic is incompatible with biblical Christianity. It is neither supported from Scripture, nor allowed by Scripture. Therefore, we would not encourage any reader to adopt the views or practices of apologetics that Penner espouses. Personally, we came away from this book more convinced than ever that apologetics should be one of the vital ways that we should reach people in our culture.

Further Resources for Understanding Postmodernism

D.A. Carson’s two part lecture on postmodernism (Part One and Part Two).

James Rochford’s talk at the Xenos Summer Institute titled “The Role of Apologetics in Evangelism.”

Erickson, Millard J., Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004.

See in particular Part Two: Truth, Foundationalism, and Language.

Groothuis, Douglas R. Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenges of Postmodernism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000.

McCallum, Dennis. The Death of Truth: What’s Wrong with Multiculturalism, the Rejection of Reason, and the New Postmodern Diversity. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996.

See also our earlier articles:

Principles of Reasoning This article responds to the common objections that the canons of logic and reason are just a Western way of thinking. Moreover, it articulates several of the most common informal fallacies.

Aren’t All Religions Equally Valid? This article offers seven reasons why thinking people should be suspicious of relativism.

The Perils of Pragmatism This article offers three reasons why thinking people should reject a pragmatic view of truth.



[1] Penner, Myron B. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context. Baker Publishing Group. Grand Rapids, MI. 2013.

[2] We list this Scriptural citations in the order in which they appeared in the work: Amos 5 (p.86), James 2:19 (p.87), Ezekiel 4 and Hosea (p.105-106), 1 Corinthians 13:9, 13 (p.120), John 6:68 (p.123), several passages in 1 Corinthians including 1:10; 9:22; 2:3; 1:17 (p.146), Mt. 22:37-39 (p.147), Gal. 5:6 (p.147), Mt. 22:39 (p.152).

[3] Erickson, Millard J., Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004. 90.

[4] Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 173.

[5] Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010. 23.

[6] I am indebted to Douglas Groothuis for this list of Scriptures. See Erickson, Millard J., Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004. 68-69.

[7] Erickson, Millard J., Paul Kjoss Helseth, and Justin Taylor. Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern times. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004. 72.

[8] Rochford, James. Evidence Unseen: Exposing the Myth of Blind Faith. Columbus, OH: New Paradigm Publishing, 2013. 132.