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Recovering Traditional Apologetics: A Review of Penner’s “The End of Apologetics”

January 25th, 2017 | 10 min read

By Guest Writer

I’m pleased to publish this guest review by Blake Adams.

“The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context,” by Myron Bradley Penner, a Canadian philosopher and Anglican priest, calls for the trial and death of apologetics, which he claims “might be the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today”[1] (now and hereafter, all emphases in quotes are his). More than a thesis, Penner presents a portrait of the postmodern Christian, and expects this to be the persuasive force of his book.

Penner’s objective is audacious and impressive in its scope. In fact, “The End of Apologetics” feels at times like a summary of a larger, more thorough work. I found myself alternately agreeing and disagreeing with the contents, at times in the same paragraph, and I suspect the general reader will share the same experience.

A Reasonable Faith

Penner defines apologetics as “roughly the Enlightenment project of attempting to establish a rational foundation for Christian belief.”[2] Since the Enlightenment, all claims have been pressed to account for themselves in purely objective, universal, neutral, and complex (OUNCE, Penner calls it) terms. Apologetics is Christianity consenting to these standards by articulating orthodoxy in a manner that those in a secular context would find acceptable. Though well-intentioned, the outcome is a version of apologetics that is informed by and perpetuates an Enlightenment modernism.

A side effect is Christianity inadvertently finds itself defending something other than Christianity. Oftentimes, the change is so subtle that we hardly notice. Penner raises as an example that a number of apologists are duped into arguing for theism. Theism, properly understood, is a concept merely. It describes a number of religions, but it also may be discussed without reference to any particular religion. It is a proposition existing independently of any historical religious context which, of course, no religion is. No person, in a religious sense, practices “theism” or even “monotheism.” A religion follows, say, Yahweh: a divine being with a name who acts in history and has his own people. All deities cannot be discussed without acknowledging their earthly communities, but to do so in a secular age is to stumble into a sphere outside of OUNCE. Subsequently, religions that are more or less incomparable are lumped together against a uniform set of objections.

The Politics of Witness

What makes a Christian a Christian? If it comes down to holding the correct set of epistemic, OUNCE-defensible propositionstheism, the reality of miracles, etc.then demons are the best Christians. Penner makes the distinction that Christians not only know the truth, but a Christian is in the truth, which a demon is not.

Far from submitting to the Enlightenment project, Penner says “Christians, quite literally, are to display another reality and an alternative way of living in and ordering our world—one structured by the message of a crucified and risen Christ and displays the presence and reality of the Holy Spirit.”[3] The highest example of a witness is not an apologist who can parry arguments with his genius, but a martyr: a unification of the believer and the truth so complete that they fall and rise together. This is what Penner means when he says we are not to have the truth, but be the truth.[4]

To Penner, a witness embodies (as opposed to represents) a prophetic message. He is a “fusion of horizons” (borrowing Gadamer’s term). He is versed in his sacred tradition, but he is also fluent in the language of the world. Of the two languages, or horizons, a witness does not prefer one to the next: “With my words I engage my listeners with a narrative so that they can imagine a world with this particular truth, and by my life I show them it is possible to live in that world.”[5] Penner’s witness is someone who interprets society “back to itself theologically in such a way that both the difference between the way of the world and the Christian way of the cross is made clear to it.”[6]

The strongest chapter in the book is the last: “The Politics of Witness.” It is its own essay. If anyone could read only one chapter of the book, I suspect Penner would wish it to be this one.

Modern apologetics, Penner claims, focuses less “on the person and their edification and more on the individual’s beliefs [and the justification of those beliefs].”[7] In modern apologetics, the emphasis is on the argument and, naturally, winning the argument. This forces us to objectify persons into sets of propositional claims. To do modern apologetics well, Penner argues, we don’t actually need persons. In fact, the practice demands we put the person aside and confront only his epistemic contents, which is “a kind of violence.”[8] Meanwhile, unable to see the unbeliever past his unbelief, we neglect to edify and witness to him.

Penner adds it isn’t enough to compensate for this “violence” by supplementing modern apologetics with kindness or respect. Modern apologetics necessarily objectifies persons, even if it might do so politely.

A Traditional Faith

Penner raises some excellent criticisms of modernism. In many respects, he is diagnosing the same problems as MacIntyre in “After Virtue.” Both men agree the burden to justify moral rules in terms of Enlightenment rationality has almost completely failed, just as it was doomed to do once the people of a society no longer shared a common understanding of the world or the self. While MacIntyre recommends a recovery of traditional morality, Penner goes in the opposite direction. He believes that the only hope for civilization is to press past modernity, into a post modern context.

Penner also raises some poignant criticisms of how modern apologetics is conducted. However, what he rejects in apologetics is what has come to be its modern elements. As he admits, the apologetics he wants to end did not enter the world until the Enlightenment. What then of premodern apologetics?

There are many distinctions between the ancient apology of, say, Socrates and what passes for apologetics in modernity. These days, apologetics is conflated with persuasive reasoning. It’s a familiar platform to every American Christian: (typically) two debaters with competing views of the world struggle for rational supremacy. This platform is only possible if both sides are on the same level. Whatever their personal opinions of one another, they must engage as equals. This not only means they have the same opportunities to raise points and answer objections, but both have more or less as much to lose. When Ken Ham debated Bill Nye in 2014, creationist Christianity was as much on trial as scientific materialism. On the other hand, a premodern apology was presented in a courtroom, provoked by a formal accusation or charge (in the Greek, kategoria). Here, the apologist was not on level ground with his hearers. He was under a judicial authority who ultimately decided his fate.

In the premodern context, a person stood or fell with his beliefs. The only possible outcome for Socrates was his execution, his recantation, or his successful persuasion of the court. In any event, he has everything to win or lose. However, a modern apologist may walk away from a debate (even after losing) more or less unchanged in his person, property, or beliefs. The height of modern apologetics is rational acumen; the height of premodern apologetics is martyrdom.

The word apologetics originated in the courthouse. The Greek writers of the early church used it to describe a number of their writings. Perhaps the best known is the “Apologeticum” by Tertullian, written in 197 AD during a time of persecution. Though technically outside a courtroom, the same imbalance of power was present, as was the kategoria. Today, when it is said that “Christianity is on trial,” we do not typically mean it is (or is at risk of becoming) illegal. Rather, modern apologetics endlessly evokes an image of the church contra mundum—a pervasive hostility irreducible to a set of objections. We are not on trial, only disliked and disbelieved.

After the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which decreed empire-wide tolerance for Christianity, the practice of apologetics became less necessary, and the word made few appearances for centuries. It would regain relevance in the “new apologetics of the Enlightenment,”[9] when Christianity again met sizable opposition: the sine qua non of apologetics.

Perhaps the most popular modern use of the word is “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” (trans. “A Defense of One’s Own Life”) by John Henry Newman, published in 1864. While a beautiful and powerful work, this biographical account of Newman’s Catholicism, prompted by accusations against his character, is an apt example of the nature of the new apologetics. Namely, what is being defended is inverted. In his “Apologeticum,” Tertullian did not write as though he were under personal attack because he wasn’t. More precisely, it was the church and her orthodoxy that were on trial. In modern apologetics, however, it is reversed. Here, matters of faith converge on the individual. He is the one on trial, he must defend himself, and he must do so on accredited grounds.

The distinction between premodern apologetics and the new apologetics is a matter of epistemic authority. For the premodern, this would be tradition. Tradition was not only a viable method for preserving truth and developing it doctrinally; it was a necessity for accessing those truths unique to revelation and distant historically from the modern. The new apologetics, however, based itself on an Enlightenment rationality. The result does not involve belief (in the strict sense of “relying on somebody else”); rather, it is owned by the individual, arrived at by following “unflinchingly the demands of reason where it might lead” to prove “Christianity is the most plausible worldview a sufficiently informed, normal adult can adopt.”[10]

In antiquity, the hope of apologetics was to arrive at a point when apologetics would no longer be necessary. In modernity, apologetics is indispensable for an authentic faith.

Even if a Christian arrives at belief through non-rational means (e.g., a Christian upbringing, etc.), he must through a series of defensible propositions make his beliefs credible, not only to the world but to himself. Having accepted the terms of OUNCE, modern apologetics now assumes the role of justifying to Christians their beliefs. “What is essential to being a Christian is an objective event,” laments Penner. “[T]he cognitive acceptance (belief) of specific propositions (beliefs).”[11] The result, however unintentional, is a primarily conceptual Christianity that makes no room for “the conviction of things not seen.”

In his assessment of the new apologetics, Penner has much to offer. But even if we condone Penner’s case against modernism, there is still the issue of premodernism. Based on the contents of his book, it would seem Penner imagines only two options are available: an apologetics-less postmodernism or a self-actuating modernism. Naturally, we will come to favor the former insofar as it is our only alternative to the latter.

Penner discusses the postmodern Christian’s relationship with sacred tradition briefly. He admits that the contents of the faith must be received through tradition (because where else will he receive it?), but the individual must still “own” it. This is rather vague, but it indicates a misunderstanding of tradition which, strictly speaking, makes a claim on us, not we on it. In any case, there is hope for apologetics yet. Far from spelling its end, I am hopeful that Penner’s criticisms of a failing modernism will contribute to the rediscovery and recovery of a form of apologetics based on sacred tradition.

Blake Adams is an editor, educator, and writer. His work has appeared in several publications, including Salvo Magazine, WORLD Magazine, and the blog for the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Formerly, he taught at Seattle Classical Christian School, where he specialized in elementary-level Latin. He aspires to study patristics and hermeneutics at a yet-undetermined university. He lives with his wife in Seattle, WA.


[1] Penner, Myron. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013), p.7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.128.

[4] Ibid., p.127.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p.104.

[7] Ibid., p.149.

[8] Ibid., p.150.

[9] Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 33.

[10] Craig, William Lane. Five Views of Apologetics: Classical Apologetics (Zondervan, 2000), p.54.

[11] Penner, Myron. The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context (Baker Academic, 2013), p.128.