In “The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context,” Myron B. Penner writes that our apologetics is a “modern” aberration, an unfortunate outgrowth of the rationalistic Enlightenment:
- The modern apologetic enterprise so many Christians engage in is a bankrupt venture, a kind of false messiah, and considers what this might mean for Christian witness and discourse.
Penner even argues that our rationalistic apologetic efforts fail to even represent Christianity:
- So it is that many attempts to articulate the reasonableness of Christian faith in our context paradoxically end up doing something different than defending genuine Christianity.
Well, what does genuine Christianity look like? How do we decide this issue? From Scripture! Jesus was all about rational, evidentially-based apologetics. He even instructed His followers to NOT believe Him if His words weren’t backed by the evidence. He then cited the supporting evidence – Scripture, miracles, and the testimonies of John the Baptist and of the Father (John 5:31-37).
Apologetics takes what is certain and uses it to prove what is less certain – Jesus’ own testimony. This might sound unbiblical. After all, how could we regard Jesus’ testimony as uncertain? Without evidential support, it was to be regarded as uncertain. In this, Jesus was merely echoing the Old Testament assertion that everything had to be established by two or more witnesses (Deut. 19:15).
Seeking evidential confirmation might seem like the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but it is also very Scriptural. Jesus routinely quoted Scripture in support of His own teaching, invoking the certain to prove what was regarded by His audience as uncertain.
When asked about divorce, He didn’t simply give His opinion, He engaged in apologetics by citing the Scriptural evidence:
- He [Jesus] answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female [Gen. 1:26-27], and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ [Gen. 2:24]! So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
The Bible is imprinted with apologetics. The Bereans were not satisfied with what they had heard from Paul. They checked it against Scripture, and Scripture commends them for exercising apologetic discernment (Acts 17:10).
Meanwhile, Paul would enter into the synagogues and rationally reason with them from Scripture:
- Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas. (Acts 17:2-4)
- And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:4)
Was Paul’s tactics a reflection of “genuine Christianity?” Apparently so! Many were persuaded through his “enlightenment” tactics.
While some of Penner’s brethren argue that Jesus’ ministry was all about proclamation and not rational proofs, Jesus wouldn’t have agreed with this. Instead, He was always ready to provide rational reasons for their faith:
- "You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe.” (John 14:28-29)
Jesus never directed His followers to, “Just believe.” After his imprisonment, John the Baptist was experiencing a crisis of faith. He therefore sent his disciples to Jesus to ascertain if He was truly the Messiah. Jesus could simply have answered them, “Just tell John that being my disciple has nothing to do with rational, evidential proofs but of just having faith.” Instead, He directed them to the evidences:
- Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised…” (Matthew 11:4-5)
This raises another issue. Penner is convinced that our apologetic efforts are bankrupt in terms of winning others to the Lord. However, this is only a secondary aspect of apologetics. First of all, we need to know why we believe. John needed to know, and he was given reasons for his faith. The Apostles also needed to know. Following the Crucifixion, they had abandoned their faith and were hiding. What then turned them around to the point that they were willing to die for this faith that they had now rejected? Apologetics – the evidences, proofs, the reasons to believe:
- After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
We too experience trials and doubts and need evidential reassurance about what we have believed.
It can even be argued that the entire biblical message is underpinned by apologetics – the reasons to believe. Moses explained to the Israelites that they had no reason to not follow God. They had seen the evidence of His love and deliverance from Egypt:
- Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire. (Deuteronomy 4:33-36)
All of Peter’s sermons were apologetic in nature. They not only stated what to believe but also why to believe. In his first sermon, upon the creation of the Church, Peter had to explain that speaking in tongues was not a product of drunkenness but of what Scripture had precisely promised. Peter first cited the evidence from Joel’s prophecy:
- "'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” (Acts 2:17-21)
The rest of Peter’s sermon consisted of the Scriptural evidence Peter brought forth in defense of the Gospel.
Enlightenment rationalism? Perhaps, but it is Scripture nevertheless. And it has served me well! As someone who always second-guessed himself, battered by one doubt after another, I needed the confidence and stability that only knowing the truth could give me. This confidence came only through a careful examination of the evidence.
There is a joy in believing. However, it only came slowly as God led me to examine the reasons for my wobbling faith. I can only thank God that He has been my tutor and not Penner and the hordes of postmodern thinkers.