Postmodernism & Apologetics

By Bob Mink

As postmodernism’s influence continues to grow, many wonder what impact it is having on Christian apologetics. Does it require an approach different from what Christian apologists have been saying for the past 500 years? The short answer (given in a way postmodernists might appreciate) is yes and no. Three relatively recent books directly and indirectly address the issue.

 

Direct Answer

Ironically, the oldest of these books most directly answers the question. Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (IVP Academic, 1995) is a collection of essays edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm. The 11 chapters are divided into five parts, with the first part setting the stage and giving definitions. Parts 2, 3, and 4 then deal with “The Apologetics of Modernity,” “Apologetics Between Modernity and Postmodernity,” and “The Apologetics of Postmodernity.” (Part 5 discusses “The Church in a Postmodern Setting.”) The various authors are divided in answering the question about the necessity of a different approach to apologetics due to postmodernism.

06_Mink_JNApologetics is about defending and establishing the Christian faith in the face of attacks and unbelief, and also strengthening believers’ faith. Historically and traditionally, since the Enlightenment and the rise of modernity, apologetics has attempted to do its work with rational, reasonable, and logical discourse and argumentation, with an emphasis on objective truth. There was a period when apologetics was keenly focused on Christian evidences. This emphasis in apologetics was needed because of modernity’s emphasis upon reason, the scientific method, and universal truth.

Postmodernism is not easy to define, but as the term suggests, postmodernism comes after and goes beyond modernism. Postmodernism is largely a reaction against modernism. Specifically in terms of the Christian faith and apologetics, postmodernism rejects an emphasis on reason and the idea of certainty with regard to the scientific method and ultimate principles. It is more experience oriented, denying that truth is the same for everyone; instead, it promotes relative truths for each individual. In light of this limited explanation, obviously apologetics must change if it is to influence postmodernists. Borrowing from Phillips and Okholm’s introduction, “As Dorothy once said to Toto: ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore’” (p. 15).

But not everyone agrees, and not everyone agrees in their disagreement. For example, within this collection of essays, William Craig argues against even trying to use a postmodern approach, but rather staying with the traditional and rational strategy. James Sire, however, suggests we may at first need a different approach in order to gain a hearing from postmodernists before they will be open to a more traditional discussion. Finally, Philip Kenneson moves toward a postmodern apologetic, concluding his essay by pointing to 1 Peter 3:15 and declaring what all believers can agree with: “The most urgent apologetic task of the church today is to live in the world in such a way that the world is driven to ask us about the hope we have” (p. 169).

 

Between Extremes

The other two books, seem to represent an approach between either extreme. Yet both N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperOne, 2010) and Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Riverhead Trade, 2009), seem to be appealing to postmodernists.

After a brief introduction, Simply Christian is presented in three parts. In his introduction, Wright tells readers his “aim has been to describe what Christianity is all about, both to commend it to those outside the faith and to explain it to those inside” (p. ix). Parts 2 (“Staring at the Sun”) and 3 (“Reflecting the Image”) include some traditional apologetics as well as helpful discussions about living the Christian life. But it is in part 1 (“Echoes of a Voice”) that Wright presents his case in a way that would appeal to postmodernists. He points to popular issues like the cry for justice, the hunger for spirituality, the puzzle of human relationships, and the beauty of the earth, and wonders if they might be “signposts” ultimately pointing to God. Wright concludes the book on a warm and practical note with a brief and helpful afterword entitled “To Take Things Further.”

After a brief introduction, Keller’s The Reason for God is divided into two parts. In the first part he reviews “the seven biggest objections and doubts about Christianity [he] has heard from people over the years” (p. xx). It is in this first half of the book that he most likely connects with postmodernists, as he begins each chapter with a report of a real conversation he has had with a doubter. The strongest chapter and best answer is chapter 7’s answer to the question, “How can a loving God send people to Hell?”

Beyond these introductory reports, most of the rest of the book is traditional apologetics, especially the second half in which he examines the reasons for Christian beliefs. His goal is to help doubters seek as much proof for their doubts about Christianity as they seek from Christians for their faith (p. xix).

Of course, many more apologetics books written in the past 25 years would be helpful, but these three provide a sampling. All three are scholarly, with numerous references and citations for those who would like to read more. Each is helpful in terms of the basic purpose of apologetics to establish and defend the Christian faith as well as strengthen the faith of believers. Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World is most focused on postmodernism’s impact on apologetics and is intended for believers studying the subject. While not specifically written to address postmodernism, both Simply Christian and The Reason for God are helpful. And both could be useful in opening a discussion about the Christian faith with those who are not believers.

 

Bob Mink serves as senior pastor with Discovery Christian Church in Moreno Valley, California, and as an adjunct faculty member with Hope International University in Fullerton, California.

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