No Need For Apologetics? Postmodernism’s Effect on Christian Apologetics
We live in an age of rapid change and movement. Faddish trends appear one day and promptly vanish into obsolescence the next. Today, many discussions about postmodernism would likely fall into this category. Flooding the discussion with books and articles –either decrying or defending postmodernism– many authors have set their sights on continuing this furious battle of tug-of-war. Meanwhile, large segments of the younger generation are growing apathetic toward the discussion. Nevertheless, the prevalence of postmodern thought accounts for a shift in the way people see truth. Although this shift has affected many areas of life in our culture, it has had a potent affect on believers in Christ--particularly, apathy toward learning and practicing apologetics among young believers. This article will explore the reasons for this growing trend and its unforeseen consequences.
When I began following Christ eight years ago, my friends agreed that learning to defend your faith was important. Studying apologetics was a way to solidify the confidence we already had in our faith. Apologetics served to further convince us that our faith was grounded in sufficient reason. But our eagerness went beyond our own confidence-building, as we also learned to defend our faith and answer questions our non-Christians friends had.
For several years, I have had the privilege of serving in high school ministry. During this time, I have noticed a growing resistance towards learning how to defend the faith. This is being replaced with a new emphasis on how God changes lives and finding ways to expose people to Christian community.
Each week, I spend time with younger brothers and teach them the Bible. During one of these sessions, I asked the brother I was studying with, “How would you respond to someone who told you that Christ is not the only way?” A blank expression immediately covered his face. Sheepishly, he responded, “I would tell them how Christ changed my life.” While affirming the usefulness -even the necessity- of sharing his personal experience, I pointed out that his response did not engage the question. Sadly, I suspect that many well-intentioned Christians, like this brother, would give a similar response to questions challenging the central beliefs of Christianity. How do we account for this?
The Starting Point: How Do We Determine Truth?
Without being simplistic, I admit that other factors contribute to this departure from apologetics. Nevertheless, in a line up of possible suspects, a shift in the way people see truth stands out as the primary culprit.1 People’s desire to learn and apply apologetics is directly tied to their view of truth. At the heart of postmodern ideology is a rejection of what some people call the correspondence theory of truth. This theory suggests that statements are true when they agree with reality. Once this theory is rejected, truth ceases to be defined by ideas and words according with an independent reality.
Swept by the powerful current of epistemic change in our culture, many have desperately clung to alternative theories of truth. Disillusioned with the correspondence theory, our culture largely embraces the pragmatic theory of truth. According to this theory, truth is determined by its ability to produce positive outcomes in someone’s life.
Even though talk of postmodernism seems passé, it is still common to hear statements like, “What is true for you is whatever works for you.” Too often, statements like this have been caricaturized to mean that any belief is morally acceptable as long as you are sincere. Of course, some people see truth this way. However, the implications of their view do not materialize until it is pressed to its logical conclusion.2To be fair, most people who make these statements do not hold to extreme relativism --the idea that truth’s value is relative to each individual’s personal belief. These statements reflect the fact that people see similar outcomes in the lives of those having radically different beliefs. For instance, when people observe a Muslim and a Christian being sacrificial, they naturally conclude that both religions are true. This is because both produce good outcomes in the lives of those who believe. This seems closer to what people really mean when they say, “What is true for you is whatever works for you.”
Traditionally, truth had been determined by its correspondence to reality. Today, it is for the most part determined by its ability to produce good outcomes in someone’s life.3 Although the pragmatic theory is appealing, when it is held as an alternative to the correspondence theory, it is subject to a number of debilitating critiques.4 To be fair, the majority of Christians have not rejected the correspondence theory. Yet, many have unwittingly buckled under the tremendous pressure exerted by postmodern thought’s influence upon our culture. Rather than rejecting the correspondence theory, many Christians have deemphasized its importance. In its place, they have shifted their emphasis towards the pragmatic theory of truth.
What Does This Have To Do With Apologetics?
Some may be scratching their heads and wondering what relevance this has to the declining interest in apologetics. We must realize that the way we view truth is the basis for the way we view Scripture. As we read the Bible, the way we view truth acts as a lens through which we peer. When we apply the pragmatic theory of truth to Scripture, then, the Bible’s truthfulness is determined by the effect it has upon our lives. When the pragmatic theory of truth guides our reading of Scripture, the Bible’s truthfulness is judged by its ability to produce positive outcomes in our life. Once we begin to see the Bible this way, we no longer feel the need to defend its truth claims. Instead, we feel Scripture’s truth claims are made clear through the many changed lives it produces. Consequently, the Bible becomes primarily a devotional tool that transforms lives.
This shift has also affected the way many believers interact with non-Christians. Many students I talk to who are committed to evangelism do not use rational arguments while witnessing to their friends. Relating their experiences, sharing their stories, and exposing individuals to the uniqueness of Christian community have eclipsed engaging misconceptions held by the people they are evangelizing. The hope is that when people see our changed lives and the love within our community, they will eventually put the pieces together and believe in Christ.
Having established a shift in people’s view of truth and the decline in apologetics, let’s look at some effects of this trend.
Effects Of This Trend
One trend I have noticed is a declining confidence in the Bible’s truth claims. Today many Christians think that it is unnecessary to defend the Bible’s philosophical claims, its historicity, or its inerrancy. When I ask them why, the usual response is, “These things aren’t the reasons why I believe in Christ; all the evidence I need is how God changes lives.” Yet we live on a secular campus where many professors have personal agendas that include eroding students’ confidence in the Biblical worldview. Tragically, these accusations targeting Biblical inerrancy are typically met with silence. Over time, as our faith is constantly besieged, fissures begin to develop in the walls of confidence we have in the Biblical worldview. Gradually we will begin to wonder if the changes we experienced are a result of social pressure, rather than supernatural intervention. Unconvinced of the Bible’s connection to reality, Christians will inevitably question the authenticity of change they have experienced.
Another trend is that people who are disinterested in learning how to defend their faith usually follow God only for the quality of life He provides. I know many Christians who will tell you that they follow Christ for the deep relationships, the fulfillment they receive, the feelings of excitement, etc. Though it is normal for a Christian to experience these things, they should not be the main reason why we follow God. We should live the Christian life because what the Bible says is true. The problem with living solely for God’s blessing is that at times we are unable to see or feel His blessing in our lives. Part of my burden for writing this article is that many people I care about have been affected by these problems. Still fresh in my mind is an example of a young brother I attempted to mentor. He decided that he did not want to follow Christ anymore because he was unhappy. Complaining about how he felt, he said, “I have been feeling this way for five months, even though I try to read my Bible and serve.” In reply, I told him, “You shouldn’t serve and read your Word just to feel better. You should do these things because what we believe is true.” I asked him, “Why do the majority of Christians in the world make decisions to follow Christ, even though they realize that persecution may follow?” My question gave him pause. From the expression on his face, I could tell he was thinking of how to avoid the obvious answer. Before allowing a response, I quickly said, “It is because what we believe is true…this is the only real reason anyone should follow God!” Despite all of my reasoning, he still decided that he did not want to follow God. My fear is that there are many believers just like him: unconvinced of the Biblical worldview.
In each of these cases, in the declining interest in apologetics has led to weakened faith. Without a secure ground to stand on during difficult times, many Christians will lack the fortitude to continue walking with God. Before looking at the Scriptural reasons for learning apologetics, let’s consider a few qualifications.
First of all, pragmatism is not altogether wrong. We should expect that if a worldview is true - in that it corresponds to reality- it will produce positive outcomes defined by that particular worldview. For instance, the Bible tells us that when we pray with an attitude of thanksgiving and trust, we will experience peace that surpasses all comprehension.5 This means we should come to expect inner peace during times of hardship as we follow Christ. Even though things like inner peace validate our beliefs, they are insufficient to determine their truthfulness. The primary problem with emphasizing the pragmatic theory is that it moves from a description of what is true, to a prescription for determining truth. Description is the legitimate province of pragmatism; prescription is out of its territory.
Secondly, I am not suggesting that we refrain from talking about how God has changed our lives. Examples abound in Scripture of people who testified about how Jesus performed miraculous works in their lives. 6 The beauty of telling our story is that it is irrefutable. In most cases, people are willing to hear you out when you tell them how Christ has changed your life. Some may even be persuaded to think these changes are real. This is not to be confused, however, with an affirmation of Christianity’s truthfulness. We should not underestimate the misconceptions that lie beneath the surface. Although our stories may stir people’s interest, they are inadequate to address misconceptions that prevent true conversion. As I pointed out earlier, most people judge truth claims by the outcomes they produce, not by their correspondence to reality. Therefore, many people walk away from these conversations thinking, “I’m impressed with how much this person has changed, but Christianity still doesn’t seem like the right fit for me.”
Thirdly, I do not mean to suggest that exposing non-Christians to the Body of Christ is without value. People who walk through our doors sense something different about the community we have. God formed the Body of Christ to serve as a beacon of light, directing our hopelessly lost world back to Him.7 Our changed lives and the Body of Christ make God’s presence known in tangible ways. Powerful as they are for our witness, they are insufficient to lead people into fully grounded faith that comes from being confident in the truth of the Bible and living accordingly.
Fourth, we must rely upon the Holy Spirit to convict people of their need for Christ. Jesus said to his followers, “…when He [Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of its sin, and of God’s righteousness, and the coming judgment.” 8 Jesus promises that our efforts will be aided by the Holy Spirit’s power. During Jesus’ life, the Holy Spirit enabled Him to perform many miraculous works. These works served to validate His message and who He was. Yet He still used arguments and evidence from Scripture while speaking to people who questioned Him. Why is this? It was because Jesus knew they held certain misconceptions preventing them from belief in Him. Only truth can counteract false beliefs.
Finally, I am not advocating a wooden approach to evangelism. Scripture teaches that belief in Christ is not a purely cognitive act. Jesus clearly taught that having certainty of our faith involves action.9 Simply understanding what the Bible says about Christ is not enough. James tells his readers that even demons believe in God and shudder while thinking about Him.10 Believing is more than having knowledge. Biblical faith includes placing your trust in what is true. Therefore, when we talk to someone about Christ, we must explain that biblical faith includes trusting Him. However, it makes sense to first clarify what the object of faith should be.
With these qualifications in mind, I make the following claim: learning and applying apologetics bolsters our faith and confronts people’s misconceptions about Christianity. Now let’s investigate some scriptural reasons we should learn apologetics.
Scriptural Reasons: Why Defend Our Faith?
Throughout Scripture we find examples of believers using rational arguments to convince their listeners to believe in Christ. In Acts 17, Paul is brought to the Areopagus in Athens to reason with the intellectuals of his day. After carefully studying their culture, Paul begins his speech by referring to an altar with the inscription ‘To An Unknown God.’ Drawing upon their preconceptions, Paul uses what they believe as a way to engage misconceptions they have about reality. Greeks during this time believed in a pantheon of gods. But their monument ‘To An Unknown God’ revealed the inadequacy of their beliefs. Understanding this, Paul begins his argument by advancing monotheism. As we examine this example, we are able to glean a couple of principles. Since Paul was sensitive to the culture he was evangelizing to, he was able to pinpoint where the discussion needed to begin. Secondly, even though he was culturally sensitive, he realized their misconceptions held them back from authentic faith in Christ. That is why he challenged their view of reality.
Another example found in the early church is Stephen’s defense of the Gospel in Acts chapter 7. Like Paul, Stephen uses people’s presuppositions to introduce Christ. Unlike Paul, however, Stephen reasons from Scripture to confront his audience’s false beliefs about obtaining right standing before God. Like many in our culture, Stephen’s audience had preconceived ideas about the Bible, holding them back from faith in Christ. This example serves to show us that Scripture was used to clarify people’s theological confusion in the early church.
Peter’s speech at Pentecost is like Stephen’s defense, but distinct in that Peter uses Biblical prophecy to validate Christ. During the first century, many Jews had messianic expectations that did not fit with Christ’s death. Speaking to the crowd in Jerusalem, Peter cites the books of Joel and Psalms to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah they were waiting for. Here we find yet another form of rational argument that was used to authenticate Jesus’ ministry. Particular to this situation, biblical prophecy was used to authenticate Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah.
Along the same vein, Jesus used an ingenious argument from Scripture to prove the afterlife. The Sadducees, a sect of Judaism, rejected all other books of the Old Testament except the first five. Since there is no mention of the afterlife in these books, they believed that an afterlife did not exist. Hoping to stump Jesus they asked him,
Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?11
Moses commanded that if your brother died without children, it was your obligation to marry his wife and bear children with her. In the parable given by the Sadducees, the six brothers died, each after marrying the original brother’s wife. Finally, the woman dies. Questioning the reality of the resurrection, they wanted to know whose wife she would be after their death. Christ’s response is remarkable:
At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead--have you not read what God said to you, `I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living.12
Jesus begins by assuring them that marriage will be useless in heaven. But to confront their skepticism, he quotes a familiar formula used when referring to God in the Torah. Throughout the Torah, God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Designating God this way helped the Israelites remember His faithfulness to their fathers. Quoting this designation for God, he tells the Sadducees that God is not the God of the dead, but the living. At first glance, it is difficult to understand what Jesus was trying to say. Unlocking this argument requires understanding when the Torah was written. At the time when Moses wrote the Torah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had long since died. Jesus points out that, if God is the God of the living, then why would He attach His name to the patriarchs who were long since dead? The answer is simple. They were not dead, but were preserved in the afterlife! As we examine this extraordinary interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees; there are a couple of things to note. First, Jesus demonstrated exceeding creativity while arguing with his opponents. On top of this, Jesus had a response ready for apparent contradictions within Scripture.
First Corinthians provides another example of Paul giving evidence for belief in Christ. False teaching seemed to follow Paul wherever he went. After Paul left Corinth, people in the church began to deny the resurrection. Addressing this issue, Paul presents three arguments defending its reality.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.13
The first line of argument Paul gives is that “Christ died according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, [and] that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Based on what he mentions, it is clear that Paul is quoting from the famous Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. Written seven centuries before the time of Christ, Isaiah 53 describes the death and resurrection of Christ in detail. Next, he gives the Corinthians eyewitness evidence of Christ’s resurrection. He tells us that Christ appeared to Peter and the twelve after His resurrection. Furthermore, he tells the Corinthians that Christ appeared to more than five hundred people, most of who were still alive at the time Paul was writing his letter. Finally, he tells his audience that Jesus appeared to James, the apostles, and to himself. What is unique about this example is that Paul used eyewitness testimony that could be verified to prove Jesus’ resurrection.
In Romans 1, Paul gives his audience extra-biblical reasons for believing in God. Within the context, Paul is describing people who exclude God from their lives by “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” He says,
…because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.14
Pointing to nature, Paul tells his audience that God has made himself known in two ways. First of all, what is known about God “is evident within them [people].” Things like a sense of morality, freewill, and our desire for a meaningful life are evident in our lives. Looking at these things suggests that we are not merely natural. Instead, God has created us in His image. The second thing Paul mentions is the creation. He says, “[God’s] invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen…through what has been made.” What has been made is referring to the creation. As we stand in awe of the incredible complexity of the universe and intricacy of life, we are faced with powerful evidence of God’s existence. Here, each reason Paul gives for the existence of God is extra-biblical; Paul uses God’s imprint in nature to demonstrate His existence.
New Testament authors also teach that we should use rational arguments to defend our faith. The first example is in second Corinthians 5. Paul says, “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” In the larger context of the passage, Paul is talking about being an ambassador for Christ in this world. What Paul is trying to communicate is that a good ambassador must be persuasive.
While talking about spiritual warfare, Paul says, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God.”15 Paul in these verses tells his readers that spiritual warfare takes place largely within the mental arena. Breaking down fortresses built by Satan is accomplished through persuasion and evidence. The aim is to dismantle beliefs preventing people from coming into a relationship with God.
Finally, in no uncertain terms, Peter commands his audience to, “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.”16 The word defense used here is the word apologia--the root of our word “apologetics.” Aside from this, Peter tells us that we must be armed with good reasons for our hope in Christ. Giving reasons suggests more than people sensing the benefits of the Christian life. People need to know that our faith is not blind--that we have solid reasons for what we believe.
To summarize, the Scriptural examples above are only a small sample of the plethora of passages that could be cited. The point is that Scripture is filled with examples of--and even imperatives to--learn how to defend our faith using rational arguments.
Above, I argue that the declining interest in apologetics is related to the way our culture sees truth. More specifically, the pragmatic theory of truth has eclipsed the correspondence theory’s importance for obtaining truth. Consequently, Scripture has been reduced to a devotional tool that changes lives. Viewing the Bible this way results in weakened faith. Lastly, I provide a brief survey of New Testament passages that are either examples of, or imperatives to, defend our faith using rational arguments.
In closing, I want to share one more story. Recently, I went to Israel. Before I left, I expected that I would have a spiritual epiphany like Malcolm X when he went to Mecca. While I was there, I would go to a Biblical site and anticipate having a spiritual experience. As I walked around the site I would stop when no one was around, and in a childish way, I would tense my muscles, hold my breath, and concentrate as hard as I could –hoping to have some sort of revelation. Each time did this, the same thing happened –nothing. Towards the end of the trip, I was talking to a brother and mentioned my frustration. He told me that he did not have an experience either. He explained, “I guess when I came here, I was already convinced about the Bible’s truthfulness. Being here simply gives me a mental picture of where these events took place and further confirms their reality.” When he said this, I realized why I did not have a spiritual experience while I was there: I was already convinced of the Bible’s truthfulness. Being there and seeing the biblical sites simply confirmed what I already thought was true. As Christian believers, we must strive to be Christians who are able to stand on the truth alone. Moreover, it is our obligation to ensure that following generations adopt the same attitude.
1 Other reasons for the growing disinterest in apologetics include: the anti-intellectual climate we live in and our culture’s resistance to rational arguments regarding metaphysical issues. For additional reading on these contributing factors see J. P. Moreland, Love God With all your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress Publishing Group, 1997)
2 For a comprehensive and readable critique of postmodernism, see Dennis McCallum, The Death of Truth: Responding to Multiculturalism, the Rejection of Reason and the New Postmodern Diversity. (Grand Rapids: Bethany House Publishing, 1996)
3 In addition to the pragmatic theory being a live alternative to the correspondence theory of truth, others have replaced the correspondence theory of truth with the “coherence theory.” This epistemological theory suggests that if a matrix of beliefs cohere with one another, then they are true. This theory of truth, like the pragmatic theory of truth is susceptible to a number of devastating critiques. For a thorough critique see Millard Erickson, Reclaiming The Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation In Postmodern Times. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004)
4 Millard Erickson, Reclaiming The Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation In Postmodern Times. 65-79.
5 Philippians 4:8, 9
6 John 9:25
7 Matthew 5:14-16
8 John 16:8,9
9 John 7:17
10 James 2:19
11 Matthew 22:24-28
12 Matthew 22:30-32
13 1 Corinthians 15:3-7
14 Romans 1:19-20
15 2 Corinthians 10:4-5
16 1 Peter 3:15
Erickson, Millard. Reclaiming The Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation In Postmodern Times. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2004.
McCallum, Dennis. The Death of Truth: Responding to Multiculturalism, the Rejection of Reason and the New Postmodern Diversity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Bethany House Publishing, 1996.
Moreland, J. P. Love God With all your Mind: The Role of Reason in the Life of the Soul. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress Publishing Group, 1997.