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The End of Apologetics?
“Something Divine Mingled Among Them”: Care for the Parentless and the Poor as Ecclesial Apologetic in the Second Century: Part 1 of 5
Part 1 of a paper presented at the 2021 Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, in Fort Worth, Texas
Apologetics is in crisis.
Apologetics may even be approaching its demise—or at least that's what the title of a recent book seems to suggest.
The End of Apologetics were the words that greeted me from the front cover of this particular text. The sentiment probably should have concerned me more than it did. The end of apologetics could seriously complicate my life, after all, since my livelihood depends in part on this discipline for which graveside services are apparently being planned.
As I read this work from philosopher and pastor Myron Bradley Penner, I was relieved to learn that it’s not the entirety of apologetics that is headed down the same driveway as the dodo and the diplodocus. It is only—in Penner’s words—“the Enlightenment project of attempting to establish a rational foundation for Christian belief” that is drawing its final breaths. Apparently the more appropriate title—The End of Establishing a Rational Foundation for Christianity after the Enlightenment—failed to warm the hearts of the publisher's marketing team.
According to Penner, no rational common ground remains today on which the Christian and the non-Christian can meet. To seek any rational common ground is to grant that ground to secularity. As a result, apologetics that attempts to mount an argument from any shared rational foundation could be, according to this book, “the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today.”
The use of rational arguments is “a kind of violence,” Penner says, that rips a person’s cognitive commitments out of the larger context of his or her life. Christians cannot correct this crisis simply by using rational arguments within the larger context of a relationship with an unbeliever. The arguments themselves are the problem in a postmodern age because the very notion of a common rational foundation is no longer true and because such arguments reduce a person to his or her status of rational belief or unbelief. When an apologist attempts to use a rational argument to convince someone to become a follower of Jesus, the rational form of the apologetic contradicts the relational content of the message. The End of Apologetics sees rational apologetics as an approach which is not embodied in a community, which reduces listeners to their rational commitments, and which unnecessarily separates form and content.
What apologetics should see as its purpose is, according to Penner’s proposal, to interpret 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.” The result would be a uniquely postmodern witness in which the content becomes indistinguishable from the form. A Christian who witnesses in this way declares to the world, “This is the truth I have encountered that has edified me. Take a look at my life, who I am and see if you think that it’s true. And I believe that if you consider your own life and appropriate this truth, you will find it edifying for you too.” Such a witness requires not only an individual but also a community “in which truthful speech is made evident by the quality and character of their practices and life together.” The church’s living testimony to the way of the cross reveals the deficiencies in the way of the world.
What I wish to challenge in this context is not the critique of rational apologetics in The End of Apologetics but the post-epistemological solution that the book presents as the most effective form of witness in a secular age. The effectiveness of the dialogical relationship that Penner proposes as an apologetic could certainly constitute one aspect of an effective witness. Yet this approach is presented as the best possible apologetic in a postmodern age, to the exclusion of others. In this, The End of Apologetics seems to have traded one reductionism for another. In the same way that certain expressions of rational apologetics might reduce the human person to his or her rational commitments, the apologetics of edification that Penner proposes would seem to reduce the hearer to his or her relational perceptions and experiences, if this method were practiced exclusively.
Furthermore, in Penner’s model of apologetics, the evidence that is recognizable and accessible to those outside of Christ in a secular context seems to be limited to the work of the Word in the lives and conversations of Christians. This evidence, while certainly not unimportant, leaves little place for history, reason, defenses of Holy Scripture, or arguments from the order of the cosmos—each one of which has, in different times and ways, characterized the church’s apologetics long before the Enlightenment was ever a gleam in any philosopher’s eye. In an attempt to reject the types of rational apologetics that succeeded the Enlightenment, The End of Apologetics ends up abandoning vast tracts of the Christian tradition that flourished prior to the Enlightenment.
The Exit Door You’re Looking For May Be Behind You
All of which brings us to a premodern alternative that The End of Apologetics leaves unconsidered. An examination of premodern Christian apologetics reveals a variety of approaches that address the precise problems that Penner perceives in post-Enlightenment rational apologetics. Many of these approaches were embodied in community and addressed hearers as embodied and relational beings. The End of Apologetics brushes aside any possibility of premodern solutions by merely mentioning that “the material connections that gave rise to modernity testify to the inability of premodern views of the world to sustain themselves.“ However, this casual dismissal of a premodern view of the world fails to negate the possibility that some patterns from the premodern church’s witness in hostile cultural contexts might still provide a solution that counteracts the dilemmas raised by the conditions of secularity.
With that in mind, I wish to suggest a possibility for apologetics that’s repeated thousands of times each day on airport runways during pre-flight safety briefings: “Remember, the exit door you’re looking for could be behind you.” The escape from the problems pointed out in The End of Apologetics may not be in front of us in the form of a postmodern apologetic but behind us in the earliest Christian centuries.
In the second century in particular, a multiplicity of Christian writers—including Aristides of Athens, Athenagoras of Athens, Justin, and the author of Epistle to Diognetus, to name a few—grounded key portions of their arguments in the ethics of the Christian community. This pattern stood in clear continuity with the apologetic described in the first three chapters of 1 Peter, where the moral life of the church is the primary defense of the Christian faith (1 Peter 2:12–3:7, 16).
For these second-century apologists, the moral habits of the church provided a common ground on which to structure their arguments. This common ground was not “common” in the sense that Christians and non-Christians both practiced these ethics or even in the sense that both aspired to practice these ethics. Christian ethics provided a common ground in the sense that even non-Christians could not deny that this was how Christians lived. This argument did not require agreement on the terms of a rational common ground; it required the common recognition of a particular pattern of life.
For the Christians who articulated this apologetic, the life of the church was not merely a context for the practice of Christian faith but a primary evidence for the truth of Christian faith. To put it another way, their apologetic was, at least in part, an ecclesial apologetic—an argument that contended for the truth that the church confesses on the basis of the life that the church lives. The moral habits that sustained ecclesial apologetics in the ancient church encompassed a wide range of countercultural practices, including sexual continence, truthfulness, justice, contentment, kindness, humility, and honor for parents. The focus of this research, however, is on a single strand within these ethics that was particularly prominent among the church’s moral habits—sacrificial care for orphans and for the poor. A close examination of this moral habit in the second century reveals an ecclesial apologetic that was grounded in the Spirit-empowered work of the people of God on behalf of the vulnerable.
What I intend to show in this research is precisely how the church’s care for the parentless and the poor functioned as an ecclesial apologetic, testifying to the truthfulness and orthodoxy of the church’s confession on the basis of the church’s moral habits. After demonstrating how this premodern apologetic addresses the challenges raised in The End of Apologetics, I will then briefly consider the ways in which an ecclesial apologetic might function today as an encouragement to the church and as a witness to the world.
Read part 2 of this paper.