Culture > Books

Apologetics old and new

Books | Repackaging classical arguments for a relativistic age

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

Experts and eighth-graders tell us that we've entered postmodern times. The once-vaunted world of empirical science and enlightenment rationalism has faded under the glare of a new light, that of extreme relativism and individualized meaning-making. Four books published last year can help Christians to think and speak wisely in such times. Each updates classical apologetics (i.e., the use of reasoned arguments and evidences) for postmodern use.

Let's start with Reasons for Faith (Crossway), edited by Norman Geisler and Chad Meister. Geisler is a longtime leader of classical apologetics in America, consistently promoting the power of rational argument to defend orthodoxy, and contributors include many well-known for favored evidentialist and rationalist approaches: Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, J.P. Moreland.

A sign of the times is that such standard bearers are rewriting themselves into the postmodern world. So McDowell, author of bestseller Evidence That Demands a Verdict, makes the case for developing a "relational" (yes!) apologetic; he wants awareness of worldview to play as big a part as mastery of evidence in the defense of the faith. Other contributors are similarly postmodern conscious: For instance, in his "Aslan in the Public Square," Louis Markos urges Christians to "immerse themselves in the life and spirit of pre-modern [read, pre-enlightenment] Europe."

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So how do you do it? J.P. Moreland and Tim Muehlhoff offer practical help in The God Conversation (InterVarsity). An attractively formatted and well-organized resource, it contains illustrations, quotations, and stories that engage with five "defeater beliefs . . . assumptions that make accepting the truths of Christianity highly unlikely."

The defeater beliefs resemble a Letterman "top-five list" of postmodern objections. Consider the first: "Can God be good if terrorists exist?" It is thoroughly up-to-date and yet-if rephrased as "How can both God and evil exist?"-is as perennial as bluebells in a Texas spring. While Scripture reminds us that there's more to becoming a Christian than recognizing the fallacy of certain intellectual assumptions, The God Conversation offers user-friendly help in countering objections to the faith.

A third book, The Meaning of Jesus (HarperOne), brings old apologetics into the new world in a different way. A paperback re-release of a 1990s bestseller, Meaning models friendly theological dialogue. In it, two New Testament scholars, liberal Marcus Borg of Jesus Seminar fame and generally conservative Pauline theologian N.T. Wright, debate their wildly different interpretations of the birth, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Borg, a leader in the latest "quest for the historical Jesus," articulates as well as anybody the assumptions, methods, and conclusions (all flawed) of a modernist approach to Jesus studies. Wright, meanwhile, although a chief proponent of the New Perspective and therefore entangled in strenuous intramural debate around Paul, provides an appropriate conservative counterpoint on matters of the gospel. Ever adept on the page, he counters Borg's deconstructions with easeful aplomb and biblical insight. In terms of content, there's nothing distinctively new here for postmodern times. It's the exemplary friendship between the two that makes it especially relevant.

Finally, Kingdom Triangle (Zondervan) is J.P. Moreland's "manifesto" to American evangelical Protestants. Like Geisler, he has labored long in classical apologetics, especially in the recovery of arguments that support theism. But in Triangle, he sets forth a different vision that reflects his "deepest reflections on the crisis of our age." Simply put, he seeks to "mobilize . . . and instruct an army of men and women" to recover a Christian worldview, renovate Christian spirituality, and restore the power of the Holy Spirit to the church.

It is only within this matrix, Moreland argues, that Christian apologetics will have any value toward the kingdom not made with hands. Triangle is a provocative, inspiring, and challenging book, one that, like the other three, brings the old into the new. Whether it and the others succeed is up to the reader-no, the Spirit-to decide.

Matthew P. Ristuccia
Matthew P. Ristuccia


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