In support of this goal, I have asked my good friend Dr. John H. Armstrong to share his helpful series “The Postmodern Context and Apologetics,” which underscores the necessity of a new approach to Christian apologetics in the twenty-first century.
I am certain you will find this series extremely helpful as we seek to understand our rapidly changing cultural context and how we can most effectively engage the world for Christ.
The Postmodern Context and Apologetics
By John H. Armstrong
Christians have engaged in various types of apologetics down through the ages. The reason for this is rather simple—the questions that each age poses to the faith have required us to provide "a reason for the hope that we have within us." Doing apologetics is actually as basic as being obedient to Christ. If we love God with all our "heart, mind, soul and strength" we can never afford the luxury of avoiding the questions and issues of our own time. The church must engage in mission and mission requires us to know and understand our own age. This will lead us to engage in apologetics as a critical part of our mission.
Prior to the dramatic shift in thinking and reasoning that has taken place in recent decades Christians generally used apologetical arguments that addressed the scientific and philosophical questions of the time. This approach was sometimes fruitful. I employed this kind of approach in the 1960s when I was in college. It even produced some great popular volumes, like the best-selling book by Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. This approach also yielded some wonderful seminars and conferences where apologetics was understood as the primary way to provide rational, systematic answers to Enlightenment categories of thought. But late in the twentieth century this all began to change. Regardless of what we call this change, postmodernism or even new modernism, the game changed and it changed very significantly. Most evangelists, and academic missiologists, recognized this shift but many ordinary Christians slept through the cultural revolution we passed through. Now the results are so "in your face" that you surely can't miss it. My goal, in these articles and in leading ACT 3, is to awaken as many Christians as possible to the need for a new kind of apologetics.
The Impact of C. S. Lewis on My Thinking
Perhaps no single person helped me to grasp the role and importance of apologetics more than Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), the famous author and professor of literature. Not only did Lewis write apologetics, in a popular and readable form, but he thought about the important questions apologists typically ask in ways that still make good sense even though the context has been altered dramatically. Lewis wasn't right about everything. Who is? His treatment of some textual issues, for example, is flawed. And his understanding of some doctrinal matters is weak, but these are generally found in areas that are not central to core orthodoxy. But Lewis always got the really important things right. On top of this Lewis' written work is filled with profound depth that continues to make his thoughts and expressions valuable even, or one could say especially, in postmodern times.
You see C. S. Lewis understood the mind of the non-Christian very clearly. And he also understood the way objections to the faith can be answered in simple but faithful ways. He was right about a great deal and thus he remains immensely suggestive for all modern apologists, professional or not. I continue to find him extremely helpful and thus an excellent resource that I return to time and time again. If you desire a basic education in apologetics I suggest there is no one better to help you than C.S. Lewis.
Apologetics as Martial Arts
John G. Stackhouse, Jr., professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, has written the very best modern treatment of apologetics I know: Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (New York: Oxford Press, 2002). In the Acknowledgments (pages ix-x) Stackhouse thanks Os Guinness for inspiring him to give up on the only apologetics that he knew as a young Christian. He calls this approach "apologetics as martial arts." That phrase helps me understand why I gave up on apologetics for some time. I hated this approach and saw it do untold damage in the real world of bearing faithful witness to non-Christians I actually knew. Now, in the postmodern context, I have returned to apologetics with renewed interest and a new approach.
Our world is changing and this change is now so rapid that most of us have a hard time keeping up with it, especially if we are over fifty years of age. This dizzying change requires us to understand that apologetics is much more than "defending the faith." It involves, now more than ever, "commending the faith." The apologetics needed today is not destructive, but constructive. We do not need to blast away the viewpoints of others. It has always been more important that we bless, not curse, and this is true now more than ever. In the past three centuries or more the church lost sight of this and apologetics was often a subset of intellectual martial arts.
What is needed today is to get behind the traditional arguments and proofs, many of which worked only to some extent several decades ago, to a fuller understanding of apologetics itself. This new approach will see apologetics as "developing one's authentic self so as to present one's faith as helpfully as possible to one's neighbor" (Humble Apologetics, xvii). In this approach knowing the content of arguments is important but not nearly as important as understanding the practices of Christian faith and the deep theology behind those practices. This may sound like a daunting task but I believe it is one that every Christian can engage in at an everyday level of understanding. It will take work but it can be done. I will try to show how in the coming weeks.
About the Author:
John is the founder and president of ACT 3, a ministry for the Advancement of the Christian Tradition in the third millennium. He is a former pastor and church-planter, of more than twenty years, the author/editor of eight books, and the author of hundreds of magazine, journal, and web-based articles. Besides his writing ministry Dr. Armstrong is an adjunct professor of evangelism and apologetics at Wheaton College Graduate School, teaches in various seminaries and colleges as a guest lecturer, and is a seminar and conference speaker throughout the United States and abroad.
Respond to this article here
Subscribe to Michael's weekly commentary here
Subscribe to Michael's podcast here
S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.