A Review of ‘Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today’

By Dr. Doug Potter

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. is professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada where he teaches, among other courses, World Religions. His book Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford University Press, 2002) is divided into three parts. Part one, titled “Challenges,” concerns the pluralism, postmodernism, and consumerist influence found in North American culture. Pluralism is defined in broad terms, not just in terms of religion. It is understood within the context of modernism, enlightenment, and romantic thinking, all of which have resulted in a postmodern society that expresses “doubt regarding any claims to having The Truth” (22). Stackhouse concludes his analysis of postmodernism by saying “it is not clear whether postmodernism is a new, coherent paradigm that replaces the modern, or simply the rubble from the collapse of the old. But various forms of postmodernism aim to construct more than a hodgepodge of old and new simply to entertain, or turn a profit, or win a battle. They sincerely aim to liberate the mind and improve the human lot while recognizing how little we actually do know with no certainty that we are heading in the right direction.” (34) Consumerism is an attitude that “regard[s] everything and everyone [including religion] simply as commodities that might be selected for one’s own enjoyment . . .” (63).

Part two, “Conversion,” deals with the nature of conversion, epistemological issues regarding religion, and the approach apologetics should take. Apologetics finds its purpose in conversion. “Conversion,” writes Stackhouse, “involves the whole person as one transits from one sort of existence before knowing Christ to walking consistently in the Spirit of Christ in every respect” (78). It is understood as an intellectual, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual change and apologetics should contribute to all of these areas. Concerning epistemology, Stackhouse is content to carve out what he calls a “middle course—epistemologists sometimes call this view ‘critical realism.’ I believe, on the one hand, that human beings cannot know things with absolute certainty—how could we? Each of us, as limited as we are, could well be wrong about anything we think we know” (104). He especially adapts the term “warrant” to describe the basis of belief and his apologetic approach against some of the longer standing apologetic terms such as “evidence” and “rationalism.”

Part three, “Communication,” covers principles of communication, conversation, application, guidelines, and alternative modes for apologetics. Stackhouse insists on what some have termed “person-specific” apologetics. “We cannot assume that everyone else thinks as we do and cares as we do. Thus we cannot manufacture a ‘one size fits all’ apologetic and expect it to communicate well with every audience” (142). He further presumes that “only a minority of our neighbors is interested in theological and philosophical conversation.” And therefore, as church history reveals, it is important to present “a wide range of intriguing and exemplary modes of apologetics . . .” (204).  Some of these alternative modes are described under architecture, literature, worldly knowledge, and Christian community.

Some Positive Contributions

There are two areas of discussion particularly beneficial regardless of one’s apologetic method. First, his discussion and insight on the history and influence of postmodern thinking is valuable. All apologists need to become aware of the history, nature, and pervasive postmodern thinking and its cousin consumerism that reduce everything to a personal and relativistic choice. Stackhouse explains, “It is this confidence that has been lost in postmodernity. Indeed, this confidence has been repudiated. Instead, there is the postmodern recognition that all human perception and thought is necessarily perspectival, that is, a matter of point of view. Human perception and thought are profoundly and only subjective, and this in two sense: both ‘from a point of view’ (and so from where) and also ‘affected by the one’ (the subject doing the viewing and so by whom)” (26). Failure to recognize and know how to respond to this influence and understanding will surely result in an apologetic that falls on deaf ears.

Second, his ability to see and discuss the value of apologetics beyond just the philosophical argumentation is at times helpful. Some may need other modes of apologetics to capture and draw their attention to the truth claims of Christianity. Stackhouse suggests, “Apologists love to speak and write: Words are their stock-in-trade. Yet some of the most eminent apologists have realized that straight-forward, prosaic argument may well be inferior to other genres of literature in making a way for the gospel in the hearts of many. Stories and poems can be allusive, suggestive, implicative, polyvalent, and surprising” (209). The same apologetic consideration and extension must be found in the answer to questions that concern the kinds of buildings we build (e.g., churches), communities we create, and acts of justice and charity we carry out. As apologists, we rarely take notice of the symbols the Christian community is choosing and the messages they communicate to our neighbors.

Some Negative Contributions

There is, unfortunately, a fatal flow in the book especially with Stackhouse’s apologetic method. Stackhouse admits to following in the apologetic tradition of E. J. Carnell (247 note 11) and to having his views on apologetics shaped by reformed epistemologists such as Alvin Plantinga (ix).

First, there is a problem with his epistemology in apologetics. Stackhouse understands the primary task of apologetics to be making Christianity plausible (40, see note 4). Yet he introduces his apologetic method as skepticism “even from (and even particularly from) a Christian point of view” (10). This qualified skepticism is based on the understanding that all human thought is conducted as a “hypothesis—intelligent guesses—that are always subject to further tryouts to see how they fit our experience of the world” (88). “No human being in any situation has perfectly certain knowledge” (95). Why? Because “human knowledge is like human beings: finite and fallen . . . [and] our best ideas are merely our best guesses—not certain knowledge” (95). “So we see that none of us knows everything, and none of us knows anything for certain and with perfect clarity” (96). However, somehow he is able to believe that “after the Second Coming, the situation of absolute rational clarity will obtain” (149).

The careful reader will surely start to ask, is Stackhouse skeptical about his Christian view? Is the view that all human knowledge is hypothetical, just hypothetical knowledge? Does the human being that says “no one knows with perfect certain knowledge” know this with certainty? And is it known with perfect clarity that we do not know with perfect clarity? And, how absolutely clear is the basis for the belief that absolute clarity will obtain at some point in the future? I do not ask these to flippantly dismiss his view. I am aware that Stackhouse understands a self-defeating statement (93). What I cannot understand is how or why he believes his own epistemology escapes such a basic Apologetics 101 flaw.

Second, when his Apologetic method is applied to comparing and assessing religions, Stackhouse believes that there is no way any individual can know any two religions (much less all of them) well enough to make a fair and comprehensive comparison. “Given that our cognitive abilities are compromised by both our finitude and fallenness, the ‘mapping reality’ part of comparing and assessing religions is, frankly, impossible to undertake with hope of a comprehensive conclusion” (103, see also 111).

Again the careful reader must ask if Stackhouse knows his own view, much less Christianity, comprehensively enough to make a comparison or assessment as to its own truth. When did knowing something comprehensively become the testable criterion in order to know if it is true or false?

Third, Stackhouse presents a combinational approach to apologetics. This involves combining and using different apologetic methods (148-160) depending upon the needs of the audience. That may leave the door open for rational argumentation and evidence, but he still sees very little need for such ‘dogmatic’ claims. He steers the reader away from such methods that claim Evidence that Demands a Verdict and a know-it-all “Answer Man.” There is, in his view, more harm than good with such a narrow methodology. Such an approach will be more offensive to our postmodern thinking and multicultural neighbor. In short, it is not humble.

I understand that some have been offended by the way some apologists have used apologetics. I am not, however, convinced that a humble apologetic should be tied to a specific self-defeating methodology so as to convey the notion that any other way will be offensive. A good apologist can speak with certainty and humility (a quality for a person, not a method). Not only is absolute truth and undeniable certainty possible in some areas, it is unavoidable. Communication itself is dependant upon it and all good apologetic arguments are reducible to it. Perhaps this is the shot of reality most needed by our postmodern neighbor.

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