“The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context” by Myron B. Penner

Gratitude to whom? It certainly cannot be my Father if I’ve decided he doesn’t exist. A parable comes to mind.

A pre-modern one.

Dale, I think you continue to confuse this whole thread with an apologetics thread instead of being a thread about apologetics. We’ve already made it clear (not just for this thread, but indeed for the entire Biologos forum) that this isn’t the place to spar about whether or not God exists. We’re a Christian site. The running presumption of believers here will of course be that God exists so that our discussions can move on from that. Nonbelievers who don’t accept that presupposition in ways that you approve of (or who don’t accept it at all) are also welcome here, and just as we expect them to not always be harassing us about believing in God, we also don’t harass them about their different choices either. I don’t think you belong in this thread at all, Dale, since you consistently fail to see this.


A Macdonald selection from Lewis:

The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self, …

Man is not made for justice from his fellow, but for love, which is greater than justice. and by including supercedes justice. Mere justice is an impossibility, a fiction of analysis … Justice to be justice must be much more than justice. Love is the law of our condition, without which we can no more render justice than a man can keep a straight line, walking in the dark.


Love vs analysis. To be regarded in wonder or dissected and examined under the microscope? If only we weren’t so numerous it would always be the former. I recall a ten day hike over the Sierras from Mammoth Lake winding up in Yosemite Valley during which we went several days without seeing another person. When we did finally see someone two days before the end it was a treat and every detail was taken in with relish. On the last morning as we neared the valley floor the wilderness became as populated as a theme park. No one individual could stand out as a Thou amid so many of them. By the time we made it to our lodging the spell was broken. But if we weren’t so plentiful the wonder would return.

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Same with me.
I’m grateful for a truthful introduction. I am now also finding a whole “department” of writers and Christian thinkers who have been working on all this, while I had to be busy working on other things. I’m grateful those books are still waiting for me.

I really like how you put this.
I see examples of the grateful person, as well as the person crushed by the disappointment you had mentioned. With the disappointment, I also see intense distrust developed and used (understandably) as a protective armor. “I won’t be burned again.”

I heard a podcast once where a subpoint revolved around karma as ultimate justice. You get what you earned morally. No grace, no love. Pure justice.
Who can stand, survive under that?
And if the “law” that undergirds the system of justice is not so entirely condemning, whom does it not protect by way of uninteneded loopholes that greatly affect “disinterested” parties?
I think MacDonald was on to something profound.


And yet another MacDonald offering (from among Lewis’ excerpted favorites) - I added my own emphasis below where I think Macdonald continues to be especially relevant to this thread:

The man who for consciousness of well-being depends upon anything but life, the life essential, is a slave; he hangs on what is less than himself. … Things are given us - this body, first of things - that through them we may be trained both to independence and true possession of them. We must possess them; they must not possess us. Their use is to mediate - as shapes and manifestations in lower kind of the things that are unseen, that is, in themselves unseeable, the things that belong, not to the world of speech but the world of silence, not to the world of showing, but the world of being, the world that cannot be shaken, and must remain. These things unseen take the form in the things of time and space - not that they exist in and from eternal Godhead, but that their being may be known to those in training for the eternal; these things unseen and the sons and daughters of God must possess. But instead of reaching out after them, they grasp at their forms, regard the things seen as the things to be possesed, fall in love with the bodies instead of the souls of them.

And regarding living forever:

The poor idea of living forever, all that commonplace minds grasp at for eternal life - (is) its mere concomitant shadow, in itself not worth thinking about. When a man is … one with God, what should he do but live forever?


The one novel of MacDonald’s, that I can barely remember having read, may have reflected this but I didn’t grasp it. Thanks again for more from him.

A few more times over this whole passage, and I think it will open up more to me. This strikes home at the moment, being more and more aware of the limitations of the “place” where I currently “reside”.

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And having been influenced by Penner dwelling on a similar theme, I can imagine him critiquing (or perhaps elevating yet further) this notion of possession by saying something like: Actually, when it comes to the higher unseen things of God, we must not think that we possess those things so much as letting them possess us. At least I think I recall Penner saying something like that with regard to Truth. But I can hear MacDonald’s point here - addressed as it were to all of our lowest selves scrabbling about in the dirt and filth of our supposed ‘wealth’, desperately trying to grasp it. MacDonald would at least see that pitiable creature raise its gaze to at least see that there is something infinitely more worthy of passionate pursuit - even possession, before we could hope to raise our gaze higher still.


Thanks, Merv. Your emphasis on this (key) point and processing of it throughout the book discussion has helped me grasp its its importance better. It seems, by volume of text related to the concept, that it’s as important to Penner as you have come to believe.

Regarding Penner’s points on being possessed by the Truth you remember rightly:

From page 75:

If we are to follow through with this paradigm shift, we will need different metaphors to guide us as we think about the discourse of Christian faith. The goal, as I noted, is not to possess the truth for one­ self in a promethean act of self-possession, but to be in the truth-be possessed by it, not to possess it for ourselves. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes his reason for accepting Christian belief as related not to its truths per se–its ability to say objectively true things about the universe–but to his experience of the Christian faith as “a truth­ telling thing.”

And from pp. 100 and 101

What irony does for us in this situation is free us up to reappropriate the content of belief. It makes possible an existential commitment to be­lief because the contingency of our situation is openly acknowledged and our need to have ultimate or absolute answers is relativized. On the one hand, this ironic stance challenges all of our attempts and strategies to ground truth absolutely in human reason and make it our possession. And yet, on the other hand, an ironic stance also ironizes itself It understands the basic distinction between a capital-T “Truth” that stands for absolute Truth and a lowercase “truth” that stands for contingent truths. Because of this, the ironist realizes that our inability to ground Truth absolutely does not rule out the possibility of contingent truths that are adequate to our human situation. What the ironist rejects, really, is something we may call “the deification of the established order” -the contingent, socially constructed perspective from which our community justifies its beliefs and practices. This kind of ironist grasps the Christian point that our failure to be the ground of Truth ourselves does not mean that we thereby avoid the responsibility to be in Truth’s possession. While there is no guarantee that irony produces edification, it contributes to an ethics of belief precisely because it creates space for edification.
The most important aspect of prophetic irony for my purposes here is that it creates the possibility of witnesses to the truth that can embody the Word they announce. A witness is someone who has encountered the truth, has been possessed by it, and then attempts to pass that truth along to someone else. But the actual witnesses-the actual people, their lives-display or show the truth of what they announce and not just their words. The basis on which witnesses recommend to me the truth they have encountered, and by which they have been grasped, is that I too may be possessed by this truth and live in it.

From pp. 106 & 107

A witness of this sort has a much better chance of communicating the truth to someone like John, for whom faith is fragile and ephemeral­. Coming to terms with the difficulty of faith requires a life lived faithfully before God. One possibility opened up by a hermeneutical approach is that a life of faith is more aptly articulated in terms of a struggle to be faithful-to live truthfully-than as the possession of truths and absolute certainties. A faithful life is fidelity in, through, and despite the anxieties, uncertainties, and difficulties of belief in a secular age. Rather than thinking of the believer as the possessor of truth, who must then work ardently to maintain belief over against all rational challenges, it might be better to view the one who has faith as an “apprentice to truth.” To speak of an apprentice to truth in this way is to acknowledge that truth is not our possession but something by which we must be possessed.

From page 110:

I now wish to redescribe truth by changing metaphors from correspondence" to edification. I do this in order to avoid the modern split between objective and subjective (as if they were separate spheres of reality), which privileges objectivity in truth and denigrates an emphasis on subjectivity as a relativistic denial of truth. By my ac­count, truth (as subjectivity) is the sort of thing people need and desire because it is edifying. That is, what matters about truth is that it builds me up, is true for me, and is the kind of thing that connects to my deepest concerns as a self. This is a different kind of reduplication than an objective relation between words and things. The change from correspondence to edification means truth is reproduced in me. Truth is edifying when I am in its thrall, so to speak, when I am in its possession and I live in such a way that it explains me to myself and enables and empowers me to live honestly and meaningfully-with a clear conscience-with God and others.

And from 117:

Be that as it may, the significance of this account of Augustine’s view of truth in his Confessions is that it describes a Christian passion for truth that avoids the trappings of metaphysical truth and the modern emphasis on propositions. Truth for Augustine is not our possession but God’s-it is, in fact, God’s person and not ever our words about God! And our passion for truth is to be in the Truth, not merely to know it objectively through propositions.

And yet again from pg. 130:

But we must not lose sight of the fundamentally aporetic charac­ter of the truths to which we witness. Luther in his confession and Augustine in his passion for truth both teach us that we never possess the truth for and by ourselves; rather, we are to be possessed by the Truth (together with others). For all of the directness of witness, it retains its basic and ironic indirectness. The faithful expression of Christian witness comes in the form of both word and deed (and only in this bivalent form). We can never show the light of Christ and the truths that edify us except through our words and actions-and in an important sense these truths do not exist for us or those to whom we witness apart from our full testimony.

And continuing on to pg 131:

Prophetic witness is not (just) to “objective” realities but to a world and reality that is on its way to becoming present here, now. We witness to truths that lack full presence but are such that, as they edify us, they bring us further into the reality of God’s kingdom that is coming here on earth, where God’s will is done as it is in heaven. These are truths that transform how we live here and now in our everyday practices, and shape us into the kinds of persons who are in Truth’s possession.

And continuing to clarify on 138 and 139:

My central claim in this chapter runs something like this: When our concern is with how we believe, not only what we believe, and when being in the truth is just as important as possessing it, then our Christian witness must be such that it is edifying to those who receive our witness. Our passion for the truth is connected as much to the form our witness takes and how it is received, as it is to the content of that to which we witness. Because the truth we proclaim is not merely objective content that needs to be downloaded and saved onto a mainframe, it also cannot be communicated in a manner that diminishes a person in any way. That which reduces another person cannot be the truth that comes from Jesus Christ.

It was good to do a ctrl+F search on the PDF I downloaded from Internet Archive and pull out these quotes. I need to go review them thoroughly myself.

Thank you indeed for that extensive showcase of Penner’s offerings on ‘possession’!

One thing I’m still struggling to see with the apparent significance that Penner bestows on it is ‘irony’. I’m pretty sure I have a good grasp of what irony is (and use it myself), and I think I understand most of Penner’s thesis in his book. Except I’m not seeing the significance of irony in the same way he does. Maybe it just needs to percolate a bit for me and a lightbulb might come on. I mean … yes, I can appreciate the value that irony adds to our written and spoken language. But I’m just not making the same connections he must be about its more esteemed value in helping us be true people.

Thanks also for the bit from Augustine. Even way back then all this was being recognized!

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My pleasure. I want to read them over again myself. This was really a quick and dirty post.

The section on irony almost killed me. (Well, not literally. That was ironic.) I still haven’t figured it out, and will probably wait to go back to it. Looking over the quotes related to being possessed by the truth, I think I understood a bit better, but in the end, I’m satisfied that what I have from the book is what I was really “supposed” to get from it. Even if this segment of the proof is elusive to me, he approached it from enough other angles that I am satisfied that I “get it.” Or “get it enough.”

I was pleased that Penner included a bit from Augustine, who I also want to get to know better. [I really must find a highly abridged version of *The City of God*, for example. When the Cliff’s Notes are probably 300 pages long, I might find them satisfactory for my purposes. Sometimes “good enough” is better than “never at all.”] Actually, from the little I’ve read about Augustine, he spent much of his life thinking about these very things–truth, our access to it, what it is to live truthfully. He didn’t always get it right. Good to know we are in good company.

I do not understand all of what Penner said, but the exercise did give me a new respect for irony used as a prophetic tool. Unlike a simple decree telling the audience what to do (perhaps as Jonah said, “Repent!”) , irony leaves a space for the audience to participate and reach their own conclusions, led by the ironic comments and actions of the prophet pointing to that direction.


Thank you, Phil, for this very helpful explanation! It also reminds me that you posted some very good, insightful thoughts, when I was still banging my head against the wall of Chapter 3. I will go back to those soon.

Why can’t we be certain that we are children who are adopted and possessed by God. Paul himself was, and more than encourages us to recognize the security of that status for ourselves.

I don’t think anybody here (including Penner) says this. In fact quite the opposite - the whole idea is that we can’t dictate to others what their levels of certitude can or cannot be. And so in fact, not only can you claim certitude, you can even attest to that (share it with others - as indeed you are expected to if asked.) What is not allowed (on Penner’s thesis and according to those of us here who resonate with that) is to harbor the expectation that your certitudes must translate into certitudes for everyone (or even anyone) else, and you then label them as irrational or evil or something else lesser if they fail to adopt your perspective, or challenge your own certitude in turn. Not all claims to certitude are equal, to be sure, on the evidentiary level. If one demonstrates that they have easily become “certain” about such things as vaccine conspiracies or politically partisan propaganda talking points, that tells us a whole lot more about the person than it does about the actual state of the thing they claim so much certainty about. So one might prudently show care in their expression of certainty, lest they cheapen everything they say because after all … anyone who believes xyz almost certainly then can’t be trustworthy in general, and everything else they believe is (rightly or wrongly) severely depreciated or ignored. [Would that Chrisitans had taken this to heart before they sold their convictional ‘birthright’ for the pot of partisan porrige dangled in front of them by political opportunists, and their hard, life-won convictions over so many good things then became mingled with crackpot reactionism and gullibility of the cheapest kinds. Their foes could not have delivered a better blow to the cause of Christ. But even this in the end must be used of Christ to shake that which can be shaken so that what cannot may remain.]

What you quoted of me above about truth possessing us rather than us possessing it, was really me just trying to summarize Penner’s expressions on that - and while I think I agree - and even own that in the ways that Penner expressed, I’m not done processing that yet for myself.

For one thing, (and this idea also comes from Penner), there is a necessary subjectivity to truth that should not be automatically cast as inferior to any objective nature it may or may not have. I.e. (in what might be cast as a tension or paradox with the above claim), Penner also speaks of us needing to appropriate the truth for ourselves - or into ourselves. We need to live it or become it. So in that sense, I do agree with Penner (if indeed I still continue to read him rightly) that we actually should own the truth for ourselves. So when he says we shouldn’t pretend that truth is a possession for us, I think he is speaking of the propositional sorts of truths that modernism so heavily trafficks in - or perhaps more accurately: we shouldn’t pretend that any possession of such things we do have represents a successful mark of faithfulness for us in God’s eyes. I’m sitll processing how all this works together for myself, so while I’m sympathetic to Penner’s claim and rather think he’s rightly reading the apostolic project in thinking so, I’m still thinking about (and living into) the implications of this.


I still maintain that good arguments in ‘conventional’ apologetics has a place in encouraging and strengthening the faithful. We are, after all, talking about reality.

I would agree, Dale, and think that they are useful for believers, yet most apologetics are not of benefit when dealing with unbelievers. In addition, apologetic arguments may actually be detrimental to both believers and to evangelistic endeavors. If “Our faith is based on nothing less than arguments and analyticalness” then we are in trouble when a better argument comes along. In fact, that may be why there is a real fear of science and rational thought among some groups, as they fear better arguments because their theology is argument-based.


Sung to the tune of “our hope is built on nothing less”? Good one!

Um, shared personal experiences as well? Reality?

…if we don’t have any and all we have is believism.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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