Myron Bradley Penner is interested in the way we talk about our faith and we should be grateful. His interest in the subject has resulted in a book The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context that I believe articulates some things many of us have already been thinking. While not everyone will agree with Penner on every point, we can all be glad that he raises questions that are helpful for Christian preachers to grapple with. I am especially interested in the questions raised for preaching in a postmodern context.
Many sections of the book are worthy of discussion, one of them is his use of Soren Kierkegaard’s distinction between geniuses and apostles. Geniuses are experts. They are the default authority for how we should live. Geniuses are the “highest person on the intellectual totem pole, the first in our pecking order of whom to believe.” Since geniuses are more brilliant than the rest of us, they have access to truth that the rest of us do not. It follows then that they are qualified to speak authoritatively about how the rest of us ought to believe. We understand this because we are surrounded by supposed geniuses.
In contrast, Kierkegaard suggests that an apostle does not appeal to reason but to revelation. He claims that “a genius is born” while “an apostle is called.” Therefore, an apostle’s message cannot be improved upon or added to because the message is dependent on the activity of God. There is nothing extraordinary about an apostle prior to the call. An apostle does not depend on human ability. An apostle’s message does not have authority because it is rational or brilliant but because it comes from God.
Penner goes on to draw a distinction between appeal and coercion. Simply, he sees appeal as invitation that sees genuine interest in a person. Coercion, on the other hand, reduces others and is in fact “a subtle form of violence against another person.” He goes on “any attempts to coerce my neighbor rationally demonstrate that I really do not love my neighbor as I love myself.”
There are significant implications for our preaching witness. Penner suggests that our witness be “nonviolent and noncoercive – it is person preserving.” He goes on to say that it must avoid “apologetic violence.” Penner wants us to ask questions like ‘is changing the mind of an unbeliever the same as inviting someone to follow Jesus?” “Can our methods and style be separated from our message or are they inseparable?”To borrow language from Penner, let us have fewer geniuses in pulpits and more apostles. Let us hear more appeal and less coercion. Let us deliver less reason and more revelation.
This is a hermeneutical issue. We are unable to master the text, we cannot improve on it. The text is given and is ours to interpret. Not to justify or rationalize. When we participate in hermeneutics we are joining something that already exists. We are listening and attempting to understand what has already been said. The word we listen for always comes from outside ourselves and is never due to our own ability.
If I understand Penner correctly, I hear him calling for a shift from a rational to a relational apologetic. A belief system that is dependent on provable information will disconnect us from faith in a mysterious unpredictable God. A rational predictable God is a limited God. Our preaching will benefit from wrestling with the idea that our individual witness is connected to a collection of people who follow an unpredictable God. This is a helpful discussion for those of us who participate in the witness of preaching in a postmodern context.