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Book review: 'Unapologetic Apologetics'

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

This book is an odd one. The premise is very specific, but the application and utility of this book cannot be understated.

“Unapologetic Apologetics” is a book of essays on apologetics that was borne out of discussion between a variety of former students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The story, at least to this part-time theology nerd, is quite interesting. The Seminary used to be powerful, biblical, and ran modules on apologetics. Eventually, they stopped. This story is told in one of the essays in this book, which as a story provides a stark warning to those of us who love study, love our institutions, and desire that Jesus be made famous even by people whose names end in “BA (Hons), MA, PhD, M. Div” and so on. This book seeks to begin to equip us to do so - I think it succeeds.

As a tool for apologetics, this is a useful one. Think of it as a swiss-army knife; it’s not perfect for any particular job, but it will get you started. The essays in this book are all written by serious brains, and reflect genuine and sustained engagement with the ideas that are discussed. And the range of ideas is pretty broad! Theology and Religious Studies students need to be jacks of all trades, at least at undergraduate level. Curveballs can fly in from all sorts of directions, and so a broad understanding of a range of key discussions is very helpful. “Unapologetic Apologetics” provides a fantastic starting point for lots of those discussions!

The first section, nattily entitled “Foundations”, is three essays that set the scene for the rest of the book. The first two of these are both by William Dembski, and the first is “The Task of Apologetics”. This opening essay is broad in its scope, but clear in its conclusions; “There is an inviolable core to the Christian faith. Harsh as it sounds, to violate that core is to place ourselves outside the Christian tradition. This is the essence of heresy”. We aren’t dealing with obscure Greek verbs here, this stuff matters. Dembski rightly challenges us to be “not merely a seeker after truth but an apologist for the truth”. The second of Dembski’s essays is particularly relevant, engaging with what he calls “The Fallacy of Contextualism”.  The problem with this c-word comes when we move from the valid observation that underlies moderate contextualism, and instead “embrace the dogma that contexts fundamentally determine what is true”. This essay is a useful one, with the bold concluding aim, “the goal will be to transform the Christian context into the secular context”. The third essay in this opening is the aforementioned history of apologetics at Princeton Seminary, which provides a useful case study for those of us seeking to be faithful and at the same time academically rigorous and critically engaged.

The second section of this book equips the reader to think powerfully about the bedrock of Christian confession; Scripture. The three essays here touch on some of the most important issues surrounding discussion of Scripture, and which relate to some of the most common discussions in apologetics. The first of these is Dembski on “The Problem of Error in Scripture”. His opening question hits the nail on the head; “Is it possible to steer clear of a wooden literalism on the one hand and a hypercritical approach to the Bible on the other?” C.S.Lewis once wrote a stunning essay called “Fern Seed and Elephants”, where as a literary critic he observed that many critical biblical scholars are in fact very poor literary critics, simply as they fail to understand the text! There is obviously more to it than that, but Dembski’s essay is helpful here. Jay Wesley Richards’ essay on “Naturalism in Theology & Biblical Studies” is incredibly useful, engaging with the underlying cultural philosophy of much of our contemporary world, and why it is a shoddy basis for engaging in Biblical Studies! The third and final essay here continues the Princeton story, with Raymond Cannata’s “Old Princeton and the Doctrine of Scripture”.

The Third section, on Christology, is where this book really gets going in my opinion. The opening essay, “Is the Doctrine of the Incarnation Coherent?” is a good attempt at answering a frequently levelled challenge to Christianity. This is solid apologetics. We then read “Christology and the “Y” Chromosome”, before coming to one of my favourite essays here, “Can a Male Saviour Save Women?” Starting with a refutation of Mary Daly’s infamous “If God is male then male is God”, this is a thoughtful but firm analysis of some of the issues that arise in the touchstone of feminism and theology.

The Fourth part, simply titled Theology, is a trio of excellent though unrelated essays. The best here - and my overall favourite in terms of utility - is Leslie Zeigler’s “Christianity or Feminism?” This is a superb introductory engagement with the issue, one of great concern to at least half the world’s population, and a defining issue in recent and modern theology. There is an interesting essay here about “Jesus’ Paradigm for Relating Human Experience and Language About God”, but I was more interested in “A Pascalian Argument Against Universalism”. Universalism is of course another hot topic, so it is interesting to see it included here. This flows perhaps out of the contrast of this book and its apologetics approach, compared to the more pluralistic and relativistic attitudes of contemporary Princetonian thought.

The Fifth part is perhaps the least useful, except for specific theological engagement with science. William Dembski provides two of the three essays, opening with “What Every Theologian Should Know about Creation, Evolution & Design”, and following that up with “Reinstating Design Within Science”. The bold title of the first of these two is, in my opinion, better answered and grounded by Michael Horton in his systematic Theology, The Christian Faith. The closing essay in this section is another interesting one, with a more philosophical bent; “The Challenge of the Human Sciences: The Necessity of an Interactive & Dualistic Ontology”.

The afterword makes an insightful observation that demonstrates the value of this book. Commenting on the (American) trend of seminary students losing their faith, James Parker III comments; “They survived university studies because they understood the pervasive influence of naturalism at the university”.

HT: Tom Creedy, who blogs at Admiral Creedy, and is our new Theology Network ASW in Nottingham!
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