Reviewed By Peter Schuurman, Educational Missions Leader
Stackhouse, John. Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. (Oxford, 2002).
Finding a good book on Christian apologetics can be a winding road. When I started as a campus minister, someone handed me Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict. I found it a handy resource when certain particular questions about the Bible came up, but there was something in the strategy and tone that felt uncomfortable. The assumption that historical information alone is enough to compel an inquirer to faith seems naïve, if not a little pushy.
I’ve appreciated the work and writings of apologist Ravi Zacharias over the years. He brings a combination of logical argumentation, stirring narrative, personal testimony and even poetry to his presentation. While he does not have a PhD (which shows a significant degree of credibility in a university setting), his rhetorical abilities are impressive, and if you’ve heard him speak, you’ll have to agree he is more of a “public intellectual” than many tenured professors today. Pieces from C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton feature regularly in his work, and he draws widely in his literary references. Our own Brad Close is drinks deeply from Zacharias.
When it comes to laying the groundwork for Christian apologetics in postmodern times, however, and Alvin Plantinga’s works are a little over your head, John Stackhouse Jr.’s Humble Apologetics is a great place to lay some foundations. Stackhouse has had his faith refined through almost ten years as a Religious Studies professor at the University of Manitoba, so he knows our context well. You will feel you are listening to a well-informed colleague and friend as you read.
Apologetics After Christendom
Stackhouse begins by describing the postmodern landscape, shifts to a discussion of truth and religion, and then gives some very practical suggestions for dialogue with interested parties. Let me add that he does so in a way that draws deeply from the Reformed tradition--although he mentions some differences along the way, he names Wolterstorff and Plantinga in the acknowledgements, for instance, as shaping his views “in fundamental ways.”
In the first section entitled “Challenges” Stackhouse describes the audience to whom we hope to proclaim the gospel today. He makes helpful distinctions between pluralism, multiculturalism, and consumerism, all which he believes “provide opportunity for Christians to shed the baggage of cultural dominance… and adopt a new and more effective stance of humble service toward societies it no longer controls.” (36) The difficulty lies, however, in communicating with a populace that has become tolerant to the point of indifference, is fascinated by the religiously novel, and in some strange way considers itself to already be Christian even though ignorant of the very basics that such commitment requires. Stackhouse also mentions the challenges of science, world religions, the increasing commodification of faith, and the general backlash against the West, with which Christianity is so quickly identified.
Beyond Intellectual Browbeating
It is not enough to know your audience, however. It is imperative that the apologist understand what it is that God does in imparting faith in order to set a helpful strategy for engagement. In the second section entitled “Conversion” Stackhouse lays out the limitations and possibilities for apologetics.
Here he recognizes that a change of heart cannot be manipulated by words. He says the old model of apologetics “could easily become a form of intellectual browbeating. It was warfare waged on behalf of the neighbour’s soul by mowing down his resistance and presenting the gospel with irresistible argument in hopes that he would relent and believe.” (72) The goal, he says, is not to persuade anyone of the superiority of the Christian religion. Its not even to “just introduce someone to Christ... Our mission must be as broad as God’s mission, and that mission is to bring shalom to the whole world.” (73). This means being concerned about their health, their relationships, and their faith, and how it fits in the community to which they belong.
Faith, ultimately, is a gift of God by his Holy Spirit. In this light, Stackhouse says apologetics is a conversation that does two things: it strengthens the faith of the committed and it removes obstacles and clarifies issues for inquirers. Here Stackhouse distinguishes himself from the anti-intellectual Christian circles who consider philosophical endeavour a waste of evangelistic time, and on the other side of the spectrum those Reformed camps who declare we must passively leave evangelism and apologetics to God’s sovereign will.
Humble, Incarnated Apologetics
The final section, “Communication”, comes with many practical suggestions for postmodern engagement. Here he compares the appeals to experience and feeling, the evidence and reason strategy, and the (Reformed) worldview approach. He describes the latter as a “comparative” approach where the apologist recommends the listener line up their own worldview alongside the Christian worldview in hopes that they will see the Christian faith more clearly for what it is in its beauty and appeal. This is not an attempt to overwhelm the audience with the superiority of Christianity, but rather through clarifying things, allowing the Holy Spirit opportunity to work in a fresh way. In the end, they either “see it” or they don’t.
Other tips Stackhouse offers include focusing on Jesus rather than minutia, sticking close to the Bible, praying for your friend, recognizing they are on a journey, and in the end, admitting we might be wrong about any or all of this. Contrary to most apologetic strategies, Stackhouse suggests first listening and asking questions. This fosters epistemological, rhetorical, and spiritual humility; for we are merely human beings, sharing the gifts of God as we have experienced them.
Stackhouse summarizes, saying “apologetics is best understood as developing one’s authentic self so as to present one’s faith as helpfully as possible to one’s neighbour… we are to become better versions of ourselves.” (xvii) In this way, we see apologetics as an opportunity to “win the friend, not the argument.” (141) That makes all the difference.
This would make a great gift to some of your students who eagerly seek apologetic engagements on the campus. There are many good illustrations, including autobiographical stories from the public university scene. The title emphasizes humility, but don’t think that means soft and sloppy thinking. Stackhouse grapples with the sociology of our postmodern times, parses the philosophical debates on truth and religion, and all the while keeps us in touch with Christian tradition, centering us on Christ in the end. In sum, it’s a keeper for the campus minister’s office shelf.