Humble Apologetics by John G. Stackhouse Jr.
(Oxford University Press, 2002) 262 pp.
Dallas Miller, QC
Medicine Hat Alberta
The dust jacket for this book broaches the question, “Is it still possible, in an age of religious and cultural pluralism, to engage in Christian apologetics?” The question is a rather odd introduction to a book on apologetics, since the exact role of apologetics is to defend the faith in a time of religious and cultural pluralism. Indeed, in a monolithically Christian society we would have no need to defend the faith. The ambiguity indicated by this question reflects a weakness in Stackhouse’s book. On the positive side, Stackhouse does a superb job of describing the challenges to the Christian faith. Part one discusses pluralism, postmodernism, and consumerism in depth, and Stackhouse is clear and persuasive in describing the current sociological and ideological climate of the Western world. In part two, Stackhouse spends three chapters defining and describing conversion. Conversion is more than mental assent, he says; it is
a new outlook on everything; a new attitude toward and motivation in everything; and a new relationship toward everyone. Conversion doesn’t mean an entirely new way of life, of course, as if non-Christians know nothing of truth, goodness, and beauty, and nothing of God. Christians share with their neighbors many overlapping values and concerns because God has been generous with his gifts to everyone. And the Christian carries over into her new life all of what was truly good in her life before. But the core of one’s life is now oriented directly toward the worship and service of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the Christian is, in that fundamental sense, a new person (p.80).
In the first two-thirds of the book, Stackhouse lays a solid basis by describing the type of society and culture in which we live and by giving an excellent description of what it means to convert to Christianity.
However, the third part of the book fails the reader despite Stackhouse’s attempt to assist in communicating and defending the faith. In this part he seems to confuse “humility” with weakness in standing for the truth. Humility in defending the faith should not mean refusing to put our best arguments forward. Christians do truly need to be humble in our apologetic approach, as Peter so clearly warned: “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (I Peter 3:16a). But Stackhouse’s humility promotes the abandonment of the evidential or legal historic method of defending the faith. He openly criticizes the work of authors such as Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) and, by implication, authors such as John Warwick Montgomery who have developed a sound evidential approach to defending the faith. Instead, Stackhouse argues that we “should sound like we really do respect the intelligence, and spiritual interest, and moral integrity of our neighbors” (p. 229). His argument clearly implies that Josh McDowell, in using his particular apologetic technique, cannot respect an opponent of the Christian faith.
In addition to his confusion over humility, a certain tentativeness permeates Stackhouse’s approach throughout the entire third section of his work. He seems timid and reluctant to come down strong on the side of truth. Because of this section, the book might better be entitled Apprehensive Apologetics. As an example, Stackhouse quotes one author who describes the risks of religious belief: “In religious belief as elsewhere, we must take our chances, recognizing that we could be wrong, dreadfully wrong. There are no guarantees; the religious life is a venture; foolish and debilitating error is a permanent possibility” (p. 111). As a description of the risks involved with religious commitment, this may very well be true for the vast majority of religions. However, good apologists would then come forward with the historic evidence of God incarnate and proclaim the biblical message of salvation and the certainty of our resurrected Lord—the message that Peter and John presented throughout the book of Acts, the message that Paul proclaimed in his letters and encapsulated so well in 1 Corinthians 15. That is the message a true apologist will give to someone who pines about the risks of religious commitment. What is truly lacking in Stackhouse’s work is a full appreciation of how the apostles defended the faith in the New Testament world. They boldly preached only one way for salvation and may not have “respected” the “spiritual interest” of their audience. According to Stackhouse’s standard, Peter was somewhat insensitive to the spiritual interests of the rulers, elders, and Sanhedrin members in Acts 4:12.
We cannot know anything for certain, Stackhouse says, and therefore we cannot argue with our neighbors that we have “evidence that demands a verdict.” We simply must recount “what reasons and stories and aspirations we have” (p. 166). Surprisingly, the author cites I John 1:1-3 in support of this proposition, and then declares that John did not judge Christianity superior to all other religions. It is difficult to understand how one can read New Testament writers such as John and not find that the resurrected Lord can convince them of the superiority of the Christian faith. Would the apostle John, in interfacing with a postmodernist, agree that “no human being knows anything for certain” (p. 166)? I hardly think so—John spent most of his writing establishing that one can know for certain that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Indeed, Scripture repeatedly posits the proposition that knowledge of the Creator God is possible and culminates in the incarnate Christ.
Being humble in our apologetic approach should not cause us to be timid in our proclamation of truth; nor should it require us to become murky in our epistemology and accede to such self-refuting aspects of postmodernism as the idea that no human being can know anything for certain. This, however, is the downfall of Humble Apologetics and seriously detracts from the positive aspects of the book.
Finally, Stackhouse bemoans the technique of “debate” in dealing with truth issues, criticizing public debates used for the purposes of apologetics. This criticism is summarized in his questioning how any medium of power can convey the gospel of grace. Stackhouse’s question causes the reader to ask in turn, “How can a book on apologetics abandon and criticize the use of debate in the public square?” Again there is confusion—this time between a strong defence and proclamation of the gospel with the inability to love. But the question of love is not at issue; one should remember that the term “God’s love” is not mentioned once in the book of Acts. The disciples boldly proclaimed the message of truth to a religiously and culturally pluralistic world, basing their arguments on solid, historic, eyewitness evidence, going so far as to accuse certain people of the death of Christ. No one has denied the apostles’ love for the world around them. They all died untimely deaths by persecution because they wanted their world to know this gospel of love!
In conclusion, the value of Stackhouse’s work is limited to the first two parts of the book, which describe our current world and discuss conversion. Humble Apologetics is not a textbook on apologetic issues but is, rather, an attempt to deal with apologetic technique—an attempt that fails. Stackhouse reflects the postmodern confusion, in which “tolerance,” rather than dependence on New Testament teaching, is the highest value. With this in mind, the book can be commended in parts one and two, but the reader would do well to skip part three and focus on the apostles’ apologetic techniques in the New Testament.