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Cultures in dialogue

24 April 2012

Andrew Davison on commending the faith

Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue
Benno van den Toren
T. & T. Clark £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

Christian Apologetics: A comprehensive case for biblical faith
Douglas Groothuis

IVP £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

BENNO VAN DEN TOREN is the tutor in doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. His book on apologetics is exceptionally good. The theory is all the better for its gentle grounding in his experience of practical mission work in the Central African Republic.

The simple and rather brilliant basis for the book is to approach contemporary apologetics in the West in terms of principles learned from mission among those for whom the Christian message is entirely new. The fragmentation of perspectives in the West makes many of our daily conversations “cross-cultural”.

Douglas Groothuis is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. His 672-page doorstop of a book stands as a Protestant parallel to the Handbook of Catholic Apologetics by Kreeft and Tacelli (happily recently reissued). Readers will get the measure of Groothuis from his two chapters seeking to refute the theory of evolution. He argues that a Darwinian account commits us to thoroughgoing Godless materialism. That must amount to an apology for atheism, given that so many different strands of evidence under­line the truth of something like evolution. There are, of course, good reasons why Christians can take Darwin in their stride, but we will not find them here.

All the same, Groothuis presents material that is valuable and useful, such as a biblical defence of the very idea of apologetics, aimed at those who decry the use of fallen human thought to defend the faith at all. His survey of standard “proofs” for the existence of God (“ontological”, from design, from morality, and so on) is thorough and clear.

The idea of the faith as an inter­pretative world-view to be tested has great mileage. Unfortunately, it is undermined by his account of what it might mean for something to be true or reasonable to believe. Groothuis sees truth as a matter of cold logic (“the premises deduct­ively entail a conclusion”), easily captured in cut and dried state­ments that are breezily objective. There is very little here of the strange­ness and mystery of truth. It is also an individual matter, with little sense that we seek and inter­pret truth communally. Nor does he have much room for truth discerned in narrative, not even in relation to the Bible.

This is a failure to think theo­logic­ally outside the box of modern­ity. It recurs throughout the book, as for instance when his discussion of consciousness (an important topic for apologetics) assumes that the biblical alternative to material­ism must be dualism.

Groothuis criticises his fellow Evangelicals for embracing 20th-century philosophy, but also for thinking well of other religions, for flirting with evolution, and for dis­believing in hell. Most of all, how­ever, his target is contemporary intellectual culture, continuing the project begun in a previous book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the challenges of postmodernism (IVP, 2000).

Van den Toren could not wish for a better foil than Groothuis’s book to show the importance of his own arguments. There is no reason to suppose that van den Toren is any less Reformed, but somehow he inhabits an airier world, where chal­lenges are bracing rather than bruising.

He gets to the heart of the matter by seeing the contemporary rejec­tion of Groothuis-style reason as the rejection of something outworn, with which Christianity had made an odd alliance, rather than as a rejection of reason per se. The new intellectual landscape provides as many opportunities for apologetics as the one we have left behind, and maybe more. Not every feature deserves to be celebrated, but van den Toren is surely right to say that the apologist can welcome an approach to reason as an illusive, passionate, imaginative matter, and work with that. He goes on to explore this from several angles.

Among the varied range of van den Toren’s theological influences, Calvin and Barth feature promin­ently. He is critical, however, and a good place to sample the book would be his assessment of the weaknesses of Barth’s critique of apologetics (pp. 89ff). The book is scholarly without being intimidat­ing. It is written for Christians who want to share their faith rather than for philosophers.

In short, Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have been published in recent decades. Groothuis’s book deserves to feature on bibliographies as illus­trating a very particular approach; van den Toren’s book will have universal appeal.

The Revd Dr Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge. His most recent book is Imaginative Apologetics (SCM, 2011).

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