Encountering and Engaging a Postmodern Context:
applying the apologetic model in Acts 17
Keywords: Apologetics, Acts
This article was first published in the Whitefield Briefing series of papers
- Vol. 7, No. 6, December 2002 - and is used by kind permission of Lars
Dahle and Whitefield Institute. A
printed version is available. Click
here for Lars Dahle's previous article on Acts 17
Contemporary apologists for Christianity operate in a very different context
from the preachers in Acts. The closest parallel to our own situation is Paul's
encounter with paganism in Acts 17. In modern western culture, few have any
knowledge of the biblical background assumed in the apostolic preaching to
the Jews. But those who wish to communicate the gospel to our own generation
would do well to recover and apply those same perspectives, even as Paul does
embryonically in Acts 17.
Going Beyond McGrath and Carson
Alister E McGrath and Donald A Carson are among the few contemporary apologists
who have reflected in depth both on the post-modern challenge to Christian apologetics
and on how to apply the apologetic model in Acts 17:16-34 to this specific challenge.
In their most significant apologetic contributions, both authors rely on the
Acts 17 model. Whereas McGrath interprets and applies Paul's use of God-given
points of contact in order to generate interest for the Christian Gospel - as
inherently attractive - in a post-modern context, Carson interprets and applies
Paul's use of 'the biblical storyline' in order to confront post-modern beliefs
with a coherent Christian worldview. This shows the legitimacy of the focus
on Acts 17:16-34 as an apologetic model in the post-modern context.
This paper recognizes these crucial contributions from McGrath and Carson but
identifies the need for further work in two key areas. First, despite
their contextual sensitivity, neither author shows an adequate contextual understanding
of 'post-modern phenomena'. Secondly, despite helpful applications of
parts of Paul's arguments in Acts 17, neither author has developed these arguments
comprehensively and contextually.
Postmodern Context, Mentality and Worldview
The words postmodern, postmodernity and postmodernism are used by an increasing
number of critics to describe key aspects of the contemporary social, cultural
and intellectual context. It may be helpful to distinguish between three usages
of 'post-modern' as a concept.
First, 'post-modern' has been used as a sociological concept to describe
a social context increasingly characterised by consumerism, communication and
information technology, and globalisation. Interestingly, the sociological concepts
have changed, from 'the post-industrial society' in the 1970s, through 'the
information society' in the 1980s, to 'the post-modern society' (or postmodernity)
in the 1990s. It seems difficult, however, to imagine a genuinely post-modern
society, in view of such persistent modern phenomena as the present dominance
of capitalism and the prevalent belief in technology. A more appropriate sociological
description of the contemporary Western social context would thus be hypermodern
Secondly, 'post-modern' has been used as a psychological concept to
describe the mentality of young people growing up in an ultramodern context.
Positively, this refers to a new emerging literacy among young people who know
who to navigate and communicate in a digital, interactive media context. Negatively,
this refers to a widespread feeling of a decentred self in an age of fragmentation
and simulation, 'where reality is being broken down into images …in a post-modern
pastiche of apparently meaningless montage' (Houston 1998:185).
Thirdly, 'post-modern' has been used as a philosophical concept to describe
the influential contemporary worldviews of philosophical and popular postmodernism.
The first is characterized by epistemological scepticism, philosophical pluralism,
and philosophical naturalism (Carson). The latter is a popular tendency to move
'beyond the 'modern', scientifically based view of the world by blending a scepticism about technology, objectivity, absolutes, and total explanations with a stress on image and appearance, personal interpretation, pleasure and
the exploration of every spiritual and material perspective' (Cook 1996:9).
Claims that postmodernism is 'the general intellectual outlook' (McGrath) and
'has a vast influence on contemporary culture' (Carson) probably need to be
qualified, at least in terms of the academy (since such thinking often seems
confined to the literature, social sciences, and religious studies departments
at universities) but possibly also in terms of popular culture.
An informed apologetic needs to take both the social ultramodern context and
the post-modern mentality, as well as philosophical and popular postmodernism,
Engaging in Apologetics in a Postmodern Context
Christian apologetics responds to relevant questions, objections and alternatives
to the truth claims of the Gospel. On the one hand, honest questions arise in
a post-modern context as a result of a widespread cultural openness to
personal stories and arguments related to 'the epistemic permission' of the
Christian faith. On the other hand, the Christian apologist encounter a widespread
cultural aversion towards claims and arguments related to 'the epistemic
obligation' of the Christian faith. This latter aspect is due to influential
objections from philosophical postmodernism:
'Nietzsche and Foucault, among others, argue that claims to truth often represent
disguised attempts to legitimate uses of power… With the rise of post-modern
notions of the self, of language and meaning, and of society, this issue has
become perhaps a more far-reaching cause for disbelief about claims to truth
on the part of Christian theology than older, more tired appeals to materialist
world-views as monolithic responses of secular modernity.' (Thiselton 1995:ix)
It should also be noticed that these post-modern philosophical attempts to
deconstruct the concepts of truth and identity correspond to the post-modern
experience (McGrath) of pluralism and of a decentred and deconstructed self.
This contextual understanding must inform the creative development of Paul's
arguments in Acts 17 (cf. Dahle 2002) for a post-modern setting.
'The Natural Theology Argument' for a Post-modern Context
Taking Acts 17 as his model, Alister E McGrath argues that the post-modern
experience of 'a sense of longing' points to and is fulfilled in a God who can
and wants to be known. This application of Paul's 'natural theology argument'
seems legitimate but incomplete. A more adequate application, however, would
have to address key issues related to the justification of Christian claims
about humanity, the universe, and God.
1. The post-modern experience of 'a deconstructed and decentred self' constitutes
a significant point of contact for Christian claims about fundamental human
identity in God. However, such claims about the adequacy of a Christian view
of humanity would have to be justified over against the post-modern re-construction
of identities, which takes place through various meaning-routes such as 'the
plastic self', 'the expressive self', and 'the subsumed self' (Lyon 2000:91-96).
2. Popular postmodernism claims to be open to the exploration of any secular
and religious 'story'. Due to this curiosity and an increasing biblical illiteracy,
such postmodernists may thus be interested in a Christian view of the universe.
If so, arguments on 'the ordering of the world' and 'the beauty of the world',
as indicators of a personal Creator and Sustainer, need to be developed for
3. The original 'natural theology argument' seems to presuppose a context of
competing religious claims, or at least openness to 'signals of transcendence'.
This would imply that over against a thoroughly secular perspective, such as
the naturalism of philosophical postmodernism, Paul's 'natural theology argument'
would have to be extended to include arguments for the existence of a personal
Creator. Despite their disputed status, such arguments may (if argued non-coercively)
present a challenge to post-modern naturalists to consider the possibility and
plausibility of a Judeo-Christian view of God. This presupposes that
the apologist can show that these arguments are more than Christian linguistic
and social constructs and don't mask a Christian play for power.
'The Ultimate Authority Argument' for a Post-modern Context
D. A. Carson argues that the argument 'God made us and we owe him' justifies
a Christian view of sin and divine judgment over against post-modern notions
of morality and sin as social constructs. This is a legitimate application of
key parts of Paul's 'ultimate authority argument'. A more adequate application,
however, would have to address key issues related to the justification of Christian
claims about divine authority as legitimate and as obliging humanity.
1. In view of post-modern suspicion of (absolute) authority, legitimacy becomes a key issue for the justification of Christian claims regarding
divine ultimate authority. The argument that the Sovereign Author of life has
a legitimate authority over life, as Carson argues in his valid application
of Paul's argument, may have to be supplemented in a post-modern context with
an argument for the non-manipulative nature of God's claim to ultimate authority.
A number of contemporary apologists and theologians emphasize that 'the theology
of the cross' constitutes a legitimate basis for such an argument.
2. In view of the subtle religious shift from obligation to consumption in
the post-modern context, obligation becomes another key issue for the
justification of Christian claims regarding divine ultimate authority. As indicated
by Carson, the meaning and basis of human morality seem to constitute significant
points of contact in this context. This would imply that a sequential argument
may need to be developed, where a) moral obligations to my neighbour are shown
to be inevitable also in a consumerist culture, b) such moral obligations are
shown to be objective (and thus point to the non-relativistic nature of morality),
and c) this objective morality is shown to have a plausible basis in the nature
of God as the divine Lawgiver. Thus, 'moral obligation' would make sense both
in relation to my neighbour and (ultimately) to God.
'The Resurrection Argument' for a Post-modern Context
McGrath argues that the post-modern experience of 'a sense of anxiety' is a
significant point of contact for claims about the Resurrection, and he also
develops an argument for post-modern seekers on the basis of the Resurrection.
These are legitimate applications of key parts of Paul's 'Resurrection argument'.
A more adequate application, however, would have to address key issues related
to the justification of Christian claims about the Resurrection as resonating
with ultimate human concerns, indicating the uniqueness and authority of Jesus,
and being based on sufficient, available evidence.
1. The claim that the Resurrection resonates with ultimate human concerns
need to be justified in the context of ambiguous post-modern attitudes to life,
where anxiety, longing and restlessness (McGrath's emphasis) seem to exist alongside
cynicism, irony and 'nihilism with a smile' (Wim Rietkerk). This means that
a 'positive deconstruction' of the latter views may need to be developed, where
the application of an argumentative strategy of 'relativizing the relativizers'
seems appropriate: 'By this is meant applying to sceptics the scepticism they
apply to others, thus pushing them out toward the negative consequences of their
own beliefs.' (Guinness 2000:101.) If so, the absurdity and despair of postmodernism
becomes apparent. This may lead to an increased appreciation of the adequacy
of the 'Resurrection hope' for humanity in a post-modern context of fading or
2. The claim that 'the Resurrection argument' indicates the uniqueness and
authority of Jesus needs to be justified in the context of a widespread,
continuous interest in Jesus as a figure of identification and legitimation
for a number of worldviews. In view of post-modern explorations of various perspectives,
the Christian 'story' of Jesus (as found in the New Testament Gospels) must
be shown as coherent and attractive over against such competing 'Jesus-stories'.
This may imply that the evidential basis for the various 'stories' is seen as
a key issue, over against popular post-modern claims about the irrelevance of
3. Neither McGrath nor Carson assesses the evidential force of the Resurrection
in a post-modern context. However, the claim that 'the Resurrection argument' is based on sufficient, available evidence needs to be justified over
against the historical relativism (i.e. the non-realism and the non-objectivism)
of philosophical postmodernism. If the general credibility of historical knowledge
is established over against this view, then the specific case for the historicity
of the Resurrection may be argued. Even though 'the Resurrection argument' seems
preferable in a context of competing theistic truth claims, it may even present
a challenge to philosophical postmodernism when argued on the basis of a 'minimal
facts approach'. (This approach implies using as historically established evidence
only those reported facts in the Gospels that are accepted by a majority of
contemporary critical scholars.). Thus understood, 'the Resurrection argument'
would have a vital role in establishing the credibility of the Christian worldview
in a post-modern context.
References and further reading
Carson, D. A. (1996). The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism.
Carson, D. A. (2000). 'Athens Revisited' in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing
Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson, 384-98. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing
Cook, E. D. (1996). Blind Alley Beliefs. 2nd ed. Leicester: Inter-Varsity
Dahle, L. (2002) 'Acts 17 as an Apologetic Model.' Whitefield Briefing
(vol. 7, no. 1)
Guinness, O. (2000). Time for Truth. Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype
and Spin. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.
Houston, G. (1998). Virtual Morality: Christian Ethics in the Computer Age.
Lyon, D. (1999). Postmodernity. 2nd ed. Buckingham: Open University
Lyon, D. (2000). Jesus in Disneyland. Cambridge/Oxford: Polity Press.
McGrath, A. E. (1996). A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of
Evangelicalism. Leicester: Apollos
McGrath, A. E. (2000). 'Postmodern Apologetics: Rediscovering Paul's Areopagus
Speech.' Oxford: The Whitefield Institute.
Thiselton, A. C. (1995). Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning,
Manipulation and Promise. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
Lars Dahle is Vice-Principal and Academic Dean of Gimlekollen
School of Journalism and Communication in Kristiansand, Norway, where he
lectures in worldviews, ethics and apologetics. He recently completed his Ph.D.
on Acts 17:16-34. An apologetic model then and now? at The Open University
through The Whitefield Institute
as a sponsoring establishment. He is also Vice-Chairman of NKSS
(the Norwegian student movement within IFES) and on the steering committee of
the recently established European Apologetics Network.
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