In his book The End of Apologetics: Christian Witness in a Postmodern Context, Myron Bradley Penner says, “Apologetics itself might be the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith that we face today.” According to Penner, apologetics—not the promulgation of pornography, not the rise of relativism, not the surge of secularism—is the biggest threat to faith in the twenty-first century.
But, is apologetics the single biggest threat to faith today?
For most churches in North America, apologetics is not a priority. This is because they view apologetics as either an extra or an error. If it’s an extra, it can be ignored. If it’s an error, it should be impugned. In either case, both are grounded in anti-intellectualism in the church. And it’s this anti-intellectualism—not apologetics—that is arguably the greatest threat to Christian faith today.
In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll writes, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” He’s right. Many Christians don’t think very deeply. In fact, some Christians have come to repudiate thoughtful Christianity.
Speaking about the problem of anti-intellectualism in the Church, philosopher William Lane Craig states,
Our churches are filled with Christians who are idling in intellectual neutral. As Christians, their minds are going to waste. One result of this is an immature, superficial faith. People who simply ride the roller coaster of emotional experience are cheating themselves out of a deeper and richer Christian faith by neglecting the intellectual side of that faith.
Writing in Christianity Today back in 1980, academic Charles Malik wrote, “I must be frank with you: the greatest danger confronting American evangelical Christianity is the danger of anti-intellectualism. The mind in its greatest and deepest reaches is not cared for enough.”
Caring for the life of the mind is the job of apologetics. Unsurprisingly, it’s the uncared for Christian mind that leads to the undoing of Christian faith.
Summarizing the findings of a three-year longitudinal study launched by the Fuller Youth Institute, researchers Kara Powell and Steven Argue state,
According to our study, which looked at 500 youth group graduates, over 70 percent of churchgoing high schoolers report having serious doubts about faith. Sadly, less than half of those young people shared their doubts and struggles with an adult or friend. Yet these students’ opportunities to express and explore their doubts were actually correlated with greater faith maturity. In other words, it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence.
Do you see what this study is saying? Doubts are not the problem. In fact, doubts, when carefully explored, actually strengthen faith. It’s the suppression of doubts that’s the problem.
Anti-intellectualism can only respond to doubt with silence or shame. It can’t give real answers. It can’t provide a safe place for questions. Instead, anti-intellectualism would have us ignore our doubts and demand that we “just have more faith,” or it would shame us into thinking we are “bad Christians” for having doubts in the first place.
The majority of churchgoing high schoolers—over 70 percent—struggle with serious intellectual doubts. And anti-intellectualism only makes the problem worse because it gives the impression—through silence or shame—that these serious doubts don’t have solid answers.
The danger isn’t apologetics. It’s part of the solution. Apologetics is attempting to push back against the real threat: anti-intellectualism. Apologetics encourages students to raise their doubts and then search out answers.
If we want our students to know the mind of God, we need to train them to use their own minds. And when they do, they will be simultaneously combating one of the biggest threats to their faith.
Correction: This post originally identified the author of The End of Apologetics as Trinity Western professor Myron A. Penner. The author is actually Myron B. Penner.