Apologetics and the Postmodern Turn

Part 1: Belief in the Existence of God

In the Modern Era, in which all things needed to be proven by way of Reason, the very existence of God was questioned by atheistic moderns and defended by theistic moderns. The major modern theistic arguments were these:
  • Ontological Argument: If you can conceive the concept of God, then God must exist (most popularly articulated by Anselm).
  • Cosmological Argument: If the universe exists, then it had a cause (see William Lane Craig).
  • Teleological Argument: If things that are designed are so for a specific purpose (end, telos), then the universe infers intelligent design as well and thus an intelligent designer (see William Paley).
  • Moral Argument: If we know good from evil, valuing the good over evil, then there must be a Being that is the embodiment of ultimate good (most famously voiced by C.S. Lewis)
  • Cumulative Argument: Looks at all the above and says, “It is likely that God exists” (see Richard Swinburne).

Now, in a Postmodern Era, I think that the notion of the existence of God may be something that we can simply assume already exists in the hearts and minds of people (there may be staunch atheists in postmodernity, but I think they may be fewer and fewer as the postmodern turn shows the deficiency of an atheistic, scientific worldview). The notion that we can build TO a belief in the existence of God from some foundational belief relies too heavily on modernism's Foundationalism, and as Nicolas Wolterstorff wrote, "on all fronts foundationalism is in bad shape. It seems to me that there is nothing to do but give it up for mortally ill and learn to live in its absence" (Wolterstorff, Reason Within the Bounds of Reason [Eerdmans, 1976]). After all, according to Wolterstorff, there are precious few beliefs that can properly take their place among the foundations. "If there are few such foundational beliefs, then there is a precious thin evidential base to support the rest of one's beliefs" (Kelly James Clark, summarizing Wolterstorff's view of foundationalism in Return to Reason [Eerdmans, 1990]).

Therefore, a postmodern apologetic will harken back to a Augustine's "I believe in order to understand." In other words, a postmodern apologetic affirms that there is no certainty apart from faith, and the only kind of understanding possible for us humans grows in the environment of faith.

It will also harken back to a Reformational Epistemology, one that reflects Ecclesiastes 3:11, “God has set eternity in the hearts of men."

John Calvin wrote:

“There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. If ignorance of God is to be looked for anywhere, surely one is most likely to find an example of it among the more backward folk and those more remote from civilization. Yet there is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God. So deeply does the common conception occupy the minds of all, so tenacious does it inhere in the hearts of all! …There lies in this a tacit confession of a sense of deity in the hearts of all…From this we conclude that it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget.” (as quoted by Alvin Plantinga, "Reason and Belief in God" in Plantinga & Wolterstorff, Faith and Rationality [Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1983])

Alvin Plantinga, the great Reformed thinker of the 20th Century, maintained that the notion, “God Exists,” does not need to be proved, for it is foundational in and of itself. He affirmed the idea that there are "Basic Beliefs" and "Nonbasic Beliefs," but whereas according to classical modern apologetics, belief in God is a "Nonbasic Belief" (that which must be argued to), Plantinga showed that belief in God is indeed a “Basic Belief”—that man has a basic, innate belief in God (see the essay cited above).

This, I think, should be the way to do postmodern apologetics concerning the existence of God.

NEXT: Incarnational Apologetics

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caucazhin said...

And cALVIN and the pURITANS had alot of those people burned at the stake or turned into slaves.
19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
20 Therefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink;
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.
46 And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life.

11 for there is no respect of persons with God.
12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law;
13 for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified:
14 (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves;
15 in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them);
16 in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.

Ted Gossard said...

Thanks for this. Good stuff.

lovelygirl said...

interesting stuff!

sometimes i wonder if all of our "proof" and debates on God's existence is not just a waste of time. if a man/woman/child wants to know/question/reason then i believe like you said, "he sets eternity in the hearts of all men" and that God is big enough to explain himself and place his love in people's hearts. that's just how i see it.

Bob Robinson said...


[[ God is big enough to explain himself and place his love in people's hearts ]]

I like that. The problem with the modern approach is that it treats God as an "object" to be studied and explained, like a turtle.

But the God we know is not an object but a person...
...who actually WANTS to be known, and has the POWER to make it happen!

DLW said...

Hey, have you read my letter to Warren Buffett yet?

I did some simple calculations and think my idea to have the US open up a public mutual fund using the SSTF could give a better return and seriously reduce the overall volatility of the NYSE...


sacred vapor said...

I've been thinking about how apologetics would best operate in a postmodern world, I'm not so sure the evidentialist approach should be abandoned as 'making a case' is always a valuable option -- hence our justice system is built on this, not just science.

I do understand that postmodern thought is bent towards experiential rather than formulaic, and perhaps the key to the postmodern heart is 'relational.'

If the goal is to make the postmodernist aware of a relational God, then an evidentialist method is still required. sorry... just thinking out loud. looking forward to more of your posts on this.


Bob Robinson said...

sacred vapor,

Good thoughts. I will talk about the idea that "evidence," strictly defined, is beyond rationality in and of itself, and thus is appropriate for a postmodern apologetic to some extent.

It is more than "evidence vs. experience," it is more about "validation by way of Reason" vs. "validation by way of relationship." The evidence is in the relationship for postmoderns, rather than on some absolute objective foundational reasonable proof that all people will accept through logic.

nancy said...


What I'm gleaning from your post is that in many cases (though there are still atheists or agnostics out there)our apologetic can begin with accepting the existence of God. Then we need to move to who He is and what his attributes are. It seems that there still may be use for the moral arguement to illustrate that God is indeed good. And there is still need to engage in conversation to help someone grasp inconsistencies in a non-Christian worldview.

However, I disagree a bit with the statement, "The problem with the modern approach is that it treats God as an "object" to be studied and explained, like a turtle."

The problem is that when I'm having a conversation with someone who has questions about God, I can't force an exerience of God into that person's being. Hopefully I have studied God, studied his ways and hopefully I can explain some aspects of who and what (ie his role as creator) he is. Of course in most cases, this type of discussion occurs after cultivating a relationship with another and not forced on someone in an arguementative way.

This appears to be a case of both/and not either/or. Unbelievers come in all shapes and sizes and validation by reason AND relationship are needed.

Good post and and comments and I'm looking forward to the next post (thanks for linking this Becky)

Bob Robinson said...


Good words. I agree with "This appears to be a case of both/and not either/or. Unbelievers come in all shapes and sizes and validation by reason AND relationship are needed."

We are in a time of flux in which we do not know where we will go in our epistemology. Postmodernity seems to increasingly accepting of the both/and that you are advocating (whereas for a while there it seemed to be an either/or).

Relationship first, then rational discussion. Yes.

Macht said...


Have you read Roy Clouser's Knowing with the Heart? The whole book is basically a fake conversation between a Christian and an atheist. It is probably best described as a book on religious epistemology but I consider it to be one of the best books on apologetics that I've read.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the recommendation. It looks like Clouser sides with Pascal's idea of intuitive knowledge of God.