The Place for Evidence in a Postmodern World

Apologetics and the Postmodern Turn, Part 2

One of the commenters on the previous post in this series made an excellent point that I want to explore here. 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.”

Is an “evidentialist approach” appropriate in a postmodern context?

I affirm the remarks of Stan Grenz on this, saying that apologetics in a postmodern context must move beyond Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict towards an incarnational apologetic.

“We must move from being well-equipped apologists to becoming a believing community. Increasingly, people are looking for communities who, together, embody the message that they proclaim and thereby provide credence to its truth. They are looking for a community of people among whom they can discover the goal of their search — the life-giving presence of Christ. Today, many people are converted to community before they are converted to Christ.” (From "Does Evidence Still Demand A Verdict?: The Church’s Apologetic Task And The Postmodern Turn" available online from ag.org)

I will develop this idea of incarnational apologetic in my next post. In the meantime, however, we must ask if “evidence” has any place in a postmodern apologetic.

I think it does. Why? Because “evidence” does not always need to rely on the strict definitions of classical proofs that are the presumptions of a modern rationalistic philosophy. The problem with modernity is that we began to rely too heavily on a Cartesian foundationalist approach to knowing. According to Foundationalism, the only things allowed as a foundational belief is (1) something evident to the senses, (2) something self-evident, or (3) something incorrigible. Anything that is based on foundations that meet these criteria will withstand what I’ll call “Enlightenment Rational Validation.”

But the postmodern asks, “How many beliefs actually fit into those three categories?” The answer is very few! Therefore, a postmodernist rejects Enlightenment Rational Validation as the only way to know.

But this does not factor out looking at the accounts of others as without merit in their quest for knowledge. Theistic arguments that are person- or community-relative may be accepted as “evidence.” Kelly Clark, in a book that seeks to show the irrelevance of Enlightenment Rational Validation, writes,

“There are surely many reasonable beliefs that we maintain without classical proof—precious few of our beliefs are proved in this extremely strong sense. A jury making a decision on the basis of the evidence, an historian making a considered judgment about historical trends on the basis of ancient texts, a literary critic defending an interpretation of several poems by the same author all lack classical proof; but surely their beliefs may nonetheless be rational.” (Return to Reason [Eerdmans, 1990] p. 53)

So, much of what we believe is based on evidence and our ability to process that evidence rationally. However, this is a far cry from Enlightenment Rational Validation, because we are not saying that in order to be “rational” we must submit to the premise that truth is only found in validation through the rules of reason.

As long as evangelicals attempt to adhere to the rules of Enlightenment Rational Validation, their apologetic will fail in a postmodern culture. The evidence that demands a verdict may not always be built on the premises that adhere to a modern concept of truth.

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nedric said...

Interesting post. I agree that, for instance, jury decisions lack modernity's rational validation. And, paralleling jury decisions, the decision of faith need not abide by this criteria. But, my questions is, why conserve the modern concept of "certainty" at all in the concept of faith (that faith is a mode of certainty)?

Bob Robinson said...


Good point.

If I hinted that that we must conserve the modern concept of certainty, then I stand corrected. I do not presuppose that our quest for knowledge has a telos of certainty. I would be in the camp that says that our quest for knowledge can have probability and thus room for faith.

knsheppard said...

I'm curious to know where your concept of Enlightenment Rational Validation is drawn from? While I certainly appreciate the postmodern approach to apologetics, I often find that the guns are misdirected when it comes to the Enlightenment. Often these kinds of points can be made without, I would argue, any reference to Enlightenment thought, in general.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the input. I think Enlightenment Rational Validation is the main thing that postmodernity is reacting against.

For insight into how I arrive at this, check out my series, Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity.

sacred vapor said...

Hey Bob, it’s an honor to be quoted in your main blog post... thanks for that.

I agree with everything you said, and certainly the strict rules of enlightenment rationalism will not do in a postmodern context. The key, I suppose is what you stated as “our ability to process evidence rationally.” The question that emerges is what exactly is deemed as rational evidence for the postmodernist? Could we say that there is something definable in the broader cultural context of postmodernism, or is it strictly person-relative, meaning that every postmodernist would rationalize beliefs differently.

What has helped me in thinking through the use of ‘evidence’ is to think in terms of persuasion. If it is indeed proper to use persuasion as a synonym for evidence, then it is unavoidable. For even the presuppositionalist must use persuasion to make his point about presuppositions.

I would gather that persuasion is always needed in worldview discussions, and certainly in a postmodern apologetic. The issue of course, is what does that look like? just thinking out loud.