Placher Argues the Foundations for Postmodernism, Part 1

William C. Placher. 1989. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard not to notice the crisis of identity facing Christians and the church today. If we as Christians see ourselves as created in the image of an almighty God, then nothing is impossible for God and, by inference, for us as heirs to the kingdom. On the other hand, if we start to believe our critics that God does not exist and church is just another human institution, then our options are no different than anyone else’s—limited by the time and money immediately available. Because we act out of our identity, we need to care about what our identity is in our heart of hearts, not just on our business cards. For Christians, our truest identity is defined in our theory of God or, in other words, in our theology.

In his book, Unapologetic Theology, William Placher writes:

“This book represents some of the philosophy I have been reading, as one context for thinking about a new way—or maybe a very old way—of doing theology.” (7)

By “old” Placher means to argue apologetically from a Christian perspective with Christian assumptions. This “old” perspective, which he calls the “unapologetic” approach, is interesting because:

“Christian apologists can adopt the language and assumptions of their audiences so thoroughly that they no longer speak with a distinctively Christian voice.” (11)

Arguing from the “new” Enlightenment perspective means:

“questioning all inherited assumptions and then accepting only those beliefs which could be proven according to universally acceptable criteria.” (11)

If those universally acceptable criteria preclude faith in Christ Jesus by their nature, then the “new” perspective blunts effective witness (12). Worse, if no universally acceptable criteria exist, which essentially means that the Enlightenment (or modern) era is over, then the price of arguing is paid without gaining any credibility as a witness. Thus, adopting an unapologetic stance appears warranted in the postmodern era which we find ourselves in.

Placher’s argument raises two questions that we care about. First, is the modern era truly over and, if so, how do we know? Second, because Placher clearly believes that the modern era is over, how do we approach apologetics in the absence of universally acceptable criteria for discussion? We care about these questions because it is hard to witness for Christ in the postmodern era if, in effect, we do not speak the language of a postmodern person.

In part 1 of this review will focus on the first question while part 2 will consider the second.

Is the modern era over? Placher starts his discussion of the Enlightenment with the father of the Enlightenment, René Descartes, writing:

“Descartes had set the goal of seeking a foundation for knowledge, but modern philosophy soon divided between empiricists who looked for that foundation in bare, uninterrupted sensations [things you see, hear, feel, taste…] and rationalists who sought it in logically unchallengeable first truths.” (26)

For empiricists, a problem quickly emerged because:

“We cannot build knowledge on a foundation of uninterpreted sense-data, because we cannot know particular sense-data in isolation from the conceptual schemes we use to organize them.” (29)

If this is not obvious, think about how one knows that a light is red and different from yellow or green. In order to recognize the difference, one needs to understand the definition of red and how it differs from yellow or green. Without knowing that definition, red is not a distinct color. We teach colors to children at a young age so they seem obvious to us as adults, but to untaught kids colors have yet to be learned. The definition of red is what is meant here as a conceptual scheme.

For logicians, Placher observes:

“What we cannot do is find some point that is uniquely certain by definition, guarantee to hold regardless of any empirical discoveries, independent of any other elements in the our system.” (33)

Placher notes the definition of a mammal, “a warm-blooded animal with hair which bears live young”, had to change with the discovery of the platypus (32). While the problem posed by the platypus seems trivial, Placher notes after referencing Russell’s paradox that:

“If our definitions in mathematics or logic lead to problems, we may decide to change them, but we always have more than one choice.” (34)

In conclusion, Placher cites Wittgenstein observing:

“when we find the foundations, it turns out they are being held up by the rest of the house. If theologians try to defend their claims by starting with basic, foundational truths that any rational person would have to believe or observations independent of theory and assumptions, they are trying to do something that our best philosophers tell us is impossible.” (34)

In other words, the attempt by Enlightenment scholars to find a defensible basis for objective truth has failed and we are now in the postmodern era where it can be said: “how you stand on an issue depends on where you sit”.

William Placher’s book, Unapologetic Theology, is a fascinating review of modern and postmodern philosophical arguments that affect how we do theology and witness in the postmodern age. In part one of this review I have summarized Placher’s argument for why the modern age is truly over—objective truth has no foundation that we can all agree on. In part two of this review, I will summarize Placher’s arguments for how we should do theology and witness understanding that we are in the postmodern era.


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