Reasons to Believe

Review of "Engaging Unbelief" by Curtis Chang

People often ask me for book recommendations, particularly on the topics of philosophy and theology. One that I continue to recommend is Curtis Chang’s Engaging Unbelief for its attention to the often-overlooked field of historical theology. I reviewed this important apologetics book a couple of years ago and offer it again here.

Shifting times with their accompanying norms have unsettled the Christian church. According to author Curtis Chang, apologist and InterVarsity campus minister, postmodernism “now challenges all norms and truths.” This philosophical outlook is characterized by views such as religious pluralism, multiculturalism, relativism, and literary skepticism. All of these views collide with Christian truth-claims to present the church with an “epochal challenge.”

Defined by Chang as a “paradigm shift” or a new weltanschauung (German for “worldview”), the epochal challenge of postmodern thought calls into question how people understand such critical concepts as truth, reality, knowledge, goodness, meaning, and purpose. As a result, Christian thinkers have had to strategize new ways to best present the enduring truths of the gospel message.

Does an effective strategy exist for confronting the multifaceted challenges (e. g., metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and literary) raised by postmodernism? How, for example, does one effectively present the universal and unchanging truth-claims of Christianity to a culture that rejects the idea of absolute truth? While an assortment of Christian books responds to postmodern thinking, Chang’s Engaging Unbelief provides a substantive answer to these questions. Reaching back into the apologetics works of two of Christianity’s greatest thinkers—Augustine (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)—Chang uncovers a provocative strategy for addressing the postmodern quagmire.

Chang’s view posits that if evangelical Christians are going to be successful in responding to the postmodern mindset they must heed the Apostle Paul’s imperative in 2 Corinthians 10:5:

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.

Chang believes that since postmodernists prefer to speak in terms of personal “story” (perspective or narrative), rather than in terms of objective truth, the best apologetics strategy engages unbelief by penetrating the challenger’s story.

From two classic apologetics works, Augustine’s City of God and Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, Chang draws three relevant points. First, the Christian apologist must “enter the challenger’s story” (competing worldview) by becoming familiar with its language, categories, and authorities. This familiarity enables the apologist to respond from a shared perspective, though always guided by the gospel. Second, the apologist engages in “retelling the story” from the inside, using its own language and paradigms but specifically exposing its explanatory incompleteness and its inherent “tragic flaw,” or inevitable downfall. Third, the apologist engages in “recapturing that retold tale within the gospel metanarrative,” thus showing how the Christian gospel uniquely solves the story’s intrinsic flaw.

The real substance of Chang’s book consists in its detailed and careful explanation of how Augustine and Aquinas used this strategic method to confront the epochal challenges of their respective times.

Augustine, living in late antiquity, faced the real possibility of an emerging post-Christian society. Looking ahead to what might happen if the pagan Romans successfully blamed Christianity for the decline of the “Eternal City” (Rome) and, ultimately, for the collapse of the Roman Empire, Augustine gathered his substantial creative, intellectual resources. His massive work, City of God, systematically refuted this pagan story and laid the foundation for an enduring Christian philosophy of history.

Centuries later, Aquinas faced the possibility of an enduring religious pluralism—if the followers of Islam succeeded in positioning their religious philosophy as a viable or superior alternative to a Christian religious philosophy. Aquinas’s masterful philosophical treatise, Summa Contra Gentiles, set forth a genuinely Christian philosophy that properly integrated the important areas of faith and reason.

No consensus among evangelical scholars exists as to how to view and respond to postmodern thinking. Chang may grant more credence to postmodern ways of thinking about knowledge than some would warrant. The absence of a clear definition for postmodernism seems a minor weakness in this overall useful and scholarly work.

In a relatively brief paperback (187 pages), Chang manages to present a detailed and substantive analysis of Augustine’s and Aquinas’ monumental apologetics works. His intuition in looking to Christian apologetics history for answers to today’s challenges brings insightful refreshing information to consider. This reviewer, however, would go beyond Chang in advocating that evangelicalism could benefit greatly by embracing much of the theology of these two intellectual giants.

--Kenneth Richard Samples

Subjects: Postmodernism