Today’s post is a guest review by Nate Pickowicz, planter/pastor of Harvest Bible Church in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. You can follow him on Twitter and check out more of his writing at Entreating Favor.
Os Guiness. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014. 270 pp. $22.00.
Being relatively unfamiliar with Os Guinness’ work, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but very quickly, I came to realize that he has established himself as an authority in the area of philosophy and Christian apologetics. Early on, he admits that Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion is the culmination of many decades of work, and it shows. Frankly, I was overwhelmed and astounded with the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to size up cultural phenomena and see issues as they really are.
At the forefront, Guinness clearly states the problem and the point of the book: “We have lost the art of Christian persuasion and we must recover it.” (p. 17) Further, he cites the recent problem where “apologetics has lost touch with evangelism” (p. 18) and argues that they must be merged; the goal is not to win arguments, but people.
Guinness puts forth twelve chapters, each with a distinct aspect of the problem coupled with solutions. In truth, each chapter felt like it could have been expanded into its own book. His solutions were often multi-faceted and simply cannot be boiled down to a step-process; he argues that it is more of a methodological artform (pp. 33-38).
As an apologist, Guinness argues against the popular dismissal of apologetics by Christians today, who themselves would argue against apologetics and for evangelism alone. He addresses the charge head-on and he’s convincing, noting that we need to be able to defend what we believe (pp. 49-51).
For the majority of the book, I tracked with Guinness. Even though there were aspects of his theology I found troubling, his insights into culture, atheism, and the need for defending the faith was incredibly helpful. In fact, his teaching on “The Way of the Third Fool” in chapter 4 was brilliant!
Toward the end, however, it became clear that something was wrong; two things, actually:
First, Guinness never deals with the gospel, nor the need for Jesus Christ. His assessment is that every person is leading an unfulfilled, unexamined life (p. 232) and must ultimately come to a place of realization that he/she must find “a better answer” (p. 237). Guinness places the responsibility for salvation squarely on the shoulders of what he calls “the seeker” (p. 231). He writes, “Everything depends on the invitation and challenge to the searcher to start moving.” (p. 232) He even seems to present Christianity as one option of many—a menu of religions—and our job is to help them make an informed choice to follow Jesus.
But Guinness never directly deals with the gospel, other than to note the term sporadically. He uses gospel-like language (he repeatedly refers to “the incarnation, the cross and the Holy Spirit” (185) but does not explain it) but never addresses why a person needs Jesus Christ. He’s fond of talking about the faith “journey”, noting that at the point of belief,
“The journey changes. It is no longer a journey toward meaning. Instead, the journey itself is made into the meaning. Better to travel hopefully, it is said, than to arrive. The search is its own reward. The search for meaning becomes the meaning of the search, and the search goes on and on without end.” (p. 250)
And so, the goal of the Christian life is the search for meaning, which never ends?! He says nothing about the holiness of God, the righteous standard of God, the law of God, the Fall, the sinfulness of man, the need for an atoning sacrifice, the wages of sin being death, or of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on the cross! Apart from a brief few paragraphs on the notion of repentance (43), Guinness is silent with regards to the need for sinners to repent or else suffer judgment.
I humbly ask: What good is a book about apologetics if the gospel is never defined or explained? In Fool’s Talk, the Christian faith is reduced to a mere moralistic spiritual journey by which “seekers” find a greater meaning to life.
This leads to the second major problem: Guinness’ definition of “Christian” is too broad. Certainly, one cannot judge the inner contents of the heart of another, but the parameters by which we mark out the Christian faith must never be wider than what the Bible defines (cf. Matt 7:13-23; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).
Guinness makes frequent references to Christian believers throughout his book, but frankly, I was shocked at who he included on his list. For example, he writes
“The Christian faith has always been a distinguished line of brilliant, creative persuaders, such as Blaise Pascal, Jonathan Swift, Soren Kierkegaard, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis ad Malcom Muggeridge.” (p. 178)
In another place, Guinness fawns adoringly over the “moral courage” of Pope John Paul II (p. 204), even juxtaposing him positively against other errant Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical groups (p. 210).
But, Sayers? Kierkegaard? Pope John Paul? These are Guinness’ examples of faithful Christians? It has yet to be seen if many of the believers on his list affirm the biblical gospel. Oddly enough, he singles out D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones as an “attack[er] of apologetics” (p. 214); no other mention is given to him or any other Conservative Protestant believer. In fact, Guinness loads up his book with quotes and anecdotes from philosophers, yet cites only 45 New Testament Scriptures in 270 pages!
What is perhaps the most painfully ironic bit is that Os Guinness titles his book Fool’s Talk—a reference to God speaking through Balaam’s ass (p. 60). However, I cannot help but think of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. The apostle Paul calls Christians “fools” because the truth of the gospel is unfathomable to the deceived and unbelieving world. And to profess “nothing… except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (2:2) is perhaps the most boisterous foolishness.
However, Guinness abdicates his responsibility as a Christian apologist to declare the “foolish” truths of God—that humankind has sinned against a holy God (Rom 3:23) and that the wages of that sin is eternal death (Rom 6:23); that sin is undeniable and must be confessed to be forgiven (1 John 1:8-10), and that true confession of sin and belief in Christ lead to salvation (Rom 10:9-10); that apart from trusting in Christ alone, no one will see the Father (John 14:6; Eph 2:8-9); that unbelievers will be judged (2 Thes 1:7-10), but God’s wrath is satisfied because of Christ’s propitiatory and substitutionary death on the cross (Rom 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb 2:17; 1 John 2:2). Guinness doesn’t even hint at any of this.
In the end, Fool’s Talk does not represent “the foolishness of God” displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. It presents a gospel that says that people can choose to follow Jesus merely as a way of life, and by doing so may find true meaning. He writes,
“When people take that step of committed faith and set out with us to be followers of Jesus, our task as Christian advocates is over, and from then on they join us as sisters and brothers on the long way home.” (p. 252)
But up to this point, no semblance of the gospel has been given. In fact, Guinness’ gospel is one that swings the gate open so wide, every person in history who claims the name of Jesus is labeled “Christian” regardless of how actively they have undermined the authority of Scripture or mocked Jesus Christ.
But this is not the gospel of Christ or the apostles or the Scriptures, nor is it a gospel worth defending.
Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!