Review of Oliphint's "Covenantal Apologetics"

Presuppositional, or what Scott Oliphint calls Covenantal, apologetics is probably the most misunderstood way of thinking about apologetics. Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), the fountainhead of presuppositional apologetics, has been called “the most original apologist of our time” (18). Oliphint has even published a booklet titled Cornelius Van Til and the Reformation of Christian Apologetics.  While many apologists such as Gordon Clark, E.J. Carnell, Ron Nash, Carl Henry, and Francis Schaeffer have called themselves presuppositional, this book is the brand of presuppositionalism most touched by the fingerprints of Van Til. Other Van Tillian presuppositionalists include Greg Bahnsen, Doug Wilson, Richard Pratt, William Edgar, and John Frame. Presuppositional Apologetics has been long on theory and short on practice. It has also been characterized by jargon and therefore inaccessible to many Christians. Perhaps this is also why straw men are prone to be built when opponents describe it. In this book, Scott Oliphint aims to remedy that situation. He received his Bachelor of Science from West Texas State University, and received two master’s degrees and his Ph.D from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is currently Professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster. A long-time student of Van Til, Oliphint has also published numerous articles, five other books on apologetics, along with other books on philosophy and theology.

This book’s aim is to translate the apologetic methodology of Cornelius Van Til “into language, terms, and concepts that are more accessible” (26). Due to the dense prose and technical philosophical nature of Van Til’s work, many have not benefitted from its richness and others have mischaracterized his approach. He also aims to make explicit the biblical and theological undergirding that Van Til often assumed in his work. The theology is decidedly Reformational in nature, particularly in regard to the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of sin. In fact, Oliphint is convinced that if one embraces the theology that came out of the Protestant Reformation, then this approach to apologetics is the only consistent one available. The author’s desire is to be both principial and practical so the book consists of seven chapters of principle that build upon one another, and increase in technicality, each concluded by sample dialogues that put the principle into practice.

The author introduces his method by noting that the beauty and uniqueness of this approach “is that it is naturally and centrally focused on the reality of God’s revelation in Christ, including of course, the good news of the gospel” (25). It is also distinctive in that since the argument is for the Triune God of Scripture, who calls all men to repent, rather than a generic deity, it calls for a radical commitment (25). Oliphint acknowledges that presuppositionalists have been guilty of talking too much about principles. Important though they are, he asserts that “an apologetic that can do little more than continually talk about itself is not worth the effort exerted or ink spilled over it” (25). Because of this, Oliphint barely uses the word “presupposition” and goes so far as to suggest a new label, namely covenantal apologetics, as more apt for Van Til’s approach.

Chapter 1 fittingly begins with a definition of apologetics: “the application of biblical truth to unbelief” (29). Chapter 1 is Reformation Theology 101. Of supreme importance for apologetics is the biblical truth that all people are either in Adam or in Christ. Every person “is defined, in part, by his relationship to a covenant head.” Hence, the aptness of Oliphint’s new label. Next, the author emphasizes the lordship of Christ. Because Jesus is the Lord of every person, truth is not relative and we must base our defense of the faith on reality – as God has defined it. Every single person is in covenant with the Triune God, by virtue of his creating them for relationship, either as a covenant keeper or a covenant breaker.

The author then appeals to the locus classicus of covenantal apologetics: Romans 1:18-23. There Paul tells us that every single person knows that God exists. It is not the case that they know of a god, but of the one true God, the creator of all things. Oliphint writes, “We can say unequivocally, therefore, that by virtue of man’s being created in the image of God, by virtue of man’s being a covenant creature, every human being on the face of the earth since creation and into eternity has an ineradicable knowledge of God – a knowledge that is given through the things that were made, which includes, of course, everything (except God himself)” (42-43). So Romans 1 explicitly teaches that all people know God but all people also suppress this knowledge. Sin causes the human race to be irrational. As a result of our Adamic nature, we now try to convince ourselves that what is actually true about the world is not true. No one is neutral and brute facts are a myth. So the problem is not with the evidence. Romans 1 says the evidence is undebatable: “For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse” (1:20). As Oliphint puts it, the problem is not the evidence but the receptacle to which the evidence comes (44). Because of Adam, our father who sought autonomy, unbelievers are not ignorant, but culpably rebellious.

Having laid the theological groundwork, the author then moves to his ten tenets for covenantal apologetics, which will be returned to and unpacked throughout the remainder of the book (55). They are:

1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.

2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.

3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.

4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.

5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see truth for what it is.

7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.

8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context.

9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.

10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

Chapter two teaches a theology of lordship. To use puritan terminology, God is a se – from himself. God is absolutely independent and self-sufficient. He is absolute and personal. Though transcendent, he has condescended in Jesus, who has been made Lord of all. Along the way, Oliphint interacts with and critiques the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Next, the author tackles the complex issue of proof, spending a fair amount of space examining Acts 17. Oliphint exhorts us not to draw a hard line between evangelism, preaching, and apologetics. In whatever “mode” of discourse the Christian is in, the gospel must be our focus. He argues that there are two truths underlying Paul’s address on Mars Hill: the fact that all human beings are made in God’s image and the fact of universal general revelation. In the application section of this chapter, Oliphint shows the inadequacy of the causal argument because one cannot know that God is uncaused (112). He also points out that the problem with the evidential approach is that according to Romans 1, all people know God by virtue of all that he has made. So, as he mentioned earlier, the problem is not the evidence but us since the Bible teaches that “everything evidences God’s character” (114).

Oliphint prefers to speak of persuasion rather than proof. Rhetoric is a lost art in that education used to consist of three subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The structure of persuasion consists of ethos (character), pathos (frame of mind), and logos (speech). With persuasion in mind, he returns to Acts 17. Apologists must be meek but humble. We must know and connect with our audience, rather than objectify them as Thomist Apologists tend to do. Chapter 5 includes an exposition of 2 Corinthians, showing that apologetics is the destroying of arguments and is in many ways a battle over authorities (163), including both positive and negative aspects. In this chapter, much time is spent on the so-called “Achilles’ Hill” of Christianity: the problem of evil. This is an example of negative apologetics, weakening an objection to stave off attacks. The next chapter uses Colossians as a launch pad to resume the discussion of persuasion. Oliphint concludes this chapter with a fictitious dialogue with Daniel Dennett on science. Returning again to Acts 17, the author concludes with a chapter on false religions, showing that they are parasitic, depending on the real thing for their basic identity. When dealing with other religions, Christians must do their homework and be acutely aware of exactly who the other god is, how it relates to the world, and their theory of revelation. The twenty-three page dialogue concluding this chapter is a technical one with a learned Muslim familiar with their philosophers and the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, since Thomas was so dependent on many Aristotelian philosophers of the Islamic persuasion.

Oliphint has certainly made a contribution to the canon of presuppositional literature. In putting it this way, however, I show my hand in not being excited about scholars un-needingly inventing new labels. After the first chapter, Oliphint helpfully recommends a list of books for those interested in further study. One of the greatest strengths of this book is the emphasis placed on the exegesis of Scripture and theology. Of all the apologetic methodologies, presuppositional apologetics most consistently seeks to ground their approach in Scripture, showing that the only proper way to see oneself and the world is through the spectacles of Scripture (191). I think Oliphint succeeds in exposing the exegetical and theological foundation that underpinned Van Til’s approach. He rightfully flogs the flat-lined horse of Romans 1 showing that for all involved, God is always the premise and never the conclusion.

I think it was wise and helpful for the author to include the apologetic dialogues at the end of each chapter in order to see his approach worked out. He is at pains to make clear that the fictional discussions are merely one way these conversations could go. I would have liked to have seen more “normal” conversations, as much of the dialogues are overly technical, and at times a bit harsh (e.g. 213, 216, 249). One can see how the method is used, but these dialogues are also didactic. Especially illuminating is the dialogue about science with the humanist, in that he shows that to hold to unguided evolution is every bit as religious as the Christian faith. It is no accident that scientific inquiry flourished from a Christian worldview since it provides the needed guarantee of predictable events (120). There is no rational grounding for trusting the scientific method in a chance-random universe, but because God has created and guides the natural world, we can expect uniformity of nature, that the future will be like the past.

The conclusion is helpful in reminding apologists to be mild in manner, strong in matter, as Van Til used to say (260). Running into an overzealous and arrogant Christian who has studied apologetics can be as unpleasant as a root canal without Novocain, so this is a helpful reminder. It is not us versus them, but them versus the Lord. We are merely his humble servant-ambassadors.

One familiar with other presuppositional literature will be surprised at how little treatment the transcendental argument receives. To his credit, the author does assert that covenantal apologetics is transcendental, which is an approach that “looks for the (so-called) preconditions for knowledge and life” (46). He also develops what he calls the “Quicksand Quotient,” where one attempts to show that the opposing position is sinking sand and cannot stand on its own (76). This is basically what traditional presuppositionalists have called the transcendental argument, where the Christian seeks to show the internal inconsistency of the unbelieving worldview, in whatever form it may come. In showing the impossibility of the contrary, this has traditionally been the heart of the presuppositional argument so one would have expected an expanded treatment and illustration. For example, there was not enough space spent on showing the necessary rational foundations for argument itself. The unbeliever lacks the worldview needed to provide the preconditions for the trust and use of reason itself. For them, reason is merely the firing of neurons. This is why Van Til was fond of saying that the best defense is a good offense. He was so bold as to say that the strongest proof for Christianity is that without it, one cannot prove anything. Living on borrowed capital, anti-theism presupposes theism.  Christianity provides the necessary worldview for the use of reason so Van Til would often use the illustration of a little girl he once saw on a train sitting on her father’s lap and slapping him on the face. In order to reach him, she had to sit on his lap. So it is with the non-Christian who seeks to use reason to argue that God is not there.

In the section on the problem of evil, the transcendental argument could have been utilized as well. On their own terms, humanists/atheists/materialists do not have an ultimate standard of good or bad in their worldview so they are left to preference when defining what evil even is. In a chance-random universe, there is no good or evil, just matter in motion. Just as it would make no sense to call the fizz in a soda bottle wicked, so it would be silly to call anything humans do wicked since we too are merely complex chemical reactions. The transcendental argument can also be used to speak of logic, ethics, freedom, knowledge, love and a host of other realities. Only Christianity provides the preconditions for intelligibility in this world.

One is also left scratching one’s head as to why the name Greg Bahnsen does not get more mention. After Van Til, Bahnsen was arguably the greatest presuppositional apologist and popularizer of Cornelius Van Til of the 20th Century, yet his name does not even appear in the general index or bibliography. His book, Van Til’s Apologetic, is mentioned in the “Further Reading” section of chapter one, but being a very significant presuppositional publication, I expected to see his name more.

Being published by Crossway and endorsed by many both within and outside of the typical Presbyterian circles one typically finds presuppositionalists in, it seems that this book will be influential for years to come. Time will tell whether or not the new label will take, but if this book causes some to further consider the thought of Cornelius Van Til, it will be a success in this reviewer’s opinion.