Review: Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint

K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 288 pages.
I would like to thank Crossway for providing me a review copy.

Amazon | Crossway

Overview

OliphintScott Oliphint, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, sets out what he calls “covenantal apologetics” in this book. “Covenantal apologetics” is another term for presuppositional or Van Tillian apologetics; Oliphint is quite explicit that he is not offering something new, but rather seeking to make Van Til’s thought more accessible to a broader audience. He refers to his task as “translating” Van Til’s thought into clear and accessible language, as well as translating Van Til’s meaning from philosophical contexts into more explicitly biblical and theological contexts (26). In conjunction with that purpose, he coins the term from which the book gets its title.

According to Oliphint, a “covenantal apologetic” is explicitly, consistently, and unashamedly Reformed. What’s more, it is the only consistently Reformed approach to apologetics (28). Most authors would shy away from tying their apologetic method so closely to one particular strand of the Christian tradition. Often books will present arguments for “theism” or perhaps “Christian theism,” but not so for Oliphint. His boldness, though, reflects the take-no-prisoners no-holds-barred approach of Van Tillian apologetics. There is no neutral ground from which to stand. Arguing for Jesus on the basis of some supposed neutral ground of rationality or shared beliefs is actually tantamount to rebellion against Jesus, since it presupposes that neutral ground apart from Jesus’ sovereignty exists—that is, the very idea of neutral ground on which the Christian and the non-Christian can meet implies that Jesus is not supreme ruler over all things. There is no “demilitarized zone.” There is only Jesus’ rule over the entire cosmos within which some acknowledge his rule and the rest deny and rebel against his rule. This will seem like a bold claim to some, but it is a boldness held to consistently. Oliphint does not employ the tactic of making a bold claim to catch attention, only to qualify it later. No, Oliphint makes a bold claim and boldly sticks to it throughout the entire book.

Covenantal ApologeticsFor a “covenantal apologist” the only reason to accept a claim “for the sake of argument” is not to establish some shared belief and argue on the basis of that shared belief, but rather to show how the non-Christian’s belief system is actually self-defeating. Within all non-Christian belief systems, the seeds of their own destruction are already sown. This is because all non-Christian belief systems are warped versions of truth. Here covenantal apologetics depends heavily on Rom 1:18–32. All humans everywhere know about God (content) and know God (relationship). Specifically, they know his wrath, his righteousness, his eternal power, and his divine nature. Nonetheless, they suppress the truth and became futile in their thinking—that is, their thinking is no longer capable in any way to come to a right understanding of the truth. Oliphint describes this dynamic as follows:

So, in all of these situations, we are dealing with the dynamic of the sensus, which means that they do know the true God and that knowledge will surface in various ways; and of suppression, which means that when the knowledge surfaces it will surface as a counterfeit… of the real. The resulting form will inevitably take the form of an idol.
This sensus/suppression dynamic is a hermeneutical tool in a covenantal apologetic. It is at least a partial grid through which we should interpret all unbelieving positions, including other religions. As such a tool, it gives us the ability to see aspects of another religion as the “welling up” of the knowledge of God that can never be annihilated. It also helps us to see that “welling up” as a false belief or a false religion. (228)

Consequently, all other belief systems are simply bastardizations of Christian truth, and as such are necessarily internally inconsistent. A covenantal apologist enters another belief system not to sit down and eat, but to find the weak pillars and push them until the whole edifice collapses.

The lack of neutral ground might seem to suggest that meaningful dialogue is impossible. And on this point, Oliphint is clear that it is not we who convince people of the truth, but that it is the Holy Spirit who convinces, convicts, and converts people. Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit uses means and those means often include us as we seek to persuade others of the untruthfulness and unsustainability of their own belief system and of the truthfulness and beauty of Christianity. In this regard, Oliphint notes the importance of presenting the gospel within our arguments. We cannot argue someone into the kingdom of God, but we can present the gospel, call them to repent and believe, and allow the Holy Spirit to do what he wills.

This does not simply mean that we preach at people without any regard for the persuasiveness of our arguments or any concern for rationality and logic (chapter 4 is about logic and persuasion). Real dialogue is possible, though not on shared and neutral grounds. What enables meaningful dialogue between Christians and non-Christians is the knowledge of the truth that everyone has (sensus) and God’s mercy to all people (130–36). To press the metaphor, dialogue takes place not because the believer and unbeliever alike share neutral ground, but because the believer and unbeliever alike share Christ’s ground, whether the unbeliever acknowledges it or not. The apologist’s task is not to pretend as though the ground is neutral, but to point out to the unbeliever that he inhabits God’s world and the “house rules” apply.

Oliphint provides ten “tenets” of a covenantal apologetic, to which he refers regularly throughout the rest of the book. These tenets form the core of a covenantal apologetic.

  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 (pp. 47–56)

Response

This is a great introduction to Van Tillian/Presuppositional/Covenantal Apologetics. It is a little dense and verbose at times. Oliphint interacts with “popular” atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as well as philosophers like Immanuel Kant. When discussing the more technical aspects of philosophy, he might stretch those without some background in philosophy quite a bit.

A real strength of the book is his model conversations with unbelievers in which he demonstrates how a covenantal apologist might engage certain questions. These conversations are long and detailed (one went for more than 20 pages in small font), but are very helpful. Some of the discussions become more technical than I imagine most conversations being (this is especially true for the dialogues in chapter 5 and chapter 7). This illustrates a problem, which is that sometimes you can win the argument but lose the person. This can happen because one is combative or aggressive—certainly not true of Oliphint. However, the other way to win the argument but lose the person is by using an argument that is logically sound, but which is so technical and convoluted that most people simply won’t follow it. They will assume that if it’s true, it shouldn’t need to involve so many technical and complicated logical steps.

Being Reformed myself, Oliphint’s explicit Reformed theology was refreshing to me. And while I imagine that non-Reformed readers might not be interested in such a book, allow me to argue otherwise. Too often, especially in academia, arguments proceed on the “lowest common denominator.” Oliphint’s approach, whether you accept Reformed theology or not, should at least be interesting and challenging because he doesn’t seek to water down his approach for the sake of a broader audience. He can say more because he has more tools at his disposal than someone who is trying to give directions to a wide range of people that only have a few tools in common between them. If you are writing a “how to” manual and the only tools your audience has in common are a hammer and a roll of duct tape, you are severly limited in what you can say. I wish more authors, Reformed or otherwise, would adopt Oliphint’s maximalist approach.

Conclusion

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in apologetics, even if you don’t consider yourself to be “Reformed.” This book will challenge you to think more deeply about what faithfulness to Jesus means in the midst of an apologetic or evangelistic discussion. Is it really true that to try to make an argument for Christianity on the basis of neutral ground between a believer and unbeliever is actually a sin against Jesus and his supreme lordship? Pondering this question and many others raised by Oliphint will challenge and strengthen you, whatever you end up concluding.

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About Peter Green

I am a doctoral student at Wheaton College. My dissertation is on vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, particularly as it is used to convey the theme of Creation to New Creation. My interests are (in no particular order): biblical ethics, epistemology, apologetics, sacramentology, science and faith, biblical theology, OT theology, biblical political philosophy, and intertextuality. I consider myself to be in the historic Reformed tradition, and attend a PCA church. I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary--the PCA's denominational seminary--and hope work for Reformed University Fellowship, which is the PCA's campus ministry, following my PhD studies.
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One Response to Review: Covenantal Apologetics by Scott Oliphint

  1. Mark G says:

    Good review. I really appreciated the book. I found some of the arguments in the later chapters somewhat contrived, but they did illustrate the method. I’ve read a number of Van Til’s books and there is a real need for someone to make his approach more accessible. This is a good book for doing that.

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