K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton: Crossway, July 2013. 288 pp. Paperback, $19.99.
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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!
K. Scott Oliphint is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. If you’ve been reading for a while, you might remember me reviewing his last book, God With Us: Divine Condescension and The Attributes of God.
In that book, Oliphint was doing philosophical theology with exegetical underpinnings. Very similarly, in his recent Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith, he is doing apologetic theology with exegetical underpinnings.
In short, this book is an explanation of the principles and practices of presuppositional apologetics, but with a more rigorous biblical-theological foundation than you will find in Van Til. In his festschrift, Van Til was taken to task by a couple of contributors, but notably G. K. Berkouwer, for his lack of exegesis in laying out his approach to apologetics. Van Til conceded the point, though those who knew him knew that it wasn’t so much that he had a low view of the need for exegesis, it just wasn’t a main feature of his writings (which were really just class syllabi in most cases).
Here, we have presuppositional apologetics rebooted. Redubbed “covenantal apologetics,” there is much continuity with the approach developed by Van Til. This book will do a number of things, as Oliphint explains, “It is an attempt to move past a somewhat common description of apologetics and apply a new label. In applying a new label, it will argue why that label, and the content included in it, is more apt for the method advocated here” (25). More specifically, Oliphint wants to “translate the language, concepts, and ideas set forth in Van Til’s Reformed apologetic into language, terms, and concepts that are more accessible” (26).
Having read “virtually all of the significant criticisms of Van Til’s approach,” Oliphint is able to navigate some of the pitfalls while still keeping the essence of the approach. He is however concerned that there is much more biblical-theological grounding to this particular art of persuasion and hence the new moniker “covenantal apologetics.”
In the opening chapter, Oliphint gets to work on the exegetical groundwork. Before getting too deep, but at least having oriented readers to the apologetic task, Oliphint then lays out and explains his ten tenets of covenantal apologetics (47-56):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
- All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
- Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see truth for what it is.
- There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
- 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.
- The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
- Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.
These tenets really do function as the foundation, and Oliphint will often make statements later in the book with a numbered tenet in parenthesis so that readers can see that he is drawing on them to develop his ideas further. This is a definite strength of the book and will allow readers to perhaps draw further implications from the tenets.
In the second chapter, Oliphint does a little more heavy lifting in the exegetical arena. Though not nearly as heavy as God With Us, he is nevertheless drawing on similar texts and talking about God’s aseity in relation to the apologetic task. It is here that Oliphint introduces what he calls the “Quicksand Quotient,” which is a persuasive tool used to point out that a person’s stated position cannot actually do what it claims. It is basically an attempt to “ferret out the presuppositions of an opposing viewpoint in order to show its internal inconsistency” (85). He returns to this often, and I can attest that in practice, it can be a very effective way to reframe a discussion.
Chapter 3 tackles the nature of proof, but before getting into that, there is a discussion of natural revelation and Paul’s methods in Acts 17. This leads naturally to a discussion of burden of proof, who has it, and when to deflect it. In short, Oliphint endeavors to show that the notion of “proof” is tenuous at best (122), and shouldn’t be the overall burden of a Christian apologetic, especially if we end up with negative “not proof” as a conclusion. This is all illustrated by the first of several dialogues that Oliphint creates.
Chapter 4 turns from proof to persuasion, which the better focal point of our apologetic enterprise. Oliphint sketches out a theology of persuasion, and then a “trivium” of persuasion consisting of a its ethos, pathos, and logos. This is a way of parsing out our character as an apologist, the specific way we tailor the discussion to the particular person we are talking to, and the truths that we bring to bear in the situation. Or, if you like triperspectivalism, it is the existential, situational, and normative perspectives on the apologetic task of persuasion.
From there, chapter 5 turns to destroy arguments, which is probably something apologists can relish a bit too much. However, at this point in the book, Oliphint has set many guidelines in place that should keep the destruction of arguments in its proper perspective (i.e. not something that is the main objective or one’s personal hobby). In this chapter, Oliphint is explaining the nature of negative apologetics primarily, and the specific objection he is using as a test case is the problem of evil. The chapter appropriately ends with a lengthy dialogue to illustrate one way (Oliphint emphasizes this every time he presents a dialogue) that the discussion could go (another repeated emphasis). It serves as an exposition of covenantal apologetics at its finest, defanging what is usually a very formidable objection and pointing the objector to the gospel of Christ.
Chapters 6 and 7 go together in some respects (27) in that both demonstrate “walking in wisdom toward outsiders.” First, we engage those who hold to naturalistic evolution (chapter 6), and second Muslims (chapter 7). In this way, we are treated to wisdom on how we present our ourselves and our cases to the irreligious (or at least those who claim to be irreligious), and the very religious, and are instructed in the way of wisdom toward both.
I’m not sure I could offer any kind of trenchant critique of Oliphint’s work given my affinity for presuppositional apologetics. Given the parameters he sets out for himself in the introduction (illustrating principles and practices), one could hardly criticize him for not being comprehensive. He picked probably the best objections to deal with (logic, evil, science, Islam). Sure, he could have dealt with others, but he picked the heavy hitters, didn’t shy away from them, and laid out a covenantal approach to dealing with them wisely.
Because of this, I would offer anyone interested in Van Til or presuppositional apologetics an unqualified recommendation of this book. I think it is now the go-to book for someone wanting to understand that method. Oliphint was actually my introduction to Van Til (through the 4th ed. of The Defense of The Faith he edited), and it is great to see him now offering his own popular level exposition of this method that is sensitive to the critique of Van Til that are out there and is seeking to bypass some and advance his thought on others. Basically, what David Powlison, Paul Tripp, and Ed Welch have done for Jay Adams and nouthetic counseling, Scott Oliphint has now done (and has probably been doing in the classroom) for Van Til. If you’re interested in apologetics, this is a book to pick up, and if you tried to wrestle with Van Til to no avail, this is your best second chance offer.