Some thoughts on the upcoming debate

In my preparations for the debate on Sunday, and in dealing with the quite providential example Paul Copan gave us last week of the importance of the subject, I felt it might be valuable to give a few impressions I’ve had along the way. My opening statement has been written for a week or so now – prior to Dr. Copan’s comments, in fact – and my first thought after reading it was this. I wouldn’t change anything I had to say. First, because Dr. Copan’s comments weren’t anything we hadn’t seen before. Second, because I’m giving a positive presentation of the necessity for a Covenantal apologetic. Third, because none of his comments were accurate in regards to that apologetic methodology.

The debate at hand has the thesis: “Covenantal Apologetics is the only Biblical apologetic method.” Dr. Copan’s comments only served to underline the importance of that affirmation. Since my opponent has, to my knowledge, no published material online or in print, I really don’t feel as if I have to respond to his position until I know what it is, beyond the generalities. Instead, I will be offering a positive case for the necessity of this Biblical apologetic method, and the impossibility of the evidential method. As I understand it, his position is that there is a “value” for the evidential apologetic method, although he respects the Covenantal method as well. Regular readers of this website probably know that I would consider this akin to saying “there is a value for the Arminian and Romanist systems of theology, but I respect Reformed theology as well.” I assure you, I will be bringing up the link between Romanist and Arminian schools of theology and evidentialism, as well as pointing out the assumptions made in the method of evidentialism. After all, it is the method of evidentialism that is at issue, not the mere “use of evidences”. What is also at issue is the understanding of what the Covenantal method actually is. My first cross-examination will most likely explore that aspect, and we will most likely deal with the most common arguments made by evidentialists. I sincerely hope that this will not be the case, given the wealth of material available for my opponent – I am at a great disadvantage in that respect. In fact, there are some who would consider this post to be putting myself at further disadvantage, in terms of “debate strategy”. If my point was simply to win, that might be true. However, debates in the Body of Christ are for the edification of that body – and hopefully, to persuade your opponent as well as those who listen to the debate.

To that end, I’d just like to point out a few things that I hope don’t come up.

1) Begging the question.

As much as this has been addressed (in laborious detail) on this site, I sincerely hope that this is not used as an objection. If so, I will be disappointed. This is perhaps the greatest reason I had for setting a period of 3 weeks of prep time for this debate, despite having nothing to study from my opponent. I wanted to give him a chance to work through the material available on this site. Hopefully he took full advantage of that time!

2) No common ground/point of contact with the unbeliever.

This is also one of the most perniciously ignorant objections to the Covenantal apologetic. Van Til himself dealt with this issue repeatedly, and it would be a shame if it became an issue once again. It has been dealt with by almost every contributor to this site at least once, and by Chris, Brian and myself dozens of times. I once again sincerely hope that this is not one of the objections offered.

3) Natural Theology

Only a problematic reading of Romans 1 can leave someone thinking that it is offering some sort of cosmological argument, or that it does not tell us that all men know God both in themselves and through nature. This is, however, one of the most common objections from the evidentialist. It is also most certainly not the case that we reject natural revelation, as is often asserted. I sincerely hope this assertion is not made in the upcoming debate. What is rejected is the sort of natural theology that only reveals “a god”. Scripture tells us that natural revelation reveals the God, not “a god.” I sincerely hope that my opponent studied my paper on Romans 1-2.

4) Knowledge

It is often asserted that we are saying that unbelievers do not know anything. This is not true in the least – at least if we are consistent with Van Til. What we are saying is that the basis, or justification, of knowledge is destroyed in principle, by the unbeliever’s presuppositional commitments. However, due to common grace, they know things, and contribute positively to human society in spite of their presuppositional commitments – in spite of their principles – and this is intrinsically tied to the point of contact we have with the unbeliever in the knowledge of God; who is gracious to them, for the sake of the elect. They cannot justify their knowledge – and are left with no possible grounds for certainty or probability in their own system, since they deny the only possible grounds which can provide that certainty, or make “probability” intelligible, or meaningful. Again, I hope the assertion is not made that we believe that unbelievers do not know anything

5) Certainty

It would be quite a shame if the discussion ran into roadblocks concerning certainty vs. probabilistic argumentation. It is not the case that we cannot have certainty. I have had so many evidentialists tell me this that I feel I must say this ahead of time. We do most affirm, most wholeheartedly, that we can have certainty, as Christians. We further affirm that this is because we do not start with ourselves as anything save a proximate starting point. As Calvin affirms with us, even that proximate starting point induces us to look immediately up towards God, who is the only ultimate starting point – and by receiving that which He grants us, by faith, we are indeed able to be certain about that which we are taught – for we are taught of God! This subject is also covered in many places on this site – the objection that we “have to start with the senses”, or “have to use logic to read the Bible”. These subjects are dealt with over and over again by us, and by theologians before us. I would be quite disappointed were this one of the objections made.

6) _X_ in Scripture argued as an evidentialist

If this assertion is to be made, it must be understood that most of the passages you deal with have been rebutted previously. I strongly caution anyone against using Acts 17, or Romans 1, incidentally. Especially if the extensive work done on those two passages by Covenantal apologists is not addressed. Further, the presence of natural revelation must not be mistaken as an argument for evidentialism, as we obviously don’t reject natural theology, just a certain approach to natural theology.

7) Comparing Covenantal apologetics to just about any philosophical school negatively

I can promise you – Van Til spends almost as much time responding to these sorts of allegations as he did anything else. It is not only a bad argument, but will almost definitely hurt your case. Don’t do it. I’ll just let Van Til defend himself in reply, as he does so quite capably. Further, bringing up supposedly negative things about Van Til probably won’t get you far, either. Those are also common objections, and we have necessarily common responses to them.

8) Objecting to Covenantal theology as an objection to Covenantal apologetics

I really wouldn’t do that. Recall, Van Til emphasized that we defend Christian Theism as a unit – as a system. Necessarily, we defend the Reformed system of theology. I’ve made the case previously that to consistently be a Covenantal apologist, you must be a Covenantal theologian. Theology determines apologetic method. It is quite clear that a Dispensationalist, for instance, will therefore necessarily defend something other than a Covenantal theologian would, and for reasons drawn from his theological system. All it will serve to do, if this approach is taken, is further outline the necessity for consistency, and demonstrate the inconsistency of the opposing viewpoint.

9) Objecting to Confessionalism as a supposed bar to Sola Scriptura

Since the great Reformed confessions begin with the affirmation of Sola Scriptura, I encourage anyone pondering this approach to refrain from doing so – in the strongest of terms.

10) Any Fristianity-style counter as an objection.

First, you’re not a Fristian. Second, a Muslim can’t affirm what we affirm about a whole host of things concerning revelation. Third, there is an absolute wealth of attention paid to this topic on this site, and I sincerely doubt that there will be something new offered as an objection in that vein. Since this is the case, you are asking for a stock answer, and that doesn’t further the debate at all.

11) Novelty

My long-standing assertion is that Covenantal apologetics is Sola Scriptura in an apologetic context. Thus, only if Sola Scriptura is denied as a historical doctrine of the church, going back all the way to the apostles, can it be also be denied that the Covenantal apologetic was historically employed. Of course, we aren’t saying that Van Til’s sophisticated system was what Augustine used – but we can affirm that Augustine and Athanasius were Sola Scriptura apologists. We can further affirm that probabilistic argumentation was not part of their apologetic, but that Sola Scriptura was at its heart.

12) Finally, any objections that concern the assertion that there are “all of these worldviews out there, so how can we disprove them all?”

Christianity affirms that there are two worldviews. Assuming otherwise is not a Christian position. This is another common objection, so going here will, unfortunately, also be problematic for you. Making stock objections really wastes your time, and blunts your argumentative force, so I recommend against it.

In any case, there are probably more that I haven’t thought of offhand – but I figured I would post this far enough ahead of time that if my opponent were tempted to use these arguments, I might persuade him not to use them. As Van Til used to say, I’d like to “buy the next cup of coffee”, and I’m not all that concerned with “winning” the debate, per se. I’m concerned with having a good debate that honors our Lord, and edifies the body. It is my hope that these topics are not the focus of the debate, but that the fundamental, theological underpinnings of the respective methods are what are discussed, in detail – as that is where the real debate lies. Can you be Reformed and be consistently evidential? Is it really the case that the only consistently Reformed apologetic methodology is the Covenantal apologetic?

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