The Recent Rise of Covenantal Apologetics (1 of 10)

Years ago (oh how time flies!) I read a series of posts by Mark Dever called, “Where’d All These Calvinists Come From?” You may read the series here. Dever provides observations pertaining to the apparent recent growth of Calvinist(ic) theology amongst younger generations as famously pointed out by Collin Hansen here. Some believe these claims erroneous. Others consider them truthful, good news. Others true, but harmful. Whatever your opinion on the matter, I suspect that the “New Calvinism” just has to be an improvement upon “Ancient Pelagianism.” And who wouldn’t agree that it is better to be “Young, Restless, and Reformed” than it is to be “Old, Apathetic, and Arminian”?

But this site is about covenantal apologetics. What does the so-called “New Calvinism” have to do with that? At least three things come to mind.

First, it seems to me – expert armchair sociologist that I am – that covenantal (or more popularly, “presuppositional”) apologetics are on the rise, though not as much as Calvinism. That’s not a scientific observation. More like an a priori assumption that I thought would make for a decent series of posts on a day when I don’t have any motivation to write. I don’t have any real hard evidence that there are any more people now who know what presuppositional apologetics are than there were people who knew what they were ten years ago, but since I have spent a fair amount of time familiarizing myself with the method and its practitioners, I feel confident in asserting that there are. Perhaps it is just the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. If so, then I apologize, but you will soon see the same thing I do anyway, and I will still seem right. That’s a good way to start a series.

Second, I would like to write this series as a sort of explanation of the aforementioned phenomenon. Not the Baader-Meinhof. You will have to delve into the same obscure Google literature that I did to understand that reference. Rather, I plan to offer some observations regarding why there are more covenantal apologetics being thrown around now than there were only ten years ago, assuming that it’s true that there are more covenantal apologetics being thrown around now than there were only ten years ago. So, like Dever’s post series on the New Calvinism, I am offering a post series on the…uh…“New Presuppositional Apologetics.” But I’m not Mark Dever, and that phrase is nowhere near as catchy as “New Calvinism,” so disregard it and make up your own. In fact I just proofread my last few sentences and cringed, so let me move on.

Third, the first reason I would provide for the recent trend toward wider acceptance of the covenantal apologetic method, as well as more readily available material being written on that method, and seemingly also a slowly increasing number of practitioners of that method, is the so-called New Calvinism. According to Dever, some of the driving forces behind the aforementioned “movement” (if you don’t like it just pretend like I didn’t write it and keep reading) are the writings of C.H. Spurgeon, the preaching of Martin Lloyd-Jones, The Banner of Truth Trust, Evangelism Explosion, the Inerrancy Controversy, the start of the Presbyterian Church in America, Episcopalian writers, John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and the theology of the sovereignty of God. Each of these alleged causes no doubt opened up a whole new world to those on their receiving end. Shining, shimmering, splendid.

Reformed theology runs much, much deeper than Calvinism. (At least that is the case if we understand “Calvinism” in its current, more widely understood sense, rather than the way an Abraham Kuyper would have understood it, or as synonymous with “Reformed.”) An anemic tulip leads a good gardener to start digging around. Even so Calvinism in its “new,” purely soteriological and sociological form leads the young would-be theologian to start reading the wealth of Reformed material available in places like old books and (need I mention?) the Internet. It is there that he or she might happen upon a fresh insight. Theology might have something to do with apologetics. Now there’s a concept!

Suddenly the social-minded young Calvinist wants to fit in with the other Calvinists in the apologetic endeavor. There’s a whole school of thought called “Reformed epistemology.” It looks complicated and doesn’t really seem to work as an apologetic (it is, after all, an approach to epistemology), but at least the word “Reformed” is there, so something is going on. Ah. Here is R.C. Sproul and a few other Reformed authors writing about classical apologetics, but what’s with the qualifier? You mean that there really are different types of apologetics? What is “classical” in distinction from any other approach to apologetics? Oh. Here are some controversies involving Sproul and other apologists. John Frame…Greg Bahnsen…who is Cornelius Van Til? Presuppositionalism? Gordon Clark is a presuppositionalist too? What about Francis Schaeffer? How is this Van Til guy any different? Matters have quickly become complex and confusing for a guy or young lady who started out liking how cool Piper’s voice sounded. Now he or she is cognizant of an overwhelming number of Calvinists who say that they approach apologetics differently because of their Calvinism. What’s with that?

There is a (rather frightening) social element involved in coming to terms with covenantal apologetics. “If you want to be a Calvinist, you’ll have to be a presuppositionalist.” Well, Alvin Plantinga isn’t consistently Reformed, Sproul is in the minority in his apologetic as far as Reformed theologians go, Schaeffer doesn’t make an argument, the only Clarkians left in existence are bots on the Internet (my inbox will love me for that one), and Van Til is the only guy left. Plus, Van Til has Bahnsen and Frame backing him up, though they disagree in some initially imperceptible way. So if you’re going to get your Calvinist card punched then you need to jump on board with the Van Tilian guys. You need to embrace covenantal apologetics. I’m not any more pleased with that sort of thing than the majority of my readers. I’m just explaining one of the ways covenantal apologetics have probably become more popular in recent years. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Maybe there is still more to the idea that Calvinism entails covenantal apologetics than the mere desire to fit in. For example, total depravity means that humans are affected in every “part” by sin. Their minds are affected as much as their wills. Reason is fallen. It is dead. A slave to sin. Reason does not stand on some neutral ground properly evaluating the evidences and arguments for the existence of God. It daily encounters the evidences and arguments for God in abundance and refuses to acknowledge them. It suppresses the truth. It holds the truth down in unrighteousness. It trades the truth in for a lie. Suddenly the cuddly conferring of Thomistic thought experiments and erudite explanations of Plantingan possible worlds semantics do not look so appealing for use in one’s apologetic arsenal. And let’s face it, even a Baptist struggles with alliteration when it comes to ossuaries.

There is much more to be said here. Total depravity does not exist apart from other key tenets of a Calvinist soteriology. Neither should a Calvinist soteriology exist apart from a firm Reformed emphasis upon the redemptive Word and persuasion of the Spirit of God. Not only do the aforementioned elements of a thoroughly Reformed understanding of the Christian worldview lend themselves to a specifically covenantal apologetic method, but so do the other “points” of the Calvinist “T.U.L.I.P.” That discussion is for another time though.

For now, consider my observation that the recent surge in Calvinism among the younger generations has sparked an interest in covenantal apologetics as well.


6 Comments

JL

Looking forward to this series. I never thought the day would come where Presuppositionalism would become popular.

Nextor

I am all in! 🙂

You almost summed up my journey to covenental apologetics! 🙂

Mike

Why is this method is become popular? Perhaps because Christians are discovering the unbeliever simply doesn’t have a rational response to the presuppositional challenge. I still remember listening to the Bahnsen/Stein debate. It was amazing! It was the first debate I had heard a where the Christian could argue in circles around his opponent.

As I listened to other debates where the presuppositional approach was used I saw that there were answers to the challenges raised by unbelievers. Initially it was difficult to understand the method well enough to answer the objections but after a while it really began to make sense and that’s when you really discover the power of the presuppositional approach. You begin to hear the same old invalid (and already answered) objections over and over and you realize that the unbeliever hasn’t got an answer.

It has given me confidence in my faith. I am no longer a timid, hesitant Christian and I hope more Christians discover this method!

Nicholas Potts

I just want to say that this was a great post! Thank you so much for writing it!

I will say this though, my favorite part of the post was, “Each of these alleged causes no doubt opened up a whole new world to those on their receiving end. Shining, shimmering, splendid.” My favorite song from my favorite Disney movie! I’ll have to sing it for you some day!

Rogue Friar

Perhaps the anemic nature of the young, restless and reformed movement these days [5 years after this post and it’s “optimistic eschatology”] is because they became infected with presuppositionalism.

C. L. Bolt

Is this just intended to be a well-crafted insult of some sort?


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