Defending the Covenant in Covenantal Apologetics

Dr. Oliphint’s new book, Covenantal Apologetics, just hit Kindle only a few hours ago.  Many have already balked at the mere suggestion of a “covenantal” apologetic, for various reasons, and the first chapter of the book explains the change in terminology, and I’m sure many are wondering if he’s successfully justified his “new” position.

Save your ink:  No.

At least not by the standards of (neo)presuppositionalists who wish for an exegetical response to this very question.  But CA isn’t a work laying again the grounds for a Covenant Theology and attempting to persuade the reader of that.  There is Robertson, Murray, Hodge, and Witsius ready and waiting to be read:  this subject is the legacy of Van Til and should be understood in that light.

What Oliphint *does* do in this book is present a consistent and covenantal understanding and application, and takes the Reformed system of theology and applies that to the task of apologetics.  What else should we do?  The principles of apologetics are simple, but they must be Christian, and must have a theological foundation. [1] Which foundation should we use, though? The theological underpinnings of Reformed theologians are going to be that of Covenant Theology, and anyone’s theology, no less CT, will have “sweeping implications” [2] for their apologetic.

Covenantal apologetics is neither a new position, nor is there much to the name change.  Van Til himself rarely used the term “presuppositional,” and often made appeals explicitly to Reformed theology and Reformed apologetics.  “Presuppositionalism,” as Oliphint argues, “is no longer descriptively useful, and it offers, now, more confusion than clarity,” [3] and it has “died the death of a thousand qualifications.” [4]  Even recently in a forum of apologetics, someone had asked if presuppositionalism was identical to TAG, as though that were the meat of its expression.  As the popularity of the approach increases, so too will the misunderstandings and misapplications, for people will be inclined to read Bahnsen’s Always Ready for what they can pragmatically glean, without considering either the implications for their own theology, life and worldview, or failing altogether to see that it was borne of a consistent theology which isn’t theirs.  Autonomously, the thought occurs:  “Surely, I can make this work for me too!” So, we end up with Fristianity, Presuppositional Islam, and many from within Christian Theism who don’t like the exclusive claims imposed upon them by the Presuppositional philosophy of practice that cuts across far more than simply apologetics viewed as a discrete and isolated discipline.

After all, it is part and parcel of presuppositional practice that the apologist must not ignore the presuppositions of the author — but that’s exactly what you must lay aside if you are to embrace Van Til and attempt to divorce his theology and his apologetic.  An honest reading of his original works will easily find “the approach of Cornelius Van Til to be consistent with Reformed theology and its creeds.” [5]  For Van Til, “my aim has been to show that it is the historic Reformed Faith alone that can in any adequate way present the claims of Christ to men for their salvation.” [6]  Yet, too, the nomenclature of “Reformed” remains more than a little ambiguous, as the claim to it runs such a broad spectrum as to bear few distinctive theological tendencies:  but, toss the term “covenant” into the ring, and suddenly all (for example) Dispensational contenders are silent; they will happily distance themselves from any sort of “Replacement” theology.  The result, then, is an apologetic, whose ground and stand is clear: it is *this* God we defend, and from *this* position.  We have moved beyond not only bare theism, but bare theology, and when we wage war against unbelief, we do not fight with weapons chosen for us on sandy ground placed beneath our feet.

Oliphint futher lays out ten tenets, and makes no bones about its thoroughly covenantal language.  He simply reiterates how those of the historic Reformed view man’s relationship to God, both believing and unbelieving.  As WCF 7.1 and LBCF 7.1 both explain, that the gulf between man and God is so vast as to be insurmountable.  Yet, God has already condescended Himself, communicated to man, revealed Himself to his creation, and established a covenant relationship with him, for “we were created as covenant beings. [7]  From the Fall, though the relationship changed, “there was still a relationship. It is not that man ceased to be a covenant creature after the fall.” [8]  Even in his “suppression” of the truth, the unbeliever is in accord with his covenant relationship with God.  It is through that point of contact we can proceed in our apologetic task.

[1] Oliphint, K. Scott (2013-07-31). Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Kindle Locations 665-666). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 718-719.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 668-669.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Location 676.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Location 677.

[6] Van Til, Cornelius (1972). Toward a Reformed Apologetic.

[7] Oliphint, K. Scott (2013-07-31). Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Kindle Location 720). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[8] Ibid, Kindle Locations 724-725.


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