Apologetics to the Glory of God

A Brief History of Covenantal Apologetics

From In Antithesis, Vol. 1 No. 1 September, 2011

The covenantal apologetic method is that method of defending the faith prescribed and described in Scripture. In order to avoid an obvious anachronism one might more properly speak of Scripture setting forth the foundation for the method which would later become known as “covenantal apologetics.”

Some of the texts of Scripture traditionally used to support the contention above include Proverbs and other wisdom literature, Acts 17, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 1, Colossians 1, and Ephesians 2, though many other texts appear in the relevant literature.

Rudimentary versions of covenantal apologetics are found in Augustine, Tertullian, John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Bavinck. The method was most notably popularized in the 20th century by Cornelius Van Til. Covenantal apologetics have been given their place in a number of schools including, most notably, Westminster Theological Seminary where Van Til taught.

They were further developed, popularized, and utilized by Greg L. Bahnsen, John M. Frame, and K. Scott Oliphint, each of whom studied under Van Til. While these men have taken slightly different approaches to their interpretations and applications of Van Til’s thought, there is clear agreement concerning the central tenets and overall thrust of the method. Michael Butler, Bahnsen’s assistant, has taught the method and used it in debate as has Douglas Wilson, who recently engaged atheist Christopher Hitchens in a series of debates which became a part of his “Collision” movie.

Another major influence upon Van Tilian apologetics was the Van Til List started by James N. Anderson. This email list consisted of a group of philosophers, theologians, and laypersons associated with the Van Tilian method of apologetics. While its most prominent contributors including David Byron, Sean Choi, Greg Welty, Michael Sudduth, and Aaron Bradford were familiar with Van Til’s work, they were also more explicitly critical of it than were the aforementioned students of Van Til. Discussions on the list were often marked by a concern to sync the argumentative force of Van Tilian methodology with its rhetorical force.

Later, apologist Paul Manata quickly learned and used covenantal apologetics to great effect online prior to becoming more critical of the method. More recently, the Reformed Forum (organized by Camden Bucey from the WTS community) has taken up the torch. Finally, James R. White is a strong advocate of the covenantal method of apologetics and continues to lead the way in putting his apologetic into practice through engaging in debates with a variety of non-Christian positions and critiquing unbiblical apologetics often used by other believers in lieu of an apologetic which glorifies God.