Apologetics to the Glory of God

Controversy, Purity, or Consistency?

As the release of K. Scott Oliphint’s “Covenant Apologetics” draws nigh, I’m finding that it’s harder and harder to get away, in Presuppositionalist circles, from the objections to the very use of these terms, and a modest storm of controversy that continues to build. There is, I think, a very good reason for that. It’s quite obvious, I’ve gathered, that the usage of”Covenant Apologetics” is significant in that it marks a watershed between a variety of streams of thought, and that of covenantal apologists. First, it marks a watershed, in the most general sense, from the postmodern conception of presuppositions as equally valid, but subjectively diverse worldviews. What’s true for you isn’t true for me, and to truly communicate, you have to recognize and understand the presuppositions of the other parties to really engage in a modicum of meaningful exchange. Second, it marks a watershed from every other tributary of the “worldview apologetics” movement inaugurated by Schaeffer. Schaeffer, while a student of Van Til, consciously departed from what Van Til taught, and pioneered his own methodology. The majority of folks who call themselves “presuppositionalists” (including myself) are familiar with Schaeffer – but it’s also widely understood that his position was closer to a “compromise” position with that of classicalism. Third, it separates us from followers of Clark, terminologically. I’m not really interested in continuing the feud here, but there’s really no question that Clarkians, as a general rule, will be more than happy to see us unassociated with their movement 😉 Fourth, it delineates us from those who have departed from Reformed theology. In Calvinistic circles, there are two dissensions from the system of the Reformers – Dispensationalism (in all of its permutations) and New Covenant Theology, of whatever stripe it happens to be. As these groups have already departed from the confessional sphere, and further deny Covenant theology, the only thing the three of them share in common out of the “3 C’s” of Reformed theology is Calvinistic soteriology.

As far as objections go, they tend to boil down to two categories, as far as I can tell. First, that the distinction is being made to create controversy, or out of a love of controversy, and second, that we’re somehow slavishly following Van Til in some misguided sense of methodological purity.

To the first, I can only give my personal motivations for wholeheartedly embracing the change. I’ll be quick to point out that we have some contributors here who don’t care either way what it’s called. However, it should be clear to our readers that while I am not one to shy away from controversy, I do not engage in controversy for its own sake. To bring clarity out of controversy is precisely the aim of a teacher – and the responsibility of an apologist. If you learn nothing else from church history, learn this – every major doctrinal clarification in the history of the church has come directly out of apologetic efforts. If you can name one that hasn’t, please point it out – because I can’t think of a single one that has not. Van Til’s own system arose out of the Dutch Reformed controversy over common grace, in point of fact! The task of an apologist is to bring clarity out of the wake of that inevitable confusion engendered by doctrinal controversy. I use controversies as opportunities. If you happen to be on the other side of one of these controversies, I’m sure it feels like less of an opportunity than it does for me. However, given that we eschew things like a “block house” methodology, or “atomizing” worldviews – is it not applying Van Til’s principles to do precisely as he teaches us to do, without regard to the object? If one wants to call themselves “VanTilian” – but then immediately object (and only in one particular area, at that) to one of the most central aspects of what he taught; namely, that we deal with worldviews “as a unit” – is it remotely accurate to say that we are all sharing the same system?

Which brings us to the second objection. Are we slavish automatons of Van Til’s ponderous system, and subject to the minutiae of his every theological whim? Well, for one, I’d just point out that I’m a Reformed Baptist. So that pretty much puts me outside the camp of OPC alumni, doesn’t it? But even more specifically, I don’t pretend to say I agree with him in every detail. What I will say, however, is that I am a good sight closer to being in agreement on every particular than: A postmodernist, Schaefferian, Clarkian, Dispensationalist or New Covenant theologian! I don’t have to baptize Van Til as a Reformed Baptist. We’re already so close, given the parallel development of the OPC and Reformed Baptists, that we’re about as close together as any other two theological systems on the planet. Further, with all due deference to my Presbyterian friends, the Reformed Baptist position on their covenantal theology is that it is a necessary reformation of the magisterial residue of the Roman system. Which, I might add, is precisely the same thing we both say about Van Til’s reformation of Roman natural theology. So, consistently, and given how close we are, even despite the above noted difference, it is consistent for me to both affirm that Van Til was wrong in one area of his covenantal theology, yet right on the majority of it. Further, that one area of disagreement, while important, has implications to only a limited extent, and almost entirely internal to the life of the church. So while I make no bones about being a confessional Reformed Baptist, and disagreeing with my Presbyterian brothers, I also don’t overemphasize the disagreement. Further, I likewise recognize that I have more in common, systematically, with a brother in the OPC than I do a brother who is a dispensationalist, or New Covenant theologian. That’s a simple fact. A dispensationalist cannot affirm Article VII of the LBCF. Neither can a brother in the OPC, but for a different reason, and to a different extent! Their entire hermeneutic is not different. Their application of the same hermeneutic is. That is a rather extensive difference between the inability of one to affirm it and the other, is it not? It’s not a matter of “purity” – it’s a matter of consistency. Which brings us to our final point.

If I am going to say that we need to presuppose Christianity “as a unit” – is it in any way consistent for me to say “except for this part of the unit over here”? I make no bones about my differences with my Presbyterian brothers. Yet, it is just as often our Presbyterian contributors that I work alongside as it is one of our Baptist contributors. They don’t make any bones about their disagreement with me, either. That’s okay. However, once the departures are plain and inescapable – and remember, Dispensationalists and NCT proponents are separate, not members of Reformed churches, by their own volition – then what, precisely, do those who do not hold to what Van Til held to, and have no intention of ever doing so, care what those who do call themselves? Keep calling yourselves presuppositionalists, if that’s what you desire to do. We weren’t planning on stopping you, nor could we even if we wanted to for some strange reason. However, if we’re going to be consistent – and that matters a great deal to us – then at some point it has to be made clear that there are distinctions. Those distinctions are for the sake of consistency, clarity, and consanguinity. They aren’t to invoke heedless controversy, or to enforce an arbitrary purist elitism. If I might ask one small question, of those of you who have no intention of being a covenantal apologist? What do you care what we call ourselves, anyway?


4 responses to “Controversy, Purity, or Consistency?”

  1. SLIMJIM Avatar

    I hold you in high esteem. Just curious though, what would you say to someone who’s going to write a book and call it Presbyterian apologetics instead of Covenantal apologetics to move away from those Reformed Baptists? Then they proceed to provide quotes of Van Til being a Presbyterian.

    1. RazorsKiss Avatar

      1) “Good providence!”
      2) “Does the difference we have over the nature of the covenant really have bearing on the apologetic method?”

      Now, of course, some might say that #2 applies to them, as well. All I can reply to that is what I’ve said already – when your entire hermeneutic is different, that is, indeed, a big difference. How can I “team up” with someone who denies the universality of the moral law, for instance? Our answers to the covenant-breaker are going to be necessarily different. I can’t think of many instances where the extent of covenant membership being extended to infants has a great deal of impact, can you?

      But let’s take it further – instead of objections, is there a positive case to be made for saying that 1) Van Til’s method was intended to be usable by dispensationalists, or by a movement that didn’t yet exist when he formulated it? 2) That his emphasis on system wasn’t intended to be exhaustive?

      I’ve got a pretty fair idea of what he would say to 1), given his remarks in DotF, and in Jerusalem and Athens, where he deals with objections to and variations on his teaching. For 2), he was also pretty clear, given that he addresses even Presbyterians – including Clark – on the basis of their system, and their consistency with it.

      Still, given that we get back and forth from Jared fairly regularly, (and tweets from his Dad on occasion) and that we have Presbyterian contributors – I don’t see much danger of that. Do you? I don’t think it’s even arguable that RBs and Presbyterians are extremely close in doctrinal understanding. Far closer than any Dispensationalist or NCT proponent could be. So I don’t see it happening – but if it does, I think there’s a fairly clear response to it. My Presbyterian brothers are free to weigh in on this, of course. They already know what I think, and we’ve discussed it for years anyway 😉

  2. brigand bladestorm Avatar
    brigand bladestorm

    Quite right, that the status of infants in the church (as your example) is really neither here nor there with unbelievers. It’s a long conversation to even work toward among other Christians.

    But the core theology, the main thrust and cohesive thread and tightly-woven redemptive plotline is virtually identical and undeniably quintessential when presenting the positive case of our apologetic! In that, as Reformed and covenantal Christians, there is unity and harmony: so, too, our positive case presents a consistent and united front against the internal turmoil of the unbelieving worldview.

  3. […] sake, nor for controversialism’s sake.  It is being stressed for the sake of consistency.  First and foremost in Reformed theology is the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.  From […]

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