Review by C.L. Bolt
Thank you Crossway for the review copy of this book. Thank you Dr. Oliphint for the heads up and sneak peek at this work.
Oliphint, K. Scott. Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. pp. 277. $19.99.
K. Scott Oliphint serves at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia as professor of apologetics and systematic theology. Like his predecessor, Cornelius Van Til, Oliphint places much greater emphasis upon the particularities of apologetic methodology than do most other apologists. The importance of apologetic methodology follows from the significance of the systematic theology Christians set out to defend. And with twenty-five endorsements from a variety of pastors and academics including Richard B. Gaffin Jr., R. Albert Mohler Jr., Stephen J. Wellum, Bob Kauflin, James N. Anderson, Douglas Wilson, Nathan Sasser and Richard L. Pratt Jr., the book promises appeal for a rather broad audience despite (and probably because of) its insistence upon theological precision.
Oliphint’s book consists of seven chapters. A Foreword by William Edgar and an Introduction precede the first chapter of the book, “Always Ready,” which consists of five sections, “Christian Truth,” “Required to Respond,” “What Is Covenantal Apologetics?,” “The Ten Tenets,” and “Tenets and Texts.” The second chapter, “Set Christ Apart as Lord” is divided into three sections, “I AM,” “Condescension and Apologetics,” and “He Who Is Not with Me.” The third chapter is called “Proof to All Men” and has five sections, “Paul at Athens,” “Where Shall I Flee?,” “Proving the Proofs,” “What a Burden,” and “How Do You Know?” The fourth chapter, “We Persuade Others” consists of “‘Trivial’ Matters” and “Conclusion.” The fifth chapter, “We Destroy Arguments: The Achilles Heel” contains discussions about “The Good Fight,” “Negative Apologetics,” and “Positive Apologetics,” and the sixth, “Walk in Wisdom toward Outsiders,” focuses on “The Wisdom of Persuasion,” “The Spirit of Persuasion,” “Dennett, Dawkins, and Doubt,” and “A Concluding Word to the Wise.” Finally, the seventh chapter is titled, “You Are Very Religious” and includes sections called, “Idol Worship,” “God Is (Not?) Great,” and a “Conclusion.” The book includes a bibliography and general index as well as a Scripture index.
Oliphint’s book begins with a scene from a conference on the relationship between faith and reason (23). Oliphint provides an account of how he critiqued the philosophy of Immanuel Kant before transitioning into a presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the real Immanuel (23). Obviously, such a presentation does not go over well at a philosophy conference. While philosophy conferences typically emphasize intellectual tickles, Oliphint was arguing for heart transplants. Oliphint was arguing for epistemological success that could be obtained only through total transformation grounded by faith in the revelation of God (23).
According to Oliphint another presenter, troubled by the implications of Oliphint’s argument, complained of the circularity involved in accepting the authority of the Bible on its own say-so. Oliphint’s reply helps the reader understand a core element of a covenantal apologetic.
I admitted to him that I certainly was arguing in (some kind of) a circle. I was arguing that unless they accepted the Bible for what it said, and what it was, there would be no real solution to the faith and reason problem. Then I made clear to them that they were all asking that their own views, based on their own reasoning and sources, be accepted as true. In every case, I said to them, every other presenter appealed to his own final authority. “So,” I asked them, “on what basis should I accept your circle over mine?” (24)
Professor Oliphint’s insightful point was met with an awkward silence, followed by a change in subject (24). Nevertheless, the point would rest in the background throughout the rest of the night, even as others shared sophisticated arguments for generic theism which resulted in a great deal less controversy than Oliphint’s Christ-centered, Gospel-centered, revelation-based call for epistemological repentance (24).
Having shared the aforementioned account of his covenantal apologetic in action, Oliphint supplies the reader with what he intends to accomplish in his book on the method. Oliphint hopes to accomplish a number of goals, including providing a new label for his method in an effort to clarify its concepts and moving past mere talk of principles to the actual implication of their practice (25). Oliphint describes his work as a “translation” rather than an “introduction,” for he intends to “translate the language, concepts, and ideas set forth in Van Til’s Reformed apologetic into language, terms, and concepts that are more accessible,” and to “translate much of what is meant in Van Til’s own writings from their often philosophical and technical contexts to a more basic biblical and theological context” (26). Thus, Oliphint’s goal is to teach a Van Tilian method of apologetics without the fancy language and with a preference for biblical or theological, rather than philosophical, emphases. Oliphint admits differences with Van Til, but only in terms of language and style, rather than central concerns (26). According to Oliphint, Scripture and Reformed theology constitute the substance of language and style in his own translation of presuppositional or covenantal apologetics (26). Indeed, “In most everything I say in the dialogs, all that is needed is a thoughtful commitment to the truths given to us in Scripture, and then the practice of probing the assumptions and foundations of any opposing position will come more readily” (27). Throughout his chapters, Oliphint also seeks to satisfy the dual goal of explaining “the focus of our approach and then, through sample dialogs, show the approach ‘in action’” (27).
This, then, is the bottom line truth that must be central in everything that we discuss —Christianity is true, so anything opposing it is false. This means that whatever opposition we face as Christians, it is, by definition, an opposition that is false. Even if we have no idea what the central tenets or teachings are in such opposition, we know at the outset that it cannot sustain itself in God’s world. The rest of this book is an attempt to explain the implications of that central truth. (27)
Finally, Oliphint explains that he is not convinced that any critiques of Van Til’s approach with which he is familiar are convincing enough to him that Van Til’s basic method should be changed (27-28). With these goals and clarifications at the forefront of the discussion, Oliphint begins bridging a gap through his translation of covenantal apologetics from the words and world of Cornelius Van Til to our own.
The first chapter of the book defines Christian apologetics as “the application of biblical truth to unbelief” (29). Though the work of apologetics is often obscured and complicated by various factors, apologetics need not be any more difficult than as described above (29). Hence, in Oliphint’s work “what we will set out to do, first of all, is to lay out the primary biblical and theological principles that must be a part of any covenantal defense of Christianity and then to demonstrate how these principles might be applied against certain objections” (29-30). While no one, or even five ways exist whereby a Christian might respond to every objection of every unbeliever in every circumstance, “in each and every case, what must be understood are the fundamental biblical and theological tenets or principles that guide, direct, and apply to whatever attacks, objections, and questions may come to the Christian” (30). The principles are a bit like a fence, while many particular responses are available within that fence (30).
Beginning with the Trinity and creation, Oliphint paints a picture of Christian truth, including the fall of humanity into sin and each individual’s position in either Adam or Christ (30-33). Christian truth entails our “task of defending and commending the truth of Christianity,” otherwise known as apologetics (33-38). After providing some exegesis of 1 Peter 3.15 with a heavy emphasis upon the lordship of Christ as the basis of apologetics, Oliphint proceeds to defend his use of the label “Covenantal Apologetics” for his approach to apologetics (38-56). The term “apologetics” is a biblical term akin to “justification” or “sanctification,” hence; studying apologetics involves studying texts which are relevant to the term (38). It follows that apologetics are not only Christian in nature, but theologically-based (38). Though such an approach to apologetics is popularly known as “presuppositionalism,” Oliphint argues that the label “needs once and for all to be laid to rest” (38). Regarding the label of presuppositionalism, he explains, “It has served its purpose well, but it is no longer descriptively useful, and it offers, now, more confusion than clarity when the subject of apologetics arises” (38).
Why change the label to “covenantal”? Oliphint answers this question by providing an overview of the concept of covenant as it appears in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Romans 1, John Calvin, and the psychology of the unbeliever (38-47). Applying the overview of the concept of covenant to the apologetic endeavor clarifies the goal of a covenantal apologetic.
It seeks to take the truth of Scripture as the proper diagnosis of the unbelieving condition and challenge the unbeliever to make sense of the world he has made. Scripture tells us that a world built on the foundation of unbelief does not exist; it is a figment of an unbelieving imagination, and thus is basically irrational. (46)
The philosophical term for the aforementioned approach is “transcendental,” which pertains to the “preconditions” of knowledge and behavior (46). According to Oliphint, “This approach, then, tries to make obvious both the presuppositions of the unbelieving position itself and the covenantal presuppositions that are at work in order to challenge the unbelieving position at its root” (47). The covenantal apologetic approach is summarized by Oliphint in ten tenets (47-56). The ten tenets are stated at the end of the first chapter as follows:
1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.
2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any Covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on, and utilize, that authority in order to defend Christianity.
3. It is the truth of God’s revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.
4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the Triune God, for eternity.
5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ, see that truth for what it is.
7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing, position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, etc that it has taken and wrenched from its true, Christian context.
9. The true, covenantal, knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal all-controlling plan and purpose of God. (55)
These ten tenets are not exhaustive, but will be present in a covenantal apologetic, and should be kept in mind as Oliphint seeks to apply them in the remainder of his book.
The second chapter summarizes much of Oliphint’s earlier work, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God and applies it to apologetics (57-85). The chapter is thus heavily theological, beginning with a discussion of the names of God and theology proper, and moving into Christology, an example of the condescension of God par excellence (58-66). Oliphint points out that the lordship of Christ is essential not just to apologetics, but “it is central to the gospel and to the very truth of God, and for that reason alone it should be a central aspect of our own thinking and living in the world, to the glory of God” (66). Oliphint contrasts this view of the world with Kantian philosophy (66-71). Next, he uses a feud between atheist Richard Dawkins and other skeptics as reported by Brandon K. Thorp to illustrate how ad hominem can be a valuable, non-fallacious way of arguing, using what he calls the “Quicksand Quotient” (72-77). Oliphint explains, “In applying the Quicksand Quotient, we attempt to show that the position that we are opposing is sinking sand and cannot stand on its own” (76). One way to show that a position cannot stand is to contrast it with the Christian view, but this does little more in terms of persuasion than to indicate a disagreement between two positions (76). Indeed, “The other, more persuasive and effective way to apply the Quicksand Quotient is to show that the position, based on its own principles, cannot stand” (77). Once the Quicksand Quotient is applied, Christianity is persuasively proclaimed as the viable alternative (77). Turning the Quicksand Quotient back on the Christian position, per an argument from Anthony Kenny against the doctrine of God, Oliphint shows why all of the theology he outlined prior to this point in the book is crucial to understand when defending Christianity against attacks from unbelievers (77-85).
In the third chapter Oliphint takes the ten tenets presented in the preceding chapter and applies them to the matter of proof (87). In an attempt to further clarify a covenantal apologetic, the aforementioned principles are explained through biblical texts and history (87-122). The Apostle Paul’s apologetic encounter at Athens in Acts 17 is examined, followed by King David’s recognition that he could not flee from the presence of God in Psalm 139 (87-93). Not only is the presence of God inescapable, but his image is as well.
If we remain in our sins, in Adam, we are judged and condemned because we are God’s image. If we come to Christ, by grace through faith, there is no condemnation because, in Christ, the image of God which we are is being renewed (cf. Eph.4:24; Col. 3:10). Being “image of God,” therefore, is one of the most basic covenantal categories for us (tenet 4). It is a universal truth about us, from the beginning of creation and into eternity future (93).
Two aspects of the lordship of God and two analogous aspects of the lordship of humans created in God’s image are included in the discussion on the image of God (94-97). Paul relies not only upon the reality of the image of God in his address at Athens, but the unwavering intensity of God’s revelation. Oliphint explains, “God is not hindered by our pretended contexts and supposed barriers.”
His revelation comes through; it bombards us externally and internally. He continues, always and everywhere, to reveal himself to those who are his image. And that revelation always and everywhere meets its mark and accomplishes its goal. As image, we know him, and that knowledge makes us covenantally accountable to him (tenet 5). (97-98)
Oliphint bolsters his argument concerning the knowledge of God through addressing John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis as derived from Romans 1-2 (98-104). The importance of these topics cannot be overemphasized, for “they must inform any and every attempt to defend the Christian faith” (104).
The nature and limitation of proofs are discussed, with the conclusion that it is a broader set “of truths, concepts, assumptions, and ideas surrounding proofs that we are concerned to articulate and to make clear in the context of a covenantal apologetic” (105-108). Proof is not enough. Not only that, but we should “seek to provide justifying reasons, both empirical and nonempirical, for the ‘larger set’ that surrounds any proof” (108). It follows from what has been said that Christians should not shy away from attempting to satisfy the ‘burden of proof’ when applicable, though the concept is not as clear-cut as many make it out to be, and though unbelievers may often try to shy away from it themselves (109-110). Oliphint provides a practical example of the use of proof within a covenantal apologetic by contrasting two conversations regarding a Thomistic argument from causality, one involving a Thomist apologist and the other a covenantal apologist (110-122).
The fourth chapter of the work is a detailed explanation of the art of persuasion (123-160). Oliphint reviews the trivium of older education, which included grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric (123-126). While these three areas are no longer found in education the way they once were, they are still essential to proper thinking (126). Such tools of proper thinking help with the task of persuasion, which is to be preferred more than demonstrative proofs, given our theology (126-136). Oliphint takes W.K. Clifford to task by pointing out “There simply cannot be sufficient evidential propositions ad infinitum” (128). Indeed, “There has to be some ‘place’ – some proposition, some concept, some idea, some foundation of authority – that is sufficient to carry the conceptual weight of what we claim to know, believe, and hold” (128). During the Reformation, Scripture supplied the aforementioned foundation (128-129). However, another foundation outside of Scripture was the sensus divinitatis or “sense of deity,” which provides a “point of contact” between believer and unbeliever (129-130). Finally, Oliphint believes in the foundation of “God’s universal mercy over all that he has made” (130). According to Oliphint, “The first aspect of God’s universal mercy includes the fact that God’s attitude towards his creatures made in his image is one of wrath, because of sin (Rom. 1:18), but is also one of mercy and kindness toward them,” “The second aspect of God’s universal mercy has to do with the restraint of sin in the lives of individuals and of society,” and the third “includes the fact that the unregenerate can perform ‘righteous’ acts, even though still slaves to sin” (131-136). Oliphint labels the aforementioned theological truths “a theological ‘trivium’ – the principial nature of Scripture, the sensus divinitatis (i.e., knowledge of God), and God’s universal mercy – that provide the foundation for a biblical view of persuasion in apologetics” (137).
Oliphint shifts to a discussion of the trivium of persuasion taken from Aristotle (139). This trivium includes “the ethos of persuasion, which means, generally, one’s character,” the pathos, or partisanship, and the logos, which “focuses our attention on the actual arguments, including the content of those arguments, that we aim to present to a given audience” (139-158). Oliphint concludes this chapter by asserting that “our goal is to communicate, as persuasively as we are able, the truth of God himself, as that truth finds its focus in the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us” (159). Further, “Because arguments of persuasion have to take into account the pathos of persuasion, there will not be just one way, or just one set of truths, or one answer given, in every apologetic encounter” (159-160).
After some exegesis and application surrounding 2 Corinthians 10.5 at the beginning of the fifth chapter, Oliphint explains that “Positively, the task of apologetics is to commend the Christian faith to those who are affected by, even enslaved to, unbelief,” and “Negatively, the task of apologetics is to refute challenges to the truth of the Christian position” (161-165). Though these two apologetic tasks can, and should, be offered together, they are also distinct from one another (165). Oliphint launches into a lengthy discussion of answering the problem of evil as an example of negative apologetics (165-176). The hypothetical unbeliever’s objection is successfully dismantled. However, Oliphint then offers an example of positive apologetics by continuing with an explanation of the problem of evil from the Christian position, based squarely in the historical orthodox Christian position surrounding the condescension of God in Jesus Christ (176-192).
In the sixth chapter, Oliphint exegetes from the book of Colossians, emphasizing the importance of an earlier comment that the trivium cannot be understood through neutrality, but only in accordance with Scripture (193-198). Exegesis of several passages of Scripture is set forth in relation to Oliphint’s claim that apologetics might be thought of as “premeditated evangelism” (198-206). Oliphint proposes a sample response to the likes of evolutionists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins to conclude the chapter (207-224).
Oliphint begins the seventh chapter of his book conceding that dealing with other specific religions is more complicated than dealing with obvious forms of unbelief like atheism (225). Oliphint explains, “In a false religion (and here we’re using the term religion in its usual sense), we are dealing with people who have committed themselves to a god, who spend their lives in service to this god, and who have divine direction, in some form or other, that tells them who they are and what they are to do” (225). Oliphint believes that every false religion has within it “a parody or errant copy of Christianity at work” (225). Here, as elsewhere, Oliphint turns first to the Bible to address other religions (226-227). He works from the Apostle Paul’s response to other religions, tying it to the principles he has developed throughout the book, and applying them to unbelieving religions (227-233). Oliphint introduces three categories by which the apologist may more easily understand the apologetic task when it comes to other religions (230). First, “we must be acutely aware of exactly who the god of the other religion is,” “Second, it will help us to see how the false religion deals with its god’s relationship to creation,” and “Third, if we can understand something of the false religion’s theory of revelation, that understanding may serve us well” (230-231). Oliphint also notes the importance of the gospel in the context of apologetics with adherents to false religions (231-233).
Before moving on to a discussion between a Christian and a Muslim, Oliphint explains, “the most persistent question that I receive when I am teaching or explaining the covenantal approach to apologetics is, ‘What about a Muslim? Couldn’t a Muslim stand on the Qur’an as his principial ground and defend his faith in the same way that you say Christians should? Doesn’t a Muslim presuppose his own Bible and defend Islam by the same method?’” (233) Oliphint also notes that the sample dialogues he provides are increasingly complex (233). Thus Oliphint introduces the concepts of necessity and contingency, writing, “Put simply, anything necessary is something that must be, and anything contingent is something that might be but does not have to be” (234). God is necessary, and all else is contingent (234). Oliphint explains, “Christianity has always believed that God remains who he is (as he must, since he cannot deny himself) even while he relates and commits himself to creation, and specifically to man, who alone is made in his image” (234). He continues as follows:
That relationship that God unilaterally initiated required that God take on characteristics (e.g., grace, wrath) that he would not have taken on had there been no creation. If he had not created, he would not have occasion to be gracious or wrathful toward us.
In taking on these characteristics, he did not cease to be who he is; he did not change into something less than God; indeed, he cannot do that. What he did instead was take on properties that are what they are by virtue of his real and covenantal relationship with creation. The incarnation is the paradigmatic example of this. The Son of God takes on a human nature, but that does not mean that he in any way ceases to be fully and in every way God.
Moreover, God’s (necessary) character, as God, and his (contingent) relationship to creation are not at odds with each other. These two aspects of God’s character are not fighting against each other, but they are brought together and unified by God himself, specifically, by the Holy Spirit (again, think of the incarnation). So, in God, there is no contradiction or incompatibility between his character as God and his character as God with us. (234-235)
Oliphint claims, “These theological truths will be crucial to understand as we look at a specific instance of Islam” (235).
Oliphint’s discussion between a Christian and a Muslim moves quickly through a number of different topics pertaining to both Christianity and Islam (235-258). After dismissing natural theology, the Christian presses the Muslim on the topics of necessity and contingency, parries an objection to the Trinity with a counterargument regarding the supposed unity of Allah, proceeds with questions about the revelatory nature of the Qur’an, pushes the Muslim into a failed defense of a concept of mystery, and ends with the gospel (235-258). The book concludes with a call to holiness, an encouragement to be “mild in manner, strong in matter,” and some exegesis from the book of Joshua concerning the warfare in which every Christian must be engaged (259-262).
Oliphint’s opening scene at the conference is helpful in that it places a personal touch on everything that follows in the book. Additionally, the story assists the reader in silencing any misguided charges of ‘circularity’ lingering at the back of his or her mind that may be based upon preconceived notions or confusion with the material to follow later on in Oliphint’s book. I am onboard with the push to get rid of the label of ‘presuppositionalism’ to describe Van Tilian apologetics. Quite frankly, it’s a terribly unhelpful label, for all of the reasons Oliphint mentions in his book, and probably more. Unfortunately – and I believe Oliphint is keenly aware of this problem – the old label just will not die, and the new one just will not catch on.
If Oliphint makes Van Til more accessible, I am afraid he does not do so to any great extent. Do not misunderstand me. Oliphint is an excellent writer with excellent substance. He has translated Van Til. Van Til can be difficult to understand. All sides admit that. It would be difficult to make Van Til even less accessible than Van Til. In that respect, Oliphint has certainly succeeded regarding accessibility. But Oliphint has his own peculiarities in writing; especially as concerns what appears to be an inductive style of presentation and plenty of terms and concepts with which most readers would not be familiar. And though Oliphint does translate Van Til, the product is unmistakably Oliphint’s translation of Van Til. That’s not a bad thing, but it is worth pointing out that readers are getting Oliphint’s version of Van Til’s method.
The prominence of the ‘image of God’ theme is crucial to any apologetic hoping to make a dent in our current context of unbelief. So is the historical theology with which Oliphint is so familiar. I am also thankful to see a clear introduction to the issue of the burden of proof, and how Oliphint handles that issue, as well as the emphasis on persuasion. Apologists who have embraced some form of the Van Tilian model would do well to listen to Oliphint on these points. Some of the worst problems in the application of Van Til’s method come about by way of neglecting the aforementioned areas. Oliphint’s three principles for approaching other religions are absolutely essential, and it is especially good to see the section about the importance of the gospel in encounters with those who follow other religions. Concerning the explanation of covenantal apologetics and the position of every human being in either Adam or Christ, those who reject covenant theology should simply get over their semantic differences (I know the differences are often much deeper than semantics) with Oliphint and embrace what he and Van Til are saying. Without the fundamental truth of every human being in either Adam or Christ, one loses not only Oliphint and Van Til, but the gospel itself.
One other item Oliphint handles masterfully is providing a justifiable ‘excuse’ as to why Van Til’s method is so often charged with being overly – or even merely – theoretical rather than practical in nature. Covenantal apologetics are not reductionist apologetics. They are not formulaic in nature. These are strengths of the method, not weaknesses. Covenantal apologetics focus on the content of the Christian worldview as expressed in the biblically driven, historically orthodox tradition of Christianity coming out of the Reformation. Oliphint likewise succeeds in striking an almost perfect balance between the biblical, theological, and philosophical in describing and applying his apologetic principles and practices. Oliphint is clear that we know Christianity is true from something other than a vague notion of the ‘impossibility of the contrary.’ In Oliphint’s mind, since we already know Christianity is true, we also know anything opposing it is false. However, Oliphint does not explain how demonstrating that an opposing view is false lends any credence to Christianity as true. I understand we can retreat back to the explanation that persuasion is the goal, or emphasize the importance of stating the content of the Christian worldview, or note the necessary work of the Holy Spirit, but none of these aspects of the apologetic, as necessary as they are, appear to satisfactorily answer the question. Is the Christian simply refuting opposing views to lend inductive corroboration to the truth of the Christian worldview? If not, then what is the persuasive element of the apologetic with respect to critiquing unbelieving philosophies and religions?
As Oliphint mentions in his book, he is familiar with objections to Van Til’s method. He also claims that nothing in those objections convinces him that anything should be changed in Van Til’s basic method. Oliphint does not, however, offer any specific responses to some of the more popular, and even puzzling, objections in question. Further clarification regarding the so-called ‘impossibility of the contrary’ and its role in the apologetic endeavor would have been beneficial to those who do believe there are some worries with Van Til’s basic method. For example, perhaps people generally come to Van Til through Greg L. Bahnsen, and Bahnsen gets Van Til wrong, whether through his emphases or something more substantial. But we are not told. Oliphint does not appear interested in seeking out and responding to every objection brought against Van Til’s method, which is certainly understandable. Not only would such an undertaking consist of a lot of work, it’s not immediately relevant to the purpose of Oliphint’s book. However, the book could have been strengthened by offering some sort of responses to these objections with which Oliphint is familiar. As it stands, he merely alludes to them and dismissively appeals to the nebulous concept of a ‘Reformed theology’ which, for reasons unknown, must be taken apart if the objections are to stand. I just wish Dr. Oliphint would have shown us how this looks in practice, because, quite frankly, I have seen some really good attempts at answering these objections that have failed.
As noted in the Summary, much of Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith rests on Oliphint’s earlier work, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God. Unfortunately, Oliphint did not have the space, and the subject matter of the book did not allow for, a deeper explanation of the theology of that earlier work. Without committing myself to a review of another book, I must confess that parts of God with Us initially disturbed me. Oliphint insists upon ignorance and other limitations in God through constant appeal to Christology. But there is ignorance in Christ by virtue of his human nature – not by virtue of his divine nature. How can God possess the limitations Oliphint ascribes to him apart from the incarnation? Thankfully, as I read on, Oliphint’s case started to sound more reasonable.
As I understand Oliphint, having read and listened to most of his other works, God possesses contingent/covenantal/”God with us” properties due to his having condescended through the act of creation. As he explains especially in the fourth chapter of God With Us, these contingent properties do not constitute a nature, but in Oliphint’s scheme they function analogously to the human nature in Christ. Thus, just as the human nature is an addition to the divine Son in the incarnation, so also God’s contingent properties are an addition to essential/a se/God properties. Oliphint applies Christological categories such as the extra Calvinisticum, communicatio idiomatum, and reduplicative strategy to the doctrine of God in an attempt to render the essential properties of God safe from limitation and hence his overall theology immune from criticism. Per the extra Calvinisticum, the Son acts in and through the divine nature ‘apart’ from the human nature, and so also according to Oliphint God acts in and through the essential divine properties ‘apart’ from the contingent properties. Per the communicatio idiomatum, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, and so also with the essential and contingent properties of God. Per the reduplicative strategy, apparently contradictory states of affairs may be predicated of Christ since what is said of Christ is stated with respect to one or the other nature, and so also apparently contradictory statements may be predicated of God (God is omniscient, God is ignorant; God is immutable, God changes) since what is said of God is stated with respect to his essential or contingent properties. Theology proper describes God as he is essentially, and God remains what he is essentially while taking on contingent properties by condescending through covenant relations to his creation. The Christological categories are applied to this theological layout in order to account for the relationship between the essential and contingent properties of God in much the same way as they are to applied to Christ to account for the relationship between the divine and human nature of Christ.
I have some reservations here. For example, Jay Wesley Richards bases his construal of something very similar to Oliphint’s scheme on S5 modal logic, but recently there have been some strong philosophical objections to S5 especially where it is contingent on S4. The relationship of the doctrine of God to possible worlds semantics is not the clearest topic in the world. But setting that aside, just what is it that Oliphint means when he says that God takes on these various contingent properties? How does God ‘condescend’ to his creatures without taking on any physical property or nature? How would Oliphint state the property he would ascribe to God in the place where God ‘comes to know’ something? Since coming to know something presupposes ignorance, let’s say that the property of ignorance is ascribed to God such that, ‘God is ignorant.’ It is easy to see how this property can be ascribed to God if God takes some finite property or nature to himself. But what finite property or nature is it that God takes to himself in the types of accounts that Oliphint hopes to explain? God takes on the property of ignorance in terms of…? (God is ignorant in terms of…?) It must be in terms of something other than God; else the property of ignorance is no addition at all, for the property of ignorance in such an instance just is being ignorant. Perhaps Oliphint would respond that God is ignorant in terms of the contingent realm itself. Since God condescends to a chronology God takes on the property of ignorance in terms of that chronology. Perhaps this is what Oliphint is trying to say. I do not know that he has been specific enough concerning what these properties look like.
Even if Oliphint’s account is coherent, it is not clear that anyone needs to accept it. Theologians of the Reformed tradition as found in Calvin, Turretin, Charnock, and the like, have been widely received for many years as having resolved apparent difficulties with the Creator/creature relationship. Has anyone suggested something like what Oliphint is suggesting? Does Oliphint have catholic corroboration for his account? Are there historical examples of positive support for the position so often relied upon in Covenantal Apologetics? It’s not necessary that Oliphint answer any of these questions, but it might help with the defense of what appears to be a somewhat novel, yet very powerful approach to theology and apologetics.
Lest some horrible misunderstanding arise concerning the critique above, I should state without qualification that Oliphint’s orthodoxy is not in question! Moreover, it’s clear that Oliphint is firmly within the Reformed tradition, and is a faithful expositor of Van Til. While I will almost certainly never contribute as much to the development of covenantal apologetics as Oliphint has, I hope my comments here have been at least somewhat helpful toward that end. In his final chapter, Oliphint summarizes his goals as follows:
What I have proposed throughout this book are principles and practices of a covenantal apologetic. I have attempted to lay out what theological tenets have to be in place in order to think properly about a defense of Christianity. I have also attempted to show, by means of sample dialogs, how those principles and tenets might be applied. My goal throughout has been to elaborate on a covenantal apologetic as the consistently Reformed approach to a defense of Christianity. In so doing, I have argued that persuasion is the best means by which we might defend the faith. (259)
Oliphint is successful in setting forth both principles and exemplary practice of his method of apologetics. He has done so from within the depth and richness of the biblical and historical theology of the Reformation. In a number of dialogues, Oliphint applies what he sets forth in the principles of his book. Perhaps most importantly of all, Oliphint has rescued apologetics from the realm of harsh intellectual competition and pointed us toward the significance of persuasion. My suggestion to those beginning their study of apologetics is to forgo Always Ready and pick up a copy of Covenantal Apologetics instead. You will be glad you did.