A BOOK REVIEW OF COVENANTAL APOLOGETICS BY K. SCOTT OLIPHINT
Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. K. Scott Oliphint. Crossway, 2013. 277 pp. $19.99. ISBN 978-1-4335-2817-0.
Christian Apologetics is, essentially, active evangelism. It is the presentation, explanation and defense of the Christian faith. K. Scott Oliphint, who holds a B.S. from West Texas State University, and a M.A.R., Th.M., and a PhD. from WestMinster Theological Seminary, and is professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at WestMinster Theological Seminary, has just published a book which seeks to present an introduction of the principles of Presuppositional Apologetics, as well as to provide examples of how to put this method into action. In this book review I will begin by explaining the authors purpose, how he goes about attaining his purpose, and I will finish with some remarks as to the positive and negative aspects of this book.
The author’s proposed purpose is to “set out (what has been called) a presuppositional approach to apologetics. As will become clear, however, I hope to do that in a way that is relatively free of technical vocabulary.” At the beginning of the first chapter Oliphint breaks down this goal into two aspects. First, “to lay out the primary biblical and theological principles that must be a part of any covenantal defense of Christianity.” Secondly, “to demonstrate how these principles might be applied against certain objections.” The author says that, in order to accomplish this goal he will, first of all, “attempt to move past a somewhat common description of apologetics and apply a new label.” Secondly, “move discussions about a ‘presuppositional’ approach to apologetics past simply laying out the principles that must be included in it.” Thirdly, “translate the language, concepts, and ideas set forth in Van Til’s Reformed apologetic into language, terms and concepts that are more accessible.” This will include translating “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.” The author hopes to show that “apologetics must (1) be Christian and (2) have a theological foundation.”
Oliphint divides this task into seven main sections. Chapter 1 seeks to set the stage for the rest of the book by grounding the task of Apologetics on a properly Biblical and Christian foundation. In the first chapter he explains how the lordship of Christ should control the entire apologetical enterprise, provides the reasons why he would like to change the name of his method from “presupposional” to “covenantal”. He goes onto provide what he sees as the biblical context for knowledge of God, and the ten foundational principles of covenantal apologetics.
Chapter 2 seeks to ground covenantal apologetics in an appropriate understanding of the nature of God. In so doing he interacts with Immanuel Kant’s division between faith and reason. He also explains how to interact with an argument, and demonstrates how this is to be done, first, by explaining an event that involved Richard Dawkins and a skeptical society, and secondly by interacting with an argument presented by Anthony Kenny against classical theism.
Chapter 3 seeks to “clarify ways in which our basic principles (the ten tenets) relate to the notion of proof in apologetics.” This is done primarily through a discussion and application of Paul’s address to the Greeks at the Aeropagus, in Acts 17. In this chapter he provides a brief analysis of what a proof is and is capable of accomplishing, as well as the notion of burden of proof. This chapter finishes with a brief look at some classical demonstrations for the existence of God, and an example conversation between a humanist and a Covenant Apologist.
In chapter 4 Oliphint discusses the trivium of the ancient and medieval world, and then introduces what he calls the trivium of covenantal apologetics. In this chapter he discusses the use of rhetoric in apologetics, and argues that apologetics is much more about persuasion than about demonstration. Here he considers Aristotle’s three aspects of Rhetoric in their application to Christian apologetics.
In Chapter 5 Oliphint describes how to engage in negative apologetics (destroying arguments against Christianity), and positive apologetics (recommending Christianity). In order to demonstrate how to engage in negative apologetics he interacts with the problem of evil that is frequently brought against Christianity. In this chapter we are also provided with another example of how a Covenantal Apologist would interact with an atheist on the question of evil.
In chapter 6 Oliphint explains the attitude that we should have as we interact with unbelievers, and seek to persuade them of the truth of Christianity. We are given a example of these principles through a fictitious conversation between a Covenant Apologist and Daniel Dennett. He finishes with a discussion of plausibility and possibility, and the question of how competent one must be to engage a person in conversation.
In the final chapter Oliphint seeks to show how a Covenant Apologist would engage a religious person and seek to persuade them of the truth of Christianity. After providing a number of principles for discussion, Oliphint gives an example of how a conversation might go between a muslim and a Covenant Apologist.
This book is written to render Van Tillian Presuppositionalism accessible, and to show how it can be put into practice. It seems that the intended audience would be lay-people who have no training in apologetics, however, this book will be useful for students in a Bachelor program, and of interest for scholars engaged in apologetics, as it is the most accessible explanation, in a relatively easy to read format, of Presuppositional Apologetics. It is well structured into chapters and subdivisions making it easy to follow. In each chapter he provides examples of how he would put his principles into action. There is an interesting Foreward written by William Edgar. The book includes a bibliography, a general index, and a scripture index which allow the researcher to easily find important quotations and discussions of key subjects.
Oliphint provides interesting discussions of many important areas of apologetics. He constantly reminds the reader Christian apologetics is primarily Christian – that is, what we are seeking to show is that Christianity is true. As such, all Christian apologetics needs to take account of the Christian perception of the world, and remain founded in the Bible. His discussion, and application to Christian Apologetics, of the three parts of the Aristotelian understanding of rhetoric will be of interest to all budding apologists.
Some things to keep in mind as we read this book are, first of all, Oliphint presupposes the truth of the reformed understanding of scripture. He notes in the introduction that “The biblical and theological principles that will be laid out below belong, historically, to the theology that gained its greatest clarity during the time of the Reformation.” Furthermore, Oliphint notes, “Our entire discussion will assume that Reformed theology is the best and most consistent expression of the Christian faith.” We are frequently reminded of this fact as the book progresses. We are reminded that the foundational claims for presuppositional apologetics are grounded in the notion of total depravity, and the other elements of the Calvinist TULIP. One gets the impression that presuppositionalism is so tied to Calvinism that if one rejects the basic interpretation of scriptures that are advanced by Calvinism, then one must also reject presuppositionalism. This, of course, is not strictly true (though Calvinism seems to be the only coherent theological position that a thinker can accept, if that thinker wishes to maintain presuppositionalism, and the traditional Christian faith) as presuppositionalism is an essentially post-modern philosophy that finds its roots in thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and his followers, who claim that all of humanity interprets the world, necessarily, from their particular perspective.
Some of the difficulties that I noticed in this book are that, Oliphint claims that there is no experience that is common to all mankind, that is accessible to all humanity and which can be used to develop a truthful and coherent ‘Natural Theology’. It would appear that because of this, all discussion that is not biblically based (or which at least presupposes the truth of Trinitarian Reformed theology) is necessarily based upon one’s own authority, and therefore, is nothing but the exchange of mere opinion. This, however, seems to remove the possibility (though he denies this fact) of an unbeliever to discover truth, until they accept, by faith, the truth of Christianity. Oliphint, and most presuppositionalists, attempt to get around this claim by saying that it is possible for unbelievers to discover truth, they simply cannot understand it, as it should be understood – as being a part of a universe that is upheld by the Trinitarian God of Chrisianity. Space restraints do not allow us to pursue this thought any further. An interesting difficulty with Oliphint’s view is that he claims that all of humanity knows that God exists because all of humanity has been implanted, from birth, with innate knowledge, that is clear, distinct and infallible, of God’s nature. He goes so far as to claim that all of humanity has the common experience of innate knowledge of God. This claim flows from his interpretation of Romans 1:19-20, and one is obligated to ask, is this not a common experience from which we can begin in demonstrating the truth of Christianity? Oliphint would say yes, as the entire presuppositionalist method of Oliphint is built upon this notion. What then, aside from what qualifies as a common experience, is the difference between this method of persuasion, and the methods of persuasion that are commonly used in Natural Theology?
My second main difficulty with this book is that Oliphint does not clearly define any of the most important and most used terms in this book, such as “know”, “knowledge”, “exist”, “existence”, “nature”, “essence”, “truth”, “real”, “freedom”, “rational”, “attribute”, or “character”. Yet he consistently uses these terms to talk about man’s knowledge of God, of this world, of what is real, of man’s nature, God’s essence, etc. The fact that these terms are undefined, yet used in many ways that are obviously different, leaves the attentive reader with the impression (whether it is true or not) that Oliphint is guilty of constant equivocation, ambiguous claims, and self-contradiction.
In spite of the difficulties that I see with this book, I would recommend this book as a great introduction to Presuppositional Apologetics. It is a pleasure to read, and much of what Oliphint has to say will be helpful to apologists of any stripe.
K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 25.
In fact, it seems that if Total Depravity, as described by traditional Calvinistic theology, is false, then Presuppositionalism is necessarily false. (Even though it still provides us with numerous important insights into how to interact with people who do not ‘understand’ the world in the same way that we do.)
Ibid., 238. This claim is made frequently throughout this book.
See for example, Ibid., 74, 84, 169, 185.
See, for example, his claim on page 155, « It is certainly true, in other words, that God is the first cause, the necessary being on which all contingency depends, the designer of all that is, and so forth. But these truths can only be true if framed in terms of the real world, the world that God has condescended to make and control. »