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Book Review: Covenantal Apologetics (K. Scott Oliphint)

K. Scott Oliphint. Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. 288 pp. $19.99

cov apI’ve been an apologist for almost as long as I’ve been a Christian (informally, of course; and unknowingly at first). You see, I had been an atheist my entire life up until March 30, 2005 when the Lord sovereignly saved me and transformed me into a “Jesus freak” through one encounter. I almost immediately began to search and read and think arduously about the foundational truth claims of theism in general and Christianity in particular; my mind needed a lot of convincing and renewing. In the process, I found that my personal research sometimes proved very helpful in evangelism. Of course, there were also times when I grew increasingly frustrated when the non-Christian remained unconvinced and the conversation seemingly went nowhere.

Fast forward a few years, and I had become a card-carrying Calvinist (that’s another story for another time); and you can’t be Reformed for long without encountering Van Tillian presuppositional apologetics. And that was when I realized that I hadn’t been “doing apologetics”, but that I had been doing classical and evidential apologetics. So, of course, I got a book on presuppositional apologetics; but I was left unconvinced. The method to me seemed circular in theory and untenable in practice, and so I continued in my classical/evidential apologetic ways. But the issue kept gnawing at me; I felt like a “bad Calvinist” for not being presuppositional (because I started to realize that, contra the other methods, this is the one in line with Reformed theology), and so I had it in the back of my mind to give it another chance. And that was when K. Scott Oliphint‘s Covenantal Apologetics arrived on the scene.

In this book Oliphint lays out a  presuppositional approach to apologetics with language, terms, and concepts that are more accessible and translates “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, emphasis original). He makes the case for replacing the label “presuppositional” with “covenantal” and also moves beyond principle to practice by providing many sample dialogues and explaining the principles in action.

Chapter 1 lays down some basic truths about Christianity and apologetics that will be developed in the rest of the book. Specifically, this chapter focuses on the lordship of Christ and its implications: truth is not relative, and we must base our defense of Christianity on reality, which is what God says it is. Oliphint then spends some time defining covenant and covenantal apologetics, and looks at covenant breakers through the lens of Romans 1 and 2. He concludes the chapter with ten tenets of covenantal apologetics which need to be kept at the forefront as the reader proceeds through the rest of the book in order to know which tenets are being applied and how (48-55):

  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 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, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their 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.

Because of the importance of the lordship of Christ as the foundation for our apologetic, Oliphint spends chapter 2 elaborating on the lordship of Christ, divine condescension, and how God’s covenant condescension relates to apologetics. He concludes the chapter with two examples showing that because the lordship of Christ is not taken into account, the arguments against Him are revealed to be wholly without merit. Chapter 3 aims to clarify ways in which Oliphint’s ten tenets relate to the notion of proof in apologetics and concludes with an example of how a discussion of proofs might look between a humanist and a Christian, pointing out problems inherent in the argument and reconstructing the same argument as between a humanist and a convenantal apologist. Oliphint’s aim in this chapter is to show that the notion of proof is, at best, tenuous.

In chapter 4, Oliphint presents the case for persuasion as the proper mode of a covenantal apologetic. This chapter goes from the educational trivium of old (grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) to a theological “trivium” (principial nature of Scripture, the sensus divinitatis, and common grace) that provides the foundation for a biblical view of persuasion in apologetics, ending with the “trivium” of persuasion (ethospathos, and logos). “Our goal in a covenantal apologetic cannot be the conversion of those to whom we speak. That is a goal that we cannot accomplish. It is our prayer, but should not be our goal. Rather, 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).

In chapter 5 Oliphint presents an example of a covenantal apologetic response to so-called Achilles’ Heel of Christianity, the problem of evil; first by way of a negative apologetic (refuting challenges, countering arguments) and then by way of a positive apologetic (commending the Christian faith). Chapters 6 and 7 are expositions with sample dialogues showing what it means to do apologetics in a way in which we walk in wisdom toward “outsiders.” The “outsiders” in chapter 6 are those who hold to naturalistic evolution, while in chapter 7 it is a convert to Islam.

This book is a result of decades of thought and teaching on the apologetic approach of Cornelius Van Til. And yet, it is a remarkable and unique contribution to apologetics in the Reformed tradition because it brings Van Til to the masses. Unlike the majority of writings on presuppositional apologetics, Oliphint’s work is largely free from technical jargon and is intensely practical. Though much easier to read than Van Til,this book is not at all times an easy read. I would classify it at an intermediate level – one who hasn’t read or thought much about apologetics and philosophy might find it at times a difficult read. Nevertheless, it is readable for the novice and highly accessible in general.

If you are Reformed and interested in apologetics, I highly recommend this book (even if you are not convinced of the presuppositional approach). This is because the approach is the only option if one is to remain consistent with the theology that came out of the Reformation, and I believe that reading this book will convince you of this truth. Not only that, but it will also ground you in the foundational principles and equip you to begin to exercise them in practice. If you are Reformed but not interested in apologetics, I still recommend this book (even though it might be a more difficult, laborious read). This is because every believer is charged with the command to “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). The apologetic task is for every believer, not just the specialist. And finally, if you are not Reformed but interested in apologetics, you will probably find yourself in disagreement with some parts of this book, because it is written from the Reformed perspective and from an assumption that Reformed theology is the best and most consistent expression of the Christian faith.

To summarize the recommendations: this book is a must-read if you’re Reformed. Even if you’re not convinced of the presuppositional approach. Even if you don’t like apologetics.

Purchase: Westminster | Amazon

*Many thanks to A.C. and Crossway for sending me a copy to review! I was not obligated to provide a positive review, and the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

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  1. Book Log: November 2013 |
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