Covenantal Apologetics

Article by   September 2013
oliphintcovenantalapologetics93.jpgK. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013, 277pp. $19.99

In his latest work, Covenantal Apologetics, K. Scott Oliphint seeks to recast Cornelius Van Til's presuppositional apologetics as "covenantal apologetics" - a Reformed apologetic that is both broadly accessible and easily practiced. In this ambitious endeavor, Oliphint succeeds commendably.

One of the greatest strengths of Oliphint's project is that, in a covenantal apologetic, there is no clear boundary between apologetics and evangelism. As Oliphint reiterates throughout his work, apologetics ought to be understood foremost as persuasion; persuading men and women of the truth of the Gospel.

In chapter 4, Oliphint describes his notion of "persuasion" through what he terms the trivium of persuasion - a trivium (a set of three subjects), comprised of ethos, pathos, and logos, that encapsulates what "persuasion" is. Given persuasion's centrality to a covenantal apologetic, this trivium of persuasion is practically a trivium of covenantal apologetics and therefore is a helpful way to compress the whole of Oliphint's project.

Covenantal apologetics's trivium begins with ethos, a subject focused upon the character of the apologist. If the covenantal apologist's goal is to magnify Christ and His Gospel, the apologist simultaneously must be commending Christ and his Gospel with his life, or else all of the arguments and persuasions that he offers will be eviscerated. A holy God must be commended by a holy people, not a people exalting "relevance" over holiness or a people aggressive and combative in their commendation of the Prince of Peace. While Oliphint is very clear that the ultimate work of persuasion is accomplished by the Holy Spirit alone rather than by the apologist, the ethos of the apologist matters and Oliphint highlights that importance brilliantly.

The second component of covenantal apologetics's trivium is pathos, which Oliphint understands as a proper and nuanced appreciation of those to whom the apologist speaks. Within a covenantal apologetic, where apologetics are seen as persuasion, this focus upon the idiosyncrasies of the "audience" is centrally important - "what will persuade this person?" In many ways, the whole of Oliphint's work is an effort to help his readers answer this pathos-centered question in their everyday apologetic/evangelistic encounter.

The first necessary principle in answering the pathos question is rooted in the character of God Himself. In chapter 2, Oliphint explores the doctrine of God's aseity (God's quality of absolute independence, being dependent on nothing for His being or existence). If God alone is independent; if He is the One Who gives being to all other things (Acts 17:24-25); then God rightly can be understood as the Foundation of all Reality. But this "foundational God" does not stand at a distance from His creation; rather, He has condescended to reveal Himself to, and interact with, His creation in several ways. First, God has revealed Himself within man, having formed man in His own image. As God's image bearer, each individual inescapably has a knowledge of God. As Oliphint very helpfully observes, this knowledge of God is "more psychological than epistemological" (p.103); the knowledge of God implanted in all men emanates not so much from their minds as from their souls. Woven into the very fabric of who they are, men have a knowledge of God. Yet even this internal knowledge of God is overwhelmed by God's condescension to reveal Himself in His written Word and, most gloriously, in His incarnate Son. Particularly in this climactic incarnational condescension, which Oliphint discusses at length in chapter 2, God retains His full divinity, yet He is able to relate to His creation. In multi-faceted and intelligible ways, the God upon Whom all things depend has revealed Himself to, and relates to, His creation.

Tragically, in his rebellion, sinful man suppresses this revelation of God in unrighteousness, constructing myriad systems - intellectual, philosophical, moral, religious - to obscure the inescapable divine image that he bears; to reject God's revelation in His Word and in His Son; and to answer the existential questions left when the God Who establishes Reality is denied. However, when any philosophical or intellectual system attempts to answer these questions and to understand truth by suppressing the truth of God's revelation, it ultimately will collapse upon itself precisely because it denies the Foundation of all Reality. This principle is what Oliphint terms the "Quicksand Quotient", that is, if any notion of truth is not founded on the truth of God, at some point it will collapse under its own weight. The pathos-centered task of the covenantal apologist is to identify what his audience believes; isolate where that belief system most visibly suppresses the truth of God; and then show his audience how, at that point of visible suppression, the belief system cannot sustain itself or explain reality.

With this task of pathos accomplished, a covenantal apologetic presses inexorably to the final component of the trivium, logos, in which the covenantal apologist presents the truth of the Gospel. In light of the instability revealed by the Quicksand Quotient, the apologist shows how the truth of God can sustain itself and how it is able to explain reality as we know it. In this, the persuasive character of a covenantal apologetic emerges. Having seen the weaknesses of his own system, the non-believer is offered another system (the Gospel!) that is shown to be satisfying at precisely the point where his own system is unsatisfying.

These general contours of a covenantal apologetic are well demonstrated in several "sample dialogues" that Oliphint includes in his work. These dialogues, in which Oliphint provides examples of how a discussion between a covenantal apologist and a non-believer might proceed, are a great strength of his work and often prove tremendously helpful. For example, the sample dialogue between a covenantal apologist and Daniel Dennett, an accomplished proponent of evolution (chapter 6), sheds much light on how an engagement with evolutionary theory should proceed. Particularly helpful is the covenantal apologist's shifting of the discussion from the continuities between mankind and other species (continuities that the covenantal apologist freely recognizes and attributes to the simple fact that God created mankind from the creation itself and thus there are bound to be continuities between the two) to the discontinuities between mankind and other species (discontinuities attributable to man's unique status as God's image bearer, yet discontinuities that proponents of evolution seldom discuss). In this sample dialogue, Oliphint both provides suggestions on how to respond to evolutionary objections and gives one compelling example of how non-believers suppress the knowledge of God that is imbedded within them. Likewise, the sample dialogue between a covenantal apologist and a recent convert to Islam provides helpful indications of how apologetic/evangelistic discussions with Muslim neighbors might be engaged.

If there is a shortcoming in Oliphint's work, it is a periodic lack of completeness and clarity in some of his arguments. Examples of this surface in the sample dialogue between a covenantal apologist and an atheist concerning whether the Christian God can be true in light of the evil-swollen world that we know (chapter 5). After considerable discussion and refinement, the central issue between the dialogue partners is established as being the compatibility between God and creation. In addressing this issue, Oliphint's covenantal apologist adopts Mario Bunge's definition of compatibility ("Two statements e and h are compatible if and only if neither of them logically implies the negation of the other", quoted on p.181) and, in light of the incarnation of the Son, argues the following:
So, at a minimum, we have to recognize that there is no intrinsic or essential incompatibility between properties that God has necessarily and the essential properties of creation, even of human beings... God was able to bring them both together - to unify them - without violating any of the respective properties. Any notion of compatibility will have to allow that if this is true, then there is no incompatibility between God's character and the character of human beings. God can unite them both into one without merging or changing either (p.185).
This argument for "compatibility" based on the hypostatic union strays into murky territory. While Oliphint has explored such concepts in his other works, most particularly in God With Us, his use of these concepts in Covenantal Apologetics is only briefly explained (e.g. pp.80-81; and there, the concept of "compatibility" is employed to reconcile the divine attributes of immutability and omniscience, something quite different from the hypostatic union) and therefore raises several questions. If the compatibility "between God's character and the character of human beings" is sought through Bunge's definitional test imposed on the two statements "Jesus Christ is God" and "Jesus Christ is Man", then certainly, the only acceptable Christian response is to affirm that these two statements are compatible - neither "logically implies the negation of the other." 

However, if the question is a bit more focused, matters become more complex. For example, the Scriptures are clear that God is omniscient (Psalm 147:5; Ezekiel 11:5; Acts 15:18). Man, even in his innocence, has a limited knowledge (Genesis 2:15-20). Based on these Biblical facts concerning "properties that God has necessarily" and "the essential properties of...human beings", one would have to make the two following statements, in light of the hypostatic union - "Jesus Christ was omniscient" and "Jesus Christ had a limited knowledge". In terms of Oliphint's working definition of compatibility, these two statements are incompatible, for each "logically implies the negation of the other". This "incompatibility" is confirmed in Matthew 24:36, when the omniscient Son admits ignorance of the time of His return. In that one vignette, it seems that the divine property (omniscience) and the human property (limited knowledge) are "incompatible". Indeed, it appears that that "incompatibility" is what suffuses the kenosis of Philippians 2 with its glory - while remaining fully divine and unaltered in His essence, the Son consented to restrain the exercise of some of His glory in the incarnation; restraining that which was "incompatible" with His full and true humanity (Oliphint's brief references to Philippians 2 focus on the humiliation of Christ as it relates to the atonement rather than focusing on the humiliation as it relates to the incarnation itself [e.g., p.65]). In short, it seems the key to the hypostatic union is not compatibility, but kenosis. If Covenantal Apologetics aspires to be broadly accessible, it would do well either to clarify such issues or to omit technical and unclear terminology that is only fully explained elsewhere.

To sum up this one critique, the covenantal apologist's argument for compatibility based on the hypostatic union seemingly fails to address the specific atheist objection under discussion. The atheist concern, as framed in the dialogue, is the compatibility between the Christian God and a fallen creation. Through the incarnation, Jesus has both a divine and a human nature, but that human nature is sinless. It would seem that the union between the divine nature and the sinless human nature of the Son does not address the material concern about the relationship between a holy God and a sinful creation.

Finally, at several points - most importantly in his explanations of such central ideas as man as God's image bearer, mankind's inescapable knowledge of God, and the sinful suppression of that knowledge - Oliphint seems to leave the reader without a firm, easily articulated grasp of the pillars of his system. Certainly, such concepts defy pithy descriptions, but a bit more clarity on them would make Oliphint's work exponentially more accessible and useful to most readers. One almost is left with the sense that those readers who understand Oliphint's explanations did not need his explanations, while those readers who would benefit from an explanation will not be helped by the explanations that he provides.

Hopefully, the time it takes to explain these few suggestions will not be misleading - Covenantal Apologetics is a stimulating gift to the Church. It has distilled some of the best of Reformed apologetics and infused them with an evangelistic fervor that exalts both truth and the God of truth. There can be no greater reason to recommend Oliphint's work and to thank God for the labors of His servant.

Dr. Stephen Myers is the pastor of Pressly Memorial ARP Church in Statesville, N.C.; a visiting professor at RTS; and the author of Scottish Federalism and Covenantalism in Transition: The Theology of Ebenezer Erskine, due to be published in 2014

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