Treading Through the Tenets:Cumulus Clouds or Cognitive Concrete?

Scott Oliphint
Last month we began to tread through the Ten Tenets of a covenantal apologetic. We began with a discussion of the importance of beginning our apologetic with the Triune God. This month, we'll expand on Tenet Two. Again, for those who have not read Covenantal Apologetics, the Ten Tenets are these:

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.

The second Tenet,
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,
is set out to highlight and affirm the self-attesting authority of God's revelation.

Before we look more directly at Tenet Two, we need first to notice that in the first two Tenets we have what are called the "principia" of Reformed theology, and there are two. A principium, in the way that it is used here, is the foundation upon which all else is built. Without these two principia, any house one proposes to build will collapse of its own weight. The rooms may be ornately furnished, exquisitely pointed and brightly arrayed. But, with all of its accoutrements, it remains as sturdy and reliable as a cumulus cloud.

The foundation of the house of Reformed theology has two components on which that theology is built. The first we discussed last month; it is the principium essendi, or the foundation of existence. About this point, no Christian could seriously dispute. He may dispute the place or use of this foundation in apologetics, but "whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists," and "understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible, (Heb. 11:6,3). Last month we argued that our apologetic must begin with this central principium, the Triune God.

It might be thought that the second principium, the principium cognoscendi, or foundation of knowledge, which is Holy Scripture, would not be contested by serious Christians either. No serious Christian would dispute the absolute authority of Scripture. The problem, however, is not with an affirmation of Scripture's authority. Rather, disputes arise when the topic of the basis of Scripture's authority is in view. For example, Norman Geisler recently faulted our approach to apologetics because, in part, he thinks it fails to distinguish between the Bible, on the one hand, and the Word of God, on the other (1). The point he wants to make in this objection is that while the Word of God is absolutely authoritative, the Bible needs evidential and rational support if it is going to be affirmed to be the Word of God. On this view, which is, if nothing else, creative, the Bible is not its own authority; authority accrues to it only after sufficient work is done to establish its authoritative status.

This is a helpful way to explain, by contrast, just what a principium is. When we confess Scripture to be our foundation (principium) of knowledge, we are confessing that it is theologically illicit to attempt to "get behind" Scripture in order to provide a foundation for its foundational status. If we did need to provide a foundation for Scripture's foundational status, then why should we not also need to establish a foundation for the foundation provided for Scripture's foundational status? And on and on it would go.

It is precisely for this reason that Aristotle argued that there must be principia that ground our existence and our knowing. Otherwise, we would be jumping down from one supposed "foundation" to the one below it, then the one below that, and on into infinity. The net result would be that there would be no foundation at all; it would be, as they say, "turtles all the way down," and the way down would never end.

So, as Richard Muller notes, with respect to the Reformed theology of the seventeenth century:
Given that true principia are not derived, the principia of Christian doctrine will also be immediate...If the doctrines of Christianity are to be true, certain, necessary, and divine, so must be the principia on which they rest: human authority is, therefore, ruled out at the level of principia.(2)
The notion of a principium, therefore, is necessary if we are interested in stating or affirming anything at all. We do so, when we properly do, only when what we state or affirm is supported by some immediate, true and necessary foundation. The Reformers set in bold relief the fact (which had been lost in the medieval period) that God's revelation, and it alone, can provide the impenetrable and permanent cement needed for any true knowledge (and with it any coherent or consistent living) to be had at all.

In its masterful and concise explanation of Scripture's authority, the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.4, says it this way:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
As the writers of the Confession recognized, there really are only two options available when it comes to our foundation for knowledge. One either builds the foundation out of human material, with man, or a collection of people (e.g., the church) as its central component, or one's foundation is built from what God has done. In the medieval period, Scripture as foundation had been lost, so that the foundation one likely confessed was the church. The reasons for this confession during that time are complex, but the basic point was that it was the church that deemed Scripture to be authoritative. 

But any structure that wants to be built with the church as foundation would need to ensure that no sand or grit or imperfections of any kind seeped into that foundation. If they did seep in, then the foundation would be too weak to support the house on which it was built. Predictably, grit and grime and imperfections had seeped in, and the foundation had crumbled. Thus, the need for a Reformation.

As the Confession above states, the authority of Scripture depends, not on any man or church, but "wholly upon God...the author thereof." In other words, once we confess God as the principium essendi, we need in the same breath to confess Holy Scripture to be our principium cognoscendi, since it is, in fact, the Word of God. With respect to the Christian's foundation, this affirmation of the Bible's authority was the most radical "reform" of the Reformation. It was radical because it got to the root (radix) problem that was plaguing the church. The Reformation recovered the lost component of the Christian's foundation for knowledge (and thus for life); it recovered the self-attestation of Scripture.

When we say that Scripture is self-attesting (or self-authenticating), what we are saying is that its authority is embedded within itself, and is not acquired by any human merit or means. Contra Geisler (and others), it does not acquire its authority by way of evidential argument, or church pronouncement, or rational results. Its authority is right there, in every word on every page, from Genesis to Revelation.

As we will see later on, this authority includes God's "speaking" through natural revelation as well. For now, though, we can begin to see the apologetic import of Tenet Two. Because God's authority is embedded in the very words of our Bibles (and those truths which "by good and necessary consequence" are established from Scripture), we should be quick to turn to, to utilize, to proclaim, to make known, to impart, to reason according to, to converse about, to "fight" with, to...., the truth of Holy Scripture. At any point in our discussion and defense where God's truth is communicated, at that very point it "gets through" to those to whom it is communicated, and it accomplishes the purposes for which God sent it in the first place (Is. 55:10-11).

Why would we want to establish our apologetic, make our case, defend the faith, on the basis of ours (and others') reasoning capacity, or inferential abilities, or empirical data, when the very Word of God always and everywhere hits its target with full, unmitigated, sovereign and powerful authority? Confessing Scripture as our foundation for knowledge provides the proper kind of confidence in our defense of the Christian faith. It is a confidence that finds its home in the Triune God, and His character, and not in anything we can muster.

Our unbelieving friends need to hear that Word in our defense of Christianity; it alone can change their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. The unbelief that remains in our own hearts needs to hear it as well. It alone has the power to tear out that unbelief by its roots and to grow real and lasting fruit, a bumper crop of beatitudes, all to the glory of the One who alone is able to give the increase.

Dr. K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).

1. Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013): 67-74.

2.Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 1: "Prolegomena to Theology," 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 431-432, my emphases.