There is a moment when nearly everyone engaged in a Christian apologetic discussion believes they all they really need to do is to show their “opponent” beyond a shadow of a doubt that God exists. They must show that their belief in agnosticism or atheism is intellectually untenable. Yet, we, (and by we, I mean me) often forget the clear teaching of Scripture that the one true God has already revealed himself to everyone (see Romans 1-2) and, because of this, they are without excuse. As such, we need to remember to steer the conversation back to the Bible and demonstrate the internal coherence of Christianity and the universal need for the salvation that only Jesus can provide.
This is a key component to what is known as “Van Til-ian presuppositional apologetics” (based upon the work of the late Westminster Seminary professor Cornelius Van Til) or, that apart from the recognition of Scripture as God’s Word, any argument is ultimately incoherent. We need a reliable source to say “God is good” and “God is omniscient” as well as pointing out the problems of the human condition or else it is only our opinion that may be nothing more than our desire to fulfill our wishes or soothe our insecurities.
Furthermore, we can not just win people to “theism” and assume they will become Christians. We must help turn them intellectually, with a winsome attitude, to embrace what they already know at some level to be true as the Bible testifies so clearly. For, as 1 Peter 3:15 reminds us, we are to defend the Christian faith and hope not just A hope and A faith.
Such a reminder was a major contribution by Professor Van Til, whose large corpus of work has been difficult for the average Christian to understand. Enter Westminster Seminary professor K. Scott Oliphint’s new work Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway 2013). Oliphint hopes to make Van Til’s thought accessible to every Christian leader. He does so first by chucking the vague (and historically loaded term) “presuppositional” for the more theologically accurate phrase “covenantal.” He does an admiral job from beginning to end.
According to Oliphint, the late, great Cornelius Van Til set out the following foundational biblical and theological principles for doing apologetics:
- 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.
- God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.
- 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.
- Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
- All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.
- Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see truth for what it is.
- There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
- 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.
- The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
- Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.
Such a foundation places every evangelistic discussion within the parameters of God’s plan and purpose. Thus, the final goal of apologetics, (winning the person and not just the argument) is always in purview.
As a close reading of these ten principles will demonstrate, one does not need a doctorate in philosophy of religion, but only a thorough knowledge of scripture to be an effective apologist. For if you know THE truth well, you can always spot and dismantle a lie. Dr. Oliphint’s goal is to move those hostile “opponent” to the Christian faith not just to theism but to the cross of Jesus Christ. Please understand, Dr. Oliphint is not arguing against practical arguments for he utilizes them to show how false worldviews fall apart, especially in his discussion of the problem of evil. I think he would agree with Greg Koukl that “placing a stone in the shoe” of the skeptic is a good thing. But, in the end, we are working (with the necessary help of the Holy Spirit) to a full understanding of the Gospel.
Whether one takes a covenantal approach to theology or not, his well-reasoned and crisply written arguments are well worth the time of any committed Christian evangelist.
My only problem with Covenantal Apologetics is that Dr. Oliphint promises to make this process “practical” through examples of mock dialogues but the “conversations” he offers are really closer to academic debates rather than interactions most Christians have over coffee or a meal. But this is a minor criticism for I understand this is Dr. Oliphint’s world and Christian leaders should be able to interpret it for those they know.
I highly recommend it.
Check back tomorrow when I weigh in to the racial debate currently stoked by Bill O’Reilly and next week when I review Kyle Strobel’s Formed for the Glory (IVP 2013). Until then, grace and peace to you all.