Scott Oliphint’s new book, Covenantal Apologetics, is an important book for anyone who wants to present a well-reasoned, biblical apologetic for the Christian faith. For several decades, Dr Oliphint has studied and reflected on the ground-breaking work of Cornelius van Til, who was professor of apologetics at Westminster Seminary for over 40 years. But in this work Dr Oliphint advocates that, instead of presuppostional apologetics, a more apt name for a biblically-informed defence of the Christian faith is covenantal apologetics. He takes his point of departure from the way the Westminster Confession of Faith describes God’s relationship to his creation in terms of a covenant.
“The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.” Westminster Confession of Faith VII.1
In creating humankind, God voluntarily determined to establish a relationship with us. That covenantal relationship places obligations on everyone such that all “owe obedience unto Him as their Creator”. We were created as covenant beings who have an obligation to worship and serve the Creator. Of course something went terribly wrong when humans rebelled against God and sinned and consequently lost the ability and the desire to worship and serve their Creator. But there still remains a relationship even though many people’s relationship with God is now one of denial and rebellion. Covenantal apologetics seeks to take the truth of Scripture as the proper diagnosis of the unbelieving condition and challenges the unbeliever to make sense of the world he has made. Oliphint makes this point pungently and clearly:
“Scripture tells us that a world built on the foundation of unbelief does not exist; it is a figment of an unbelieving imagination, and thus is basically irrational.”
“Man’s denial of God is not something done in ignorance. It is evidence of the suppression of the knowledge of God within us. Our refusal to acknowledge God is not, as has been supposed, an agnostic refusal - that is, it is not a refusal based on ignorance - but it is culpable rebellion. Since the fall we are and remain, as Paul clearly states, without excuse.”
He then proceeds to set out ten theological tenets that are necessary for a covenantal, Christian apologetic. But rather than just discussing these tenets, Oliphint shows how they can be put into practice. His major concern is to apply these tenets in defending the Christian faith. Only by reading the book in its entirely will anyone be able to judge how successful the author has been.
Oliphint describes his notion of “persuasion” through what he terms the trivium of persuasion comprised of ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos focuses on the character of the apologist. Those defending the faith must commend Christ and the gospel by the manner of their words and life. Pathos focuses upon the specific needs of the person to whom the apologist is speaking and asks the question “What will persuade this person?” The final stage of the persuasion trivium is logos in which the truth of the gospel is presented. The apologist shows how the truth of God can sustain itself and how it is able to explain reality as we know it. The weakness of a system of unbelief is exposed and the alternative of the gospel is shown to be substantial and sustainable where unbelief fails.
What makes this book particularly helpful is the way the author includes several dialogues between a Christian apologist and those defending humanism, atheism and Islam. By challenging the initial assumptions of unbelief, Oliphint shows how Bible-believing Christians may enter into a serious conversation with unbelievers. While this volume will not answer all the questions and issues for those who wish to defend the faith, it does, as one reviewer puts it, “offer an arsenal of apologetic insight”.
This week I have been reading Alec Motyer’s excellent little book on preaching, “Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching”. An Irishman and an Episcopalian, Motyer has contributed to many aspects of evangelical life in the UK, and is a respected Old Testament scholar. This little gem of a book contains many valuable insights and will be a source of help to pastors and preachers. Here are a few of the passages that I found most insightful.
“What makes a sermon ‘bad’? The majority of (if not, to a degree, all) ‘bad’ sermons are ‘bad’ because they are muddled. ….muddle is something that can be sorted out. Some people have a natural capacity for setting a subject out, and there is never any doubt what they have said, or why they have moved on to the next aspect of their subject. And in the end it is all a clear, rounded whole. Their minds work in distinct ‘points’ with precise subdivisions. For most of us that sort of thing is a matter of hard work and detailed preparation. That is exactly my point. ‘Good’ preaching, in the sense of being plain and unmistakable in the pulpit, is something that can be achieved. Once we have seen it as a target to aim at, it becomes a target we can hit, a step in the right direction to being an acceptable preacher.”
“A sermon is like dressing a shop window. When we first lived in a remote village, the window of the village shop was just an extension of the stock room. Everything the shop had on offer was there! In fact, there was so much in the window that no one even bothered looking in it; there was so much to see that the passer-by saw nothing. Contrast window dressers who know their business! They put into the window what they are, at that moment, setting out to sell …. Sermons are equally selective. What are we intending to sell? We have a stockroom full of the most amazing collection of goods to offer - real bargains too! So what shall we put in the window this Sunday morning or evening, this Wednesday ‘mid-week sabbath’? Everything must lead to that central truth.”
“In Gethsemane Jesus trembled, prayed, and never trembled again all through the ordeal of our salvation. The disciples failed to pray, and after that never stopped trembling. To keep alert and pray is to follow our Saviour and become like Him.”
“Our position as ministers in the church gives us the right to preach, but it does not give us the right to be heard. I once attended a service at a church where the minister was not only known as a skilled preacher, but also was widely in demand as a lecturer on pastoral work, pastoral care and pastoral problems - subjects which he handle with notable ability and helpfulness. I came from that service with a sense of incase which I could not at that time define, but years later I had the chance to ask the minister in question how he found time, with his preaching and lecturing commitments all over the country, to engage in the pastoral care of his people. “Oh”, he said, “I do all my pastoral work in the pulpit.” Not in home visitation? Not in personal ministry to the sick and bereaved? Not in one-to-one counselling of the troubled? Only in the pulpit? My original unease suddenly had an explanation. I remembered my attendance at his church: he was preaching but no one was listening! It was the minister’s Sunday performance before we could all go home! His position gave him the right to preach; but Monday to Saturday he was not purchasing the right to be heard.”
“[The seven golden lampstands of Revelation 1:12] remarkably were not designed to shine the light of God’s truth into the darkness of the surrounding world - though doubtless they did that as a by-product of their golden radiance. No, their lamps were turned inward in order to reveal the presence and glory at their centre of ‘One like the Son of Man’. One way or another this expresses our intention and longing as preachers - that He should be at the centre, ever the Focus of all truth and fully illuminated for every eye, for ‘we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord’, that all may see ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.
Many sermons based on the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Mark 4:35-41) end up with application to the hearers along the lines of of “Whatever your personal situation, whatever difficulties or challenges you face, Jesus can be with you in your boat and can still the storms in your life”. This is the point which is made in the notes for this passage in the NIV Life Application Bible:
“Think about the storms in your life - the situations that cause you great anxiety. Whatever your difficulty you have two options. You can worry and assume that Jesus no longer cares, or you can resist fear, putting your trust in him. When you feel like panicking, confess your need for God and then trust him to care for you.”
While the spiritual truth about the care and compassion of the Saviour for us in our trouble is undoubtedly true, is that the real point of this incident and the reason why the Holy Spirit included it in the Scriptures? Such application fails to take into account the context of the passage in Mark’s Gospel, as well as the overall purpose of the book.
These past few days, while on retreat in Bushmills with the ministry students who are commencing their new academic year at Union College, Nigel McCullough opened up an alternative and more insightful understanding of this story. Having examined the account of Jonah’s experience in the Old Testament book, he drew parallels between Jonah and Jesus and their experiences of a storm at sea. Both were sleeping when the storm hit their boat; both were awakened by their fellow mariners; and in both cases the occupants of the boat were more terrified after the storm than they were in the storm. But the point he made, and which is hinted at in the ESV Study Bible notes on Mark 4, is that Jesus is the new and better Jonah. This follows the connection which is made explicit by Jesus himself in Matthew 12:41: “Now one greater than Jonah is here”.
Unlike the disobedient prophet, Jesus readily commits himself to do his Father’s will. He goes willingly to Jerusalem, in the direction his Father had determined, where the storm of God’s wrath is “hurled” on him, just as the storm was “hurled” on Jonah’s ship and threatened to destroy it. Like Jonah, he endures three days and three nights in the depths, hidden from human eyes. But, also like Jonah, he emerges again with the clear testimony that echoes Jonah’s conviction, “Salvation is of the Lord”. And because of Christ’s obedience, his death and resurrection, we can have real peace and know that the storm of God’s righteous judgment will never be hurled against us. Our salvation is secured by the active obedience of Christ, the greater and better Jonah.
Not only did Nigel make some helpful and pertinent points arising from the story of Jonah for those of us in Christian ministry, but he also modelled for us how the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are to handled. He showed us that the story of Jonah, like many other Old Testament stories, “whisper Christ’s name”. May our ears be sensitive enough to hear those whispers so that we are drawn to worship and praise our Saviour with new love and devotion.
I haven’t blogged for some months, but now that I have taken up a new position at Union Theological College in Belfast I thought I might give it another go. On September 4 I was installed as Principal and Professor of Ministry at Union, and last Sunday evening, I was officially “farewelled” from First Presbyterian Church, Portadown. It has been a long period of transition. I had first informed the Session in Portadown of my nomination for this new post last April.
I will miss the regular pastoral work and preaching among the good folks of Portadown, and I am feeling the pain of leaving that charge. Pastoral work brings one close to people especially in those challenging times of illness and bereavement when deep and close connections and friendships are forged. But I am confident that the Lord will guide the congregation to a new minister who will pastor them and lead them forward. I must now turn to new responsibilities.
This week, new and returning students have been arriving at Union to prepare for the new academic year. We have 15 new ministry students, bringing the total complement of students preparing for ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to 39 for this year. I am reliably informed that another good batch of applications has been received this September which are about to be processed by the presbyteries. So we anticipate another good intake of ministry students this time next year. Given the low numbers applying for ordained ministry in other denominations, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has reason to be thankful. It seems that we are moving to a situation where, in the next few years, all vacant pulpits will be filled and we will have a surplus of ministerial talent. Is this a time for PCI to re-assess and re-invigorate its mission at home and overseas? Is it time to formulate a new and innovative church-planting strategy across Ireland? The state of the Presbyterian witness in Belfast, on our own doorstep, needs some urgent re-thinking if the steep downward decline is going to be slowed or halted.
In addition to our ministry students, we expect to have around 140 undergraduate students from Queen’s University, Belfast, taking their theology courses at Union, as well as another 50 students pursuing postgraduate degrees. My conversations with the new arrivals this week have been very stimulating, and we look forward to engaging with this generation of able and gifted young people from a wide range of backgrounds. The mix of students has created a stimulating intellectual environment at Union College and I look forward to all the conversations and discussions that will be generated both inside and outside of the classroom during this new academic year.
My new post requires me to reflect, not only on the task of preparing people who will lead Christ’s church, but specifically on the practice of Christian ministry. Christian ministry has always been a challenging calling, but in the current climate in Ireland, and within our denomination, it is particularly so. So, with my intellectual and emotional loins girded, I press forward into the new academic year. The first stop on this journey is my favourite north Antrim town of Bushmills where the ministry students will convene later this week for their pre-term retreat.