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”.