A BOOK REVIEW OF COVENANTAL APOLOGETICS BY K. SCOT
Date:November 15, 2013
Christian Apologetics is, essentially, active evangelism. It is the presentation, explanation and defense of the Christian faith. K. Scott Oliphint, who holds a B.S. from West Texas State University, and a M.A.R., Th.M., and a PhD. from WestMinster Theological Seminary, and is professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at WestMinster Theological Seminary, has just published a book which seeks to present an introduction of the principles of Presuppositional Apologetics, as well as to provide examples of how to put this method into action. In this book review I will begin by explaining the authors purpose, how he goes about attaining his purpose, and I will finish with some remarks as to the positive and negative aspects of this book.
The author’s proposed purpose is to “set out (what has been called) a presuppositional approach to apologetics. As will become clear, however, I hope to do that in a way that is relatively free of technical vocabulary. (p. 25)” At the beginning of the first chapter Oliphint breaks down this goal into two aspects. First, “to lay out the primary biblical and theological principles that must be a part of any covenantal defense of Christianity. (p. 29)” Secondly, “to demonstrate how these principles might be applied against certain objections. (p. 30)” The author says that, in order to accomplish this goal he will, first of all, “attempt to move past a somewhat common description of apologetics and apply a new label. (p. 25)” Secondly, “move discussions about a ‘presuppositional’ approach to apologetics past simply laying out the principles that must be included in it. (p. 25)” Thirdly, “translate the language, concepts, and ideas set forth in Van Til’s Reformed apologetic into language, terms and concepts that are more accessible. (p. 26)” This will include translating “much of what is meant in Van Til’s own writings from their often philosophical and technical contexts to a more basic biblical and theological context. (p. 26)” The author hopes to show that “apologetics must (1) be Christian and (2) have a theological foundation.(p. 38)”
Oliphint divides this task into seven main sections. Chapter 1 seeks to set the stage for the rest of the book by grounding the task of Apologetics on a properly Biblical and Christian foundation. In the first chapter he explains how the lordship of Christ should control the entire apologetical enterprise, provides the reasons why he would like to change the name of his method from “presupposional” to “covenantal”. He goes onto provide what he sees as the biblical context for knowledge of God, and the ten foundational principles of covenantal apologetics. Chapter 2 seeks to ground covenantal apologetics in an appropriate understanding of the nature of God. In so doing he interacts with Immanuel Kant’s division between faith and reason. He also explains how to interact with an argument, and demonstrates how this is to be done, first, by explaining an event that involved Richard Dawkins and a skeptical society, and secondly by interacting with an argument presented by Anthony Kenny against classical theism. Chapter 3 seeks to “clarify ways in which our basic principles (the ten tenets) relate to the notion of proof in apologetics.(p. 87)” This is done primarily through a discussion and application of Paul’s address to the Greeks at the Aeropagus, in Acts 17. In this chapter he provides a brief analysis of what a proof is and is capable of accomplishing, as well as the notion of burden of proof. This chapter finishes with a brief look at some classical demonstrations for the existence of God, and an example conversation between a humanist and a Covenant Apologist. In chapter 4 Oliphint discusses the trivium of the ancient and medieval world, and then introduces what he calls the trivium of covenantal apologetics. In this chapter he discusses the use of rhetoric in apologetics, and argues that apologetics is much more about persuasion than about demonstration. Here he considers Aristotle’s three aspects of Rhetoric in their application to Christian apologetics. In Chapter 5 Oliphint describes how to engage in negative apologetics (destroying arguments against Christianity), and positive apologetics (recommending Christianity). In order to demonstrate how to engage in negative apologetics he interacts with the problem of evil that is frequently brought against Christianity. In this chapter we are also provided with another example of how a Covenantal Apologist would interact with an atheist on the question of evil. In chapter 6 Oliphint explains the attitude that we should have as we interact with unbelievers, and seek to persuade them of the truth of Christianity. We are given a example of these principles through a fictitious conversation between a Covenant Apologist and Daniel Dennett. He finishes with a discussion of plausibility and possibility, and the question of how competent one must be to engage a person in conversation. In the final chapter Oliphint seeks to show how a Covenant Apologist would engage a religious person and seek to persuade them of the truth of Christianity. After providing a number of principles for discussion, Oliphint gives an example of how a conversation might go between a muslim and a Covenant Apologist.
This book is written to render Van Tillian Presuppositionalism accessible, and to show how it can be put into practice. It seems that the intended audience would be lay-people who have no training in apologetics, however, this book will be useful for students in a Bachelor program, and of interest for scholars engaged in apologetics, as it is the most accessible explanation, in a relatively easy to read format, of Presuppositional Apologetics. It is well structured into chapters and subdivisions making it easy to follow. In each chapter he provides examples of how he would put his principles into action. There is an interesting Foreward written by William Edgar. The book includes a bibliography, a general index, and a scripture index which allow the researcher to easily find important quotations and discussions of key subjects.
Oliphint provides interesting discussions of many important areas of apologetics. He constantly reminds the reader Christian apologetics is primarily Christian – that is, what we are seeking to show is that Christianity is true. As such, all Christian apologetics needs to take account of the Christian perception of the world, and remain founded in the Bible. His discussion, and application to Christian Apologetics, of the three parts of the Aristotelian understanding of rhetoric will be of interest to all budding apologists.
Some things to keep in mind as we read this book are, first of all, Oliphint presupposes the truth of the reformed understanding of scripture. He notes in the introduction that “The biblical and theological principles that will be laid out below belong, historically, to the theology that gained its greatest clarity during the time of the Reformation.(p. 30)” Furthermore, Oliphint notes, “Our entire discussion will assume that Reformed theology is the best and most consistent expression of the Christian faith. (p. 30)” We are frequently reminded of this fact as the book progresses. We are reminded that the foundational claims for presuppositional apologetics are grounded in the notion of total depravity, and the other elements of the Calvinist TULIP. One gets the impression that presuppositionalism is so tied to Calvinism that if one rejects the basic interpretation of scriptures that are advanced by Calvinism, then one must also reject presuppositionalism. (In fact, it seems that if Total Depravity, as described by traditional Calvinistic theology, is false, then Presuppositionalism is necessarily false. (Even though it still provides us with numerous important insights into how to interact with people who do not ‘understand’ the world in the same way that we do.)) This, of course, is not strictly true (though Calvinism seems to be the only coherent theological position that a thinker can accept, if that thinker wishes to maintain presuppositionalism, and the traditional Christian faith) as presuppositionalism is an essentially post-modern philosophy that finds its roots in thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and his followers, who claim that all of humanity interprets the world, necessarily, from their particular perspective.
The primary main difficulty with this book is that Oliphint does not clearly define any of the most important and most used terms in this book, such as “know”, “knowledge”, “exist”, “existence”, “nature”, “essence”, “truth”, “real”, “freedom”, “rational”, “attribute”, or “character”. Yet he consistently uses these terms to talk about man’s knowledge of God, of this world, of what is real, of man’s nature, God’s essence, etc. The fact that these terms are undefined, yet used in many ways that are obviously different, leaves the attentive reader with the impression (whether it is true or not) that Oliphint is guilty of constant equivocation, ambiguous claims(See, for example, pp.74, 84, 169, 185.), and self-contradiction(See, for example, his claim on page 155, « It is certainly true, in other words, that God is the first cause, the necessary being on which all contingency depends, the designer of all that is, and so forth. But these truths can only be true if framed in terms of the real world, the world that God has condescended to make and control. »).
In spite of the difficulties that I see with this book, I would recommend this book as a great introduction to Presuppositional Apologetics. It is a pleasure to read, and much of what Oliphint has to say will be helpful to apologists of any stripe.
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Review 2 for Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith - eBook
K. Scott Oliphint is a Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Wesminster Theological Seminary and the author of the book "Covenantal Apologetics; principles and practice in defense of our faith."
By and large this book is a defense of Reformed covenantal apologetics. And if you didn't understand that last sentence, this book might be a big bite to swallow. Not only is this book aimed at reformed theologians, but it very weighty in both doctrine and language. Remember, the author is a seminary professor and I am sure that this book is now required reading in his classrooms. If you're looking for a lightweight book to help you share your faith with your friends - this book isn't it!
That said, if you are looking for something more and are interested in broadening your mind in the field of apologetics, this book might be for you.
1 Peter 3:15 says "In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." The author begins with this passage, and the idea that we should always "be ready" to share our faith.
The author begins on bedrock - the bible and speaks to the bible's authority and accuracy. He then stands on scripture with the argument that its words are true and therefore Christ's words are true. Therefore - if Christianity is true, this contradicts all other forms of faith and thus renders them false. The author then argues that inherently each person knows God and desires a relationship with him, but the world and darkness and sin - hides that truth and keeps the unbeliever shrouded in what they perceive.
As a person who is "always prepared to give an answer" our job then is to pull the veil off of truth and to reveal it. To help others find the truth in scripture and the words of Christ.
I did like this book - it contains some great insight. Although out of school and no longer in an academic setting, I found myself drifting at times and terribly wishing for something lighter and a little more easier to read.
Thanks to Crossway Publishers for the complimentary review copy of this book in exchange for review.
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Review 3 for Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith - eBook
Since reading his exceptional book on God’s condescension, God With Us, I have been compelled to get my hands on and read all of Scott Oliphint’s material. I have finished several of his other books and have others in queue. And for this reason-a desire to become familiar with all of Oliphint’s writings-I have been eagerly anticipating his 2013 offering, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith. I have now crossed this book off my “to read” list and gladly endorse it.
Oliphint sets out two main goals for this book: “to lay out the primary biblical and theological principles that must be part of any covenantal defense of Christianity and then to demonstrate how these principles might be applied against certain objections” (29-30). As the book’s subtitle suggests, this work is about the principles and practice of covenantal apologetics.
In the first chapter Oliphint lays out some key concepts and ideas as he introduces his self-named approach to apologetics. He indicates immediately that there is a conflict which all humans participate in and as Christians we are called to the task of “defending and commending the truth of Christianity” (32-3). We are to defend and commend the Christian truth which is the only true and real perspective available to humans. Oliphint introduces covenantal apologetics by looking at ideas around God’s aseity, His condescension, covenant, sin, and humanity’s innate knowledge of God and our suppression of that knowledge. Perhaps the most important content in this book comes in this chapter with Oliphint revealing the Ten Tenets of covenantal apologetics. Oliphint delivers these crucial tenets and effectively explains them. This first chapter does a thorough job of demonstrating the author’s apologetic approach.
The second chapter expounds on ideas integral to this defense of Christianity that were introduced in the first chapter. Oliphint discusses the transcendent otherness of God and God’s condescension in creating and relating to creation (He is excellent on these topics…as good as or better than anyone I have read). Oliphint then moves from principles to practice and gives two examples where we can see this defense in action. He also considers two foundational tactics; undermining erroneous presuppositions (non-Christian) and reinforcing true presuppositions (Christian).
Chapter three attempts to clarify how the ten tenets of Oliphint’s apologetic relate to proofs for arguments by elaborating on the principles themselves and locating them in some historical debates. His analysis of Paul’s address to the Athenians in Acts 17 is enlightening and enjoyable. He presents what it means to prove things in general and to prove the existence of God in particular. And he demonstrates how this might work with actual recorded discussions between a humanist and a Christian. The discussion is evaluated and then reconfigured from the Christian’s perspective in a manner that is more aligned with Oliphint’s own approach. These examples are very helpful in bringing clarity.
Chapter four is an in-depth look at how we are to persuade others as we defend and commend our faith. This was a fascinating chapter that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and contemplating. Oliphint discusses the ethos of persuasion which is basically the persuader’s character, the pathos of persuasion which involves an understanding of those being addressed, and finally the logos of persuasion which is the content in defense which is, of course, God’s Word. This paradigm was new to me but I found it aptly explained and quite intriguing.
Chapters 5-7 are mostly concerned with the practice of this apologetic and in them we are given detailed examples of covenantal apologetics in action. Sometimes the imagined scenarios became quite complex, but I never felt lost or in the dark even though it was some intellectual work to get through. It is encouraging to see how this defense deals with some of the most difficult questions and attacks a Christian will face. Though the responses given in defense of Christianity might be largely beyond what the reader is presently capable of, they give a would-be apologist hope and direction.
This book was, as I said earlier, eagerly anticipated and it did not disappoint. It successfully delivers and defines the principles of covenantal apologetics and demonstrates how they could work in the real world. Oliphint brings clarity with his concise and accessible explanations and his examples are readable and relatable even if they are beyond what many of us are capable of. It is clear that Oliphint hopes that Covenantal Apologetics will be used by the Lord to help the reader generate “a holy, persuasive, gentle and respectful response to unbelief” (262). I believe his hope is not in vain. I definitely recommend this book.
I was given a copy of this book by the publisher for the purpose of review.