Covenantal Apologetics (Oliphint)

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I’ve long suspected that we need to ditch the term “presuppositional.”  I don’t think Van Til ever really used it and among both his defenders and critics, engaging the term often reveals hopeless ineptitude.  So right off the bat we can judge Oliphint’s book a marginal success, even if he doesn’t get anything else right. But I think he does.

This is a marked improvement upon his Battle Belongs to the Lord, which was so elementary that it was helpful to a very few. I should note my sympathies. While I am an anti-Thomist, I don’t consider myself in the “Van Til” school.  I’m rather more of a mix between Bavinck and Schilder. I have affinities with Van Tillianism, but nothing more.

We comend Oliphint for always wanting to go beyond mere “slogans” and platitudes.

Ten Tenets of Covenantal Apologetics

(1) The faith we defend must include the Triune God, not an abstracted Being of Being. Oliphint notes that when we “being with” the Triune God, this doesn’t necessarily mean in a temporal sense.  It doesn’t mean we have to begin each apologetic session with “In the Name of the Transcendental Argument.” This point is surprisingly lost on most young Van Tillians.

(2) God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by what it is.

(3) The truth of God’s covenantal revelation brings a change in man.

(4) Man as image of God is in covenant with the Triune God for eternity.

(5) All people know God and knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

(6) Those in Adam suppress the truth.

(7) There is a covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and its opposite.

(8) Suppression of the truth is total, but not absolute.

(9) True covenantal knowledge connotes God’s mercy, which allows for persuasion.

(10) Every fact is covenantally conditioned.

God as “I Am”

Creation doesn’t change God’s aseity, but it does introduce a new relation.  God’s covenant binds him, as it were (Heb. 6:17-18). God has taken an oath, which is judicial, covenantal language.

Paul’s Apologetic

The language in Acts 17:24ff is covenantal: God appointed boundaries, created the world, is close to us (which entails obligations).

Image, Knowledge, and Lordship: By virtue of being created, we are vice-regents. God has committed himself to his covenant and his creation.

Key points:

* If man’s mind is derivative, then self-consciousness always presupposes God-consciousness.

* Everybody is related to a covenant head, either Adam or Christ.  Even apart from sin’s entrance into the world, man is in covenant relationship with God (WCF 7:1).  Covenantal Apologetics, therefore, explores how this relationship affects our reasoning processes.


*  The book’s style is uneven.  It goes from dialogue to an evaluation of philosophical essays on eternity, with little warning.  And while it makes good points concerning Owen’s distinction between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, it seemed tangential to the chapter.

** While the section on the problem of evil was very good (more on that later), his dialogue between Christian and unbeliever seemed more like an essay.  This is not how people talk.

*** I agree with him on opposing the false elemental philosophy of the age (Col. 2:8), but this is far more than simply saying no to the Zeitgeist.  If we are going to bring up the stoichea, then we need to really develop the thought: elemental spirits, principalities, etc.

**** The danger in writing manuals on presuppositional apologetics is one of the One and the Many (if I may engage in extended punning). None of these books can stand alone.  A presup author will say, “X religion fails to account for y.” And since this isn’t a book on X religion, this claim is almost never developed, which calls for a book on y or z.  To an extent that’s only natural. At this point, though, the apologist must either engage in the particulars of Islam or Mormonism, or simply concede that he is just quoting bible verses.  He has to show why X is false on its own terms and not simply chant “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness.”

To be fair to Oliphint, though, his dialog with the Muslim was pretty good.  There are some very interesting suggestions on Allah’s simplicity, which Oliphint doesn’t pursue.  Oliphint’s interlocutor does provide some hints:

“Let’s suppose that Allah is absolute oneness, as you say. That means that there is no differentiation in him whatsoever. This means, as you say, that even the revelation of his will, the Qur’an, is his eternal speech. But I remain puzzled as to how the transcendent One can have speech at all? If it is identical to him, it cannot be differentiated. “

And Oliphint gives the conclusion: What is speech where there is no difference?

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