K. Scott Oliphint, Covenant Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2013. K. Scott Oliphint is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
I'd like to thank Crossway for providing a copy of the book for review.
In the introduction and Chapter 1, Oliphint begins by stating that his approach is Van Tillian, and that he wishes to remove the confusing nomenclature of presuppositionalism and replace it with covenant language to describe the apologetic. He also wants readers to know that this book is meant to be a translation of Van Til, even though there are minor differences, that makes the methodology accessible to non-professional philosophers and layman.
He argues that Christians should not give up their starting ground, which is God's revelation, to assume a starting ground that automatically precludes Christianity. Hence, he argues that the starting point for the Christian, who has come to know God through the truth, is that Christianity is true, and therefore, whatever opposes it, whether we even understand the opposing system well or not, is false. Hence, the starting point needs to be the picture of reality that Scripture gives to us concerning God's existence and man's identity both as God's image and as rebelliously seeking autonomy in thought and practice.
He, therefore, argues that man remains in covenant with God even after the fall. He still owes God, as His Creator, his full allegiance and obedience in mind, heart, and soul. He is still obligated to worship God rather than himself, but, in the fall, his heart is not like it was before. As it was once posse non peccare for the man before the fall, after the fall, it is non posse non peccare. His thoughts are continually evil from his youth. Hence, he constructs a reality that is contrary to what is true reality. Reality becomes fantasy and fantasy, reality—all in the name of self worship. Hence, even while assuming a knowledge of God, which Oliphint believes from Romans 1 to be given to every human in creation and conscience, he suppresses that knowledge. Hence, he becomes irrational. Oliphint states:
But since the fall, given the above, we became, in the truest sense of the word, irrational. That is, we sinfully and deceptively convince ourselves that what is actually true about the world is not true. We create a world of our own making, where we are all gods. What we now seek to do and how we seek to live and think are set in polar opposition to the world as it actually is. Our actions are in opposition to what they were originally intended to do . . . Trying to make ourselves out to be gods, we distort both who we are and who God is. We are at war with our true identity. Always and everywhere in covenant relationship with God our Creator, we seek the utterly impossible and unobtainable; we seek autonomy (45).
This is bad news for man, since he is not God. In fact, Oliphint argues from the WCF that God is holy other. He is not like us or anything else in the world. There is a distance, a vast chasm, between God’s knowledge and character and our own (39-40). What this means is that we are completely reliant upon God graciously revealing reality to us. Hence, God must condescend in order to communicate needed information. Hence, one must begin with respect to who we are and what we can know in light of this understanding (40-41).
What this means is that man is incapable of knowing like God, but wants to pretend that he is God and can know like Him. Despite the nature of reality, the sinner, “as far as he is tr5ue to his own sinful principle [i.e., seeking autonomy], seek to suppress the actual situation ans set forth the (literally) make-believe world that he is working so hard to build” (46).
Hence, Oliphint remarks,
It will not do, then, for the apologist simply to start on the Yellow Brick Road with his unbelieving friend and assume that it will lead to Kansas. Once one begins on a make-believe road, it can only lead to more of the same; one cannot leave the land of Oz by taking a road that is, in its entirety, within Oz. The only way back to the real world of Kansas is to get off the road altogether and change the mind-set that trusted in the Yellow Brick Road in the first place (Ibid.).
This is what the covenantal approach seeks to accomplish. It believes the Scriptural assessment of our situation and attempts to show that this imaginary world, fabricated by the fallen sinner, since it does not truly exist, is irrational. It therefore challenges the unbeliever to make sense of his world within itself. Instead, it will likely steal the transcendental foundations rooted in the triune God who has revealed Himself to man, all the while seeking to suppress the necessity of that foundation to justify his own worldview. “So,” as Oliphint concludes, “the unbelieving position both has its own presumed foundations and needs Christian foundations in order even to oppose the latter” (46). Hence, the approach attempts to expose both the presuppositions of the illusory world the unbeliever is attempting to justify and the covenantal presuppositions that he has assumed in order to make his case.
Oliphint then gives ten tenets that he wants his readers to keep in mind throughout the entire book in order to provide context for what is being said therein. They are basically a summary of what has already been discussed:
1. 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.
2. God’s covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.
3. 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.
4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.
5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenant obligations.
6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see that truth for what it is.
7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.
8. 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.
9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God’s universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.
10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.
Oliphint explains all of these in much more solid terms that they first appear, as these are the conclusions of arguments he lays out, not the arguments themselves.
In Chapter 2, Oliphint argues that the real problem is an authority problem. It fails to reckon with Christ as Lord. He critiques Kant’s concept of pure reason, where Kant divides knowledge and faith, and states that he must deny knowledge in order to make room for faith, by stating that Kant never considered the Christian God he was attempting to rebut. We experience the God of the Bible every day. In Him we move and have our being. He has given us revelation in the creation of the cosmos, consciousness, and specifically in Scripture. Kant is merely assuming that we have not experienced God because he refuses to believe. Oliphint argues that he is right in that we cannot move from the finite to the infinite, but that Kant never considers the infinite moving to the finite. It’s always an argument with man at the center of existence.
But God has condescended to us, and without Him doing so, there could be no knowledge of Him. In that sense, Oliphint is in agreement with Kant, if Kant’s fabricated world existed, but it doesn’t. We live in the world where God is experienced in everything, where knowledge of God is assumed in everything, because revelation has been granted to us. It is our desire to make ourselves the central authorities in life and thought that gets in the way of that information.
Oliphint then argues that an unbelieving system that does not consider Christ as its authority will self destruct (i.e., it will be self-defeating).
He begins by giving an example of moral reasoning with an episode that occurred between Richard Dawkins and some of his supporters, where the two were arguing about a moral issue (Dawkins grading evil on a scale and his supporters believing in some universal idea of morality that should not grade moral actions in such a way). Oliphint argues that a commitment of life that is limited to the rational and evidential begins to sink in what he calls the “Quicksand Quotient” when one discovers that they hold commitments that go beyond the evidential and rational. He uses this example only to show that there are commitments that are assumed by everyone that cannot be decided by the evidential and rational. Atheism provides no real way of dealing with these. Christianity, however, provides a “universally applicable way to navigate how the rational and evidential to ‘human beings, life, and behavior’” (77).
He then gives an example of where an atheist tries to sink Christianity by showing the same thing within the Christian’s system. In order to do so, he is not assuming a Christian worldview, but his own, in order to make the case. Oliphint argues that he must remove the Christian God from His revelatory context in order to make the case and construct a god that is not revealed in order to supposedly dismiss that god; but this is, at all times, assuming his own worldview and not Christianity’s. Thus, it cannot make the fallacy stick.
Chapter 3 is essentially a longer discussion of what God has done in covenant with us. He has condescended to us that we might know Him. Thus, Oliphint states:
We know God not because we have reasoned our way to him, or have worked through the necessary scientific procedures, or have inferred his existence from other things that we know; rather we know him by way of his revelation. We know what God is like “because God has shown it “ to us (101).
This knowledge of God is not something we have learned, but something engrained in us, inborn, and a part of our being. As such, Oliphint argues that this is a type of knowledge that all other types of knowledge presuppose, and might be better understood as a psychology than an epistemology (103).
Oliphint makes an important point at this juncture. He states that, since God has revealed Himself in what He has created, the world is accessible to us. We know God by knowing the world as created and we know the world because God has made Himself known through it. Hence, knowledge of the world presupposes a knowledge of God, and this makes knowledge of the world accessible to us.
At this point, Oliphint turns to discuss types of proofs: empirical and non-empirical, with the non-empirical relying upon the empirical. He discusses things like verifiable facts with our senses and those that need to rely upon certain authorities as legitimate, such as the statement,“Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 44 BC.” There are empirical and non-empirical arguments of variegated complexity. His whole point here is to flesh out the idea of what constitutes “proof,” as well as to say that proof cannot be predicated on that for which one can give a rational justification (as an example, he mentions Plantinga’s argument that philosophers have been unsuccessful in arguing for the existence of other minds, yet most still believe that there are).
He then asks whether the statement, “God exists” is something provable. By quoting the first definition of proof found in Webster’s Dictionary (one that many skeptics assume), he states that a definition of proof that works on the assumption that anything proven must be based upon a cogency of evidence that compels acceptance of the mind of a truth or fact, would exclude the statement as something provable in the strictest sense.
Hence, he argues that he is after more than mere proof, as he is after a sound argument, not just a valid one, and he looks to the Holy Spirit to compel others of the truth, not the self authentication of human autonomy. So, he concludes, the issue of what constitutes proof is far more complex than many make it out to be.
In fact, his point here is to show that the idea of proof is really only a subset of a larger group of assumptions that surround various premises. These take us beyond the syllogisms to epistemological questions that ask how we know these premises are true (i.e., how exactly we have acquired this information).
The arguments, therefore, cannot be based upon some naïve notion that one can argue from evidence and rationality in neutrality. There is no neutral ground from which we argue.
At this point, Oliphint critiques the evidentialist approach of Thomas Aquinas and those approaches which follow his as that which assumes a neutral ground, where everyone will read the evidence the same way. At this point, Oliphint remarks, the Christian has already lost the argument because he has assumed a non-Christian epistemology. Hence, the unbeliever can now drive him eventually to the destination he desires, i.e., to disbelief in the God of the Bible.
In Chapter 4, he lays out his argument that apologetics should be more persuasive than proof-oriented. He discusses Aristotelian persuasion within the context of a biblical and theological framework. This is where Oliphint essentially lays out what is wrong, in his opinion, with the Thomistic approach that basis itself on evidences and rationalization. His argument is not that evidentiary and rational arguments are opposed to the covenant apologetics model, but that they ought to work upon its foundation rather than acquiring some other foundation that one supposes to be neutral ground.
In Chapter 5, he lays out the negative and positive aspects of an apologetic argument by showing how we can demonstrate that false systems fall under their own weight (i.e., how their own assumptions make the system incoherent and irrational), as well as showing that Christianity provides a much more reasonable view of reality given its assumptions.
In Chapters 6 and 7, he lays out in hypothetical dialogues what this might look like when one encounters an atheist or Muslim. Here is the meat of the book, and therein lies the demonstration of the method for which Oliphint has been preparing his readers throughout the book.
I thought it was rather interesting that I read this book after I have been discussing these very things with certain atheists of the Objectivist variety. Oliphint points out that the reason why atheists are continually seeking to put Christians on their starting ground is because they (1) don't often realize the assumptions they're making, and assume their starting point to be neutral, and (2) because it's the only way they're going to be successful in persuading one to conclude what they have.
If one looks at the debates I've been having over the past few days, he will see the constant and unrelenting attempt to pull me into an epistemology that assumes the very world it is claiming to prove. For instance, I was chided for not being able to "confirm" information needed from my metaphysic, and this is precisely the objection with which I charged the atheist. Yet, my epistemology is not self defeating as theirs is, as I don't need to "confirm" such undetectable information. That's the atheist's system collapsing upon itself. My epistemology is that I believe the authority of God and the Bible and reason and evaluate evidence from there. That's my ground. One may not believe it, but that's where I start, and it is not self defeating as the atheist's starting place is. Yet, this idea was completely foreign and seen as absurd by the atheists, precisely, because they are judging what is absurd and what is rational according to whether it assumes their worldview (which they are completely unaware that they are assuming).
Oliphint does a great job at pointing this out, although there could have been more argumentation and demonstration of this fact. In fact, I found it interesting that he concluded much the same that I did in one of my conversations: namely, that an atheist wants to presuppose that what is rational and what is absurd is whatever accords with an epistemology based upon his assumed metaphysic in the first place. In essence, the atheist begs the question and then goes on to view everything that does not accord with it as "absurd." What is truly absurd and irrational is to argue in such a circle, but then claim that one is just using logic and reason to get to this position without any such presuppositions.
Oliphint points all of this out of course, but, as I said, he could have done more to make this more explicit and given more examples in the process.
However, that said, his purpose is really to introduce the Christian to this form of apologetics. The book is not meant to be a defense of Christianity written to atheists. It is simply taking observations and arguments that have been made in more philosophically advanced forms and bringing out an application of those truths in how one goes about persuading, rather than proving via evidentialism, that Christianity is true.
I highly recommend the book for an Introduction to Apologetics course. In fact, I would definitely use it in such a course and then move on to other, more advanced, works that this book is attempting to translate and apply.
Overall, this is a great contribution to the subject of apologetics, and that explains the widespread praise it is receiving in Reformed Circles.