In Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith, Scott Oliphint argues that the defense and proclamation of truth about God is best done from a covenantal perspective. God always remains God and yet relates authentically to his creation. This means everyone is in relationship with God, either in obedience or rebellion. The bottom-line truth that this covenantal relationship makes clear is that God is right, Christianity is true, and anything opposing it is false.
It is this position that Oliphint, a professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, seeks not only to explain but also to model in this book’s seven chapters. He first defines and defends his principles and then uses conversational examples to demonstrate their practice. This is one of the many benefits of his thought-provoking and readable book.
The introduction provides both a roadmap for the reader and a summary of each chapter. Fundamental to understanding Oliphint is the recognition that his view of apologetics sees success as nothing less than a radical commitment to life change. Apologetics is evangelistic in every sense.
For Oliphint covenantal apologetics is a better way to understand the presuppositional method of Van Til that he believes is the only apologetic approach that is consistent with Reformed theology. He is not shy about his position, assuming Reformed theology to be “the best and most consistent expression of the Christian faith” (p. 30).
Chapter 1 gives a brief, but intelligent overview of the redemptive story that highlights two principle facts: God is working all things for his glory, and everyone is in relationship with God and therefore required to respond to him by recognizing that Jesus Christ is Lord. Oliphint is clear—the lordship of Christ is foundational to the defense of Christianity. For the apologist this simply means that the lordship of Christ is true for everyone, and “the verbal expression of Christ’s lordship” in the Bible is “authoritative even over those who reject it” (p. 37). The chapter concludes with a clear explanation of ten tenets that form the crucial foundation for his apologetic scheme and method. I found them very helpful and was thankful that someone thought to list them conveniently on one page for future reference.
Chapter 2 is given over to a very thorough and useful presentation of the importance of the lordship of Christ in apologetic method. Here we see the benefit of systematic theology in formulating a biblically sound defense of truth. Specifically, sections describing the way in which the Son reveals the Godhead, the nature of the Son’s humiliation, and the discussion of Trinitarian issues are all engaging.
Chapter 3 turns to the subject of proof and its place in apologetic discourse. As a preacher I was delighted that Oliphint recognizes the close relationship between preaching and apologetics. The declaration and defense of the truth must also come from the pulpit since the content of apologetics and Scripture exposition substantially overlap. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ and not the mode of communication that must always take precedence.
In chapter 4 Oliphint defends his preference for persuasion over what he calls “strict, demonstrative proofs” (p. 127). As always, his reasons are deeply theological, and relate back to the tenets. While his explanations here at times take the reader down some tedious paths, they are worth walking along carefully. His consistency is impressive but can only be understood and appreciated after a rather long uphill climb.
Chapters 5–7 give the reader the opportunity to see Oliphint’s tenets, and the covenantal approach in action. He takes on the “Achilles’ Heel” (p. 161)—that is, the problem of evil—in chapter 5 and models his method in a fictitious conversation between an atheist objector and a covenantal apologist. Chapter 6 is quite refreshing in that it describes the benefit of a winsome manner that must adorn the gospel in every defense of Christianity. In the last chapter, Oliphint takes on the Islamic apologist in another lengthy conversation. Oliphint is to be commended for attempting to both teach and model his method although it becomes apparent in the fictitious conversations that facility as a covenantal apologist will demand intellectual and biblical preparation.
Overall, this book is very helpful in presenting a new slant on the presuppositional apologetic method. But I suspect that it will do more to encourage followers of Van Til than convince committed evidentialists to change their method.
Oliphint is right in saying that his method arises from a commitment to Reformed theology. Those who don’t agree with him theologically will not be convinced. Given this, the real far reaching value of this well-written volume may be that God uses it to challenge the theological underpinnings of those committed to an apologetic method that wrongly assumes that faith can be mustered up through evidence.
Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics is a worthy read for at least three reasons. First, it is pastorally theological. Many parts will warm your soul. Second, it will remind you carefully that every Christ-follower is called as God’s image bearer to know and defend his truth. Lastly, it will lessen the panic we all feel when facing an antagonistic objector through the reminder that Christianity is right and Scripture is authoritative, even for those who continue to suppress its truth in unrighteousness.