This past Summer (July, 2013) Crossway released Dr. Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics (262 pages). Dr. Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and we are pleased to have him tell us about his work.
Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
Just briefly, could you please tell our readers something of your own background and what led you to pursue the study of apologetics?
As a fairly new Christian, I was influenced initially by a Christian philosophy professor that I had during my undergraduate studies. He offered a course on Francis Schaeffer that was life-changing for me. While studying Schaeffer, Christianity Today magazine featured a picture and interview/story on Cornelius Van Til, of whom I had never heard. So, I read the interview with Van Til, ordered one of his books, and then another, and then another, and have never looked back.
Your book aims to correct some areas of definition and application of a presuppositional apologetic. Why is there such a need?
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the term itself is ambiguous enough to lead to some unfortunate and false implications. For example, Molly Worthen, in her new book, Apostles of Reason, says about presuppositionalism:
On its face, this obsession with divine “data” contradicted neo-evangelical presuppositionalism, which implies that facts are not objective at all: They depend on an individual’s assumptions.
This kind of thinking – that “presuppositionalism” implies or entails relativism – is the opposite of what it actually teaches, but it has gained some traction. So, the term itself can be a wax nose, manipulated to look like whatever might suit.
Second, the approach to apologetics that Van Til, and I and others, advocate is fundamentally and inextricably biblical and theological, and not fundamentally philosophical. But the term “presuppositionalism” automatically lends itself to a philosophical, and not a theological, context. So, the new moniker is meant to point to the deep and rich biblical and theological roots that are necessary for such an approach to be what it is.
I think it is fair to say that the concept of divine “condescension” plays a massive role in your approach to apologetics. Why is this the case?
Put simply, because the notion of “Covenant” needs to be explained, and there is no better explanation than that given in Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1. There the Confession affirms that God’s character is so utterly and essentially beyond us that we could have nothing to do with him whatsoever until and unless he freely determines to condescend to us. That condescension is expressed, according to the Confession (and to me), by way of covenant, and it reaches its condescending, covenantal fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
This means that the relationship to man that God sustains presupposes his “coming down” to be with us, both to judge (for those who are and remain under wrath) and to save (for those who are in Christ). The best way to see our status before God, then, is to see it covenantally, which means that we see it in the context of God’s decision to condescend. Apart from that condescension, we could not have a relationship with him. With it, we are eternally bound to a relationship to him, which will have its culmination either in the new heaven and new earth, or in hell. But both destinies presuppose and perpetuate a relationship with God, and thus presuppose “covenant.”
Why is “persuasion” a better goal for an apologist than “proof”?
Primarily because “proof” is typically too restrictive a term for a biblical apologetic. We can illustrate it this way: for any argument to be valid, the conclusion must follow directly from the premises. So, the standard syllogism
- All men are mortal
- Socrates is a man
- Therefore, Socrates is mortal
is a valid syllogism. This means the conclusion (3.) follows from the premises (1. and 2.). The problem, however, is that, if we’re going to deal with the notion of truth, we have to move from a valid argument to a sound argument. Now we have to ask as to the truth of the premises. So, is (1.) true? How would one go about determining whether or not it is true? What if someone is not willing to concede its truth?
When we are dealing with apologetics, we are not satisfied simply to offer valid arguments, because valid arguments have yet to address the “truth question.” But it is just the “truth question” that apologetics seeks to introduce and discuss. In order to address that question, we need to recognize the importance of persuasion.
Apologetics is not about the smartest person getting the intellectual victory, it is about the power of God’s truth making its God-intended impact on those to whom we speak.
When we think about “persuading” someone, we are thinking about appealing to some notion(s) which they already know or concede and then employing that notion to “bring them into” our discussion and context. Since all people know God (Rom. 1:18ff.), whenever we tell them about God and his character, etc., we are appealing to that which they know – we are appealing to the truth that they already have (but suppress). Or, as with Paul at Athens (Acts 17:28), maybe we appeal to something they know, but then we reinterpret it – recontextualize it – so that its meaning changes from a false statement (e.g., “in Zeus we live and move and have our being”) to a true statement (“in this God we live and move and have our being). Paul uses these two quotations in Acts 17 in order to persuade his audience, drawing them into the discussion and context of his own argument, even while he reinterprets their own statements.
So, in the end, persuasion is much broader, deeper and richer than a mere proof, and it provides for us an almost limitless supply of “truth data” from God’s revelation which we can access and utilize in our discussions.
I think the dialogues you provide in the book are quite good and helpful. However, they are rather lengthy. If you have ten to fifteen minutes with someone, is there a distinctively “covenantal” way to get the foot in the door?
With only 30 minutes left, Van Til set his notes aside, picked up his Bible and preached the gospel to this philosophy faculty from the book of Jonah. This shows something of the heart of his approach.
If you have ten to fifteen minutes with someone, the best “covenantal” way is to move quickly to the reality of the gospel. That will necessarily include those grand biblical and covenantal themes – our failure, in Adam, to meet God’s standard, our transgression of his holy character, his remedy for our offenses in Christ, etc. Typically, in apologetics, there is more going on and so more time and thought is needed than can be completed in ten to fifteen minutes. This brings to mind a story.
A man approached me a few years ago and said he was a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1950s. During that time Van Til was invited to speak to the philosophy faculty at Johns Hopkins, and this man was asked to drive him down. Because they were entangled in a traffic jam on the way, by the time they got to Johns Hopkins Van Til had only 30 minutes of what was meant to be an extended philosophical discussion and debate. With only 30 minutes left, Van Til set his notes aside, picked up his Bible and preached the gospel to this philosophy faculty from the book of Jonah. This shows something of the heart of his approach.
Since the goal of apologetics is the communication of Christian truth in a persuasive way, we should make sure, as God allows and as we are able, that we communicate the good news of the gospel, as it is found only in Jesus Christ.
You mention that a covenantal apologist need not know all the technical details of an opponent’s field of expertise in order to seriously engage him with the gospel. How is that so?
One of the most effective ways to approach an apologetic discussion is by asking questions. Often times, the answers generated by those questions provide all that one needs to begin to try to deconstruct an unbelieving position in order to apply the realities of the gospel to it.
It is impossible for anyone to know every permutation of unbelief. But, since we know going into the discussion that a person who is outside of Christ lives his life in suppression of the truth of God, we want to bring to light in just what ways and areas that suppression is manifest, as well as where such a person needs the truth of Christianity (i.e., borrowed capital) in order to operate. Apologetics is not about the smartest person getting the intellectual victory, it is about the power of God’s truth making its God-intended impact on those to whom we speak.
Do you have any future projects in mind to continue the thrust on “application” found in this volume?
Nothing specific at this point. Any ideas?
Many thanks… for your good work and for taking the time to speak to our readers!
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