What’s So “Covenantal” About Apologetics?

Published on July 13, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Crossway, 2013 | 262 pages

Guest Blog by K. Scott Oliphint

First on the list of questions I am asked about apologetics is why I prefer the term “covenantal.”

Let me first say that the term has nothing to do with a change of apologetic methodology. Nor is it an attempt to offer something new to would-be apologists.

What I call “covenantal” apologetics is identical to the apologetic set forth by Cornelius Van Til. This apologetic eventually took on the moniker “presuppositional.” That term, however, is confusing and weak for at least the following reasons:

  1. The term itself was applied to Van Til’s approach in a critical review of his work. It “stuck” and has been used since, at least, the late 1940s.
  2. Many who have summarized Van Til’s approach have done so by affirming that “we all have presuppositions.” That truth is not especially insightful, and it is a far cry from what Van Til was setting forth.
  3. The term sounds as though the apologetic Van Til developed was mostly philosophical, rather than theological.
  4. I was once in a discussion with another apologist who asked me if I was “presuppositional.” When I answered yes, he then asked if I was Carnellian, Schaefferian, Clarkian, Henryian or Van Tilian. Clearly, the notion of “presuppositional” was too broad and ambiguous to be of much help. These, among other, reasons are sufficient to require a change of terminology.

There is a uniqueness to Van Til’s apologetic approach that sets it apart from any others. As I began teaching apologetics over two decades ago, one of the deficiencies I saw in explanations of Van Til’s approach is that the theological content and motivation of all that he did was being neglected. Specifically, the Reformed theological roots of everything that he argued was not brought sufficiently to the fore. The more I re-read Van Til, the more I began to see that the Reformed doctrine of the covenant was behind every apologetic point that he sought to emphasize. So, it seemed natural to me to begin to refer to his approach as “covenantal.” But what is so “covenantal” about this approach? I’m glad you asked.

First, Van Til recognizes that the ontological Trinity must be the presupposition behind everything that is, and that is known. The first truth that must guide our apologetic is that the Triune God is a se; He exists in and of Himself. Father, Son and Spirit are each equally and of themselves God (i.e., autotheos), even as they each have personal properties that distinguish them.

The problem, of course, is that there is no way to know this a se God until and unless He “stoops” (to use Calvin’s metaphor) to condescend to His creation. That divine stoop is called by the Westminster Confession God’s “voluntary condescension” which is expressed as “covenant” (see WCF 7.1). So, the first and primary aspect of a “covenantal” apologetic is that the a se God has freely determined to reveal Himself to us. He has come down and established a covenant with all of His creatures made in His image.

As the Triune God “stoops,” He reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through His own creation, and through His Word. In creation, it is the second person of the Trinity, the Word Himself, who is, always and everywhere, dynamically and constantly, revealing God to all human creatures.[1] That revelation gets through to every person, so that we are, all of us “without excuse” before God (see Rom. 1:20). In other words, creation places obligations on every person. Those obligations are known by us, as they are revealed in and through creation. Failure to meet those obligations brings death, and we know it (Rom. 1:32). In other words, because God reveals Himself to all people, and all people both know Him and know what He requires of them, we are, at root, covenantal beings. We live and move and have our being in the Triune God who made us (Acts 17:28). Every person, as image of God, is in relation to God. That relation begins when our existence begins, and it never ends. It finds its terminus either in hell, or in the new heavens and the new earth. And it continues into eternity!

For those who repent of their rejection of God, and who come to Christ by faith, covenant curse turns to covenant blessing. The Westminster Confession, 7.3, puts it this way:

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, (Gal. 3:21, Rom. 8:3, Rom. 3:20–21, Gen. 3:15, Isa. 42:6) commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, (Mark 16:15–16, John 3:16, Rom. 10:6–9, Gal. 3:11) and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

In other words, since the comprehensive character of sin in us has rendered us incapable of fulfilling the covenantal obligations that God requires of us, He instituted a second covenant, in which Christ fulfills what we could not fulfill, and thus, by grace, He saves a people for Himself.

Within these covenantal contexts — of the Triune God’s divine stoop, of the covenantal obligations that we all have by virtue of God’s revelation to us, of the covenantal favor that He renders to all who are in Christ — there are rich and deep apologetic implications. Three can be mentioned here:

  1. Reality itself is covenantally qualified — there are no facts or laws anywhere in God’s creation that do not speak clearly of His own character. That speech always and everywhere makes its way into our souls so that all people live the entirety of their lives coram Deo. That is, every person is living in the presence of God, which presence places covenantal obligations on us.
  2. Those who refuse to submit to God’s revelation are covenantally cursed, i.e., they are under God’s wrath. We sometimes forget that the wrath of God is a covenantal It means that there is a relationship to God, though, to be sure, an unhappy one.
  3. The “way” to God is found only when the covenantal revelation of God in creation is brought together with the covenantal revelation of God in Scripture. In other words, the only way out of the suppression of the truth of God given in general revelation is by accepting the Christ of special revelation (This is Paul’s argument in Rom. 1:18-3:31).

As the Triune God covenantally “stoops” to establish a relationship to those made in His image, then, He does so by maintaining that relationship in and through all of creation, and by redeeming it in and through His special revelation.

The apologetic implications of these covenantal truths should be clear. We do no service to those who are outside of Christ by enticing them to affirm some kind of deity by way of natural revelation. It is through natural revelation that God is always successfully making Himself known. Even if they do affirm such a deity, they do so within the covenantal context of their rebellion against what they already know, and thus, they are condemned for such an affirmation. Attempting to prove that a god exists can be just another way of denying what is always and everywhere clearly known by all. To think that a god must be proved through nature is to assume that God’s revelation in creation has not accomplished its intended purpose.

Instead, it is only through the reality of God’s special revelation, in union with His universal general revelation, that the Triune God’s existence can be properly affirmed. In apologetics, therefore, we come with God’s covenantal command to His covenantal creatures to repent and trust Christ. Only in such repentance can a covenantal creature move from the covenantal wrath of God that abides on him, to the covenantal grace of God, found only in Christ.

So, from the beginning of time into eternity future, our existence is always and everywhere covenantally qualified. We would not know God unless He covenantally offered Himself in His revelation. His general revelation, since the fall, brings covenantal curses on all people. His special revelation, in Christ, who is the “substance” of the covenant (WCF 7.6), is alone able to move us from condemnation to eternal communion with Him.

Apologetics is covenantal because all of reality itself is covenantal. Nothing whatsoever can be properly understood except it is seen in light of its covenantal relationship to the Triune God.

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[1] For exegetical support of this notion, see K. Scott Oliphint, “Bavinck’s Realism, the Logos Principle and Sola Scriptura,”Westminster Theological Journal 72, no. 2 (Fall 2010): 359-390, esp. 375-388.

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Covenantal Apologetics

Crossway, 2013 | 262 pages