Book Review: Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint

oliphant_covenantal_apologetics Book Details:

K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our FaithWheaton: Crossway, 2013. 288 pp. Paperback, $19.99.


In his latest book, Covenantal Apologetics, K. Scott Oliphint seeks to translate Van Till’s Reformed apologetic to accommodate modern readers. He does this by making Van Till’s presuppositional arguments more accessible by transposing them from their original technical and philosophical backdrop to a more “basic biblical and theological context.”[1]

“Christian apologetics,” Oliphint writes, “is the application of biblical truth to unbelief.”[2]_ This biblical truth is the effect of the fall on the mind. In Genesis 3:14-15 God puts enmity between Satan and mankind. This pronouncement marked the beginning of an all-encompassing spiritual battle. Now, every person is defined by their relationship to one of two covenant heads. We are either united with Adam–actively rebelling against God–or with Christ–adopted heirs of eternal life. Those who are united with Christ are called to fight with and for their King. One way to do this, Oliphint suggests, is to engage in defending the faith (apologetics).[3]

The question still remains: What is covenantal apologetics? A covenantal apologetic is “a transcendental approach [that] looks for the (so-called) preconditions for knowledge and life.”[4] Said differently, a covenantal apologetic is simply Van Tillian Presuppositioninalism (as opposed to classical or evidential apologetics) rebranded with a new Reformed buzzword. This method of defense is predicated on the fact that every person has a knowledge of God, and although they are aware that they owe their allegiance to God and should respond in worship, they actively suppress the truth (cf. Romans 1:18-24). Because of this, a covenantal apologist is one who understands that “The problem is not with the evidence, but with the “receptacle,” (i.e., the sinful person) to which the evidence constantly (through creation) comes.”[5] Oliphint refers to this as the sensus (from Calvin’s ‘sense of the divine’)/suppression dynamic.

Oliphint’s covenantal apologetic is built on the foundation of ten theological tenets.

  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 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 covenantal obligations.
  6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see 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.[6]

By using what Oliphint dubs the Quicksand Quotient, believers are to challenge the foundation of opposing world-views. Since they are not grounded in the objective truth of our triune God, alternate world-views sink in the sand on which they are built.[7] After utilizing the quicksand quotient, the field is proverbially cleared and ready for planting. At this point, Oliphint encourages believers to work the theological tenets into the dialogue, which are the building blocks of the gospel.

Oliphint maintains that in this process, the covenantal apologist is implementing premeditated evangelism. Because of this, he believes that the line between apologetics and preaching should be drawn lightly, since “whether preaching, evangelism, or apologetics, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that has to be our focus.”[8]

To accomplish his goal of translating Van Till’s presuppositional apologetic into a more accessible and less philosophical approach, Oliphint takes his covenantal apologetic and applies it to four common objections/challenges to the Christian faith: logic, problem of evil, naturalism, and Islam. He acknowledges that these are not exhaustive treatments of such arguments, but are case studies on how one might respond to such an objection from the covenantal trajectory.

While I did greatly enjoy this book, at certain points, Oliphint’s excessive use of “covenant” and its derivatives gets to be a bit vexatious (e.g. covenant creatures, covenant sinfulness, covenantal condescension, covenant context, covenant interaction, covenantal language, covenantal meaning, covenantal character, covenantal categories, covenantal connection, etc.). Additionally, I found Oliphint’s treatment of the Epicurean paradox to be shallow. He tried to do too much in just one chapter. He attempts to take on the prevailing arguments from an “Atheistic Objector” on the incompatibility of God’s character and the evil that exists, while simultaneously distancing himself from Plantinga’s Molinism in the footnotes. I would treat his straw man analysis of Molinism, but in so doing would repeat the very same mistake, straying from the intended path. The things I liked, however, far out weighed any minor qualms I had with the book.

Although this passage came early on in the book, one section that I felt had the greatest impact was Oliphint's brief treatment of the believer’s response to suffering in the world. He wrote

[W]hen we see suffering, we should remember that God himself, in the person of his Son, did exactly that so that suffering and sin would one day cease. Suffering is clear evidence that Christ is Lord; it is not a testimony against truth. The suffering that is the cross of Christ–the very thing that, on the face of it, might lead us to believe there is no God–is, as a matter of fact, the deepest expression of his sovereign character as Lord.[9]

In his theodicy, Oliphint takes the charging bull by the horns and uses its momentum to sling it at the foot of the cross. His response to suffering in the world is the gospel: Christ died so suffering would cease.

In summation, Oliphint’s book is a timely work, as pluralism and apathetic agnosticism (under the guise of tolerance) spread like wildfire. At the forefront of each conversation, we ought to remember that every person has a sense of the divine, which comes from God’s image implanted within them and engraved in their minds. Our aim, then, is to engage that sense of God by graciously and boldly utilizing the trivium of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. Oliphint’s concern is pastoral. His pedagogical method is scholarly. His tone is accessible. His rhetoric is sound. Overall, I would highly recommend this book to any person who is interested in learning how to better express their beliefs with confidence and theological finesse.

You can buy this book here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book for free from Crossway Publishing for this review. I have not received any compensation for writing this post. Also, some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission.

[1] K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 26.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Ibid., 46.

[5] Ibid., 44, emphasis his.

[6] Ibid., 55.

[7] Ibid., 115.

[8] Ibid., 89.

[9] Ibid., 34.