In this segment, it should become clear why this method of defending Christianity is called Covenantal Apologetics. First of all, it bears this title because of the theology that it’s presupposing. Van Til sought to teach and practice an apologetic method that was consistent with a Reformed, covenantal theology—an apologetic that was within the bounds of the Reformed Confessions of Faith. And, secondly, this method places emphasis on the fact that everyone—both Christians and non-Christians—are in covenant with God.
One of Van Til’s famous chalkboard diagrams was of two (non-overlapping) circles: the one on top (larger) is God, and the one below (smaller) is creation, which is always dependent on the larger circle. The larger circle, God, condescended covenantally to His creation. “The two circles,” writes Muether, “represented not only the creaturely and analogical standing of humanity and God’s transcendence, but as Van Til connected them with two vertical lines, they indicated man’s covenantal standing before God. By connecting creation and covenant in this way, Van Til establishes the similarity of the being and knowledge of man, as God’s image bearer, with God’s while denying their identity at any point.” There is a type of dualism in that “God exists as self-complete apart from us.” And, secondly, while God did not have to create anything at all, He condescended to us in a covenantal relationship. The 1689 Confession of Faith states this well:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant [LBCF 7.1].
Everyone is in covenant with God, either through the first Adam or the second Adam; or more pointedly, as Van Til has put it, “All men are either in covenant with Satan or in covenant with God.” The covenantal state of unbelievers is the reason they do not see the Triune God aright. Van Til explains, “It is because Adam, representing all men, broke the covenant God made with him that all men are ‘born and conceived in sin.’ In principle they now hate God.” “All men,” Van Til continues, “do not have a mere capacity for but are in actual possession of the knowledge of God;” but not only this, “all men, due to sin with them, always and in all relationships seek to “suppress” this knowledge of God (Rom 1:18).” The unbeliever “deep down in his heart knows that what the Bible says about him and about the world is true,” and therefore, “Man has no excuse whatsoever for not accepting the revelation of God.” Van Til is simply expounding the truth Paul laid down in Romans 1. Paul says that everyone knows God (not that they have the mere capacity to know God, but that they actually do know Him), but this knowledge is “suppressed in unrighteousness,” which is why Paul say all non-Christians are “without excuse.”
The implications for this are vast. For one, it means that every non-Christian you talk with is not only made in God’s image, but is in a covenantal relationship with God. What is more, as Paul argues in Romans 1, you are not talking to someone who doesn’t know God, but are, rather, speaking with someone who knows God, but is suppressing that knowledge in unrighteousness. Every human is made in God’s image; every human is in a Covenantal relationship with God through either the first or second Adam; and every human knows God.
Therefore, to speak in philosophical terms, Christians have metaphysical common ground with unbelievers, but not epistemological common ground. Both Christians and non-Christians are made in the image of the Triune God, but the non-Christians has posited an epistemology of illusion and are living out this illusory worldview. Christians are conscious of their covenantal relationship with God through Christ, but unbelievers are not aware due to their active suppression.
Van Til tells a story about how he was riding in a train when he saw a little girl sitting on her daddy’s knee. Something upset her and she slapped her dad in the face. This, Van Til thought to himself, is unbelief. Oliphint explains the story in more detail:
It is by virtue of the knee holding the little girl up that she is able to slap her daddy. To take the knee out from under the little girl would cause her to slap a void. We cannot say that the little girl’s slap is able to prove or assume that the daddy’s knee is not supporting her. The slap itself is possible only because she sits on her daddy’s knee! Thus the support of the daddy is presupposed in the slap itself. This is an illustrative example of the transcendental thrust of Van Til’s method.
These truths shape the way we interact with unbelievers in apologetics. While the unbeliever will appeal to what seems like “common” or “neutral” territory, the believer knows there is no neutral territory in which to appeal to, save the image of God. The Christian, for instance, rejects his desires for Eve-like autonomy and submits to the Word of God. “The Bible,” writes Van Til, “does not appeal to human reason as ultimate in order to justify what it says. It comes to the human being with absolute authority. Its claim is that human reason must itself be taken in the sense in which Scripture takes it, namely, as created by God and as therefore properly subject to the authority of God.” For the Christian, “faith precedes knowledgeable understanding.” For the unbeliever, however, Greg Bahnsen explains:
Given his defective worldview and spiritual attitude, the unbeliever cannot justify any knowledge whatsoever and cannot come to know God in a saving fashion. This does not mean, however, that unbelievers do not have any knowledge, mush less that they do not know God. What we said is that they cannot justify what they know (in terms of their unbelieving worldview), and they cannot know God in a saving way.
Scott Oliphint sums this up well:
Apart from that condescension, there is no hope of knowing him; he would only be, at best, ‘a mere thought-entity.’ But since he has condescended, and since the One who condescended is the cosmic and redemptive Lord, we are guaranteed, for eternity, to have true knowledge (in Adam) or rejoice in it (in Christ), in either case we know him. And that knowledge is, in either case, indicative of our covenant status before him.
© copyright J. Brandon Burks
John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, in American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 116.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1955), 68.
Muether, Cornelius Van Til, 155.
Scott Oliphint, The Consistency of Van Til’s Methodology (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Books, 1990), 21.
As quoted in: Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. by Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: CMP, 1996), 17.
K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 71.