My hope and prayer for this series is that I have been faithful to Scripture (in terms of setting forth a biblical approach to apologetics), that I have represented Cornelius Van Til accurately, that I was able to clear up straw-man ideas about Van Til’s apologetic, that the quotes I compiled will help those wanting to understand Van Til better (and go on to read his works: here and here), and that the hyperlinks riddled throughout the series will prove to be a good complication of resources for further study.
This study was written to be a whole teaching on covenantal apologetics, and thus should not be unhelpfully segmented. Reading parts 1 through 8 is a must to see all of what covenantal apologetics is.
I would like to conclude this series by looking at nine characteristics of a covenantal apologist:
- He has sanctified Jesus as Lord in his heart
1 Peter 3:15 begins with the exhortation to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts (NKJV), or translated elsewhere, “honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts (HCSB). Scott Oliphint explains this text:
The point for the Christian, however, and the point to stand on in a covenantal apologetic, is that Christ’s lordship—which includes not only that he now reigns, but also that he has spoken and that all owe him allegiance—is true for anyone and everyone. Christ is Lord even over his enemies, and ours. And part of what it means is that the authority of Scripture, which is the verbal expression of Christ’s lordship, is authoritative even over those who reject it… This truth of the lordship of God in Christ should wash over the totality of who we are until that all that we do is, in our own minds, inescapable from the wonder of that truth. And that is exactly what Peter has in view in 1 Peter 3:15. When he commands us to set Christ apart as Lord in our hearts, he is giving to us a crucial and all-encompassing mind-set that itself is necessary if we are to engage the battle that rages in the heavenly places.
- He has a posture of submission toward Scripture
The covenantal apologist does not demand his own autonomy or ultimacy, he places a bigger emphasis on God’s freewill than his own, and he is always and at all times ready to be chastened by the Holy Scriptures. The 66 books of the Bible come to us with full inspiration and authority, for they are the very inerrant words of God. ”Scripture does not give us data to interpret,” writes Herman Bavinck, “it is itself the interpretation of reality, the shaper of a distinct worldview, a worldview that is theistic, supernaturalistic.” Rather than our judging of Scripture, it is, in fact, Scripture that judges us. Bavinck concludes:
It remains the duty of every person, therefore, first of all to put aside his or her hostility against the Word of God and to ‘take every thought captive to obey Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5)… Pascal cries out to humanity: ‘Humble yourself, powerless reason! Be silent, stupid nature! Listen to God!’… Those who want to delay belief in Scripture till all the objections have been cleared up and all the contradictions have been resolved will never arrive at faith. ‘For who hopes for what he sees?’ (Rom. 8:24). Jesus calls blessed those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29)… Those who do not want to eat before they understand the entire process by which food arrives at their table will starve to death. And those who do not want to believe the Word of God before they see all problems resolved will die of spiritual starvation.
This posture toward Scripture influences the way in which we conduct apologetics. Commenting on Van Til’s method, Avery Dulles summarized:
His distinctive approach, known as ‘presuppositionalism’, maintains that the issue between believers and nonbelievers in Christian theism cannot be settled except by reference to a conceptual framework in terms of which facts and laws become intelligible. The Christian must begin by presupposing that the revelation contained in Scripture is true and then find that reality and life make sense in terms of this presupposition… Setting out from this axiom, the apologist argues that biblical revelation yields a coherent explanation of our experiences in the world, and that other worldviews are, in comparison, incoherent.
- He’s a prayerful evangelist
As mentioned previously, apologetics is premeditated evangelism. “It is evangelism,” writes Oliphnt, “in that our goal is a defense of, and thus a communication of, the Christian faith… It is also premeditated in that our defense includes our own thinking and analysis of the implications of our Christian faith to situations, problems, attacks, and objections that might come our way.”
What is also clear from Oliphint’s statement above is that our task as Christians is not to defend mere theism. We are called, rather, to defend Christian theism. Theism is just another manifestation of unbelief (as are atheism, Islam, deism, Wicca, Buddhism, and Judaism), and leads people to hell. Our concern as apologists is for the Christian faith (c.f. John 14:6).
I say a prayerful evangelist because I want to highlight two things: (1) he cares for souls more than winning arguments. The term evangelist underlines this point. When he is in an apologetic encounter his deepest desire is not to intellectually stomp his opponent into the ground, but, with heartfelt tears, plea that the sinner that sits before him will come to know the joy of Christ. (2) He knows that God is completely sovereign, and will thus confidently approach God in prayer for the lost person he pleads with.
Talking about John Calvin and prayer, Joel Beeke writes:
He says that prayer allows the believer to appeal to the providence, predestination, omnipotence, and omniscience of God the Father. Prayer calls down the Father’s tender mercy and care for His children… Our prayers do not get in the way of providence because God, in His providence, ordains the means along with the end. Prayer is thus a means ordained to receive what God has planned to bestow… Prayer is a way in which believers seek and receive what God has determined to do for them from eternity… Prayer does not change God or His decrees for three reasons: first, God is immutable; second, God’s good pleasure governs everything; and third, God is in control of everything, including our prayers.
- He is humble and reverent
The end of 1 Peter 3:15 says to defend the faith with “gentleness and respect” (ESV), or as another translation put it, with “meekness and reverence” (GNV). Peter is saying that “we are to respect those who persecute us; we are to treat them, though they are our enemies in the faith—better yet, because they are our enemies in the faith—with respect due to one who is made in the image of God.”
Moreover, the covenantal apologist is mindful of his ethos. That is, he’s not out to join the “Jerks for Jesus” club. The demeanor of a covenantal apologist should be marked with humility and respectfulness. Will the person you speak with really be convinced if your life and doctrine contradict?
- He contends for the faith boldly
John Calvin once said, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” The covenantal apologist has similar sentiments. Sometimes he may feel intellectual inferior to those he speaks with, he may feel like someone else would be better suited for the task, or he may not be a confident rhetoritician. Nevertheless, he knows that he was called to this task, and knows that, when opportunities and situations present themselves, that he is the intended person to defend God’s message of salvation to lost sinners who are in need of grace.
Jude wrote, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” This is the call that we have received. This is the task we will execute with boldness.
- He is able to wield the sword of Scripture to demolish strongholds
As mentioned previously, the covenantal apologist is mighty in the Scriptures. That is, by knowing the truth as God has revealed, he is able to detect falsehood. He knows the truth of Christianity is an objective truth, and is “not simply an autobiographical quality, telling us something about its acceptability to this or that individual person.” As the Apostle Paul taught, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). The covenantal apologist is mighty for this work.
What is more, when the covenanal apologist is “destroying arguments” and commending the faith, he does so in a persuasive tone. Remember, the prayer is for the person to be saved, not so they walk away to find another argument. For this reason, persuasion is preferred over strict, demonstrative proofs.
- He is Reformed
“I remain convinced,” writes Oliphint, “that if one embraces the theology that came out of the Reformation era, then this approach to apologetics is the only consistent option available.” “Reformed theology,” he continues, “is intrinsic to a covenantal apologetic.” As B.B. Warfield has said, “Calvinism is Christianity come to its own,” and is “the only form of Protestantism ‘uncolored by intruding elements from without.’” Reformed theology is thus the soil from which this apologtic is grown.
- He understands the basic anatomy of unbelief
“The Reformed apologete,” writes Van Til, “will seek for a head-on collision with all those who interpret reality with man himself as a final reference point. Only then can he make a real point of contact.” The covenantal apologist knows the irrationality of unbelief and can deconstruct his opponent’s worldview. This, however, does not mean that he is a expert with every manifestation of irrational unbelief (that would be a lot of irrationality to be an expert in!). Rather, he knows the general pitfalls of unbelief—namely, autonomy—and can deconstruct accordingly. Van Til goes on to say:
Deep down in his [the natural man’s] mind every man knows that he is the creature of God and responsible to God. Every man, at bottom, knows that he is a covenant breaker. But every man acts and talks as though this were not so. It is the one point that cannot bear mentioning in his presence.
- His confidence is in the Triune God
Finally, his hope is in the Triune God. He knows that he is in a spiritual battle with demonic forces at play (2 Cor. 4:4), and it will be God alone who brings sinners to Himself. This is the confidence of the covenantal apologist.
I would now like to recommend some books to you. Some may be asking, “Where do I go from here?” I have in mind a layperson (interested in apologetics) who likes to read. But before you continue your learning journey in apologetics, I would recommend a few things. First, it would be helpful to dive into Scripture and theology before digging into apologetics, if you’re new to the faith. Theology is the foundation of this method, and, therefore, should be studied first. Apart from reading through the Bible, I would recommend reading the Reformed Confession of Faith, as well as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. I also recommend listening to Scott Oliphint’s lecture entitled “What is Presuppositionalism” and read through his 10 Tenants of Covenantal Apologetics.
The reading list is divided into 3 sections: Apologetic theory, apologetic arguments, and apologetic specifics. I would also recommend reading them in this order:
Apologetic Theory – This is perhaps the most important stage of your apologetic training. Here you will build the structure – chastened by Scripture – that will house all of your arguments and method. Without this foundational phase, you’ll be wild and untrained in your defending.
1) The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith by Scott Oliphint
This is a great place to start. In this book, Oliphint shows that one need only be mighty in the Scriptures to do apologetics. While it is nice if you have an advanced theology or philosophy degrees, the average lay person can and should defend their faith. Each chapter explains a different text of the Bible that has to do with apologetics. This will give you a great Scriptural foundation in apologetics.
2) Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg Bahnsen
This will prove to be a book that you will come back to over and over again. Bahnsen puts forth a great foundation for understanding the importance of worldviews, foundations of knowledge, the transcendental argument for God’s existence, and logical fallacies. This will prove extremely helpful in building your structure.
3) Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith by Scott Oliphint
This is my favorite book in apologetics. Oliphint takes the method and structure of apologist Cornelius Van Til – who can be complicated to read at times – and moves him to the bottom shelf for all to grab hold of. The progression of the book is helpful, and he ends many chapters with mock conversations with atheists, naturalists, or Muslims, and shows how the principles taught in the book might look in an apologetic encounter. If I had only one book to give out – God forbid I’m only allowed one! – it would be this book.
4) The Defense of the Faith by Cornelius Van Til
By this time you’ll be ready to jump into Van Til. This book was extremely important in my apologetic understanding. To skip this book would be a tragedy. As you read this book, you’ll be able to pick up on where the other people got their material from. Van Til’s work is a force to be reckoned with. Read it slowly and carefully, as this is probably the most academic – and arguably the most important – book on the list.
5) Van Til & the Use of Evidence by Thom Notaro
This short book will bridge the gap between theory and arguments. After your have mastered the above books and have a structure in place, you still might have questions on the use of evidence in your apologetic structure. This book will help you to navigate it. Here, Notaro shows the difference between direct and indirect uses of evidence.
6) The Rhetoric Companion: A Student’s Guide to Power in Persuasion by N.D. Wilson and Doug Wilson
While short, this book is jam packed with great tools and advice. Not only will you sharpen your persuasive skills, but Wilson does a fantastic job with teaching logical fallacies, which are a must in doing apologetics.
Apologetic Arguments – In this section we focus on arguments for God’s existence. The reading list includes apologists that will not share your apologetic structure that the above books have built, but you will be able to harness their arguments and bring them into a more faithful context and method.
1) The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller
In this book, Keller tackles all the modern criticisms of Christianity (science, distrusting the Bible, not liking the sketchy history of the church, etc, etc). He uses both a negative and positive apologetic – deconstructing arguments against and making arguments for God.
2) The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel
Strobel, in this classic work, goes through many of the common questions people have about Christianity. From evidences for the Bible, to the empty tomb, to archaeological evidence, to psychological evidences, this book surveys most of them.
3) On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Percision by William Lane Craig
Craig illustrates well the classic arguments for God’s existence: cosmological, Kalam cosmological, ontological, teleological, and moral arguments for God’s existence, as well as evidences for the resurrection of Christ. Knowing these arguments are a good idea as you grow in apologetics. Put on your thinking cap, however, as Craig plumbs the depths is mathematics, science, and philosophy.
4) A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Strokes
With his engaging reading style, Stokes walks you through more arguments and illustrates how to deconstruct atheistic attacks.
5) Van Til’s Apologetic: Reading and Analysis by Greg Bahnsen
This book will not only progress your understanding of arguments, but will allow you to sharpen and revisit your structure to keep it on target.
Apologetics Specifics – with a structure in place, and knowledge of arguments and evidences, you will still need to dive deeper into the big five topics: the reliability of Scripture, the problem of evil, scientific naturalism, Islam, and philosophy.
Reliability of Scripture – Can we trust the Bible?
1) Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael Kruger
2) Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions by Craig Blomberg
3) The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F.F. Bruce
4) The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? by Walter Kaiser
The Problem of Evil – Why does God allow evil to exist?
1) How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D.A. Carson
2) Suffering and the Sovereignty of God ed. by John Piper
3) Suffering and the Goodness of God ed. by Christopher Morgan
Scientific naturalism – Hasn’t science disproven the God?
1) Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach by Vern Poythress
2) Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation by J.P. Moreland
3) A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture by Keith Mathison
Islam – Can’t Muslims point to the Qur’an just as I point to the Bible?
1) What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an by James White
2) The Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence by Thabiti Anyabwile
Philosophy – Hasn’t the history of philosophy shown that Christianity is untenable?
1) The Consequences of Ideas: Understanding the Concepts that Shaped Our World by R.C. Sproul
2) Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology by Scott Oliphint
© copyright J. Brandon Burks
K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of our Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 37, 66.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in One Volume, ed. by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 84.
Ibid., 84, 108.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, A History of Apologetics (San Fracisco: Ignatius, 1999), 322, 357.
Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 198
Joel Beeke, “John Calvin on Prayer as Communion with God,” in Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspective on Prayer, ed. by Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2011), 29, 30-31.
K. Scott Oliphint, The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture For Defending Our Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 38.
Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions For Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: CMP, 1996), 127.
Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 127,
Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar, 2nd edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 99.
John R. Muether, Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, in American Reformed Biographies (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 147.
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, ed. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1955), 116. [Brackets mine].