In 2013 K. Scott Oliphint of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia published a book which he has called Covenantal Apologetics. I reviewed the book here and recommend it. But I expressed reservations about the writer’s agenda of rebranding Van Til’s apologetic teaching in line with the book’s title. Coming as it does from one of the foremost representatives of Van Til’s presuppositional approach, the thesis deserves attention. As I said in my review, by “Covenantal” Oliphint means the “covenants” of covenant theology.
Now nobody is going to disagree that Van Til often spoke about fallen man as a covenant-breaker. And no one will dispute that by that designation he had in mind the theological covenants of Reformed Covenant Theology. You cannot read Van Til very far before running into statements he makes about “the Reformed apologetic.” For example,
All men are either in covenant with Satan or in covenant with God. (Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, 300)
This is the kind of thing covenant theologians say (or used to say). Van Til did not refer to his approach as “Covenantal Apologetics,” but I think he might not have minded too much. Still, is it right?
Van Til’s argument for allying his apologetics with the resources of covenant theology should be seen against the backdrop of his conflating covenant theology with Reformed Calvinistic theology. But any reader of Jacob Arminius is well aware that he too was a covenant theologian. This needs to be noted because Van Til’s point is mainly anthropological and soteriological. He memorably observes,
We should add that according to Scripture, God spoke to man at the outset of history. In addition to revealing himself in the facts of the created universe, God revealed himself in Words, telling man about what he should do with the facts of the universe. Since the fall, all men, as fallen in Adam (Rom. 5:12), continue to be responsible for this twofold revelation of God given to man at the beginning of history. (Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 19)
This is a point which can be made from the Bible through exposition of Romans 1:18-32 or Psalm 19. Among his other contributions to theology, Van Til stressed this revelatory nature of knowledge before and after the Fall:
For Adam in paradise God-consciousness could not come in at the end of a syllogistic process of reasoning. God-consciousness was for him the presupposition of the significance of his reasoning on anything. (The Defense of the Faith, 113)
But he did not always appeal to the Bible for his authority. Like so many covenant theologians of the past and present, he counted on the Westminster Standards to support his contentions. So right after the above statement we read this one:
To the doctrine of creation must be added the conception of the covenant. Man was created an historical being. God placed upon him from the outset of history the responsibility and task of reinterpreting the counsel of God as expressed in creation to himself individually and collectively. Man’s creature consciousness may therefore be more particularly signalized as covenant consciousness. But the revelation of the covenant to man in paradise was supernaturally mediated…Thus, the sense of obedience or disobedience was immediately involved in Adam’s consciousness of himself. Covenant consciousness envelops creature consciousness. In paradise Adam knew that as a creature of God it was natural and proper that he should keep the the covenant that God made with him. (Ibid.)
Here, as Oliphint explains in a footnote in this edition, Van Til is appealing to the WCF 7.1. The “covenant” to which Van Til is referring in this quotation is not any covenant found in the description of paradise in the first chapters of Genesis. The “covenant” is the “covenant of works” invented, along with the “covenant of grace.” by covenant theologians as a theological explanatory device to describe our relationship with our Creator. No Scripture is provided to show the presence of this covenant, and for good reason: there is none.
In arguing for the name covenantal apologetics, Oliphint uses the same method. In all his argumentation for the idea, there is a noticeable dearth of scriptural appeal. For instance, for his definition and understanding of the term “covenant,” he does not go to the Bible but to the Westminster Confession (See K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 39, 49, 61-62, 93). The Confession does indeed refer to God’s condescension in relating to us as “covenantal.” But is that the way the Bible itself uses the idea of covenant? I think not.
For one thing, it begs the question to have the Westminster Confession authorize the name-change from presuppositional apologetics to covenantal apologetics. Without reinventing the wheel, I have tried to show in other places (e.g. here), that covenant theologians have misread biblical covenants, like the New Covenant, in fitting them into their extra-biblical inferential scheme.
Oliphint himself does this on page 59 of his book when confusingly quoting Hebrews 6:17-18, which refers back to the Abrahamic covenant (6:13), and forwards to the New covenant, of which Christ is the Mediator (Hebrews 8 and 9 go on to explain this). But Oliphint’s quotation is not in reference to either of these biblical covenants, but (as we saw with Van Til) in service of a supposed covenantal relationship enacted at the outset of creation.
Covenant theology has often been criticized for making their theological covenants ride roughshod over the clear covenants of the Bible, effectively stripping them of any specifications not required by their approach. The example just given is quite typical.
Like Van Til, Oliphint wants man’s knowing to be covenantal (44, 82, 152). But this is neither necessary nor particularly relevant. It is not necessary because our relationship to God need not be viewed within the terms of covenant.
We would do better and would stay within the boundaries of the biblical text to speak of “creaturely obligations” or “image-accountability” than introducing covenant language. Although covenants in the Bible do establish relationships and commitments, no one is free to read and then define the terms of a covenant for which there is scarcely any warrant. And interpreting our knowing as covenantal is not relevant for two reasons.
First because Arminians have often been adherents of covenant theology and Van Til was often at pains to try to show that only Calvinism could support his position (see, e.g. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 81ff.). Therefore, his real emphasis while using the Westminster Confession should more often than not be understood to be Calvinistic.
Second, because nowhere in the Bible is our knowing depicted this way. While all assent that the new birth brings with it new outlooks (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:17-5:17), such things were hardly necessary in Eden. Divine covenants obligate God to do something. But in paradise we read of no such Divine obligation; still less do we read of a covenant oath! In Scripture, all the covenants which are plainly discoverable come after the Fall: indeed, they come after the Flood! Covenants are not required where the relationship is not sundered and in need of reconciliation.
In truth, while the genius of covenant theology may be brought to bear on Van Til’s apologetic, the real issue is whether his approach is supportable from the text of Holy Writ. And the answer to that question is certainly Yes! As Greg Bahnsen showed in his Always Ready, there is plenty of biblical justification for presuppositional apologetics, without the need to appeal to covenant theology. While Bahnsen was a proponent of covenant theology, he wisely sought to establish his apologetics on a different and firmer foundation. What we want to know is whether Van Til’s apologetic is biblical, and indeed it is. Because that is so, the question of nomenclature might be easily solved by calling it, as a recent fine exposition does, simply Biblical Apologetics.
The question of whether covenant theology is biblical is much harder to prove.
It is my opinion that even Van Til’s insistence that his apologetics demands allegiance Calvinistic Reformed theology is also unpersuasive, and for many of the same reasons. Van Til was rightly concerned with the “absoluteness” of God to be the ultimate environment of thought. He did not think Arminianism allowed such a thing because of its idea of free choice. Although I am not an Arminian, I do think that Arminius has a very strong conception of God’s primacy in choosing. Not all Arminians do. But then again, many Calvinists have deferred to concepts akin to natural theology in their writings. This opens the door to viewing men and women as operating in a revelatory — and so accountable — realm, and a (functionally) non-revelatory realm where they are free to decide upon matters of truth independently of special revelation.
What it all comes down to in the end is not whether or not Van Til or Oliphint would prefer it if their apologetics was referred to as “covenantal,” but whether it would be right to insist on the connection. If we base our apologetics on the clear statements of Scripture, including the covenants of the Bible, our base will never crumble. But if we seek to base our apologetics upon “covenants” which we are unable to prove from the Bible, we expose that apologetic approach to the same heavy biblical criticism with which covenant theology has been assailed.
Presuppositional Apologetics might not be the best label, but it is far more satisfactory than an attenuated name like Covenantal Apologetics, especially when “covenantal” refers, not to the biblical concept of covenant, but to the strained idea of covenant within covenant theology.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.