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?
Many people have maybe heard of what is called presuppositional apologetics but have little idea what it actually is. This situation is made worse because some defenders of the Faith are labeled presuppositional but, in fact, aren’t. So how should I describe it?
The first thing I would say is that although I personally have few problems with it, “presuppositionalism” is not perhaps the best name for the approach. A more preferable title would be something like “theological apologetics.”
Nevertheless, we are stuck with the name so we better understand what we mean by it. In this approach a “presupposition” is not just a prior assumption which one brings to a problem. It is not, e.g., supposing that the Bible is God’s Word and seeing where that gets you. This only makes your presupposition a “hypothetical,” not a necessary stance. But a “presupposition” here means an “ultimate heart commitment” to some interpretation and explanation of reality.
(The series so far.)
Some years ago I published a paper, entitled “Presuppositional Dispensationalism,”1 in which I attempted to summarize the biblical epistemological model with the illustration of four pillars.
Pillar #1 is the existence of the biblical God. As the first principal, the God of the Bible exists, and not merely as one god among many, but as the One who has disclosed Himself in such a way that His exclusivity is unavoidable. Further, He is characterized above all else by holiness (Isa. 6:3, Rev 4:8), and all that He does is to be understood through that lens. The recognition of this first principle does not advocate faith as the sole or final source of understanding truth;2 rather it is an invitation to step into the biblical perspective, to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8).
Pillar #2 is the principle that God has divinely and authoritatively disclosed Himself for the purpose of His own glorification, through general revelation (creation, Rom. 1:18-20), special revelation (the Bible, 2 Tim 3:16-17), and personal revelation (Jesus Christ, John 1:1-18).