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‘Covenantal Apologetics’

February 2014 | by Andrew Rowell


K. Scott Oliphint’s book is available in kindle format for £7.85 or as a paperback for £11.19 from 10 of those.

I hope that this will be the first in a series of pieces reflecting on the book by K. Scott Oliphint with the above title. I have a new year’s intention (not definite or strong enough to be called a resolution!) to try to have a good dose of apologetics before breakfast as a sort of spiritual vitamin supplement!

I have had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with Van Til’s apologetics. I have tried on several occasions to read the material written by the great man himself and invariably found that I was biting off more than I could chew! When I have read more straightforward attempts to describe his apologetic principles I have a mixture of responses varying from enthusiastic agreement to a sort of instinctive feeling that this cannot be completely right!

These pieces will therefore be an attempt to work out more carefully what I think of Van Til’s apologetics as represented in this book.

20th Century Slumbers

Bill Edgar has written the foreword to the book. Bill is K. Scott Oliphint’s colleague teaching apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He endeavours to provide a historical context for Van Til’s apologetics.

He characterises the 20th century as a century of slumber and awakening in terms of Christian apologetics. The slumber, he argues, was caused by a crisis in human confidence. The uncertainties of world war, economic turmoil along with revolutions and dictators resulted in increasing doubts about the future.

Karl Barth confidently affirmed that the very idea of apologetics was contrary to the nature of Christianity as a revealed religion.

Spurgeon had his suspicions of the whole idea of apologetics:

‘Suppose a number of persons were to take it into their heads that they had to defend a lion, a full-grown king of beasts! There he is in a cage and here come all the soldiers of the army to fight for him. Well, I would suggest to them, if they would not object and feel that it was humbling to them, that they should kindly stand back, open the door, and let the lion out! I believe that would be the best way of defending him, for he would take care of himself—and the best “apology” for the Gospel is to let the Gospel out!’

Others argued that Paul learned that his approach at Athens was wrong footed and corrected it at Corinth where he ‘determined to know nothing among them except Christ and him crucified’.

Neo Calvinism

Following the approach of Guillaume van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper became a kind of forerunner for Van Til’s approach to apologetics. He believed that the whole Christian world view was separated from every other world view by a great gulf. The gulf was so complete that there was no possibility of meaningful communication across it!

He condemned apologetics as an obscure endeavour which was unable to answer the issues of the day!

Van Til

This was the historical context of Van Til’s attempt to construct a biblical approach to apologetics: ‘to vindicate the Christian philosophy of life against the various forms of the non-Christian philosophy of life’.

Van Til argued that you cannot ‘prove’ the gospel by appealing to evidence or some kind of logical demonstration. It is the whole framework of thought and life that is involved. He taught that the root issue is the nature of authority. On what authority does your whole framework rest?

Van Til does not go so far as Kuyper in saying that meaningful communication with an unbeliever is impossible. He advocates a leap across the gulf and then a discussion with the unbeliever showing them that their side of the gulf is not an equivalent foundation of rock but just a bottomless abyss.

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