Judging from its endorsements, K. Scott Oliphint’s recent Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith, is set to become a standard introduction and update to Cornelius Van Til’s “presuppositional” approach to Christian apologetics. The substance remains the same, but the language is streamlined and made more accessible to the layperson. Regrettably, while there is much to be gleaned from the text, my review must be predominantly critical. In short, it is my judgment that Oliphint does not appropriately evaluate the proper role of reason and experience in human belief-formation. And as a consequence, he argues for positions that must ultimately reduce to the “retreat to commitment,” a sort of irreducible subjectivity which evades self-criticism. I might also add that I found the book very confusing in its organization, not a little repetitive, and often overly technical for its presumed audience, but I won’t labor these points in this context which is more focused on the content. What follows will be a chapter-by-chapter summary of Dr. Oliphint’s manual and then a response in several steps.
Dr. Oliphint’s introduction begins with a story about a conference presentation he gave which critiqued Kant’s solution to the problem of faith and reason. In dialogue with some aggravated participants, Dr. Oliphint argued that all views about this matter are “circular” (24) but that “unless one accepts the Bible for what it says and what it is, there would be no real solution to the faith-and-reason problem” (Ibid). Dr. Oliphint goes on to argue that an apologetic approach which is centered in the authority of Scripture is different from other approaches in method because it “naturally and centrally focused on the reality of God’s revelation in Christ, including, of course, the good news of the gospel” (25). He states explicitly that he intends, in this volume, to “translate much of what is meant in Van Til’s own writings from their often philosophical and technical contexts to a more basic biblical and theological context” (ibid, emphasis his). As such, Dr. Oliphint argues for a “bottom-line” truth which happens to be his catchy analogue to Van Til’s famous “transcendental argument”:
Christianity is true, so anything opposing it is false. This means that whatever opposition to Christianity we face, it is by definition an opposition that is false. Even if we have no idea what the central tenets or teachings are in such opposition, we know at the outset that it cannot sustain itself in God’s world. The rest of this book is an attempt to explain the implications of that central truth (27).
Justification (of Knowledge) in Adam and in Christ
As the title of his book indicates, Dr. Oliphint argues for a terminological transition from “presuppositional” to “covenantal” apologetics, and this is perhaps his most unique contribution. “Presuppositional,” he argues, has “died the death of a thousand qualifications” (39). Emphasizing the biblical and confessional teaching concerning God’s “covenant” can preserve the same truth. To wit, “There is a great chasm fixed between God and his creatures, and the result of such a chasm is that we, all of humanity, could never have any fruition of God, unless he saw fit, voluntarily (graciously), to condescend to us by way of covenant” (40).
God did so condescend, and that condescension includes God’s revealing himself in and through his creation, including his word, to man” (40-1, emphasis his). Further, “In creating man, God voluntarily determined, at the same time, to establish a relationship with him. That relationship is properly designated a covenant” (41). This has implications for knowledge. Commenting on Romans 1 he states, “To claim to know something while thinking it to be independent of God (or to deny that there is a God) is to fail to know it for what it really is” (43). Oliphint insists that “every human being on the face of the earth since creation and into eternity has an ineradicable knowledge of God” (42) — unlike (allegedly) Thomas Aquinas’ view that God’s existence is not self-evident (42-3) — but this knowledge is repressed by all who are in Adam. Oliphint calls this ubiquitously successful revelation through creation, which is nevertheless suppressed, the “sensus/suppression” dynamic. Our suppression means that we “sinfully and deceptively convince ourselves that what is actually true about the world is not true” (45, emphasis his). The unbeliever knows God in knowing anything, but at the same time suppresses this knowledge in everything. This dialectic between knowledge and suppression is key, as it raises the question of the justification of knowledge. Dr. Oliphint argues that God is the justifying ground of all created facts, and since this is so, “it is incumbent on the apologist to ask the unbeliever to justify his own position” (ibid).
Now of course, we cannot accept the unbeliever’s explanation of his own position. This is where justification factors in for Dr. Oliphint. The unbeliever is in Adam, in rebellion against God. And “he will, as far as he is true to his own sinful principle, seek to suppress the actual situation and set forth the (literally) make-believe world that he is working so hard to build” (46). For this reason, there is no epistemic common starting point between the believer and the unbeliever. Dr. Oliphint thus argues that unbelievers must always be challenged to justify their authority because their ultimate loyalty leads to a “make-believe” world. To start an apologetic conversation on their epistemic turf would be (literally) insane.
Instead, what the apologist must be after are the preconditions “for knowledge and life” (ibid). This will necessitate, for Oliphint, staying rooted in the issue of the absolutely antithetical warring authorities between those who are in Adam and those who are in Christ.
Knowledge as Irreducibly Dogmatic
Dr. Oliphint next goes on to state the “ten tenets” of a covenantal apologetics. We cannot state them all here, and most of them will be implicit in this summary, but it is worth noting some of his language in these pages:
“Generic theism is no part of the Christian faith…any defense that does not include the triune God is a defense of a false theism” (48).
“The views of any who remain in unbelief are, in reality, illusions. They do not and cannot make sense of the world as it really is. Not only so, but, we should notice, there are at bottom only two options available to us. Either we bow the knee to Christ and affirm the truth of what God says, or we oppose him and thus attempt to ‘create’ a world of our own making. No matter what kind of opposition there is to Christianity, before we even know the details of that opposition, we know that it cannot make sense of the real world. We know that it is self-destructive. This is a great comfort and should help us to be more confident of our defense. We need not fear or be threatened by any view that we encounter….we know from the outset that it cannot stand of its own weight; it cannot match the way the world is” (52).
“Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. This, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, and the like that it has taken and wrenched from their true, Christian context” (ibid).
“So, for example, even though an unbeliever will recognize that two plus two equals four, the very fact that he would hold that truth to be independent of God’s creating and sustaining activity means that he does not know that truth as it really is. This may not affect the equation itself, but neither will God say to him on the judgment day, ‘Good for you; you got that part right’” (52, emphasis his).
“Because people always and everywhere know the true God, whenever we speak God’s truth to them, it ‘gets through’ and ‘connects’ to that knowledge that God is continually giving to them……because God’s universal mercy restrains their sin in various ways, the depravity that might otherwise hinder our conversation is also restrained” (53).
Chapter 2 focuses on God’s aseity, as well as the fact that He has chosen to reveal Himself to man. From this, Dr. Oliphint moves on to his “Quicksand Quotient.” This is the Christian attempt to demonstrate that any non-Christian position cannot stand on its own principles. “The ‘ground’ chosen by the position is insufficient to support its own principles. In that context, the solution of Christianity can take its proper, persuasive place” (77). Dr. Oliphint is aware that many want to turn the Quicksand Quotient against Christian claims themselves. He cites examples of philosophers who attempt to show that the classical Christian position concerning God’s attributes, for instance, is incoherent. His response is that special revelation provides the full-orbed picture (including God’s triunity and Christ’s incarnation) which allegedly ameliorates these sorts of objections. Anticipating that one might call the incarnation absurd, Oliphint remarks that “that which is truly absurd is whatever is in opposition to God; and surely the incarnation is not. Absurdity, therefore, has to be measured not in terms of what we can comprehend, but in terms of what God has said to us” (84, emphasis his). His conclusion to this discussion is worth quoting at length:
Anyone who thinks absurdity is defined by certain incompatibilities must…make a case for those incompatibilities being such that they could never…come together. And the case that would be made…would itself assume an autonomous notion of our laws of thought and of being. On Christian assumptions, however, God is able to bring together things that might appear to be incompatible because he is sovereign over those things…and thus his actions can and will supersede our ability completely to comprehend them (ibid, emphasis his).
And so finally, the “only real remedy to such objections is that those who lodge them bow the knee to Christ and thus begin to see light by his light” (ibid).
Persuasion, Proof, and Paul
Chapter three opens with an extensive reflection on Paul’s Mars Hill address in Acts 17 as well as his discussion of natural revelation in Romans 1. Dr, Oliphint emphasizes several things here:
1. Paul is not, on Mars Hill, defending a “generic” or “abstract” view of God’s attributes (90), but is rather presenting God as He has revealed Himself in covenantal history.
2. Man is God’s image. We were made to reflect God’s glory to the created world and and our faculties are fitted to interact truly with both God and creation (96), but the fall has rendered us enemies of God and as makers of a fantasy world in which we “do not have to face him” (97).
3. Despite this, God’s revelation in nature gets through. “It bombards us externally and internally” (ibid). “As image, we know him” (98). God reveals Himself to us externally and internally, “though the things that are made.” God has established our relationship to the world in such a manner that we know the true God (not just abstract properties) by knowing the world. And we know this true God, through external and internal revelation, whether we claim to or not.
It is within the above context that Dr. Oliphint would have us think about a traditional approach to “proving” the existence of God. “What is plausible or implausible with respect to foundational questions about Christianity is, more often than not, in the eye of the beholder” (109). Further, we “should expect that for anyone ‘in Adam,’ the Christian truths that we propose will seem to be implausible or unusual” (ibid). This is important because, even as we seek to defend the plausibility of Christianity in our apologetic encounters, we cannot “proceed on the basis of some kind of neutral notion of rationality or evidence” (110).
Chapter four is about persuasion, a discussion initiated by three theological considerations which must be kept in mind in every theological encounter. First is the principal status of Scripture. There must be some place beyond all appeal, some final authority, and for Reformed Christians this must be God’s word in Scripture which is the “proper foundation for everything else that we claim to know or believe” (128, emphasis his). The Medieval church did not recognize the impact of human sin to a sufficient extent and therefore assumed that “all men followed the same basic rules of thought” (ibid) and did not recognize that “there is no way that reason can provide a needful foundation for knowing and believing” (ibid). As such, there is no “going behind” Scripture. Second, all men know God. And that revelation “to them and in them” (130) is our “point of contact” in any apologetic encounter. Third, God reveals himself to be merciful to unbelievers, and this means that He is well disposed to save and also that He has preserved aspects of unbelieving life and thought which Christians, who “superficially agree” (136) with them, might want to capitalize upon.
In chapter 5, Dr. Oliphint discusses the “positive” (commending the faith) and “negative” (dealing with arguments against the faith) aspects of apologetics. He reminds us that apologetics is predominantly an “authority issue.” (163) His major example of how to do both together is the problem of evil. After laying out the problem and hinting at several responses, Dr. Oliphint creates a mock dialogue in which a Christian engages with an atheist concerning the problem of evil. The dialogue is somewhat elaborate and so cannot be summarized in detail here, but its main argument is that apparently incompatible things are not necessarily actually incompatible in a Christian construal of reality. We must dismantle both the alleged “obviousness” of the objection and then “challenge the very root of the problem itself, which is the objector’s presumed autonomy, and his notion of compatibility that is built upon that presumption” (192). To the atheist, the dialogue partner says, “as long as you insist on viewing the world according to your own principles, you will never understand the world that you think you know. The only way properly to see yourself, the world, or anything else is through the spectacles of Scripture” (191). Or said differently, “the ‘measuring rod’ for determining what is rational is the revelation of God, including the Word of God in Scripture. But this in no way destroys or eliminates our standard ways of thinking” (187). So any apparent paradox merely “points us to a standard beyond our own brains” (188). 1
Apologetics and Evangelism
Chapter six discusses apologetics as something like “premeditated evangelism.” Here the emphasis is on the wisdom needed to apply the gospel to those outside the faith and the importance of the witness of the Holy Spirit in persuading unbelievers. The mock debate in this chapter is a debate with Daniel Dennett and it goes something like this. In a preliminary fashion, we recognize that what is “‘rational’ and what is ‘evidential’ depend, first of all…on where one presumes to stand to make such objections and challenges” (208). The Christian apologist states to Dennett, “what you think is rational judgement is, in fact, a judgement which precludes my position” (211). The believer responds with an argument from authority, stating to Dennett that he “argues from authorities that you accept, so you must allow me to do the same” (ibid). Dr. Oliphint concludes, reflecting on his dialogue that plausibility, “like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and it depends on what authority we accept” (218). He then states that the probability of a thing is rooted in one’s presuppositions (220). Dr. Oliphint concludes:
One person’s plausibility is another’s incredulity. What we determined to believe is always and everywhere much more complex than a simple appeal to ‘the evidence.’ This is especially the case with respect to Christianity because ‘the evidence’ will be seen in a foundationally different way by those who are in Adam than by those who are in Christ (222).
And as it pertains to atheism, unbelief “cannot sustain itself; it is unable to make sense of the facts, many of which are the most obvious facts of the world; it assumes, rather than shows, that there is no God, that the world is not created by him that his character is not obvious in creation, and so on” (223).
In the seventh and final chapter, Dr. Oliphint discusses what his apologetic approach might look like as applied to other religions– some of which have superficial similarities to Christianity. “False religions take what Christianity has and use it for their own superstitious purposes” (226). Again,
Our biblical principles will not let us affirm anything that another religion ultimately says or believes, given that such statements always have a false god as their overall reference and context. If we are aware of what those religions have taken from Christianity, we can then use those ‘copied concepts’ in the context of the truth of Christianity. But we dare not assume that what they say is true (even as far as it goes). ‘In him we live and move have have our being,’ when initially written, is not true ‘as far as it goes’ because it could only go as far as that to which it referred – Zeus. It was a false statement because it referred to an illusion, a false god. But it became a true statement when biblical content was poured into it…..In a covenantal approach to apologetics, just as with unbelief generally, we cannot suppose that there are ideas, concepts, notions, affirmations, and the like that we have in common with those who remain in Adam. Just because a statement or religion uses the term God does not mean that we stand in the same sanctuary. Everyone has at least one god (Rom. 1:25); the question is whether or not it is the true, real, and triune God or an illusory idol (229, emphasis his).
To exemplify the above, Dr. Oliphint creates another mock dialogue, this time with a convert to Islam. His first move is to denounce any “similarity” between Allah and the God of Scripture, self-consciously distancing his method from the Medieval Christian-Muslim dialogue. Some have been convinced that Christians and Muslims “believed the same thing about God,” but “such a method has been detrimental to a proper defense of Christianity” (236). “The very characteristics that you say Allah has, if they truly are characteristics of God, can only properly be ascribed to the Christian God” (237). Indeed, Dr. Oliphint (in this dialogue) argues that we cannot move from reason and experience to an infinite eternal God. (238) Rather, the reason humans tend to make this move in the first place is not because they are “rational,” but because they know the true God (239). Therefore the movement “has its foundation in God’s revelation, not in some notion of neutral experience or rationality” (ibid, emphasis his). Indeed, Dr. Oliphint goes on to argue that the very problems which attend the Muslim doctrine of God are because of its rationalism (248-9), which leads (apart from revelation) to internal self-contradictions. Natural theology cannot be really done apart from understanding supernatural theology, he says (250).
Importantly, Dr. Oliphint contends that intra-Muslim incoherencies are not equal to Christian paradoxes. Of course, his Muslim interlocutor brings up the Trinity as a parallel to his own intra-Muslim-faith tensions. Dr. Oliphint replies that the Christian mystery is rooted in “what God has said about himself, and on what he reveals about himself. It is not, as with Islam, based simply on the limits of our rational faculty of our experiences….It is mystery, then, but it is not ‘utter darkness’ because it has real, true, revelatory content” (251). The Christian notion of the Trinity qualifies all else that is said about God such that because of God’s “equal and absolute ultimacy of unity and diversity, the triune God is not bound by an abstract notion of unity, transcendence, or necessity. His necessity is a triune necessity. His unity a triune unity. His transcendence is a triune transcendence” (255). Allah, on the other hand, is “trapped…in his necessity, transcendence, and oneness” (256). The “both/and”-ness of the Christian God enables Christians to escape from the conundrums that attend Islam’s philosophical conception of God, wherein the divine nature is ultimately not free to relate to the contingent world.
Dr. Oliphint’s conclusion is very brief. He summarizes the nature of the holy war we are in, the necessity of Christian character, and the hope we have rooted in God’s decision to use us to be soldiers in His war. And most importantly, “A covenantal apologetic is not an isolated or abstract ‘system’ or ‘structure’ that need only be uniformly and firmly applied to any and every unbelieving position. Rather, it is infused with the principles of Scripture itself, the Lord’s principles, so that he might use such things, and the likes of us, to continue to build a footstool for the feet of Christ” (262).
Before moving on to criticisms, it is worth pausing to note several things in this volume that I find quite helpful. First, the focus on evangelism is much needed. We must agree with Dr. Oliphint that the real issue facing every human person is their relationship to Christ and their being united to Him. While some philosophical questions are logically prior to Christian distinctives, they are often blended together in real life. And given this, we must master the art of seamlessly turning our apologetic encounters into a means to present Christ in His saving word. In many places, Dr. Oliphint helpfully suggests ways (in the sample dialogues especially) of getting at these issues.
Related to this, secondly, are several of Dr. Oliphint’s distinctive formulas. The manner in which he discusses the ontology of incarnation, creation, and God’s “covenantal attributes” is helpful. His clarification of of the distinctive problem of evil is also very helpful. Most of these things can be gleaned from his previous books (which I regard with much more favor), Reasons for Faith and God With Us. Thirdly, Dr. Oliphint repeatedly emphasizes the role of Christian character in apologetics. We cannot hope to be “persuasive” without reflecting the love of Christ Himself, which reveals the very heart of God to those with whom we have apologetic encounters. The task of persuasion has everything to do with the persuader. This is not to say that God cannot circumvent our sinful character, but it is nevertheless to highlight that we have failed to speak the truth rightly if we have not lived it. We have diminished the message if we don’t reveal its power in a real human life. Unbelievers are confronted by entire Christians, both arguments and persons. In the end, all of these commendations can be summed up by saying that K. Scott Oliphint emphasizes “persuasion” over “proof” in apologetics. That is, he understands the role of “rhetoric.” This is a completely under-played emphasis in much apologetic literature, and it is encouraging to see more and more concentrated focus on this theme among second and third generation presuppositionalists, such as Dr. Oliphint and James Anderson (see resources).
1. Ideological Anthropology
In one way or another, most of my objections will focus upon this issue of “reality.” The tension between a believing and unbelieving view of reality, as construed by Dr. Oliphint, treats reality as if it were always “filtered” through human construction. This is the post-Cartesian “representationalist” picture of our human contact with reality. The classical (and indeed, Christian) view is that reality also acts upon us and it does so without fail. And most human beings can rightly articulate reality as it has acted upon them – even if they go on to hold propositions in tension with the common reality that asserts itself (i.e. “communicates”) to their consciousness. Dr. Oliphint does have a version of this. As much of the above summary indicates, he has it that God’s natural revelation unfailingly communicates itself to human beings “through the things that are made.” But the actual mode of this communication is, seemingly, not reality itself in its common and unfailing self-assertion, but rather a sort of “link” that God forces to obtain between the created order and our subjective knowledge of His being. Of course, we do not deny this link, but to stop there is to seriously and detrimentally undermine the manner in which the created order reveals God, not just by a guaranteed subjective “link” established by God, but by its objective self-revelation and our response to it in precise observation and careful inference-making. God’s natural self-revelation both grounds our common experience of the world (and unfailingly obtains in humans who “know God”), and it is also the highest goal of natural revelation, as the smallest observations lead unfailingly and unmistakably to the infinite and eternal God, who is Reality Himself. 2
Dr. Oliphint often speaks of the “system” of those “in Adam” and the antithesis of that system to that of those “in Christ.” Whether he imagines such a system to be explicit or implicit, it stands to fact that most human beings simply don’t think (or even live) in these terms. Human beings are mostly consumed with what is right in front of their face. Why does the average human being think that there is a tree outside their window? Because they see it. The moment we decide to call that belief into question and ask them to “justify” it is the moment we legitimate a sort of Cartesian skepticism concerning reality and life. The irony, of course, is that the felt need to justify the basic datum of reason and sense experience is not motivated by the exegesis of Scripture, but rather by the entirely illegitimate and philosophically dubious acceptance of a Kantian divide– with the caveat that such a chasm is bridged by special revelation. In this, Van Til is (ironically) a second cousin of Barth.
This does not, of course, mean that we cannot “justify” such beliefs. It simply means that it is ridiculous to be nervous about them until we do so. Those who assert propositions like “there is no god” or “I can’t know if there is a god” do not negate the genuine knowledge they have of reality in general or in particular. Rather, from a commonsensical perspective, they simply believe something which is in tension with other things they believe (whether they recognize it or not). Dr. Oliphint seems to argue that beliefs of the latter sort undermine beliefs of the former sort. Their statement that “there is no God” undermines their “two and two is four.” But isn’t it the reverse? Indeed, it seems obvious that beliefs of the former sort undermine beliefs of the latter sort and that our apologetic encounters should point this out. Their “two and two is four” undermines their “there is no God.” This is what Paul does in Acts 17. The issue is not that the unbeliever is “borrowing” from Christianity as systematically construed. Rather, the unbeliever is living in reality, and rationally responding to that reality, all the while claiming something irrational which stands in tension with their otherwise rational relationship to the world.
2. Coherentist Epistemology
Implied by this ideological emphasis is a sort of “coherentist” epistemology. In Dr. Oliphint’s treatment of Acts 17, for instance, Aratus’ statement is not even true “as far as it goes,” because the statement is made about Zeus. Similarly, because the unbeliever does not recognize the triune God, he does not understand the truth of “two and two is four” as it really is because he does not see the triune God as the truth-maker for that statement. These arguments assume a sort of “coherentism” wherein the meaning of one statement is entirely dependent on the meaning of other statements and beliefs. While all unbelievers know God, a suppressed knowledge which reaches the surface when their beliefs have superficial overlap with Christian beliefs, their claims (inasmuch as they are their own) have no true overlap with reality– inasmuch as they have been “wrenched” from their true Christian context.
How does one reply to this? One can easily distinguish between a belief in its relation to the other beliefs and a belief qua itself. And one can also easily distinguish a partial knowledge of an aspect of reality, which admits of quantitative degrees of precision, and a qualitative grasp of how a single item of reality is related to the whole of the cosmos and grounded in God. In plain English, to know that “two and two is four” simply is correct insofar as it is stating the (correct) proposition that “two and two is four.” The belief that this reality is grounded in an emergent property of our brains or a mindless cosmos is a false belief, and it is to falsely understand an ontologically (not epistemologically!) essential aspect of “two and two being four.”
Imagine what the contrary would really lead to. As Christians, we believe that all things are what and as they are because of the God who sustains all things in being. And so God is the “truth-maker” of all facts, He in whom the facts are what and as they are. If someone fails to see God as the truth-maker of “x,” this doesn’t mean they know nothing about “x.” It means, rather, that they have a deficient understanding of the relationship of “x” to the triune God. The alternative would be to say that apart from relating “x” to God, we are then knowing a different reality altogether. But this draws an epistemic implication from an ontological claim. Because God is (ontologically) the truth-maker of “x” does not mean that there can be no knowledge of x apart from this ontological reference-making. This major confusion most likely derives from a subtle theological distinction. If God did not exist, then “reality” (as we know it) would be wholly different, and speaking in terms of Christian dogma, non-existent. But God’s actual existence is quite a different thing than our knowledge or external affirmation of His existence, and His existence is quite complete and quite ontologically effective for anchoring reality all on its own. Reality is dependent upon God and not our interpretation of God. The latter proposition, by the way, would actually entail that reality be dependent upon us, the creation, an ironic reversal of the error of autonomy.
The presuppositionalist might attempt to respond to this by saying that all genuine knowledge must comprehensively map onto the whole of reality, or alternatively, that there is no such thing as atomistic bits of knowledge which do not contain all the information about a thing– incomplete knowledge is not, in fact, knowledge but rather error. And so the irreducible comprehensiveness of any reality makes it impossible for such a thing to be epistemically grasped in part. But this assertion can be reduced to absurdity. It would mean that to know anything entails knowing everything. Since all things stand (in some sense) in relation to all things, this understanding of comprehensiveness would also entail that being wrong about anything is to be wrong about everything.
Let us imagine, for instance, that I believed the proposition, “It will rain tomorrow.” And let us further imagine that I believed in the Triune God of Scripture. Add to this mixture of beliefs the reality that it will not rain tomorrow, and (if the above is true) I do not “really know” the true God. Why? Because the proposition “It will rain tomorrow” can only be true because of the God in whom any fact is true. As such, I have made God (in the language of modern analytic philosophy) the “truthmaker” for a false proposition. That is to say, in believing that it will rain tomorrow, and in believing that fact to be dependent upon God’s own being and will, I implicitly believe that part of God’s identity is that He grounds the proposition “it will rain tomorrow” and that He wills it to rain tomorrow. In so doing, I have misconstrued both the reality of the world and the reality of God Himself, who neither grounds falsehood nor wills that which will not be. And in misconstruing both the world and God, I have misconstrued everything else which can only be fully understood in relation to them (which is to say everything). Given this logic, to misconstrue one thing is to implicitly misconstrue all things. But, the child can always point out the obvious to the naked emperor. The commonsensical response to this happens to be the way we actually all move around in epistemic space, namely, that we know in part both quantitatively and qualitatively.
One might further try to get around this by distinguishing “essential” from “accidental” misconstrual. God’s being the “truthmaker” for the proposition, “It will rain tomorrow,” does not make the proposition essential to God’s being. Rain is a contingent reality. But to say “God is not Trinity” is to essentially misconstrue His being. So perhaps Dr. Oliphint’s seeming perspective can be saved by shoving its implicit coherentism into a smaller corner. Yet even here, epistemic reality is murky. Many Christians (myself included) believe that the doctrine of divine simplicity, and a fairly classical version of it, is “essential” to understanding God. But I would not say that those who deny the doctrine “worship a different God” altogether. I’d say that many of them worship the same God, but do not understanding Him appropriately in all respects. To know God really is just knowing a Person– and this does not imply entirely correct propositional knowledge. Being made in the image of God, for instance, is “essential” to being a human being and to being “this” individual human being (in my case, Joseph Minich). But if my atheist friends assert that I am not made in the image of God, I do not thereby say that they don’t know me. I say that they have a real but deficient knowledge of me. Once again, the intuitions of our grandmothers are usually a better guide than the abstract musings of the philosopher.
And so Paul is really doing what he seems to be doing in Acts 17. He is not saying that Zeus is the one whose offspring we all are. But he is establishing a common framework based upon a certain common belief, something like: “There is a reality x such that x exists and we are the offspring of x.” While such a belief is wrongly applied to Zeus as the “truth-maker” of the claim, the belief itself implies a genuine (and positive!) analogy between Paul and his pagan audience. He is saying something like, “You yourselves believe something like this already about the divine. The truth is that the God of Israel is this divine nature.” 3
3. Intellectualist Harmatiology
Counterintuitively, one of the most problematic aspects of Dr. Oliphint’s apologetic approach is his conflation of the epistemic and the ethical aspects of being “in Adam.” Over and over again, he states that those “in Adam” reject Christian truth because of the authority they have chosen to believe. Even when it comes to other religions which presumably have some degree of similarity to the Christian faith, Dr, Oliphint argues that every single proposition they believe religiously is an idolatrous proposition. And yet, what of the “covenantal reprobate?” What of, say, Judas? What of the person who affirms every proposition in the Westminster Confession of Faith but fails to bow the knee in sincerity to the redemptive Lordship of Christ? Surely there are those who affirm the propositions of the gospel but evaluate those propositions in a manner that is fundamentally idolatrous. That is, perhaps they assent to all the propositions of the Christian faith and then either (a) incoherently build self-righteousness upon the edifice of their knowledge while deceiving themselves that they have saving faith or (b) know that they don’t love the things they overtly affirm and remain willful in spite of their entirely correct knowledge. A different example of the latter might be demons who believe that God (the Christian God, by the way!) is one but who shudder at such a reality. Do all these believe in a “different God?” Has sin rendered them such that they cannot conclude that the propositional content of the gospel is (as such) correct, that Scripture is God’s word, etc? The obvious answer is “no.” The alternative to this view necessarily shifts our doctrine of sin from its primary and essential focus on the will to the mind. Again, the former does tend to the corrupt the latter, but the ethical remains primary over the epistemological in this matter.
These situations may be more or less common, but they highlight the essence of unbelief. The essence of unbelief is not epistemic but evaluative: “for me.” And the essence of unbelieving suppression is not to come up with contrary-to-fact propositions, but to evaluate the facts in a wrong and idolatrous manner, which is to say, it applies them towards idolatrous ends because of the sinful will. Of course, human beings tend to seek integration and symmetry, and so this irrational act of will certainly tends to corrupt the mind and lead our faculties astray, but the point here is to highlight the essence of unbelief, that almost elusive irrationality and insanity of will, which can even obtain when all the right facts have received assent.
Indeed, in biblical and traditional Christianity, unbelief is even more mysterious in that the very structure of human desiring implies a desire for God. Man as created-structure is made for God and desires Him in desiring all things. Man knows God in knowing all things. In building “hewn cisterns which can hold no water” to replace the “fountain of living waters,” we reveal the necessary object of all of our longing, and our tragic addiction to find that object where it can never be found. In sum, man can both recognize God as the truth-maker of all facts and as the ultimate object of all desire, and yet fail to evaluate God as his God and his Savior. This level of overtly self-conscious unbelief is unusual (though I have known persons who have experienced it), but it represents the real heart of its irrationality and darkness. But correspondingly, it also shows that the unbeliever has the potential to recognize any fact that the Christian recognizes. The persuasive power of the Christian view of reality is not simply a function of our regenerative lens, but rather the testimony of reality at every level.
4. The “Trump Card” Bible
The presuppositionalist typically argues the real reason Christian claims are rejected is because unbelievers do not accept the same “authority” as believers. Unbelievers remain unpersuaded by sound argumentation because they have a different “standard.” Dr. Oliphint takes up this line of argument, and it is here that his formulations are the most problematic. He takes what can only be described as a skeptical move where reason and experience are said to be functionally useless apart from special revelation. But to say that reason and experience are of no use apart from special revelation is to invite the question of how special revelation is itself intelligible, and the answer to that question always reduces to a sort of ideological exception– mystical regeneration imparts all necessary knowledge.
Given the willingness to make such a move, reason and experience are for Dr. Oliphint subordinated to Scripture in this sort of “trump card” fashion. If there is ever any apparent tension, the Bible simply wins. In his dialogue with the Muslim, for instance, the only distinction that he draws between the Muslim’s alleged incoherence and his own Christian paradox is that the latter is a function of positive divine revelation, somehow insulated from reflection or critique. And yet this is simply not the case. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not contrary to reason and this is demonstrable; indeed, demonstrating it was a not-insignificant part of early Christian history. Additionally, the Muslim could (and does) make the same appeal to divine revelation, and in the event that he does so, for reasons not made explicit, the presuppositionalists do approve of rational critique and public refutation.
But if Christ is Lord of all reality, then we must abandon any “trump card” approach. God has spoken to His creatures since the beginning, and we are made to relate to God, man, and creation with special and general revelation together. Nevertheless, general revelation in reason and experience does not mislead. It might fail to lead, but it does not mis-lead. And so the philosophical tension between most believers and unbelievers is not that the latter have reason acting alone as their authority. We grant that this is not proper, but it is not the fault of the reason. It is the misuse of reason. Reasoners, of course, can be misled, but reason itself is not what make the mistakes about reality. Reason is simply is one limited way of getting at reality. Reasoners must use it and use it correctly. And here special revelation takes on a unique role.
It is of the utmost importance to emphasize this point because many intellectual sins can be and often are justified with the trump card approach. The trump card approach does not lead to a denial of reason or experience, but it can often lead to their under-emphasis as authorities. This manifests itself in over-confident biblicist approaches to any number of issues which are easily dismantled both exegetically and reasonably. Additionally, this also often results in a shallow analysis of extra-Scriptural disciplines with the illusion that the Christian already has a privileged “edge” on the competition. And as many of the wounded in this battle can testify, the pastoral and apologetic consequences of this mixture are toxic. In spite of their confidence, presuppositionalists are particularly susceptible to major shifts in basic commitments and the spiritual vertigo that one so often finds in radical religious conversions.
All Christians believe that the Bible is infallible authoritative by virtue of what it is, God’s own speech. But it is not the only way God has spoken to us. Certainly, we can be more confident about the claims of Scripture in a great many cases than we can of our conclusions about other matters. This is because Scripture is often clear when our reasoning processes are not. Nevertheless, and in principle, Scripture, reason, and experience are all modes in which reality asserts itself upon us. And that reality is singular. If there is a perceived tension between Scripture and natural revelation, it should be solved in the same way that tensions between natural revelation and natural revelation or between Scripture and Scripture are solved: reasonable investigation and reconciliation. Tensions, which consistently appear, are a function of either our sin or our finitude, but the do not mean that any of the modes in which reality confronts us are somehow misleading. Rather, they are mutually reinforcing.
And so while one might agree with Dr. Oliphint that “neutral” reasoning might not be the biblical norm, it is still the case that a critical distance from a claim will not mislead. It might fail to lead, but it won’t mislead. Rather, every argument against the Christian faith can be demonstrated to be a failure of reason itself. It is a failure to submit to God’s authority, of course, but that divine authority is both general and special, and these failures can be dealt with distinctly. 4
5. A “Secular” Ontology?
It may seem quite strange to find a sort of secularism in Covenantal Apologetics, but something very much like that is at work. In many places recorded in the above review, Dr. Oliphint makes it very clear that two distinct actions occurred in creation: creation and condescension. For instance: “Now, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, once this God creates, he also condescends to relate to his creation” (190). It is possible that this move from creation to revelation is an issue of logical sequence rather than temporal sequence, but the problem remains the same. Revelation seems to be an additive to an otherwise non-revelatory cosmos.
But how can this be the case if God is Reality Himself? He is the “I am,” pure Being. Everything else is only insofar as He is related to it by virtue of its suspension in His own free act. Now, Dr. Oliphint would agree with all of this, we are sure, but it stands to fact that he has a noticeable habit of speaking about God’s creating and then His revealing Himself. One gets the impression that revelation is not rooted in being as such, but is a sort of supplement to objective reality in our subconscious that forces us to recognize God in “the things that are made.” And while we do not want to deny this mechanism at work in some regards, surely it falls far short of explaining that the heavens really objectively do (and can be shown to) “declare the glory of God.” There is an objective demonstrable reality which corresponds to our subjective awareness of it. And any failure to see this is not merely a failure to submit to “biblical authority” (though it might be that), but also a violation of all modes in which we know reality, whether it be our immediate experience or our theoretical reflections.
All of the above problems are implicit in this one, wherein we discover a functionally “neutral” creation (at least for the intelligent mind) after all– which is then given “meaning” by special revelation. Perhaps this only obtains in light of sin, or as a theory which the sinner uses to govern his thought, but then we have actually constructed an objectively impotent created order– which has no ability to to manifest itself to reason and experience as such. It does not act upon the mind, but rather is acted upon and interpreted, and that action obtains its meaning.
Is this not the essence of the very secular worldview which Dr. Oliphint is trying to avoid? Whether due to “sin” or “finitude,” reality is incapable of “getting through to us” apart from a “translator,” whether that be the Bible, the Spirit, the community, or nothing at all.
It is worse than all this for Dr. Oliphint, of course, because “sin” prevents us from rightly being able to understand either the Scriptures or the Spirit. Access to the “objective world” is necessarily, then, shoved back into the most private experience of regeneration. Any commendation of the Christian faith must then terminate not in public reality, but in private experience– no matter how philosophical or biblical the edifice which presumably “justifies” it. That is to say, even when believers rightly construe the world and unbelievers actually know it, it is never the world itself which accounts for this explicitly affirmed or willfully suppressed accuracy. It is rather human beings who rightly exegete the world (if regenerate) or who (if not) subjectively “just know” the truth by a causal link that is other than the competently communicating cosmos itself. God’s speaking “through the things that are made” is not so much about the apparent objective order to which all human reason, experience, and conscience points. The “things that are made” are more like a delivery boy for an irreducibly subjective mode of communication. And consequently, the symmetry between the objective and subjective aspects of natural revelation is only accidentally related to the “things that are made” as such.
Because all things are related to God insofar as they exist at all, all things objectively reveal God. We grant with Dr. Oliphint that God also reveals Himself to us subjectively, but that subjective revelation corresponds to what is objectively obvious. And unbelievers have real access to the objective world, objectively so. Inasmuch as they make fine observations about this world and draw careful inferences from those observations, they move toward the divine reality to which all of created reality points. Inasmuch as they experience beauty and love, they taste the divine reality of which these are echoes. And this can be shown.
Of course, not all will be persuaded, but this is an issue of the will, or perhaps a failure or an incapacity to reason properly, either because of stubbornness, unwillingness, or apathy. But many unbelievers can see this reality. They can see that all of reality points to the God who is the foundation of all truth and beauty. Some of them even believe that this God has revealed Himself finally in Jesus Christ; indeed, all of these things are reasonable. All of these claims can be tested against objections. And yet unbelief can still obtain.
It is worth noting that most people do not believe in God or the gospel because of these or any arguments. Most believe in God only on the strength of the sensus, and most believe the gospel simply by virtue of the calling of the Holy Spirit and His voice speaking to them through the Scriptures. And that is fine: these are reasonable foundations upon which to built natural and supernatural faith. But these foundations also correspond to the highest uses of reason, the most careful observations, and the most superlative of experiences. The tension is not between informed and ignorant people (both of whom legitimately believe many things apart from “proof”), but between reasonableness and irrationality as such.
Of course, many presuppositionalists do engage in rational persuasion, critical examination of evidence, and even personal friendships with non-believers. But they do so only in spite of some common emphases in their community. Each of us who have had exciting encounters wherein we were able to present Christian truth were most excited and most successful not when we showed our opponents our “worldview,” but when we showed them the world, when we were able to show them that precisely the thing they already believe is what and as it is because of Christ the Lord. We are able to move from the reality they affirm to the Logos whom we must adore and who has also revealed Himself as the Savior from the ethical tension which we know we have with Reality Himself. We can give utterance to a tension with the reality that unbelievers often rightly use, and, by this tension, lead them to the gospel. Indeed, this highlights their essential problem– not assumptions, but anger; not presuppositions, but pride.
This suggests something that is not recognized in much presuppositionalist rhetoric. They do rightly elucidate tension (in Van Til’s words) between “common grace” and “the antithesis” or (in Dr. Oliphint’s words) between the “sensus” and the “suppression” dynamic that runs through every human heart. But these forces are not equal; we do not live in a Manichaean world. Common grace is God’s preservation of reality, and our antithesis to this is suspended atop that reality, which configures our “default” setting toward the world. Our sense of the divine is simply a part of our nature (ineradicably so), and our suppression is an accidental and inherently unstable parasite which admits of degrees. This means that unbelievers already live in and accept much of the Christian world, whether they recognize it or not. And their tension with it is a function of their will. The darkest illustration of this would be in the case of a trained “covenantal apologist” falling away from the faith. This person, ultimately both a “presuppositional apologist” and a Romans 1 idolater, shoves the most basic reality in our faces– sin and unbelief are a matter of evaluating God and His gospel and refusing to receive them as “good for me.” Some unbelievers attempt to find symmetry with reality by constructing alternative worlds, through creating new standards of self-righteousness, etc. But in their darkest moments, human beings can be in full philosophical symmetry with reality such that they both subjectively know and objectively assent to all divine truth, but stare it in the face and say “no.”
As such, we have real common ground with all the sons of Adam, not in respect of our disagreement, but in respect of our massive agreement. And any non-Christian inference from that agreement is not entailed by anything in that agreement as it stands. This is so simple, but important enough to repeat. We agree about lots of things with unbelievers. Any disagreement cannot possibly be entailed by those things about which we agree– and this is not because our “Christian presuppositions” save us from going their route, but because that common reality itself is grounded in and leads unfailingly toward the Logos, Christ the Lord, in whom all things hold together. Often, unbelievers (and Christians for that matter) are not so much “borrowing” from the Christian worldview, but inconsistent with their own.
In closing, it is worth re-stating that Van Til’s (and consequently Oliphint’s) relationship to modern philosophy has not been significantly explored. The reason that there is a structural similarity between Van Til, Dooyeweerd, Heidegger, and so many others in the period is that they share a common Neo-Kantian environment and distinctively modern philosophical heritage. They have all accepted the skeptical move and construed their philosophies (whether it be a Christian “ground-motive,” the ontological Trinity, or “Dasein”) to escape irrationality. But the prophet, “Reality,” has always heralded the non-existence of any gap to be overcome, because reality simply is revelation. It really does go back to being, and being is such an irreducibly confrontational and practical doctrine. The “gap” is between finitude and infinity, but this is overcome in the very existence of finitude itself (not after it), because there can be no finitude which is not suspended in God’s own being. And because of this we can start with every person where they already are, and where all presuppositionalists actually live, in knowing and loving the very (objective and subjective) realities that are immediate to them and to us alike. These are the gifts of God, and it is into them that He adds the gift of His speech– both of which testify to the same Person, the same predicament, and in different ways (hope and fulfillment) to the Desire of the nations– whether an unbeliever rejects the one Whom they know they need, the Desire of their desires, or whether they bow the knee and call Him Lord and Christ.
E.J. Hutchinson’s post on Bavinck on “realism.” Also, see Bavinck’s Philosophy of Revelation, especially his discussion concerning the primacy of “self-consciousness” as a starting point for philosophical reflection.
Before Religion by Brent Nongbri, arguing that our concept of “religion” (as construed more or less as diverse “systems”) is distinctively modern.
The One and the Many by W.J. Norris Clarke – a Thomist account of the communicative nature of all being.
The Last Superstition, by Ed Feser, as an antidote to modern skeptical philosophy.
The Experience of God, by David Bentley Hart, on the unavoidability and universality of classic natural theology.
See Andrews Fulford’s analysis of Van Til on Natural Revelation.
The works of John Frame, especially The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and The Doctrine of the Word of God. Dr. Frame writes from a broadly Van Tilian perspective, and he might very well be uncomfortable with some of the formulations in this essay, but his careful and nuanced articulation of the relationship between Scripture and reason, as well as his recognition of some unresolved tensions in Van Til’s work, make him the most helpful of the Van Tilians.
Paradox in Christian Theology, by James Anderson, which is written by another Van Tilian who is, in my judgment, far more careful in articulating the relationship between faith and reason. See also his useful article on “proving” the existence of God.
- Of course, Dr. Oliphint is clear in these dialogues that the conversation could go a myriad of ways and that he is just suggesting one way this (and other) conversation(s) might go as determined by wisdom.
- Note: In this essay, when I speak of “natural revelation,” I mean it in the broadest sense possible. I include within in God’s unfailing subjective revelation of Himself to all human beings, but also the manner in which all facts and structures (material and immaterial) of the world say something about the God who is their ground of being.
- Note: See Eric Parker on Calvin’s exegesis of Acts 17.
- I do not have the time to explore it here, but it would be also worth exploring problems in Dr. Oliphint’s unqualified statements concerning “plausibility” and “credulity.” In point of fact, there is such a thing as special pleading and if the Bible is true, we would expect to live in a world wherein we were not forced into constant “special pleading” in the very terms of that world as it commonly asserts itself upon believer and unbeliever. To the extent that we find ourselves more and more forced into such a situation, we might ask ourselves whether or not we have rightly understood God’s word. It takes only a little creativity to imagine certain things that Scripture could claim which were technically irrefutable, but which would never be believed by any rational person. That it does not say these things is precisely because it participates in the same reality that reason explores and that experience mediates– all of which is what and as it is in the Logos.