Apologetics has quickly become one of my favorite areas of study. Whether it is thinking through issues on a worldview level or contending for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints, apologetics has much to offer the people of God. Since apologetics has resurfaced as "the hottest trend" in evangelicalism, it's important to note why this discipline is important. With an increasingly hostile culture that preaches a message directly opposed to biblical Christianity, Christians need to be armed now more than ever with the knowledge of what they believe and how that knowledge impacts their lives. Many know a great deal about theology but yet don't know how their theology should impact their life. Thus, the renewed focus on apologetics should be celebrated in the Church. Biblical apologetics is Scripture driven, Christ-centered, Gospel-centric, and Holy Spirit empowered. It is for this reason I am excited to tell you about the new book by Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics Principles and Practice in Defend of our Faith.
As I read this book, I quickly came to the conclusion that Dr. Oliphint, a man who I've learned a lot from when it comes to Apologetics, was arguing for a model of apologetics rooted in solid biblical exegesis and application. What stood out to me most is "Covenantal Apologetics", Oliphant's revised term for Presuppositional Apologetics, isn't anything new but rather something founded upon the historic doctrines of the faith, something very biblical and glorifying to God. Those who have taken issue with Presuppositional Apologetics as a system should take note of the biblical and theological arguments Dr. Oliphint presents. Though his work is fresh in approach, it is firmly rooted in the long tradition of Reformed theology.
Oliphant begins his book with an exploration of what apologetics is about. He author states, "Christian apologetics is the application of truth to unbelief" (29). He also clearly outlines from the beginning what the overarching goal of apologetics is noting "We will not seek to knock down every argument, or even every main argument against Christianity" (29). Oliphant's clear objective from the very outset will help the reader understand his comments as well as his overall goal thus eliminating any confusion as to the purpose of the discussion. He clearly provides the root of his argument commenting "The point for the Christian 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 this means is that the authority of Scripture, which is the verbal expression of Christ's lordship, is authoritative even over those who reject it" (37). This outstanding statement is followed with a fundamental element of any apologetical argument, namely "The Bible is authoritative not because we accept it as such, but because it is the word of the risen Lord" (37).
Chapter two focuses on the importance of the lordship of Christ and its central place in the covenantal approach to apologetics. This important point has often been overlooked in the many books on apologetics I've read that spend considerable time talking about how to defend the faith without ever fully defining the faith we should defend. I appreciate the fact that Dr. Oliphint doesn't assume but instead is very explicit in this chapter about the importance of the Lordship of Christ over all of life.
The next chapter three sets forth the ten tenets that a Reformed, covenantal apologetic should embrace along with a discussion of the place of apologetics itself. It is often said that Reformed theology minded individuals are "stuff and stodgy" theologians who value precision over people. In this chapter, rather than stuffiness and stodginess what we see is a theologian doing the very thing he promotes in this book, that of doing apologetics to the glory of God. As Oliphint elucidates his topic, he gets to the heart of the matter by not arguing based on just methodology but rather the need to have a biblical-theological framework when doing apologetics. Many people will find this frustrating because they want to get to the "principles" of how to defend the faith. It is precisely for this reason and for such people that this book is needed. We live in an hour where people are perishing for lack of knowledge. This chapter will revolutionize your approach to apologetics from chasing the "latest fad" to focusing on a biblical-theological approach. Even if you disagree with Dr. Oliphint's approach, it is important to nevertheless recognize the fact that apologetics must be that which is biblical and glorifies God. Oliphint grounds his remarks in this chapter in God's creation and in His revealed Word. In doing so, he follows classic Reformed orthodoxy which was concerned with understanding who God is, what He is like, and why that matters. In addition, Oliphant demonstrates how to engage in a covenantal way those who oppose both the faith and Christ.
Oliphant next examines how Covenantal Apologetics relates to persuading men and women of the truth of biblical Christianity. He notes, "In the sample dialogs set out thus far, there remain questions that could have come up, issues that might have been discussed, objections that were not addressed. This is not a flaw, but is endemic to the approach itself, and may be one of the reasons why some initially find this approach to be so daunting. But there is a very fruitful and biblical reason why gaps remain in any dialog set forth in this way. It has to do with the way in which we think about apologetics- a way that has its focused, not so much in demonstrative proofs for God's existence but in persuasion" (126). The author explains the reason for this is "deeply theological" (127). One of the chief concerns I have about the modern apologetics movement is the fascination with those who claim allegiance to Christ but focus more on giving "evidences" for the faith. Christianity is a doctrinal religion first and foremost with its beliefs springing from Scripture. If we present Christianity as only a matter of knowing the right answers or having the "right" evidence, we have done away with biblical Christianity and thus are not offering a proper apologetic to Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses or others who oppose biblical Christianity. Christians must value intellectual rigor while balancing that with growth in the grace of God and experiencing the liberty they have because of Christ. The argument Dr. Oliphint presents is helpful because our defense is not found in ourselves, but rather in the Gospel and the power of God who alone is able to open men and women's eyes to the truth.
The next topic Oliphant addresses is how Christians can destroy arguments that are hostile to Christianity beginning his argument with the salient point "It is the responsibility of every Christian to defend and commend the gospel" (162). He explains that apologetics has two distinct tasks, namely a positive and a negative approach. In regards to these approaches, Oliphant avers, "Positively, the task of apologetics is to commend the Christian faith to those who are affected by, even enslaved to, unbelief. Negatively, the task of apologetics is to refute the challenges to the truth of the Christian position" (164-165). He further explains, "These two tasks, the positive and the negative, should not be separated; they can sometimes be incorporated and applied simultaneously, and it should be our goal to accomplish both, if possible. One can commend the Christian faith even while defending I against attacks. One can destroy an argument even while defending it against attacks. One can destroy an argument while building another one. It is possible to defend the Christian faith, thus answering or responding to a particular attack on Christianity, without immediately offering it as the truth of the matter. There is a place for this kind of defense; it is good to thing to clear the field." (165).
In chapter six, Oliphant discusses the mode of persuasion as a biblical tactic in a covenantal apologetic framework observing that "first, the Word of God, the knowledge of God that all people possess, and God's universal mercy toward all people even those who are an remain in Adam" (193) are three elements one can use in persuading people of the truth. Oliphant rightly notes the connection between apologetics and evangelism defining the task of defending the faith as "premeditated evangelism" (198) affirming "It is evangelism 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" (198).
Oliphant concludes his effort with an overview of how Covenantal Apologetics "meets atheism or various other forms of unbelief" (225). He focuses on three aspects of how to appropriately deal with those who oppose biblical Christianity. The first aspect is "we must be acutely aware of exactly who the god of the other religion is" (230). Second, "it will help us to see how the false religion deals with its god's relationship to creation" (231). Finally, we must understand "something of the false religions theory of revelation" (231). Oliphant closes this book by rightly emphasizing the importance of contending for the faith with the reality "that the Lord of hosts is the commander of the army and not we ourselves. As his loyal subjects, we fight in full recognition that he alone is in charge, and he alone will procure whatever victory he deems fit and appropriate. As his subjects, we must be vigilant to use only his weapons, and content that those weapons always accomplish the perfect will of our commander in chief" (260).
This review merely scratches the surface of the depth of this book. As I worked through this book, I found myself as one who holds to Reformed Theology agreeing with the overall approach Oliphant advocates. Biblical apologetics is concerned to give not only answers that demonstrate the truthfulness of the Word of God, but more importantly to make much of Jesus. It is for this reason that Covenantal Apologetics succeeds. This book will serve all sides of the apologetics spectrum well. For some, this book will be a heavy dose of biblical and theological reading, while for others it will be a call to a biblical-theological approach to apologetics. Regardless of where you are in your Christian life or your journey of growing in your understanding of apologetics, Covenantal Apologetics has something for you. It is thoroughly grounded in the Word and glorifies God, which as Oliphant clearly notes, is the ultimate purpose of apologetics. I can think of no better book on this topic to read, to digest and apply to one's approach to apologetics Oliphant's effort. At the end of the day, that is the highest recommendation one can give for any book.