Saturday, September 07, 2013

Review: Covenantal Apologetics by K. Scott Oliphint

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.

In Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defend of our Faith, Dr. K. Scott Oliphint argues that Biblical apologetics is Scripture driven, Christ-centered, Gospel-centric, and Holy Spirit empowered. His model of apologetics seeks to be rooted in solid biblical exegesis and application. “Covenantal Apologetics” is Oliphint’s revised term for Presuppositional Apologetics. It 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.

Oliphint begins his book with an exploration of what apologetics is about. The 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). Oliphint’s 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 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 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 point has often been overlooked in many books on apologetics that spend considerable time talking about how to defend the faith without ever fully defining the faith we should defend. 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.

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. Some may find this frustrating because they want to get to the “principles” of how to defend the faith. This chapter may change one’s approach to apologetics from chasing the “latest fad” to seeking a more biblical-theological approach. For those that 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, Oliphint demonstrates how to engage in a covenantal way those who oppose both the faith and Christ.

Next, Oliphint 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 focus, 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). Christians must value intellectual rigor while balancing that with growth in the grace of God and experiencing the liberty they have because of Christ. Dr. Oliphint argues that 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 Oliphint 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, Oliphint 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, Oliphint 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. Oliphint 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).

Oliphint 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). Oliphint closes this book by 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 who holds to Reformed Theology, this reviewer agreed with the overall approach Oliphint advocates, that 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 in serving 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. Covenantal Apologetics has something for everyone, regardless of where they are in their Christian life or their journey of growing in understanding of apologetics. It seeks to be grounded in the Word and to glorify God, which as Oliphint clearly notes, is the ultimate purpose of apologetics. This reviewer can think of no better book on this topic to read, to digest and apply to one’s approach to apologetics Oliphint’s effort.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Dave Jenkins is the Director of Servants of Grace Ministries. He enjoys biblical, systematic and historical theology and apologetics. More of his writing can be found at


Anonymous said...


I just finished this book yesterday. Very equipping.

Brian Auten said...

Thank you.

John Moore said...

I don't understand why Christians complain about the culture. You begin this review by saying: "With an increasingly hostile culture that preaches a message directly opposed to biblical Christianity ..."

Of course the culture is not 100% Christian. Christ warned you about this, so you shouldn't act surprised or dismayed. You should be proud of your own Christian culture. At the same time you should celebrate America's freedom and diversity, which lets you live biblically without serious persecution.

What more do you want? Surely you wouldn't try to persecute non-Christians and force them to join your culture. Let's all live together peacefully and accept cultural differences among neighbors.

janitorialmusings said...

John Moore,

Your comment seems like it's imposing something into the review that isn't there, simply for the sake of getting off some talking points a soapbox.

The observation that our culture is increasingly hostile to Christianity and preaches a message hostile to it is not stated as a complaint but as a reason for why "Christians need to be armed now more than ever with the knowledge of what they believe and how that knowledge impacts their lives."

>>Of course the culture is not 100% Christian.

A straw-man. The author doesn't raise the issue of the Culture not being 100% Christian. The author raises the issue of the culture being increasingly *hostile* to Christianity. Of course the culture could be 0% Christian and still not be hostile to it.

>>Christ warned you about this, so you shouldn't act surprised or dismayed.

The author shows no signs of surprise or dismay.

>>You should be proud of your own Christian culture.

The author shows no signs of being ashamed of their Christian culture.

>>At the same time you should celebrate America's freedom and diversity, which lets you live biblically without serious persecution.

Celebrating America's freedom and diversity would be out of place in an a book review about a work of apologetic method.

>>What more do you want? Surely you wouldn't try to persecute non-Christians and force them to join your culture.

What a ridiculous thing to say. It's as if I looked at your own remarks against the reviewer's position and asked "Why aren't you celebrating the diversity of opinions here? What more do you want? You aren't going to start persecuting Dave Jenkins and force him to join your point of view are you?"

>>Let's all live together peacefully and accept cultural differences among neighbors.

This review has nothing to do with and says nothing about differences in culture.

John Moore said...

So you're saying my comment was off-topic. Sorry about that. I just made the comment in passing.

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