RPM, Volume 18, Number 5, January 23 to January 30, 2016

Always Ready

Chapter 1 of
Covenantal Apologetics:
Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith

By K. Scott Oliphint

Reformed theology, as worked out by Calvin and his recent exponents such as Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, and Bavinck, holds that man's mind is derivative. As such it is naturally in contact with God's revelation. It is surrounded by nothing but revelation. It is itself inherently revelational. It cannot naturally be conscious of itself without being conscious of its creatureliness. For man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness. Calvin speaks of this as man's inescapable sense of deity. 1

Christian apologetics is the application of biblical truth to unbelief. It's really no more complicated than that. But it is complicated by the fact that there are so many theological permutations of biblical truth and almost no end to the variations and contours of unbelief. Not only so, but there have been, are, and will continue to be attacks of every sort that seek to destroy the truth of the Christian faith. So as one thinks about and commences to defend the Christian faith, things can become complex.

What we hope to accomplish in this book is more modest than some might wish. We will not seek to knock down every argument, or even every main argument, that has been brought against Christianity. Nor will we seek to lay out every way such attacks and objections have been or can be addressed. Normally, there are various ways to respond to objections that come our way. Rather, what we will set out to do, first of all, is to lay out the primary biblical and theological principles that must be a part of any covenantal defense of Christianity and then to demonstrate how these principles might be applied against certain objections.

Therefore, the intent of this book is to be both principial (foundational) and practical. The principles can be seen as the fence outside of which one should not go, and the actual responses to objections can be seen as specific paths within the fence line. No doubt there are other paths as well, so there will usually be other ways one might approach objections that are proffered against Christianity.

The fact is, there is no one way or even five ways properly to address objections against Christianity. There are as many ways as there are people with objections. What you might say to one person could be very different from what you might say to another, even if their basic objections are identical. But in each and every case, what must be understood are the fundamental biblical and theological tenets or principles that guide, direct, and apply to whatever attacks, objections, and questions may come to the Christian. With those principles in place, a proper, covenantal defense of Christianity can be pursued. So we must stay within the fence line (i.e., the principles), but we have ample room to move inside its borders.

The biblical and theological principles that will be laid out below belong, historically, to the theology that gained its greatest clarity during the time of the Reformation. Thus, the principles will have a certain specificity to them that may not be the case, for example, in a more general evangelical context. Our entire discussion will assume that Reformed theology is the best and most consistent expression of the Christian faith. 2 First, however, to ensure that we are all on the same page, some basic truths about Christianity and apologetics will be broached here and will come up later as we proceed.

Christian Truth

The true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—created the heavens and the earth, and he created them good. There were no flaws in God's creation. Because it was all the work of his perfect hands, it was all very good. But then creation changed, because we changed it.

The entrance of sin in the world was also the initiation of a cosmic war. Scripture gives us no details as to why the serpent decided to tempt our first parents. Perhaps there was a Job-like scene in the heavenlies, where Satan asked for permission to attack Adam and Eve. Or perhaps it was just a natural part of the Devil's now-fallen nature.

Whatever the reason, the temptation of Adam and Eve was an attack on their right relationship with God. And the attack was successful. Eve was utterly deceived (2 Cor. 11:3), ate the forbidden fruit, and convinced Adam to do the same, and all of creation fell.

It would have been perfectly acceptable and expected if God had determined at that point to do away with creation altogether. Because the fall of creation was ruinous to its original status as "very good," and because the reality of sin in the world was despicable to a holy God, he could have simply determined to eliminate the universe, setting things back to where they were prior to his creative activity. God could have continued happily and eternally to exist without creation and all of its now-sinful aspects.

But this was not to be; it was not a part of God's eternal plan, a plan he freely decided to initiate. Instead, the Lord determined freely to condescend and extend his grace. He came down to the garden. But this time, he did not come down to have fellowship with Adam and Eve. Rather, he came down as their Judge and as their only hope. Not only so, but he came down to judge Satan as well for what he had done in Paradise.

The LORD God said to the serpent,

Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:14–15)

It may be that the full impact of these horrendous words escapes us. We should remember that prior to this event everything was just as it should be. God had created a place and people in that place, all of which were there to bring him glory and to work in relationship to and with him.

But after the fall he said, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring." This is horrible news. This marks the beginning of a radical and all-encompassing war. From this time forward, no one is excluded from this war; no one is left out. Prior to Adam's sin, Adam and Eve worked toward the one goal of bringing glory to the God who had made all things. Now there are two goals, not one. There are two cosmic powers working in creation. The power of God and his plan are now battling against the power of Satan and his legion. These powers are not at all equal; one depends upon the other. Anything Satan does, he does only because the Lord sustains him. So the battle is not among equals. Even so, the battle rages on until the close of history.

In this light, and basic to everything else that we will say, we should recognize that every person on the face of the earth is defined, in part, by his relationship to a covenant head. That is, there are two, and only two, positions that are possible for humanity, and only one of which can be actual for each person at a given time. A person is either, by nature (after the fall into sin), in Adam, in which case he is opposed to and in rebellion against God, or he is in Christ, in which case by grace a person is not guilty before God but is an heir of eternal life. This is the covenantal status of humanity, and it assumes, in each case, a relationship to God. It assumes as well the ongoing battle against evil in which God is making his enemies a footstool for Christ's feet.

But why didn't God, when sin entered the world, simply squash Satan and his legion and finish the battle? Why does he put up with, even actively join the fight against, such rebellion when he could stop it at any time? The only answer we have to such questions is that all things are still working to and for his own glory, even though sin has ruined his creation (Rom. 11:36). Everything that happens, happens according to his all-wise and perfect plan.

But we shouldn't minimize the fact that he is actively fighting. Though he has the power to finish it all, the Lord continues to wage war against the powers in the heavenlies. Not only so, but those who are in Christ have the privilege and responsibility to fight with him (Eph. 6:10–18). Included in that fight is the activity of defending the faith (a faith, we should remember, that we have been graciously given—cf. Eph. 2:8; 1 Pet. 3:15; Jude 3). This is the task of apologetics; it is the task of defending and commending the truth of Christianity.

Required to Respond

We should pause here for a moment to consider our place in God's cosmic battle. A non-Christian friend of mine recently returned from a trip overseas. When I asked him how his trip was, he looked me in the eye and, with finger pointing and shaking in my face, steadfastly declared, "There is no God." That was the first thing he wanted me to know. He knew I was a Christian, and he was anxious to give me one more reason why he was not. He reasoned that if there were a God, the places that he had seen on his trip would not be in the wretched and Augean conditions that he saw. For him, the suffering he witnessed was so overwhelming that it was a sure indication God could not exist. My response was very simple, and it stopped the conversation (at least for a while). I simply said to him, "What makes you think that God is responsible for such things?" That question was in itself a kind of defense; it was calculated to make my friend think of the destructive power of sin.

The first epistle of Peter is written to a group of suffering Christians. These are Christians who have been "grieved by various trials" (1:6), who are in exile (1:17), and who thus are living in places foreign to them. They are encouraged not to be surprised when fiery trials come upon them (4:12)—not if fiery trials come, but when they do. The Christian perspective on suffering is in diametrical opposition to my friend's. This is not surprising. There is an antithesis between Christian and non-Christian; as we said, one is either in Christ or in Adam. That antithesis is not merely theoretical. It applies to the way we think, the way we act, and the way we view the world. In the midst of his readers' suffering, Peter gives this command: "Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence" (1 Pet. 3:15, NASB).

The command is to "sanctify Christ as Lord." In the previous verse, Peter refers to Isaiah 8:12–13, which includes a command to regard Yahweh as holy. Peter attributes the prerogatives of Yahweh to Jesus Christ here. The New Testament application of Isaiah 8:12–13 is that Christians, in the midst of their suffering, are to set apart, remember, and recognize in their hearts that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Instead of looking at the overwhelming suffering around them and declaring that there is no God, they are rather to declare, "Jesus is Lord." They are to "sanctify" or "set apart" the lordship of Christ in their hearts by showing his lordship when suffering comes. Peter then goes on to tell them (and us) that the command to set Christ apart as Lord is fulfilled as we ready ourselves for a defense of what we believe. Peter is telling us here that, when objections and attacks come our way, we are required to respond to them.

If we are honest with ourselves, our mind-set may often be more in sync with my friend's than with Scripture. It may be that, when suffering comes, or when it threatens to overwhelm us in some way, we think that belief in God seems foolish. How could God allow such a thing to happen? Why wouldn't he prevent this?

Perhaps the most significant point of Peter's command is the reason he gives for it. It is as simple as it is profound: "For Christ also died for sins once for all" (3:18, NASB). The ironic twist, one that points us to the transposition of the gospel, is not that when we see suffering, we should conclude there is no God. Rather, it is that when we see suffering, we should remember that God himself, in the person of his Son, did exactly that so that suffering and sin would one day cease. Suffering is clear evidence that Christ is Lord; it is not a testimony against that truth. The suffering that is the cross of Christ—the very thing that, on the face of it, might lead us to believe there is no God—is, as a matter of fact, the deepest expression of his sovereign character as Lord.

It is the clear and steadfast conviction that Christ, and Christ alone, is Lord that has to motivate our Christian defense. Peter's point is clear. In commanding us to set Christ apart as Lord, Peter is not talking about whether one has received Christ as Savior, or as Savior and Lord—not at all. Peter's point is that, if one is to be adequately prepared to give an answer for one's Christian faith, the lordship of Christ must be a solid and unwavering commitment of one's heart.

But why? Again, the answer is as simple as it is profound: because that is what he is! The specific command that Peter gives can be stated more generally. We are to think about and live in the world according to what it really is, not according to how it might at times appear to us. As Peter writes to persecuted and scattered Christians, he recognizes that one of their paramount temptations is to interpret their circumstances in such a way that would not acknowledge Christ as Lord. In the midst of their persecution and suffering, it may begin to look like someone else is in charge. After all, if Christ were Lord, how could these things be happening? As a matter of fact, the lordship of Christ explains why these things are happening. The lordship of Christ is the conclusion to, the end result of, his own suffering and humiliation. It is because he was obedient, even to death on a cross, that he has been given the name that is above every name. It is because he suffered that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. The road to his exaltation was paved with blood, sweat, and tears. If we are to be exalted with him on that last day, ours will be so paved as well.

With all of the attendant mysteries surrounding the suffering of Job, two words from God himself—"my servant" (Job 1:8; 2:3)—initiate our understanding of what Job was called to endure. As Job was called to be a suffering servant, Christ was the quintessential Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). Those who know that their Redeemer lives (Job 19:25), who are called to be united to him, will be suffering servants with him as well.

The lordship of Christ is basic to our defense of Christianity. Christ now reigns. He is Lord. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. That authority is the prerequisite to the command to make disciples. Without that authority, baptism and disciple making in and for the church are meaningless. All things have been placed under his feet, and Christ has been given "as head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1:22). The process of history is the process of making Christ's enemies a footstool for his feet. That footstool is being built because he is Lord. Just like Jesus's earthly father, his heavenly Father is a carpenter. He is building a footstool for his Son (see, for example, Acts 2:35; Heb. 1:13; 10:13).

So wherever you go, to whomever you speak, Christ is Lord there, and he is Lord over that person. Since he is Lord, his truth is truth in every place and for every person. All persons are in a covenant relationship with Christ the Lord. They owe him obedience. The same Christ who rules over you, rules over those who oppose him. The fact that someone has not set Christ apart as Lord in his heart in no way detracts from or undermines the central point that he is Lord over all. At least two implications of this truth are important to remember.
The first is that truth is not relative. Most Christians agree with that point, even if they don't quite understand it. I remember years ago reading Allan Bloom's best seller The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom began that book by noting what was patently obvious then (and what is even more pronounced today). He said that there was one cardinal affirmation that every college student believed: "Truth is relative." He went on to say that it was such a part of the fabric of our culture and our way of thinking that it was thought to need no argument; and to demand an argument would be to misunderstand the status of that truth. The bedrock conviction that truth is relative, Bloom asserted, was as ingrained in the American psyche as baseball and apple pie; it was the air that we breathed. "Truth is relative"—ironically, that proposition alone seemed to be universally affirmed and thus not relative.

The sinful power of self-deception cannot be underestimated in this regard. The power of sin in us makes us adept anosognosiacs (people unaware of, or denying, our own disease). In our sins, we have an uncanny ability to fashion a world that has all the substance of an ethereal fog. If anything is patently obvious, it is that truth cannot be relative. The notion itself betrays a decided lack of self-awareness and a stubborn blindness to the big picture. At the micro and the macro levels, we live and move and have our being in the God who alone is truth. Anyone who wants to argue that truth is relative betrays, by that argument, that it cannot be. Anyone who wants to hold that truth is relative, but pretends apathy about the matter and thus eschews argument, is like David Hume, 3 who played backgammon even though he knew that such an act annihilated his own philosophy. So the relativistic worldview that we think is real turns out to be a sleight of hand, a magician's illusion. The point for the Christian, however, 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.

The Bible is authoritative not because we accept it as such, but because it is the word of the risen Lord. It has a claim on all people. Its truth is the truth for every person in every place. Why, then, would we be reluctant to communicate that truth in our apologetics? Perhaps because we have not reckoned with the actual lordship of Christ. Perhaps we haven't really set him apart as Lord in our hearts.

The second implication, which we have already raised, is that we must base our defense of Christianity on reality, and reality is what God says it is. What we dare not do in a covenantal apologetic is let the enemy choose the weapon. Any enemy worth his salt will choose a weapon that fires in only one direction. But we are called to use the weapons that the Lord himself has given us. "For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:4). The weapons of our warfare are divine weapons, and they have their focus in the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).

Why choose these weapons? Because they are God's weapons, given to us by God so that we can "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). In other words, they are the real and true weapons that God has given to us to fight the good fight. They are the weapons through which God is building his Son's footstool. And they are the weapons that alone have the power to subdue the enemy.

There is more to be said on these points, and more will be said later. But the basic principle is this: a covenantal apologetic must proceed on the basis of reality and not on the basis of illusion. We must proceed according to what Christ, who is the Lord, has told us, not according to what our opponents have decided is "appropriate" for a defense of Christianity. We view our apologetic and we proceed in it, as in the rest of life, through the corrective lenses of Holy Scripture. Anything less would be like choosing to walk in a fog in order to see more clearly.

What Is Covenantal Apologetics?

As we saw in 1 Peter 3:15, apologetics is a biblical and theological notion taken directly from Scripture. In that way, apologetics is a term much like other biblical words such as justification or sanctification. The difference with apologetics, however, is that it necessarily deals with a relationship between Christian faith and unbelief that is not the focal point of most other biblical notions. Many, if not most, of our Christian doctrines relate specifically to what we as Christians believe. Not so with the notion of apologetics.

So, for example, if one wanted to be an expert on the biblical teaching of justification, one would concentrate on texts that deal specifically with that teaching. The doctrine of justification is a doctrine for the church; it is Scripture's teaching on how we can be declared not guilty before God. It relates directly to the Christian and his relationship with God. In order to think carefully about apologetics, we begin with Scripture as well. But we pursue Scripture in such a way that we have at the forefront of our minds how biblical doctrines—especially the doctrines of God, Christ, sin, and salvation—relate to what Scripture says about unbelief. In other words, the concern of apologetics is biblically to answer challenges that come to Christianity from unbelief.

What I hope to show throughout this book is that apologetics must (1) be Christian and (2) have a theological foundation. If these two things are integral to Christian apologetics, then it might be best to give it a proper label. Though the approach I advocate is a version of what some have called presuppositionalism, that label as an approach to apologetics needs once and for all to be laid to rest. It has served its purpose well, but it is no longer descriptively useful, and it offers, now, more confusion than clarity when the subject of apologetics arises.

There are various reasons for this confusion. For one, there are a variety of ways to understand the notion of presupposition, as well as a variety of presuppositionalists whose approaches differ significantly. Francis Schaeffer, Gordon Clark, and E. J. Carnell, just to mention three, were all concerned with presuppositions in their apologetic argumentation. Their respective approaches, however, differ in ways that relate to their use and understanding of biblical truth.

Moreover, there is also the post-Kuhnian4 predicament in which we find ourselves, such that paradigms and presuppositions have come to be equated, and have come into their own, in a way that would serve to destroy Christianity in general, and Christian apologetics in particular. "Presuppositionalism" has been thereby dispossessed of any clear meaning and has often died the death of a thousand qualifications. It is time, therefore, to change the terminology, at least for those who consider the approach of Cornelius Van Til to be consistent with Reformed theology and its creeds.

Because what Van Til was arguing had its roots in historic, Reformed theology, it would be natural to delineate his apologetic approach simply as Reformed. However, there is a breadth and depth to the adjective Reformed that may make it too ambiguous as a modifier for apologetics. I propose, in light of the above, that the word covenantal, properly understood, is a better, more accurate, more specific term to use for a biblical, Reformed apologetic. I hope in what follows to explain Van Til's presuppositional apologetics and in the process to make a case for a terminology switch, a switch to a covenantal apologetic.

To understand this approach to apologetics, as well as to justify the change in terminology, we need a clear understanding of the word covenant. For that, we begin with the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1, "Of God's Covenant with Man":

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

We need to highlight the most important ideas in this section. First of all, we are reminded that, in the beginning, and quite apart from the entrance of sin, the distance between God and the creature is "so great." But just what is this distance? Is it an actual spatial distance between God and humanity? That doesn't seem possible, given that God is everywhere; there is no place where he is absent. So the "distance" referred to here must be metaphorical. It should not be interpreted as primarily spatial.

Rather, it might be best to think of it as a distance based on the character of God himself in relation to the character of man. The "distance," in other words, might be analogous to the distance between man and a snail. There are similarities between a man and a snail—both are capable of physical motion, both depend on the necessities of life. But it is not possible for a snail to transcend its own character in a way that would allow it to converse, communicate, and relate to man on a human level. We could call this an ontological difference; a difference according to the being of the snail relative to the being of man. Or, perhaps better, there is a necessary and vast distinction between the two kinds of beings.

This is the case as well with respect to God and man, according to this section of the Confession. There is a vast, qualitative distinction between God's character and ours, between God's being and the being of man. God is One "who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible …" (WCF 2.1). He is not restricted or confined by space; he is not subject to the passing of moments; he is not composed of anything outside of his own infinite character; he does not change; he cannot be fully understood.

We, however, are none of those things. We have no analogies of what those attributes are, and we are unable completely to comprehend them. We are finite, bodily, mutable, and constrained by time and space. This disparity is impossible to state adequately, but it is a difference, a vast difference, and one that includes a kind of "distance" between us and God.

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. 5 That condescension includes God's revealing himself in and through his creation, including his word, to man. We begin, therefore, with respect to who we are and to what we can know, with a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Contrary to some opinions, God is in fact Totally Other. But there is nothing intrinsic to this truth that would preclude God from revealing himself to his creatures. Since God is Totally Other from creation, our understanding of him and our communication and communion with him can take place only by his initiative. That initiative is his condescension, including his revelation. Such revelation, as the exclusive means of knowledge of and communion with God, assumes rather than negates God's utter "otherness."

So God decided to create. He did not have to create, but he determined that he would. The high point of that creation was the creation of man, Adam and Eve. These were the only aspects of all of God's creation that were called "image of God" and were meant to show off God's character.

In creating man, God voluntarily determined, at the same time, to establish a relationship with him. That relationship is properly designated a covenant; it is established unilaterally by God, and it places obligations on man with respect to that relationship. It comes to man by virtue of God's revelation, both in the world, defined here as every created thing, and in his spoken word.

This has sweeping implications for apologetics. Given that all men are in covenant relationship to God, they are bound by that relationship to "owe obedience unto Him as their Creator." That obligation of obedience comes by virtue of our being created—we were created as covenant beings. We are people who, by nature, have an obligation to worship and serve the Creator. That much has been true since the beginning.

But as we have said, something went terribly wrong. Man fell from his original state and consequently lost the ability and the will to worship and serve the Creator. The covenant relationship that, prior to the fall, existed in harmony with the Creator's will was, after the fall, a relationship of animosity and rebellion on our side, and was one of wrath on the side of the Creator.

But there was still a relationship. It is not that man ceased to be a covenant creature after the fall. He was still responsible to God to obey and worship him. He turned this responsibility, however, into occasions for rebellion. Instead of walking with God in the cool of the day, man began to try to hide from God, to fight with God, to run from him, to use the abilities and gifts he had been given to attempt to thwart the plan of God and to construe for himself a possible world in which he was not dependent on God at all.

So God provided a way in which the obedience owed him and the worship due his name could be accomplished. He sent his own Son, who alone obeyed the spirit and letter of the law, and who also went to the cross to take the penalty we deserve in order that those who would come to him in faith would be declared not guilty before the tribunal of the covenant Judge. And those who thus put their faith in him, as a part of their obedience to him, may be called on, and thus required, to answer the challenges and questions that come from those who will not bow the knee to Christ.

Enter apologetics. To whom is the faith "once for all delivered to the saints" to be defended? Given the above, it is to be defended at least to those who are covenant breakers—those whose relationship to God is defined by rebellion and denial. The apostle Paul gives us something of the psychology of these covenant breakers in Romans 1 and 2; we will highlight some of his main points in those chapters here. Given the importance of Paul's discussion, however, it will be necessary for us to elaborate on his themes in these passages throughout this book.

Paul begins, first of all (Rom. 1:18–23), by asserting that the attributes of God have been both clearly seen and understood since the creation of the world. That is, Paul is telling us here, part of what it means to be created in God's image is that man inescapably knows God. It is not simply that he knows that a god exists. But, says Paul, man—every man—knows God, the true God, the God who made all things. We can say unequivocally, therefore, that by virtue of man's being created in the image of God, by virtue of man's being a covenant creature, every human being on the face of the earth since creation and into eternity has an ineradicable knowledge of God—a knowledge that is given through the things that were made, which includes, of course, everything (except God himself). In order for man to have this ineradicable knowledge, he must know the things created, for it is through those things that the knowledge of God comes. So in knowing a particular thing, man knows God who reveals himself in and through that thing (including man himself). Thus, man knows God if and when he knows anything else.

This was in part Calvin's point in beginning the Institutes as he did. "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." 6 There can be no separation between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. To the extent that we know ourselves truly, to that extent we know God truly; the two are inextricably moored. This is part of what it means to be image of God. To try to know ourselves without knowing God would be like trying to know our image in a mirror when we were not standing in front of it. There would be no image because the "original" would not be there. True self-knowledge depends on God-knowledge (and vice versa). So it is also that in the act of knowing, to the extent that we know something truly, we know it as created, that is, as having its origin and its sustaining existence in God. 7 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. Whatever it is, it is created and sustained by God at every moment.

But Paul introduces a problem in this passage. Man does not willingly submit himself to the knowledge of God that comes in and through creation. On the contrary, God's wrath is revealed from heaven precisely because man, in knowing God, suppresses the truth of that knowledge in unrighteousness, worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:18, 23, 25). As a covenant creature, man takes his relationship to God, graciously initiated by God's condescension, and attempts to hold down its truth and the implications of that truth, fabricating for himself idols to take the place of the God whom he knows to exist and to whom he knows he owes worship (cf. WCF 21.1, 7).

It is not the case, then, as Thomas Aquinas supposed, that knowledge of the existence of God is not self-evident to us; 8 rather, such knowledge is an integral aspect of our covenant relationship with God and can no more be eradicated from our souls than can our souls themselves be annihilated. The problem is not with the evidence, but with the "receptacle," (i.e., the sinful person) to which the evidence constantly (through creation) comes. It is this covenant dynamic of always knowing while suppressing (what I will call a sensus/suppression dynamic) that a Reformed, covenantal apologetic seeks to incorporate. It may be helpful here to elucidate the application of this "knowing while suppressing" principle by attempting to make some distinctions.

Man (male and female) did not cease to be human after the fall. There were certain aspects after the fall that were in continuity with the pre-fall situation. It should be obvious from our reading of Scripture that while every aspect of man was affected by sin, so that we are all totally depraved, we still remain people made in God's image. Whatever was essential to being a person prior to the fall was retained after the entrance of sin. And since one essential aspect of man was his being created in the image of God, that image, at least to some extent, remained after the fall. We are still, by virtue of our very constitution, covenant creatures even after the fall; we are still accountable to God and we still owe God unqualified allegiance. This is true for all people everywhere and at all times, so that the universal situation is such that we all live as creatures of God, knowing him, and responsible to him.

In terms of our actions (including our thoughts, attitudes, motives, and desires), however, there was radical change. Whereas Adam and Eve gladly served God in the garden, once sin entered the world "all the thoughts and intentions of the heart were only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5). It is no longer the case that man is able not to sin (posse non peccare), as it was before the fall. Rather, his entire direction is changed; it is subverted and perverted, so that now for man it is not possible not to sin (non posse non peccare). This depravity, this sinfulness, which extends itself to the entire person, is rebellion in the face of the knowledge of God. It is covenant sinfulness—before the face and in the context of the clear, distinct, and personal knowledge of God. So we remain fundamentally who we are as image of God. We will always be image of God. We will be image of God even in our eternal existence, whether in hell or in the new heaven and new earth. The very reason we are made to live eternally has to do with our character as image. None other of God's animate creation will live eternally as covenant creatures. Only man was given that gift.

But since the fall, given the above, we became, in the truest sense of the word, irrational. That is, we sinfully and deceptively convince ourselves that what is actually true about the world is not true. We create a world of our own making, where we are all gods. What we now seek to do and how we seek to live and think are set in polar opposition to the world as it actually is. Our actions are in opposition to what they were originally intended to do.

So also, the image that we are becomes something horrific. Trying to make ourselves out to be gods, we distort both who we are and who God is. We are at war with our true identity. Always and everywhere in covenant relationship with God our Creator, we seek the utterly impossible and unobtainable; we seek autonomy. If this is really the way things are since the fall, then the apologetic task is always, or at least should always be, set within and controlled by that covenant relationship which is a universal condition of every person. Man's denial of God is not something done in ignorance. It is evidence of the suppression of the knowledge of God within us. Our refusal to acknowledge God is not, as has been supposed, an agnostic refusal—that is, it is not a refusal based on ignorance—but it is culpable rebellion. Since the fall we are and remain, as Paul clearly states, without excuse.

This is, as we said, irrational. It militates against the way the world actually is. So it is incumbent on the apologist to ask the unbeliever to justify his own position. Suppose the unbeliever is convinced of his own autonomy. We could ask how, for example, it can be that he thinks himself worthy of complete trust so that he is the origin of truth itself.

Even as we begin to ask some probing questions, though, we cannot simply accept the unbeliever's self-diagnosis, as if in his sin he is able and willing to assess his own condition accurately. Imbedded in the sinful heart is the paradox of self-deception—the steadfast commitment to knowing but suppressing; a commitment to deny the world as it is, even with regard to one's own fundamental identity, in order to attempt to assert our supposed autonomy. So we should not expect that the unbeliever will properly analyze his own sinful condition in the world. 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.

It will not do, then, for the apologist simply to start on the Yellow Brick Road with his unbelieving friend and assume that it will lead to Kansas. Once one begins on a make-believe road, it can only lead to more of the same; one cannot leave the land of Oz by taking a road that is, in its entirety, within Oz. The only way back to the real world of Kansas is to get off the road altogether and change the mind-set that trusted in the Yellow Brick Road in the first place.

This is what a covenantal apologetic seeks to do. It seeks to take the truth of Scripture as the proper diagnosis of the unbelieving condition and challenge the unbeliever to make sense of the world he has made. Scripture tells us that a world built on the foundation of unbelief does not exist; it is a figment of an unbelieving imagination, and thus is basically irrational.

If we want to use a philosophical term for this approach (which is not necessary but could be useful at times), a covenantal apologetic is transcendental. A transcendental approach looks for the (so-called) preconditions for knowledge and life. It does not simply assume that knowledge is the same for believer and unbeliever alike. Instead, this approach asks questions about the basic foundations of an unbelieving position. In asking those questions, it also recognizes that what Scripture says is true. It recognizes, for example, that the only reason there can be an unbelieving position is that God is who he says he is, people are what God says they are, and they all, even unbelievers, "live and move and have [their] being" in the triune God (Acts 17:28).

So the unbelieving position both has its own presumed foundations and needs Christian foundations in order even to oppose the latter. There are two worlds colliding in every unbelieving position, therefore. There is the world the unbeliever is attempting to build, a world that is illusory. And there is the real world, the world where the triune God reigns, controlling whatsoever comes to pass—even the unbelieving position itself. This apologetic approach, then, tries to make obvious both the presuppositions of the unbelieving position itself and the covenantal presuppositions that are at work in order to challenge the unbelieving position at its root. In that sense, it is a radical (from radix, "root") approach. It attempts as much as possible to get to the root of the problematic position.

In the chapters below, we will be looking at examples of how these truths might be applied to unbelief.

The Ten Tenets

Having looked at the most basic Christian truths and the biblical mandate for a covenantal approach to apologetics, I would like to set out ten crucial theological tenets for a covenantal, Christian apologetic that will be necessary to keep in mind throughout the rest of the book. The list itself is not exhaustive, and as in much theology, there could be useful debates on the relative priority of each of them. But what should be noncontroversial are the tenets themselves, each of which is a substantial part of a covenantal approach to apologetics. These tenets will make their appearance in different ways and contexts as we proceed, some more applicable or obvious than others.

It will be important to keep these tenets at the forefront as we work through the rest of this book. For that reason, I will also list them at the end of this chapter and it might be useful to copy that list and have it within one's purview while reading. In that way, it will soon become more obvious which tenets are being applied in later chapters, and how.

The ten tenets certainly deserve more space than I am giving them here, but there are excellent resources already available for most of them. A book could easily be written on each one. Readers unfamiliar with (some of) them may fruitfully consult other literature to gain a fuller understanding of them. When resources come to mind, I will mention them below. However, I will be mentioning resources with which I am most familiar (e.g., my own), and a more thorough search will produce other, perhaps better resources than I have highlighted. I will provide a short list of recommended titles at the end of this chapter for anyone interested in pursuing the theological and apologetic backdrop to these tenets.

The primary reason I prefer at this point simply to summarize these tenets is twofold. First, the tendency with a covenantal approach to apologetics is to talk or write about it and its principles, rather than to demonstrate how it might look in action. I hope in this book to explain the biblical rationale for a covenantal approach as we move along in each chapter, but I also want to show at least one way to respond to some attacks and objections that have been lodged against Christianity. In that way, I am not primarily concerned just with the tenets, but am concerned with their actual use.

Second, and following on the first, I am assuming that readers will be (more or less) familiar with the basic thrust of these tenets. Readers completely unfamiliar with them can begin by working through the recommended resources at the end of this chapter. My concern, again, is primarily with these tenets as foundational for application in defending the Christian faith. The aim here is to apply, as much as to present, these crucial and central tenets of a covenantal apologetic. In light of this, the ten tenets are as follows:

1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.

Generic theism is no part of the Christian faith. Why this is the case will become clearer later on. At this point we need only recognize that any defense that does not include the triune God is a defense of a false theism. And theism of this sort is not a step toward Christianity, but an idolatrous reaction to (suppression of) the truth. Thus, a belief in theism that is not Christian theism is a sinful suppression of the truth. It masks, rather than moves toward, true knowledge of the triune God.

In saying that we "must begin with" the triune God, we are not saying that a covenantal apologetic must always begin its apologetic discussion with the triune God. Rather, we are saying that we must never assume that we are defending anything but what God himself, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has accomplished in creation and redemption. To "begin with" and "necessarily include" the triune God means that we stand squarely on Christian truth, including a Christian understanding of God, when we engage in our defense. Again, this does not mean that all of our conversations or discussions have to articulate this at the start. How this looks will become clearer as we move along.

2. God's covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.

As we have seen, God's revelation is covenantal because (1) it initiates a relationship between God and humanity and (2) it entails obligations. This means that we cannot begin our discussion with the assumption that the intellectual, moral, or conversational ground on which we and the unbeliever are standing is the same. The very reason there is a debate between us is that our respective authorities are in conflict. Just as an unbeliever will stand on his own chosen ground in order to debate and discuss, so also will we.

This is an important point, in that its most consistent expression is found in Reformed theology. Thus, it is intrinsic to a covenantal apologetic. The point itself is put concisely and most helpfully in the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.4 (and, verbatim, in the Savoy Declaration and the London Baptist Confession): "The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God." This is one of those truths that forms the foundation of our apologetic approach. However, it is another one of those truths that we do not necessarily or in every case present as an integral part of our actual discussion or argument. But as Christians, we need to have this teaching firmly in place.

Note that the Confession is focusing here on Scripture's authority. That authority is not something that comes to it from the outside; it is not something given to or imposed on Scripture by another, external authority—not by "any man or church." Rather, Scripture's authority is tied inextricably to its author, God himself. As Christians, therefore, we accept the authority of Scripture, and we believe and receive it "because it is the word of God." 9

So while there can be arguments given for Scripture's authority (the next section in the Confession gives a partial list of those), those arguments seek to explain and not to establish the authority itself. This has deep implications for apologetics, as we will see.

3. It is the truth of God's revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.

The import of this tenet is that it encourages, even requires, us to communicate the truth of God, since it is just that truth that the Holy Spirit uses to change hearts. We must remember here that we are attempting to defend the Christian faith, not a generic theism. So, as in evangelism, there needs to be a communication of that faith if there is going to be any hope of a change of mind and heart.

4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.

We noted this above, but the importance of this can hardly be overstated. What it means is that all people, just because they are image of God, are responsible to God for everything they are, do, and think. They are, therefore, in covenant with him for eternity. Every person lives coram Deo, that is, before the face of God, and thus is responsible to God for his every thought and action. This responsibility is presumed in the final judgment. God will judge all men on that day. Those who have rejected him will be eternally punished for that rejection, and those who have trusted him will be eternally rewarded. This judgment assumes that the entirety of humanity is responsible to the same God; all are obligated to obey him because he is their Creator and Sustainer. God, then, has a sovereign right over all humanity.

5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

As we noted above, this tenet is concise but is crucial to grasp. It does not mean that all people can know God. Nor does it mean that all people know that something, somewhere is bigger than they are. Scripture is clear that all people know God (Rom. 1:18–20). All people know the true God because God makes himself known. The knowledge that we all have is sufficient so that if we refuse to respond to it properly, we will stand without excuse before God on the day of judgment.

This knowledge is not knowledge that we, through some process of inference, may acquire for ourselves. The point that Paul makes in Romans 1:19 is that all of us have this knowledge because God gives it to us. In other words, the revelation of God and his character that is given in all of creation is also given to each and every person by virtue of God's own revelatory activity.

6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see that truth for what it is.

God gives sufficient knowledge of himself to all of his human creatures. That knowledge is true knowledge; it is not a vague or imprecise feeling or a sporadic experience of something greater. It is true knowledge of God. But because of the effects of sin in our hearts, we seek, if we are in Adam, to hold that knowledge down. In our sins, we will not acknowledge it. Instead, we deceive ourselves into thinking that there is no God, or that we cannot know him, or that we can get by on our own, or a million other falsehoods that serve only to mask the clear truth that God continually gives to us through the things he has made (Rom. 1:20).

7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.

This should be obvious to any Christian, but it is oftentimes not as prominent in our thinking as it ought to be. When we claim to be Christians, we are doing more than just listing a biographical detail. We are claiming that the truth set forth in God's revelation describes the way things really and truly are in the world. That is, we are saying that what God says about the world is the way the world really is.

Any view or position that opposes what God has said is therefore, by definition, false and does not "fit" with the way the real world is. This means that 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. Even before we know the details of that view, we know from the outset that it cannot stand of its own weight; it cannot match the way the world is. When we begin to learn the details of an opposing view, then, we do so with the initial conviction that there will be no way for that view to actually make sense of the real world. Any view that opposes Christianity cannot be consistently thought or consistently lived.

8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, 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.

In properly understanding the biblical doctrine of sin as total depravity, we affirm that all of man is affected by sin (total depravity), but we also affirm that man is not as bad as he could be (absolute depravity). In the same way, when someone suppresses the truth in unrighteousness, that suppression is total. There is nothing that he knows, thinks, and does that is not affected by it. But it is not absolute. He cannot completely eradicate or submerge the knowledge of God that is always his and always being given by God.

Thus, there will be aspects of the truth of the knowledge of God that surface in those who are in Adam. 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 judgment day, "Good for you; you got that part right." Those who die in Adam will be held responsible for every fact (even two plus two equals four) that they took from God's world, even as they refused to acknowledge the facts to be God's facts in the first place. So just as the man who remains in Adam can continue to think, work, and so on, that thinking and working will only serve, in the end, to further condemn him. 10

9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God's universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.

Some might want to argue that if tenent 7 above is correct, then there is no use discussing, debating, or arguing about the truth of Christianity, since man is either in one "world" or in the other. If there is such a divide, it might be asked, how can we even reach those who live in a world of their own making? 11 The answer is twofold. First, 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. Second, because God's universal mercy restrains their sin in various ways, the depravity that might otherwise hinder our conversation is also restrained.

If we think of persuasion as an opportunity to take what the other person himself might hold or believe and to reframe that belief in a way that is consistent with Christianity, then we can begin to think about the best approach to someone who wants to reject Christianity altogether. I will provide examples of this as we go along, but initially we can point to Paul's use of the Greek poets in his address at the Aereopagus (Acts 17:16ff.; more on this in chapter 4). Paul co-opted those quotations and gave them Christian content, thereby drawing his audience in (by quoting and using what was familiar to them and was an aspect of their own worldview) while also pointing them to the truth of Christianity.

10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.

This means that in every case, those who are outside of Christ, who remain in Adam, are nevertheless thoroughly embedded in the world that Christ created and controls. The breath they breathe, the lives they live, the people they know—all of it belongs to God and is therefore meant to be used to and for his glory. The facts of the world display God's glory (Ps. 19:1ff.; Rom. 1:20). To take those facts for selfish use is to twist them and pervert them. This is culpable rebellion against God, and it takes place as those in Adam "live and move and have our being" in the triune God.

So in order for someone to understand one fact properly, that fact needs to be seen in the context of God's plan and purposes. The explanation of the fact itself is not sufficient unless and until the context and purpose of that fact is known and acknowledged. For example, it is not enough simply to say that lions instinctively seek their prey because they are such good hunters; the real story includes the fact that the young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. (Ps. 104:21)

It is God who provides for the animals, not instinct.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never 'gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail. 12

Tenets and Texts

The ten tenets above will surface in various discussions and examples as we continue. It is crucial to keep them in mind.

I promised, above, to provide a list of the ten tenets, as well as an initial collection of recommended sources for further reading. Those lists follow.

The Ten Tenets

1. The faith that we are defending must begin with, and necessarily include, the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who, as God, condescends to create and to redeem.

2. God's covenantal revelation is authoritative by virtue of what it is, and any covenantal, Christian apologetic will necessarily stand on and utilize that authority in order to defend Christianity.

3. It is the truth of God's revelation, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, that brings about a covenantal change from one who is in Adam to one who is in Christ.

4. Man (male and female) as image of God is in covenant with the triune God for eternity.

5. All people know the true God, and that knowledge entails covenantal obligations.

6. Those who are and remain in Adam suppress the truth that they know. Those who are in Christ see that truth for what it is.

7. There is an absolute, covenantal antithesis between Christian theism and any other, opposing position. Thus, Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false.

8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, 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.

9. The true, covenantal knowledge of God in man, together with God's universal mercy, allows for persuasion in apologetics.

10. Every fact and experience is what it is by virtue of the covenantal, all-controlling plan and purpose of God.


  1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th ed., ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 114.
  2. For a summary of Reformed theology, see, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith.
  3. David Hume (1711–1776) was the most famous and radical exponent of the empiricist school of philosophy. I'll say more on Hume later.
  4. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, made the notions of paradigms and presuppositions much more commonplace than they were before.
  5. For a fuller and more technical discussion of God's covenantal condescension, in light of his "distance" from us, see K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  6. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.1.1.
  7. Van Til speaks of "false knowledge," which is knowledge but which refuses to acknowledge the ground and source of knowledge, namely, God himself.
  8. Cf. Summa theologica, 1.2.1.
  9. See K. Scott Oliphint, "Because It Is the Word of God," in Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, ed. David B Garner (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012).
  10. See K. Scott Oliphint, "The Irrationality of Unbelief," in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, ed. K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007).
  11. See K. Scott Oliphint, "A Primal and Simple Knowledge," in A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes: Essays and Analysis, ed. David Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008).
  12. Sabine Baring-Gould, "Onward Christian Soldiers," 1865.
Subscribe to RPM
RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.