“Apologetics: Covenantal, Not Classical” was one of the lectures delivered by Scott Oliphint during Reformed Forum’s recent Reformation 500 conference. I found the seventy-seven-minute-long lecture thorough and beneficial. Since all truth is God’s truth even those who differ with his perspective could benefit from his teaching. Given the title of his discourse some of its content likely came from his book, Covenantal Apologetics, 2013.
The apologetics debate between Van Til’s students, holders of Covenantal Apologetics, and the proponents of Classical Apologetics has been going on for a number of years. As with any subject that produces differing views, the Classical-Covenantal discussion has some supporters on both sides who are less than gracious in their polemics as they fail to apply the principle of the church’s peace while they pursue its purity. This article is really not a review of Scott Oliphint’s lecture but is instead an appeal to learn from a handful of words he stated about five minutes into the video. The central thrust of his presentation is a critique of R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner’s book, Classical Apologetics, 1984. He mentioned that it had been several years since he first read the book, so he thought he was due for a re-read and additional analysis. Note that John Gerstner passed away in 1996.
I consider R.C. Sproul a friend, a friend of the Reformed faith, and one of the ablest communicators of that faith over the past forty plus years. R.C. does not wear a black hat, but like all of us he wears a gray hat tainted with elements that tinge the white purity of the theology that we all hold together. So this is not, we are the good guys, they are the bad guys. This is a let us sit down over coffee and discuss this.
Such an introduction is not always provided for discourses or in written works on subjects that tend to polarization, so Dr. Oliphint’s acknowledgement of the considerable common theological interests and commitments that he and Dr. Sproul enjoy is refreshing. It has been several years since I read Classical Apologetics, but as I remember it the authors began their critique with a gracious recognition of the importance of VanTil’s work and their appreciation of some of his thought. When Christians differ but consider themselves friends it exemplifies “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity” (Psalm 1331:1). Of course, Oliphint and Sproul possibly have their moments when they get hot under the collar as their patience and control of the flesh wanes, but as temptation is suppressed they are concerned for the peace of the church as well as its purity. Oliphint said the ground of their unity is “the Reformed faith” which is “the theology that we all hold together.” The Reformed faith they have in common is defined by the documents of the Westminster Assembly because Dr. Sproul is a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) teaching elder and Dr. Olilphint is an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) minister. Those who are critical of confessions will sometimes call them divisive, but the fundamental purpose of a confession is to unite Christians in their common essential doctrine as they worship, glorify, and enjoy God.
The quote from Dr. Oliphint’s lecture ends with “this is a let us sit down over coffee and discuss this” difference between us. The general purpose of polemics for the world is to debate and point out the errors of opponents in order to support one’s own position, but in a church context the concern is to arrive at the truth of the Word. When one is seeking the weaknesses of another’s perspective, one’s mindset develops a paradigm bent on finding flaws. As differences are pursued any factors held in common tend to diffuse into the background of the picture as the lens focuses on differences in the foreground. Christian polemics should first establish what is common with a thorough understanding of the content of the commonalities, then differences should be addressed and discussed, and finally work should be done to see if consensus can be achieved. Where polemics generally seek the advance of the proponents’ views, Christian polemics should seek first the good of the Kingdom of God. If differing views could not be reconciled “over coffee,” the holders of the differing views would have learned from their discussions by having gained a fuller sense of what they have in common as they continue to differ amicably as members of the family of God. If individuals hold to views on a subject that is not specifically addressed by the Westminster Confession of Faith and its associated documents, nor can the orthodoxy of their views be determined by good and necessary inference from the confessional standards, and it appears that the vews are within the bounds of Scripture, then there is freedom for the two or more views to be held with the hope that someday continued study can resolve diversity into unity. In some cases, as in the Classical-Covenantal debate, epistemological, anthropological, and other fundamental points are in contention, so living in peace and harmony with disparate understandings is likely the way it will continue, but the peace of the church must not be forgotten. When questions of orthodoxy arise, then the supreme judge of all controversies, Scripture, must be brought to bear through the wisdom of the wise in the courts of the church.
In my years as a Christian an eclectic mix of apologetics views including everything from evidentialist Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict, to modified-presuppositionalist Francis Schaeffer’s wonderful trilogy, then on to a number of R.C. Sproul’s classical apologetics lectures and writings, and finally selections from the works of presuppositionalist Cornelius VanTil have each been found beneficial. All the apologists mentioned were seeking the truth from Scripture with regard to defending the faith. Dr. Oliphint said of R.C. Sproul that “like all of us he wears a gray hat tainted with elements that tinge the white purity of the theology that we all hold together.” This must not be forgotten. We want our theology to be perfect, which is a good desire considering we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect and our interpretation of Scripture should be pursuing accuracy, but an absolutely flawless theology with all its jots and tittles correctly aligned for all areas of doctrine cannot be drawn from the unplumbable and unsearchable depths of Scripture. As Dr. Oliphint said, there is always the gray tinge of sin.
Maybe more cups of coffee at a cafe table are needed instead of the heat of polemics as we pursue not only the purity but also the peace of the church within the liberating confines of our confessional summarization of the essential doctrines of Scripture.
BY BARRY WAUGH
The image of Raphael’s painting of Paul and the aeropagus is from Wikimedia. The paragraph beginning “In my years as a Christian an eclectic mix of apologetics views…” was revised on October 31, 2017 thanks to a comment from a reader of Presbyterians of the Past. Thank you for your input.