“In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” the apostle Peter tells us, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Defending the faith. Giving reasons for our hope. The apologetic task is fraught with significance—and only bound to become more so in our increasingly hostile cultural climate. It’s also fraught with controversy among Christians. How should we approach and engage unbelievers? Should we assume a certain level of epistemological “common ground” in such encounters? If so, how much? If not, why not?

In his new book, Covenantal Apologetics: Principles and Practice in Defense of Our Faith (Crossway), K. Scott Oliphint re-envisions the apologetic approach known as presuppositionalism in terms of God’s inescapably covenantal relation to every human being. (For more on this topic, see Tim Keller’s “In Defense of Apologetics” as well as our 2012 series: “What Is Presuppositionalism?”; “Questioning Presuppositionalism”; “Answering Objections to Presuppositionalism?”; “How Pastors Can Make Time to Talk with Skeptics”; “5 Ways Pastors Can Improve Their Apologetic Preaching.”)

I corresponded with Oliphint, professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, about whether Arminians can be presuppositionalists, why it’s vital to remember theists go to hell, and more.

Where is covenantal apologetics most misunderstood?

Confusion is most prominent in the area of argument. It’s often thought the best this method can do is preach, or assert, its truths, but never argue for them. This is a standard criticism.

Two brief responses may help. First, because any view that opposes Christianity is false, it’s necessarily the case that such a view cannot be consistent. Showing that inconsistency has persuasive value (given that all people know God and unbelievers suppress that truth) and constitutes an argument against it. Second, most of the confusion is rooted in a view of argument that presupposes religious neutrality. This is sometimes less conscious, I imagine, but it’s there nevertheless.

This is one reason why someone would juxtapose argument with preaching. But if preaching is done properly, we’d be hard pressed to conclude it isn’t itself an argument for the gospel. If it’s thought that, in order for an argument to be what it is, it must begin with some agreed-upon foundation of knowledge or proof, then a covenantal apologist cannot engage in an “argument” of this sort since there is, in reality, no religiously neutral ground on which to proceed.

Can an Arminian be a presuppositionalist? 

There are two principles informing my response to this question. First, as B. B. Warfield says, the Reformed faith is “Christianity come to its own.” If that is true, then any other theology is simply less consistent Calvinism. This is the case, I believe, with Arminianism. Second, J. I. Packer made the point years ago that “every Arminian is a Calvinist on his knees.” This points to the fact that it’s not possible to be consistent, biblically and theologically, as an Arminian.

So can an Arminian employ a covenantal apologetic? If he’s consistent with his theology, the answer is no. Why would he want to when he has already granted such a large swath of (presumed) autonomy to himself and his interlocutors? Given such autonomy, one cannot stand on the monergistic power of the gospel to change people; that has to happen via the initiative of the unbeliever.

What are the best arguments against covenantal apologetics?

The best arguments against it are in a group of arguments that insist the approach is unreasonable, or opposed to the unbeliever’s way of thinking, or unacceptable to the unregenerate mind. Of course, this is all true. The approach is unreasonable, if reason is defined and determined by those who are in Adam. It is, by definition, opposed to the unbeliever’s way of thinking, and is unacceptable to him.

Again, two brief considerations: first, in any true debate the two parties begin with premises, concepts, and ideas that are, by definition, in opposition. So, just as the Christian position appears to the unbeliever to be unreasonable and unacceptable, so does the unbelieving position appear to us. Second, given the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth, he knows, deep down, that what he thinks is reasonable is actually not; he knows what he thinks is unacceptable ought to be immediately and repentantly accepted. So a covenantal apologist has no desire to ride the roller coaster of the unbeliever’s irrationality. That’s a ride that begins poorly and never ends well.

“We’re not called to make theists out of people,” you’ve remarked. “Theists go to hell.” Why is this point important to recognize and dangerous to ignore?

I don’t think any Christian would disagree with this idea. The point has to do with the goal of Christian apologetics. The goal isn’t to argue for, or otherwise endorse, a generic theism—as Thomistic (i.e., Thomas Aquinas-influenced) apologetics wants to do. Rather, the goal is to show the utter inescapability of Christian truth. In his Aereopagus address (Acts 17:16ff.), Paul knew his audience was already convinced of theism. So what did he do? He moved the Athenians from a discussion of the true God—opposing him to their own gods—to a “proof” of this existence in the resurrection of Christ. From that proclaimed “proof,” he calls them to repentance.

The problem with unbelief is not its theism (or lack thereof), but its steadfast refusal to acknowledge the true God, who is known. The best way to argue that point is with the whole counsel of God—not by moving people to acknowledge some generic “something, somewhere” that’s probably out there and bigger than we are.

Why is it vital to realize that every human we encounter “knows God” (Rom. 1:21)?

This universal knowledge of the true God is the epistemological foundation of unbelief. Arguing according to that foundation, then, means we’re dealing with unbelief as it really is and not, in the first place, according to what the unbeliever might think it is. Historically we’ve been all too ready to grant the unbeliever’s self-assessment—as if it weren’t radically affected by sin—and then seek to stand on that self-assessment with him. This is foolish. His unbelief only has meaning in light of his knowledge of God and its suppression, so it’s incumbent on us to first of all recognize Scripture’s analysis of unbelief. This is what, in part, Cornelius Van Til meant when he said, “Atheism presupposes theism.” For atheism to be what it is, there must first be, in the atheist, the knowledge of God. The proper, biblical definition of atheism, therefore, is a foolish suppression of God’s ever-renewing and always-understood revelation of himself.

John Frame has written, “If Scripture is the ultimate justification for all human knowledge, how should we justify our belief in Scripture itself? By Scripture, of course!” How would you respond to someone who objects that this is circular—and thus illegitimate—reasoning?

This one is perhaps the most baffling to me, in that the charge can only be lodged by those whose historical knowledge is contained within a few decades. This notion of circularity, with respect to an ultimate authority, is nothing new. It’s part and parcel of the Reformation’s insistence that God’s revelation is the principium cognoscendi—the foundation of knowing—for any and all people. By definition, a foundation is that which one cannot get “beneath” or “behind.” Therefore, the proof of a foundation’s existence and authority stems from that foundation—and thus cannot lie behind it. If its proof were behind it, then that proof would be the foundation’s foundation, and on it goes. This is in part what’s meant in Westminster Confession 1.4, which speaks of Scripture’s absolute authority. As the confession recognizes, one either accepts God’s Word for what it is and says, or one can accept it because of what someone else (in this case the Roman church) says. If the latter, then the (Roman) church is the foundation, and not Scripture. So it is for anyone who seeks a foundation other than the Bible.

It should also be recognized that Westminster Confession 1.5 lists a number of arguments that can be made with respect to this foundation. So acknowledging a foundation doesn’t eliminate arguments; it only ties those arguments to the foundation itself, and does not—because it cannot—go behind it.

Last, as Aristotle pointed out a few thousand years ago, everyone has some foundation, and thus everyone must begin with what they can only substantiate by arguing from—not by establishing it according to something foundational to it.