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Covenantal vs. Abductive Presuppositional Apologetics

I recently had the opportunity of interviewing Westminister Theological Seminary's professor of apologetics and systematic theology, Dr. K. Scott Oliphint. In our interview, Dr. Oliphint guides us through the fundamentals of Covenantal apologetics, also referred to as presuppostional apologetics. Head over to our Interviews page to dive into our conversation.

One of the wonderful things about about interviewing theologians and apologists is that there is a 100% chance that they are going to be far more knowledgeable than I will ever be, this side of glory. This means that the reservoir of questions that I have compiled in my mind over the last 26 years can be unleashed on those whom I have the privilege of interviewing. And one such question is, "What is the difference between Abductive apologetics (championed by Dr. Ron Nash and E. J. Carnell) and Covenantal apologetics (championed by Cornelius Van Til, Greg Bahnsen, and Dr. Oliphint)?". While I was not able to ask this question during our interview, I sent Dr. Oliphint an email asking if he would be willing to give a written response to my inquiry. He was kind enough to reply and the following is his response:

Your question is a good one, but these matters can be complex and any brief answer will be insufficient in many ways. So, I'll give you a quote from CVT that is an excellent summary, but it's up to the inquisitive to do the hard work of getting to that summary by way of further research. The quote is from Survey of Christian Epistemology, in the "Introduction," and I would heartily recommend that, for the stout-hearted, as an excellent place to begin. Following that, as I think I mentioned to you, it would be a good idea for folks to check out from the library, Debating Christian Religious Epistemology, ed. by DePoe and McNabb. I interact with other epistemological theories in the book, and promote a "covenantal" epistemology. It shows CVT's view relative to others including, evidentialism, Plantinga's proper function view, etc.

Now, the quote from CVT and a brief explanation:

"One more point should be noted on the question of method, namely, that from a certain point of view, the method of implication may also be called a transcendental method. We have already indicated that the Christian method uses neither the inductive nor the deductive method as understood by the opponents of Christianity, but that it has elements of both induction and of deduction in it, if these terms are understood in a Christian sense. Now when these two elements are combined, we have what is meant by a truly transcendental argument. A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is. An exclusively deductive argument would take an axiom such as that every cause must have an effect, and reason in a straight line from such an axiom, drawing all manner of conclusions about God and man. A purely inductive argument would begin with any fact and seek in a straight line for a cause of such an effect, and thus perhaps conclude that this universe must have had a cause. Both of these methods have been used, as we shall see, for the defense of Christianity. Yet neither of them could be thoroughly Christian unless they already presupposed God. Any method, as was pointed out above, that does not maintain that not a single fact can be known unless it be that God gives that fact meaning, is an anti-Christian method. On the other hand, if God is recognized as the only and the final explanation of any and every fact, neither the inductive nor the deductive method can any longer be used to the exclusion of the other. That this is the case can best be realized if we keep in mind that the God we contemplate is an absolute God. Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument. A deductive argument as such leads only from one spot in the universe to another spot in the universe. So also an inductive argument as such can never lead beyond the universe. In either case there is no more than an infinite regression. In both cases it is possible for the smart little girl to ask, “If God made the universe, who made God?” and no answer is forthcoming. This answer is, for instance, a favorite reply of the atheist debater, Clarence Darrow. But if it be said to such opponents of Christianity that, unless there were an absolute God their own questions and doubts would have no meaning at all, there is no argument in return. There lie the issues. It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence. Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. It does not seek to find whether the house has a foundation, but it presupposes that it has one. We hold that the anti-Christian method, whether deductive or inductive, may be compared to a man who would first insist that the statue of William Penn on the city hall of Philadelphia can be intelligently conceived of without the foundation on which it stands, in order afterwards to investigate whether or not this statue really has a foundation."

The point Van Til wants to make here is both positive and negative. Negatively, we shouldn't try to move from a supposedly "neutral" induction or deduction (or abduction) to the existence of God. But, positively, if we recognize that all true knowledge, methods, etc. are what they are because of who God is and what he has done, then all of these other methods can take their proper place. In other words, by "transcendental" Van Til simply means that we should be acutely aware of the presuppositions behind our own methods, and the methods of those to whom we speak. A Christian's presupposition must be that God is, and has spoken, in creation and in His Word.

This is yet another reason why I think the term "presuppostionalism" has worn out its welcome. It's too ambiguous and has come to denote a group of various people and methods. It can do that, because about all that is needed to be in the group is that the method give credence to "presuppositions" at some level.

That is not at all what Van Til meant by it. He meant that the universe presupposes God's existence, His creation and providence, His decree, etc. and His infallible revelation to us, so that any and every fact is, in the first place, His fact, and, if we're to know it truly we should start there in our thinking (not necessarily in our speaking).