Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings & Analysis
7.4: “The Transcendental Nature of Presuppositional Argument”
Transcribed February 2006
7.4 The Transcendental Nature of Presuppositional Argument
the character of Van Til’s presuppositional apologetical argument for the truth
of Christianity, it will be instructive to review a short segment of the
history of philosophy: the beginning of the “modern period” (the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries) in Europe and
claims to knowledge? Prior to the arrival of Kant’s critical approach to such question (especially, how are synthetic a priori judgments possible?), tow major schools of epistemological thought competed with each other. There was the “rationalist” approach to learning, knowing, and proof, advocated by the “Continental rationalists” René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Leibniz. The competing school of thought took an “empiricist” approach to epistemology and was represented by John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume. Both rationalism and empiricism adopted the autonomous point of reference that was assumed by Descartes’ attempt to escape skepticism or doubt, namely, man’s intellectual self-sufficiency as his own starting point for philosophical reasoning. (According to Descartes, the first clear and indisputable truth is that the individual man who is thinking or doubting must exist in order to think or doubt).
How do we
know what we know, and how can we prove our beliefs to be true? The autonomous
rationalists maintained that there are self-evident truths from which we can
deduce substantial conclusions about the nature of reality. The wildly
different conclusions about reality at which they arrived made it rather incredible
that their premises were genuinely self-evident and that their deductions were
genuinely necessary. The autonomous empiricists rejected all innate ideas,
maintained that only particulars exist, and said that we know and prove things
by common sense and observation of the world. This too led to philosophical
embarrassment, in that the empirical demand for verification (or the tracing of
our particular ideas back to their origin) was not itself a truth that could be
empirically verified, and the nature of the particulars that were acknowledged
to exist was hotly disputed. Was their a particular substance underlying the
particular attributes of things (Locke), or did material substance exist only
as a mental idea or internal experience (Berkeley), or – empirically speaking –
must we not also reject the existence of a mental substance (the mind being
only a bundle of perceptions), as well as enduring extramental
objects (made up of isolated, experienced traits) and any causal relation
between them (Hume)? Enlightenment epistemology was in shambles in both Europe
(the rationalists) and
no intellectual basis for confidence in man’s ability to gain objective knowledge of the real and orderly world outside (or inside) the mind.
Thus, as the story runs, Immanuel Kant was “awakened from dogmatic slumbers” by the shocking skepticism to which Hume was driven, and he pursued a “Copernican Revolution” in the way we should view the mind and its reasoning. The memorable opening line of the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, stated: “Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” (55) It was scandalous, said Kant, to philosophy and human reason that “if anyone thinks good to doubt” the existence and nature of things outside us, “we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof” and must accept those things “merely on faith.” (56) The rationalist and empiricist conceptions and methods of “proof” were obviously inadequate to counter the skeptic, but Kant felt that a different program of philosophical analysis could very well “save science” (as well as leave room for mystical and moralistic religious faith). Kant’s particular recommendation for doing this was philosophically (and religiously) abhorrent to Van Til (cf. chap. 5 above), (57) but the general kind of program (or approach to the proof of fundamental beliefs) that Kant recom-
55. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (German original, 1781; English translation, 1929; reprint, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), A vii.
56. Ibid., B xl.
57. Kant did not depart from the man-centered and autonomous standpoint of Descartes, but actually intensified its inwardness, making the mind of man the source of order or law in the world of experience. The mind, previously viewed as passive in the knowing process, is actually active in the acquisition of knowledge, held Kant; it imposes order (that is, the forms of time and space, and categories such as substance and causality) on the chaotic raw data of sensations. Against the rationalists, Kant taught that nothing could be known apart from experience or observation; against the empiricists, he held that the mind is not a blank tablet, but constructive of its objects knowledge. Kant’s scheme was arbitrary, offering no proof that the structure of the mind is universally the same or that our physical cognitive faculties do not change from time to time in a contingent world. It also capitulated to subjectivism and skepticism, since the mind “knows” objects only as they appear in experience, not as they are in themselves. Kant’s metaphysical agnosticism with respect to extramental things of “this world” (the noumenal realm) and things “beyond this world” (nonempirical ideas such as God) renders his autonomous philosophy thoroughly unacceptable, both philosophically and rigorously.
mended to improve upon rationalism and empiricism was convincing and effective, according to Van Til. Kant proposed to engage in “transcendental” analysis, which asks what the preconditions are for the intelligibility of human experience. Under what conditions is it possible, or what would also need to be true in order for it to be possible, to make sense of one’s experience of the world? To seek the transcendental conditions for knowing is to ask what is presupposed by any intelligible experience whatsoever. This kind of analysis takes us beyond the methods of rationalism and empiricism to see what is presupposed by them both. Kant wrote, “I entitle transcendental all knowledge which is occupied... with the mod of our knowledge of objects in so far as this mod of knowledge is to be possible a priori.” (58) Beliefs that are genuinely transcendental, then, cannot be false, and their certainty is ascertainable apart from specific empirical experiences that suggest or confirm them. Kant explained that the conclusion of a transcendental argument (or an analysis of some item of experience) “has the peculiar character that it makes possible the very experience which is its own ground of proof, and that in this experience it must always itself be presupposed.” (59)
The transcendental method of knowing one’s fundamental beliefs or proving one’s presuppositions, in which Van Til took a keen interest and advocated for apologetics in the late 1920s (when there was, as yet, a background of continuing appreciation for idealism in philosophical circles), has again come somewhat into vogue as a matter of some fascination (both positive and negative) among philosophers. (60)
58. Critique of Pure Reason, A 12.
59. Ibid., B 765. Note well that not all claims that a belief or idea is transcendental are in fact true. Saying so does not make it so. For instance, a dedicated opponent of the Christian faith might allege that his empiricism is a “transcendental” truth. But the principle “All knowledge is based on observational experience” is hardly one that could not possibly be false. Furthermore, it does not make possible its own ground of proof! Far from being self-authorizing or self-attesting, the empirical principle actually testifies against itself and betrays its own lack of authority. That is, we do not empirically know that all knowledge is based on observational experience.
60. The contemporary catalyst has been the analysis offered by P. F. Strawson in books such as Individuals (London: Methuen, 1959) and The Bounds of Sense (London: Methuen, 1965), but one could also consider Ludwig Wittgenstein’s argument against the impossibility of a private language (Philosophical Investigations) and his argument for the possibility of knowledge (On Certainty; cf. Greg L. Bahnsen, “Pragmatism, Prejudice, and Presuppositionalism,” in Foundations of Christian Scholarship, ed. North, 258-71). Other important contributions to the discussion of transcendental arguments are A. C. Grayling, The Refutation of Scep-
They disagree over the proper scope of transcendental arguments (how broad or ambitious should be their aim?) and the metaphysical character of what they prove (does it exist objectively or is it simply necessary to our conceptual scheme?). But others have been critical of the very notion of a transcendental kind of analysis or argument that is distinct from the methods of rationalism or empiricism (or their more refined modern counterparts). Similarly, John Frame has taken a critical position regarding this type of argument, holding that “there is probably not a distinctively ‘transcendental argument’ which rules out all other kinds of arguments.” He questions whether they are “really distinct from direct arguments,” and suggests that only rhetorical form or phrasing (the order in which things are mentioned) makes them different from deductive or inductive arguments that move “directly” from some observation or principle to what can be inferred from it. (61) In my judgment, however, Frame is mistaken about this.
The difference between the kind of philosophical analysis and argument that was engaged in and advanced by Kant and the kind of analysis or argument set forth by Descartes or Locke cannot credibly be reduced to a matter of rhetorical phrasing. The same holds for the difference between the kind of apologetical argumentation offered by Van Til and that which has been proposed by rationalistic and evidentialist apologists. The rationalist and empiricist philosophers se-
ticism (London: Duckworth, 1985) and R. Harrison, On What There Must Be (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974). There have been numerous relevant articles in the journals, some supportive and some critical of the notion of transcendental proof. They include Barry Stroud, “Transcendental Arguments,” Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968): 241-56; John Kekes, “Transcendental Arguments and the Sceptical Challenge,” Philosophical Forum 4 (1973-74): 422-31; A. Phillips Griffiths and J. J. MacIntosh, “Transcendental Arguments,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. Vol. 43 (1969): 165-93; T. E. Wilkerson, “Transcendental Arguments,” Philosophical Quarterly 20 (1970): 200-212; Stephen W. Arndt, “Transcendental Method and Transcendental Arguments,” International Philosophical Quarterly 27 (1987): 43-58; Charles Crittenden, “Transcendental Arguments Revived,” Philosophical Investigations 8 (1985): 229-51; Moltke S. Gram, “Transcendental Arguments,” Nous 5 (1971): 15-26; Jaakko Hintikka, “Transcendental Arguments: Genuine and Spurious,” Nous 6 (1972): 274-80; Charles Taylor, “The Validity of Transcendental Arguments,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, n. s. 79 (1978-79): 151-65. A convenient competent overview of the contemporary discussion can be found in A Companion to Epistemology, edited by Jonathan Dancy and Ernst Sosa (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992).
61. Apologetics to the Glory of God, (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), 73, 76.
lected a starting point (for Descartes, self-evident or clear ideas; for Locke, simple ideas caused by sensation), (62) whereas Kant’s analysis encourages one to start with any idea or fact whatsoever. The earlier philosophers also employed methods of reasoning different from Kant’s: Descartes connected and unpacked concepts, and Locke connected ideas by inductive generalization and analyzed complex ideas into their simple components. Kant, however, did not take items of phenomenal experience (whether conceptual or perceptual) themselves and connect them to others or break them down (unpack them); rather, he asked about something distinct from them, namely, the conditions (additional beliefs) that are necessary for them to be intelligible. Kant’s argument about the “necessity” of a causal understanding of our experience is not at all a rhetorical variation on the kind of analysis and argumentation we find in the work of Descartes or Locke (or especially Hume); they are concerned with different types of issues and appeal to different kinds of support for the positions they take on those issues.
But we realize even more clearly and definitively the distinctiveness of transcendental arguments when we contrast their logical character (that is, the truth-functional relation of their conclusions to their premises) with that of rational and empirical arguments. A deductive demonstration takes particular premises and draws a necessary conclusion from them; but if, in this rational argument, one of the relevant premises were negated, the conclusion would no longer follow or be established. Likewise, in an inductive or empirical argument, the premises include particular claims (or instances) of a definite sort; from them the conclusion draws a generalization with probability. However, if a competent or relevant premise (or sets of instances) were to be negated, the general conclusion would no longer be the same as before (or would no longer be drawn with the same degree of probability). To put it simply, in the case of “direct” arguments (whether rational or empirical), the negation of one of their premises changes the truth or reliability of their conclusion. But this is not true of transcendental arguments, and that sets them off from the other kinds of proof or analysis. A transcendental argument
62. Likewise, rational proofs for God’s existence do not start with just any truth, principle, or concept at all, but with an especially important one – like cause or purpose or perfection. Evidential proofs do not start with just any fact whatsoever, but with an especially important one – like Christ’s resurrection or fulfilled prophecy.
begins with any item of experience or belief whatsoever and proceeds, by critical analysis, to ask what conditions (or what other beliefs) would need to be true in order for that original experience or belief to make sense, be meaningful, or be intelligible to us. Now then, if we should go back and negate the statement of that original belief (or consider a contrary experience), the transcendental analysis (if original cogent or sound) would nevertheless reach the very same conclusion. (63) Clearly then, transcendental demonstration has a very distinct kind of argument over against rational and empirical proofs. (64)
A number of features of transcendental argumentation commended themselves to Van Til as an apologist. In the first place, it is a forceful, all-or-nothing intellectual challenge to unbelief in all of its
63. Van Til’s stunning application of this feature of transcendental argumentation to apologetics is that the truth of the Christian worldview is established not only by theistic premises and opinions, but also by antitheistic beliefs and opinions. As Van Til said, “Antitheism presupposes theism” (Survey of Christian Epistemology, xii). Even if the unbeliever wants to start with the assertion that “God does not exist,” a transcendental analysis of it would show that the possibility of its coherence or meaningfulness assumes the existence of the very God that it denies.
64. In passing, it should be noted that there is no transcendental argument that “rules out all other kinds of arguments,” as Frame puts it (Apologetics to the Glory of God, 73) – either in general philosophy and scholarship or particularly in apologetics (cf. chap. 8.3, 4 below).
However, when Frame says that transcendental arguments “require supplementation” – the help of other, “subsidiary” arguments – because he does “not think that the whole of Christian theism can be established by a single argument” (pp. 71, 72, 73), he fails to grasp that at stake in the transcendental argument is nothing less than the whole of the Christian worldview as revealed in Scripture. Frame criticizes Van Til by saying, “We must prove more than that God is the author of meaning, we must... prove that God is personal, sovereign, ... just, loving, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.” (p. 73). Or again: “There is no single argument that will prove the entire biblical doctrine of God” (p. 73). Remarks like these misconstrue the transcendental argument, as if it were one part of an atomistic or “blockhouse” apologetic, in which the defender of the faith proves the various features of the Christian worldview one by one. Rather, Van Til taught that when we engage in the internal critique of worldviews (the indirect argument with the unbeliever), we set forth for comparison the entire biblical worldview with all its features and details. In the dialogue with the unbeliever, we cannot speak of everything simultaneously (and it is convenient and polemically effective to get into issues of meaning and rationality from the start), but the position for which we are arguing is nothing less than all of Christianity. The Christian apologist may choose to focus on meaningfulness with one opponent, but turn to considerations of justice or love with a different opponent. These are simply “illustrations” of the broader project laid out by the transcendental approach. The illustration that is used in a particular circumstance is “person variable” (cf. Frame, p. 72).
manifestations. Our method of apologetics should not be concessive or compromising. As Van Til put it:
The natural man must be blasted out of his hideouts, his caves, his last lurking places...
Calvinism makes no compromise with the natural man either on his views of the autonomy of the human mind or on his views of the nature of existence as not controlled by the plan of God. Therefore Calvinism cannot find a direct point of contact in any of the accepted concepts of the natural man... He disagrees with the basic immanentistic assumption of the natural man. For it is this basic assumption that colors all his statements about individual teachings. It is therefore this basic assumption of the natural man that meets its first major challenge when it is confronted by the statement of full-fledged Christianity.
The Reformed apologist throws down the gauntlet and challenges his opponent to a duel of life and death from the start. (65)
Secondly, this form of argumentation covers the entire field. The transcendental, presuppositional argument does not allow that the unbeliever “can interpret any aspect of experience in terms of his principles without destroying the very idea of intelligibility.” To put it another way, Van Til maintained “that the philosophy of the non-Christian cannot account for the intelligibility of human experience in any sense.” (66)
And thus, thirdly, the transcendental argument upholds the exclusivity or singularity of Christianity as the answer to man’s woes:
Thus the Christian-theistic position must be shown to be not as defensible as some other position; it must rather be shown to be the position which alone does not annihilate intelligent human experience... He must therefore present the facts... as proving Christian theism because they are intelligible as facts in terms of it and in terms of it alone. (67)
Transcendental apologetics need not yield to the competing virtues of other worldviews: “We as Christians alone have a position that is philo-
65. Defense of the Faith, 122, 129-30.
66. Ibid., 198, 354 (emphasis added).
67. Ibid., 197, 264 (emphasis original).
sophically defensible... We are [certain] that Christianity is objectively valid and that it is the only rational position for man to hold.” (68)
In that case, fourthly, the transcendental form of defending the faith can deal with anything that the unbeliever brings up as an objection or challenge.
One shows that on his [the unbeliever’s] assumptions all things are meaningless. Science would be impossible; knowledge of anything in any field would be impossible. No fact could be distinguished from any other fact. No law could be said to be law with respect to facts... Thus every fact - not some facts - every fact clearly and not probably proves the truth of Christian theism. If Christian theism is not true then nothing is true. (69)
Indeed, given the force of the transcendental argument, the apologist is justified in rejecting in advance any hypothesis whose assumptions contradict the Christian outlook. (70)
A fifth virtue that commends transcendental apologetics is, accordingly, that it is not forced to agree to anything in the unbeliever's position or argument - as though future research might affect its validity, or as though Christianity is merely more probably correct than its competition. The argument for it is "objectively valid," regardless of the attitude of the attitude of the person to whom it comes. "Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold. It is not merely as reasonable as other positions, or a bit more reasonable as other positions; it alone is the natural and reasonable position for man to take." (72) If the transcendental project is properly pursued, the position of those who do not believe in the self-authenticating Christ "is reducible to absurdity." (73) "Our argument, then, is that those who... stop short of maintaining the fundamental conceptions of an absolute Christ, an absolute Scripture, and regeneration, reduce experience to an absurdity." (74)
Finally, then, in light of the foregoing features that make tran-
68. Common Grace, 8, 82.
69. Defense of the Faith, 266-67. The last sentence is elliptical; to put it more precisely, substitute "nothing is known to be true" for "nothing is true."
70. Ibid., 116.
71. Common Grace, 50.
72. Defense of the Faith, 256; cf. The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 98.
73. The Case for Calvinism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 144.
74. Survey of Christian Epistemology, 221.
scendental reasoning so attractive to a Christian apologist, Van Til considered it to have great personal and spiritual strength. "By stating the argument as clearly as we can, we may be the agents of the Holy Spirit in pressing the claims of God upon men," for a transcendental analysis of man's interpretive activity "is no doubt the most penetrating means by which the Holy Spirit presses the claims of God upon men." Indeed, although it may be couched in academic terms and be part of an intellectual dialogue, the transcendental argument for the truth of Christianity is an avenue by which "God calls men to conversion." (75)
It is easy to understand why Van Til and others have found the transcendental approach to defending the faith compelling and attractive. To understand how Van Til utilized it, however, it is important to see that his version of transcendental argumentation was unique. Van Til point out that he was applying the method of Kant or of the logic of idealism, but in a way which they could not. (76) In investigating the preconditions of intelligibility of man's experience, Van Til introduced significant changes in the method employed by unbelieving philosophers when pursuing a similar aim:
Again, we may speak of our method as being transcendental, but if we do, we should once more observe that our meaning of that word is different from the Kantian, or modern, meaning. Kantian thought does not really find its final reference point in God. It seeks to interpret reality by a combination of eternal and temporal categories... It is only the Christian who really interprets reality in exclusively eternal categories because only he believes in God as self-sufficient and not dependent upon temporal reality. (77)
Van Til held that Valentine Hepp was wrong to say "that Kant sought the solution of the question of certainty in the same direction in which a Christian should seek it." And the reason why Van Til made a point of insisting on this and distinguishing transcendental apologetics from
75. Defense of the Faith, 256, 257, 285 (in the first two citations, Van Til was quoting from Common Grace, 62).
76. An Introduction to Systematic Theology, In Defense of the Faith, vol. 5 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), 9.
77. Ibid., 14. The significance of the remarks about introducing temporal categories into one's point of reference is that they are, as such, contingent and subject to change, thereby excluding their conceptual necessity.
Kant was that "Kant's foundation of reasoning is wrong inasmuch as it is based upon the assumption of the ultimacy of the human mind, and inasmuch as it has assumed the existence of brute fact." (78)
Van Til's kind of transcendental critique was not a philosophical neutral or autonomous, abstract intellectual analysis, in which any unbeliever could participate without objection. It was not a project that started with no definite assumptions and reflected on immanent factors to discover the general foundations of thought in a way that any philosophers might do in formal cooperation with each other. "We do not first set out without God to find our highest philosophical concept in terms of which we think we can interpret reality and then call this highest concept divine." (79) God does not come in at the end of the process, having earned the intellectual right to a place in our thinking. The very process of transcendental thinking or analysis must itself begin with the belief in the living and true God. Advocates of autonomous transcendental critique consider transcendental apologetics distasteful, because Van Til's transcendental reasoning has a transcendent and concrete starting point in the presupposition of the truth of Scripture. "It is not enough for a Christian to point to the mere fact of the necessity of an a priori element in science. He must also show that unless that a priori be given the Christian-theistic basis, it is no true a priori." (80) This is considerably too religious, too personal, and too specific for autonomous philosophers and thinkers - as Van Til knew very well. He stated:
We accept this God upon Scriptural authority. In the Bible alone do we hear of such a God. Such a God, to be known at all, cannot be known otherwise than by virtue of His own voluntary revelation...
The frank acceptance of our position on authority, which at first blush, because of our inveterate tendency to think along non-Christian lines, seems to involve the immediate and total rejection of all philosophy - this frank acceptance of authority is, philosophically, our very salvation. (81)
The would-be autonomous man openly disdains bringing the Scriptures into a philosophical dialogue. He likewise derides any effort to give seirous consideration to a complex, general worldview, insisting
78. Ibid., 55.
79. Common Grace, 8.
80. Introduction to Systematic Theology, 45.
81. Common Grace, 8.
That limited analytical details are the only proper subject for philosophical discussion. The kind of transcendental comparison or indirect argument that is encouraged by the Christian apologist is odious to him. He may ridicule it, but by the demands of philosophy itself, he cannot ignore it.
So, as we can see, in Van Til's conception and use of transcendental argumentation, his own position rests upon authority (not upon autonomous analysis, starting from scratch). Further, the reasoning is concrete, rather than formal or abstract. That is why Van Til was critical of Kuyper for attempting to counter skepticism with the notion of mere "formal faith." Kuyper had argued that "general faith" - firm conviction "previous to investigation" or "prior to all proof" - was inherent in a human being and necessary to maintain one's own existence, the reliability of observation by our senses (as a bridge from the phenomenal to the noumenal), the truth of the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, and the unity of all truth. Without this faith, a person would land in subjectivism and be overwhelmed by skepticism. (82) Van Til's trenchant critique was right on target:
Kuyper insists that the concept of faith that he here speaks of is without content. It is inherent in the subject, therefore, not because the subject is unavoidably confronted with God, but simply as such. By means of this purely formal faith the human subject is first to become conscious of his own existence. Then by means of this formal faith a bridge is to be laid to the external world. The laws of thought by which the environment of man is to be manipulated also rest on this formal faith...
To be sure, all men have faith. Unbelievers have faith as well as believers. But that is due to the fact that they too are creatures of God. Faith therefore always has content. It is against the concept of faith as belief in God that man has become an unbeliever. As such he tries to suppress the content of his original faith. He tries to reduce it to something formal. (83) Then its content can take any form
82. Defense of the Faith, 384.
83. For instance, instead of saying "Jehovah is the Creator and controller of the world, of me as His image and responsible servant, and of my cognitive faculties so that I can reliably know His world and serve Him there," the unbeliever wants to reduce this to something less definite and theological - to the more "formal" belief that "there must be a 'me' who exists, with reliable cognitive faculties to know some kind of external world." The latter belief does not entail responsibility to acknowledge, thank, and glorify God for one's existence and abilities or to think of oneself as God's responsible servant.
he wants it to have. Then its content is actually indeterminate. And thus there is [to be philosophically honest] no foundation for man's knowledge of himself or of the world at all...
Kuyper speaks as though the merely formal idea of faith is a dam against skepticism... But how can this be? For this very formal idea of faith says nothing about the content or object of faith. Or rather, by its formality [an "unsaturated" function without defining value or subject] it allows for and even demands the correlative notion of pure non-rational factuality and of logic as an abstract system that includes both God and man. Thus the formal idea of faith is the very source of skepticism itself. (84)
The apologist commends to the unbeliever a very specific philosophical outlook or theory, with definite content - not simply abstract and formal ideas - for internal analysis and contrast to the concrete position of the unbeliever.
Hence, Van Til wrote that "the process of transcendental reasoning as employed by Christian theism is of necessity and inherently concrete." (85) Thus, the argument is that "the intelligibility of anything, for man, presuppose the existence of God - the God whose nature and character are delineated in God's revelation" (86) - not simply a god of some indeterminate character who (or which) might be transcendentally necessary. To simply posit a god about whom (or which) theoretical reason says nothing more (as with Kant) leaves the mind of man free to exercise his presumed autonomy by filling in the details. (87) the whole issue in apologetics is over the specific kind of God we are seeking to prove. "We must first ask what kind of a God Christianity believes in before we can really ask with intelligence whether such a God exists. The what precedes the that." (88) Likewise, the presuppositional argument does not first debate the formal possibility of a book from God, but rather begins the argument from the outset with the actuality of the Bible - whose worldview is offered for internal comparison with any other contrary viewpoint:
84. Defense of the Faith, 384-85.
85. Survey of Christian Epistemology, 33.
86. Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 12.
87. "Particularism and Common Grace," in Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1972), 104.
88. Defense of the Faith, 25; cf. pp. 25-29.
We must begin with the actuality of the book. We must not pretend to have established the possibility of the book and the necessity of it in terms of a philosophy that we did not get from the book. We have as Christians indeed learned with Calvin to interpret ourselves in terms of the book, and that on the authority of the book, and then we have looked to the book for the interpretation of the meaning of the facts... We know nothing but such facts as are what the book, the authoritative revelation of God, says they are. And we challenge unbelievers by saying that unless the facts are what the Bible says they are, they have no meaning at all. (89)
So then, the extraordinary use of the transcendental project in Van Til's presuppositional apologetic includes beginning with a position that is based on transcendental authority (and is presented as such) and which is concrete in content (and not merely formal or abstract).
A further unique feature of Van Til's version of transcendental argumentation is that it is much broader in scope than what most philosophers today want to discuss. Van Til was not simply analyzing and arguing about the contours, formal features, or isolated and broad kinds of beliefs that are necessary as the preconditions for intelligible experience and reasoning - that is, not simply narrow issues or aspects of one's conceptual scheme or detached prerequisite assumptions. For him, a truly transcendental argument must be about an extensive network of concrete and systematic beliefs. To put it simply, the argument is over entire worldviews. Accordingly, the "cogito" argument of Descartes ("I think, therefore I am" - because I cannot argue to the contrary without existing to think) is too limited and not adequate as a truly transcendental justification:
89. Introduction to Systematic Theology, 190-91 (emphasis added). Note well that the transcendental challenge begins with the Bible as a written, complete expression of a philosophical point of view - and then calls for any other philosophical outlook to be set next to it for comparison, so that it will be evident that without that finished product with which we began, the facts could have no meaning at all. The apologist does not start his reasoning outside the context of the Scriptures in order to somehow prove, first, that it is possible that there might be a book revealed by God, for the only "place to stand" where facts could be meaningful in proving that possibility is within the position revealed by the Bible. (Those who are without the written oracles of God still know God by natural revelation, which is the cognitive context in which they receive and are convinced that God also speaks to them in Scripture.)
[Those who seek to flee the voice of God] start with the "cogito" as though it were a rock in a bottomless ocean. They cannot individuate. They cannot show how one fact, if it could be found, can be related to another fact. They cannot account for the uniformity of nature. They cannot use the law of contradiction except they abuse it, making it destroy individuality as it succeeds in its reduction to abstract unity. They cannot find intelligible meaning in the words "cause," "substance," or "purpose"; there is no coherence in all their thought. (90)
Thus, because of its limited range, Descartes' transcendental proof does not show his existence to be intelligible after all. Isolated from a broader theory, his conclusion is useless and meaningless. (91) By contrast, Van Til challenged the unbelieving world with the broad and detailed theory or system of thought revealed by the Christian Scriptures as that which is transcendentally necessary for a cogent epistemology. He said that it should not be atomistically divided into component parts for separate argumentation then reassembled.
90.Defense of the Faith, 393. Descartes' argument "I think, therefore I am," only proves that thinking is occurring. It does not prove the existence of separate substances or the existence of personal substances, much less the existence of Descartes himself as a personal substance. It does not prove (but simply assumes), or demonstrate the proper use of, the law of contradiction; thus, it would be equally valid to assert that thinking is not occurring, even though it is. The argument does not establish the uniformity of nature, and so the connection between thinking and personal thinking substance may be broken tomorrow. Descartes' seemingly solid conclusion, then, is still unintelligible. It is, as Van Til expressed it, "a rock in a bottomless ocean."
91. This observation is relevant to answering the question of those who, having read or heard a particular illustration of the transcendental project of showing Christianity to be the precondition for intelligibility (say, an argument or debate centering on logic, inductive reasoning, or moral absolutes), wonder why such a presuppositional apologetic does not simply prove that the unbeliever must incorporate (as isolated items) logic, induction, or absolutes into his thinking and not necessarily concern himself with the entire Christian worldview. While a specific transcendental argument cannot say everything at once or deal with every detail of Christian theology simultaneously, it is intelligible only within the entire Christian system, which it seeks to prove by indirectly comparing whole worldviews. If the unbeliever wants to accept the point of the specific illustration (say, logic), but not place it within the wider theory, it will be meaningless and useless as a philosophical outlook. (For example, "All I believe in is logic" already says more than something about logic!) Presuppositional apologetics does not gradually build up the Christian worldview one step at a time, because if that worldview alone provides the context for intelligible reasoning, there cannot be another worldview that provides a context for intelligibly reasoning one's way to the exclusive Christian position!
Presuppositional apologetics orients the transcendental argument to entire worldviews that are in conflict with each other. This explains why it is, then, that "the argument for the Scripture as the infallible revelation of God is, to all intents and purposes, the same as the argument for the existence of God." (92) Transcendental presuppositionalism does not attempt to prove that some kind of god exists, apart from proving that it is the God who has revealed Himself in Scripture; nor does it try to prove that Scripture is a revelation from God, apart from proving that the God revealed in Scripture exists. It is a package deal (cf. chap. 3.2 above), and Christianity must be defended as a unit (cf. chap. 2.1 above):
As a rational creature he [the unbeliever] can understand that one must either accept the whole of a system of truth or reject the whole of it... He can understand the idea of [Scripture's] necessity, its perspicuity, its sufficiency and its authority as being involved in the Christian position as a whole.
But while understanding them as being involved in the position of Christianity as a whole, it is precisely Christianity as a whole, and therefore each of these doctrines as part of Christianity, that are meaningless to him as long as he is not willing to drop his own assumptions of autonomy and chance...
[T]he only possible way for the Christian to reason with the non-believer is by way of presupposition. He must say to the unbeliever that unless he will accept the presuppositions and with them the interpretations of Christianity there is no coherence in human experience... [I]t will be impossible to find meaning in anything. (93)
Van Til's "holistic" approach to apologetical argument distinguishes his transcendental method from what his idealist counterparts would have done or approved:
The whole claim of Christian theism is in question in any debate about any fact. Christian theism must be presented as that light in terms of which any proposition about any fact receives meaning. Without the presupposition of the truth of Christian theism no fact can be distinguished from any other fact. To say this is but to apply the method
92. Defense of the Faith, 126.
93. Ibid., 166-67 (emphasis added).
of idealist logicians in a way that these idealist logicians, because of their own anti-Christian theistic assumptions, cannot apply it. (94)
Because of the nature and content of the Christian's own fundamental presuppositions - involving the authority of God and His revelation - even his conception and method of transcendental argumentation will be a transformed interpretation or understanding which distinguishes his outlook from that of would-be autonomous man.
Here then is how the presuppositional (transcendental) method of defending the faith would proceed, once the preliminary discussions and clarifications have taken place with the unbeliever - and the two outlooks now come head-to-head. (95) The unbeliever says that he knows that miracles are impossible, that a personal, almighty God does not exist, that ethical principles are not normative across cultural boundaries, etc. Or the unbeliever says that the believer cannot know that the Bible is God's word, or that Jehovah exists, or that Christ was His Son, etc. The Christian apologist must seek to uncover what this unbeliever's personal convictions are regarding relevant metaphysical and epistemological matters: e.g., what is the nature of things that are real, how does the world operate, where did it come from, what is man's place in the world, what is man's nature, are there moral or epistemological norms that are not chosen by the individual, what are the criteria of truth, what are the proper methods of knowing, is certainty possible, etc.? Once the believer has a fairly good grasp of the general kind of worldview assumed (or explicitly advocated) by the unbeliever, it should be compared to the worldview of the Christian. The Christian can show that the particular objections raised by the unbeliever would, within the Christian outlook, not prove to be legitimate objections or intellectual problems at all. Thus, who really 'knows' what he is talking about, the Christian or the non-Christian? The cogency of each side's theory and practice of knowing must be tested within the broader worldviews of which
94. Ibid., 132-33 (emphasis added).
95. It should be clear that what follows is a highly compressed and artificially programmatic summary of what the procedure aims to be. In actual conversations, the order in which things are discussed, the relevant illustrations, the irrelevant sidebars, personal quirks, and unpredictable mental associations will all contribute to a specific dialogue that will likely differ from other ones and wander in many different directions.
they are a part. The apologist explains how rationality, communication, meaning, science, morality, and man's redemption and renewal are quite understandable, meaningful, coherent, or intelligible within the biblical worldview - within the framework of thinking God's thoughts after Him. The apologist then subjects the unbelievers' worldview to an internal critique to show that it is (1) arbitrary, and/or (2) inconsistent with itself, and/or (3) lacking the preconditions for the intelligibility of knowledge (language, logic, science, morality, redemption, etc.). Since that is the case, the unbeliever cannot 'know' the things that he urges against Christianity - indeed, he could not know anything at all and loses all claim to rationality. Thus, the Christian has proved the rationality and necessity of His scripturally based worldview.
The specific questions or philosophical issues with which an apologist chooses to press the unbeliever, and the particular aspects of experience that he selects for application of these issues, are wide, varied, and not prescribed in advance by the transcendental program of proving Christianity and disproving any version of autonomous unbelief. Take anything about which the unbeliever is committed or concerned - anything that seems uncontroversial and agreed upon by the unbeliever and believer alike - and from that point show that it would be unintelligible, meaningless, or incoherent if the unbeliever's worldview, instead of the believer's, were true. The illustrations are as wide as human experience - from the curing of polio, to the composiiing of an opera, to the condemnation of police brutality, to the balancing of your checkbook. The philosophical issues about which Van Til wrote were extensive and varied, and we should make use of his arguments to prove the believer's epistemology and discredit the unbeliever's. For example, we read about the problem of making sense of (or the possibility of) predication (96), reason (97), explanation (98), interpretation (99), learning (100),
96. Introduction to Systematic Theology, 229; Common Grace, 49; The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, In Defense of the Faith, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967), ii.
97. "Nature and Scripture," in The Infallible Word, ed. N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946), 301; Common Grace, 9-10; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 163; Case for Calvinism, 142; Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 30, 97.
98. Defense of the Faith, 259.
99. Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, ii.
100. Case for Calvinism, 132; 141, 148-49.
certainty (101), universals (102), possibility (103), cause, substance, being and purpose (104), counting (105), coherence, unity, and system of experience or in a conception of a universe (106), logic (107), individuating of facts (108), unchanging natures or laws in a chance universe (109), uniformity (110), science (111), connecting logic and facts or predication to reality (112), avoiding contradictions (113), avoiding the irrationalism or skepticism that arises from the tension between knowing discursively and knowing systematically (114), etc.
In short, the transcendental critique of non-believing worldviews aims to show that, given their presuppositions, there could be no knowledge in any field whatsoever (115) - that it would be impossible to find meaning or intelligibility in anything at all. (116) As an example of this kind of criticism directed at worldly systems of philosophy or autonomous thinking (at its best), the reader can review chapter 5.3.
Once again it is important to recall that Van Til's presuppositional apologetic does not argue that unbelievers in fact do not count, reason, learn, communicate, engage in science, explain, seek purpose and order, etc. Because they psychologically know God, they are both concerned about the issues listed above and are to some extent successful in negotiating or applying them to understand the world and their personal experiences. The issue is not what unbelievers can do intellectually, but whether they can give an account of it (epistemologically) within their worldview. Their autonomous worldview takes man's interpretation of the world to be "original" - to provide the primary ordering of particulars or the "rationalizing" of (that is, making systematic sense of) brute facts. But when the would-be autonomous
101. Common Grace, 50; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 46.
102. Common Grace, 5-6; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 46.
103. Introduction to Systematic Theology, 114-15.
104. Common Grace, 49, Defense of the Faith, 393.
105. Defense of the Faith, 294, 354.
106. Ibid.., 66, 167, 258, 354, 393. Survey of Christian Epistemology, 218.
107. Common Grace, 28; Defense of the Faith, 311, 393; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 11; Case for Calvinism, 129; Protestant Doctrine of Scripture, 62.
108. Defense of the Faith, 267, 300, 393.
109. Introduction to Systematic Theology, 40.
110. Defense of the Faith, 120, 393; Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 31.
111. Common Grace, 50; Defense of the Faith, 194, 195, 266, 268, 283-84, 285, 354.
112. Defense of the Faith, 131, 164-165; Introduction to Systematic Theology, 39, 60.
113. Common Grace, 9.
114. Defense of the Faith, 137-38.
115. Ibid., 266.
116. Survey of Christian Epistemology, 18; Defense of the Faith, 164, 167, 264.
man is put at the center of the knowing process, and his presuppositions are consistently driven to their logical outcome, he ultimately slips into subjectivism and skepticism. The only alternative - the Christian worldview - places the creative and providential activity of the triune God "in back of" all of man's experiences and intellectual efforts, and that solves the fundamental problems of epistemology that leave the unbelieving critic nowhere to stand. (117) Only Christianity can account for or make sense of the intellectual accomplishments of the unbeliever. The critic of Christianity has been secretly or unknowingly presupposing the truth of the faith even as he argues against it; his own arguments would be, upon analysis, meaningless unless they were wrong and Christian theism were true.
Van Til memorably encapsulated the essence of the transcendental argument in apologetics in the "Credo" which he wrote for his Festschrift. In his proposal for a "consistently Christian methodology of apologetics," Van Til's suggestion was that "we claim... that Christianity alone is reasonable for men to hold. It is wholly irrational to hold any other position than that of Christianity. Christianity alone does not slay reason on the altar of 'chance'." Accordingly, said Van Til, we must reason by presupposition. And the powerful essence of that presuppositional argument is just this: "The only 'proof' of the Christian position is that unless its truth is presupposed there is no possibility of 'proving' anything at all." (118) What the Christian sets forth as the Bible's worldview - as authoritatively revealed by God - is the indispensable foundation for proof itself - for the intelligibility of reason and experience, for the ability to make sense of knowing anything. At this point, the unbeliever's choices are either to acknowledge the truth revealed by God's word (and repent of his sins, including intellectual autonomy) or to reject rationality itself. He had demanded that the Christian "give a reason" for his firm conviction ("hope") about Christ and His word (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), and he must now either accept the Christian's reasoning or retreat from the task and normativity of "giving reasons" (for rationality, intelligibility, meaning, logic, science, morality, etc.). In either case, the apologetical encounter has been successful for, and has ended in favor of, the Christian position.
117. Defense of the Faith, 116, 165; Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 89; Common Grace, 64.
"My Credo," in
THE MEANING OF "TRANSCENDENTAL" METHOD (119)
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 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 cane 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 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 lies the issue. It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically
119. Excerpts from Survey of Christian Epistemology, 10-12, 201-2 (emphasis partly added). This passage that defines Van Til's message comes from his earliest syllabus; it was not a later development of his thought.
self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or affirmation, unless it were for God's existence. (120) 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...
It should be particularly noted, therefore, that only a system of philosophy that takes the concept of an absolute God seriously can really be said to be employing a transcendental method. A truly transcendental God and a transcendental method go hand in hand. It follows then that if we have been correct in our contention that Hegelian Idealism does not believe in a transcendental God, it has not really used the transcendental method as it claims it has.
Now at this juncture it may be well to insert a brief discussion of the place of Scripture in all this. The opponent of Christianity will long ago have noticed that we are frankly prejudiced, and that the whole position is "biblicistic." On the other hand, some fundamentalists may have feared that we have been trying to build up a sort of Christian philosophy without the Bible. Now we may say that if such be the case, the opponent of Christianity has sensed the matter correctly. The position we have briefly sought to outline is frankly taken from the Bible. And this applies especially to the central concept of the whole position, viz., the concept of an absolute God. Nowhere else in human literature, we believe, is the concept of an absolute God presented. And this fact is once more intimately related to the fact that nowhere else is there a conception of sin, such as that presented in the Bible. According to the Bible, sin has set man at enmity against God. Consequently it has been man's endeavor to get away from the idea of God, that is, a truly absolute God. And the best way to do this was to substitute the idea of a finite God. And the best way to accomplish this subordinate purpose was to do it by making it appear as though an absolute God were retained. Hence the great insistence on the part of those who are really anti-Christian, that they are Christian.
It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. So also it makes very little difference whether we begin with the notion of an absolute God or with the no-
120. Van Til is not making the metaphysical point here (true though it may be) that if God did not really exist, then human beings would not actually have linguistic abilities. His point is an epistemological one: God must be believed (presupposed, made part of one's conceptual scheme) in order to make intelligible the possibility and the actuality of human communication.
tion of an absolute Bible. The one is derived from the other. They are together involved in the Christian view of life. Hence we defend all or we defend none. Only one absolute is possible, and only one absolute can speak to us. Hence it must always be the same voice of the same absolute, even though he seems to speak to us at different places. The Bible must be true because it alone speaks of an absolute God. And equally true is it that we believe in an absolute God because the Bible tells us of one. (121)
And this brings up the point of circular reasoning. The charge is constantly made that if matters stand thus with Christianity, it has written its own death warrant as far as intelligent men are concerned. Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is written in the Bible? Our answer to this is briefly that we prefer to reason in a circle to not reasoning at all. We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning that is possible to finite man. The method of implication as outlined above is circular reasoning. Or we may call it spiral reasoning. We must go round and round a thing to see more of its dimensions and to know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating. Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way, than by a transcendental or circular argument. The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of opposition to Christianity. Reasoning in a vicious circle is the only alternative to reasoning in a circle as discussed above. (122)...
In this respect the process of knowledge is a growth into the truth. For this reason we have spoken of the Christian theistic method as the method of implication into the truth of God. It is reasoning in a spiral fashion rather than in a linear fashion. Accordingly, we have said that we can use the old terms deduction and induction if only we remember that they must be thought of
121. CVT: In some of his recent publications - particularly in his works De Heilige Schrift, 1966-1967 - Dr. G. C. Berkouwer warns orthodox Christians against having a formal view of Scripture. He stresses the fact that the content of biblical teaching and the idea of the Bible are involved in one another. It is this point that the syllabus made in 1939.
122. The "circularity" of a transcendental argument is not at all the same as the fallacious "circularity" of an argument in which the conclusion is a restatement (in one form or another) of one of its premises. Rather, it is the circularity involved in a coherent theory (where all the parts are consistent with or assume each other) and which is required when one reasons about a precondition for reasoning. Because autonomous philosophy does not provide the preconditions for rationality or reasoning, its "circles" are destructive of human thought - i.e., "vicious" and futile endeavors. (Because there is more than one kind of "circularity," Van Til sometimes repudiated and sometimes tolerated the notion that his apologetics was circular - which has undoubtedly been confusion to his readers and students.)
as elements in this one process of implication into the truth of God. If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us. It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset. It is this fact that the transcendental method seeks to recognize.
The charges made against this type of reasoning we must turn upon those who made them. It will be said of this type of reasoning that it introduces the subjective element of belief in God, which all men do not share. Of this we can only say that all men should share that belief, and before the fall of man into sin man did have that belief. Belief in God is the most human attitude conceivable. It is abnormal not to believe in God. We must therefore hold that only the Christian theist has real objectivity, while the others are introducing false prejudices, or subjectivity.
The charge is made that we engage in circular reasoning. Now if it be called circular reasoning when we hold it necessary to presuppose the existence of God, we are not ashamed of it because we are firmly convinced that all forms of reasoning that leave God out of account will end in ruin. Yet we hold that our reasoning cannot fairly be called circular reasoning, because we are not reasoning about and seeking to explain facts by assuming the existence and meaning of certain other facts on the same level of being with the facts we are investigating, and then explaining these facts in turn by the facts with which we began. We are presupposing God, not merely another fact of the universe...
Even in paradise it was God's verbal self-disclosure, and the disclosure of his will for man's activity in relation to the created cosmos, that was indispensable for man's ability to identify any fact and to relate any fact properly to any other fact. Applying this to the Scripture, it is but natural that we should accept the Scripture testimony about itself. If we did anything else we would not be accepting Scripture as absolute. The only alternative then to brining in a God who testifies of himself and upon whose testimony we are wholly dependent, is not to bring in God at all. And not to bring in God at all spells nothing but utter ruin for knowledge. In that case knowledge may be said to be reduces to the pass of drawing circles in a void. Hence we must return the
charge of circular reasoning to those who made it. On the other hand, we are happy to accept the charge of circular reasoning. Our reasoning frankly depends upon the revelation of God, whose "reasoning" is within the internal-eternal circularity of the three persons of the Trinity. It is only if we frankly depend for the validity of our reasoning upon this internal circular reasoning in the triune God that we can escape trying in vain to reason in circles in a vacuum of pure contingency.
The charge has been made that it is an a priori procedure to bring in God at the beginning of the process of knowledge. This too is a charge that acts as a boomerang. A priori reasoning is reasoning that does not start with the facts. Now antitheism has arbitrarily taken for granted that God is not a fact, and that if he is a fact that fact does not have any bearing upon the other facts. This we must hold to be an a priori procedure. We hold that the so-called "facts" are wholly unintelligible unless the supreme fact of God be brought into relation with them. We are willing to start with any fact as a proximate starting point, but refuse to admit before the investigation has begun that there can be no such fact as God.
Summing up, we may observe that all the various methods of investigation that have been advanced may be used theistically or they may be used antitheistically, according as God is taken into or left out of consideration at the outset... [A]ntitheistic thinking was constantly taking for granted that its position was correct. It did hits by taking for granted that the object and subject of knowledge exist apart from God and can come into fruitful relation with one another without any reference to God. Therewith antitheistic thinking reduced God, if he was later to be taken into consideration at all, to a quantitative addition to man.
A SAMPLE (123)
The argument must be the same in principle with all the various forms of an antitheistic speculation...
Naturally, the main point in dispute is whether our opponents can get along without God. All of our opponents have said in effect that human categories are ultimate. With respect to all of them we could then ask what happens if they seek to face the more ultimate questions of philosophy on this basis...
All of these and many other nuances of modern thought and scientific method have this in common - that they naively take for granted that the
123. Excerpts from "A Sample of Christian Theistic Argument," chap. 16 in Survey of Christian Epistemology, 210, 211, 215, 216-217, 218 (emphasis partly added).
"facts" are there as ultimates from which we must begin our research. The object and the subject of knowledge are taken for granted without the question of reference to God. It is assumed, therefore, that human categories are in themselves quite able to interpret reality...
We must therefore briefly seek to understand what the consequences are if one takes this position to the bitter end. First we should notice, however, that there are all too many who are not willing to accept the responsibility for their epistemological attitude. (124)...
Agnosticism of the type criticized is characteristic of all the movements in physics, biology, psychology, and philosophy spoken of above. Not all of them are usually spoken of as agnostics, because many of them claim to know about finite things even if they disclaim knowledge of ultimate things. But it is itself a sign of agnosticism not to classify as agnostics not only all who disclaim knowledge about ultimate reality, but also all those who claim to have knowledge about finite matters without having knowledge about God. The assumption of those who say they are not agnostic about finite things, but only about God, is that finite things can be known apart from God. From the Christian theistic point of view, such as claim knowledge of finite things and disclaim knowledge of God are as much agnostics as those who disclaim knowledge of both. This is involved in our argument which showed that to attempt to know a finite object apart from God involves one in self-contradiction upon one's own assumptions...
[We] begin our argument against all of them on essentially the same point, that is, that they have taken for granted that the object and the subject of knowledge exist and can come into relation with one another without taking God into consideration. We cannot agree with the attitude taken by Charles Harris that, since there has been a reaction against some of the more extreme forms of materialism, etc., there is now no serious opponent to Christianity in the field of philosophy today. He holds that because the contingency of the universe has become "an accepted philosophical doctrine" there is not much else to fear (cf. his Pro Fide, p. xviii). We hold that if it is true that the contingency of the universe is an established philosophical doctrine, then philosophy is as much opposed to Christianity as ever Materialism was, since it then leaves God's plan out of consideration.
If God is left out of the picture it is up to the human mind to furnish the unity that must bind together the diversity of factual existence. It will not do to think of laws existing somehow apart from the mind. And even if this were possible it would not help matters any, because even these laws would
124. See the readings above on epistemological loafers and agnosticism.
be thought of as independent of God and as just there somehow. In other words, the only alternative to thinking of God as the ultimate source of the unity of human experience as it is furnished by laws or universals is to think that the unity rests in a void. Every object of knowledge must, therefore, be thought of as being surrounded by ultimate irrationality. It is this that is involved in the position A. E. Taylor represents when he constantly avers that there is a surd in everything historical or temporal, that is, in all factual existence. On the other hand, if the more subjective position be taken, it is the human mind that furnishes the universal element of experience, and the human mind must itself be thought of as swimming in a void.
In the second place, it should be noticed that if the object and the subject must both be thought of as somehow being in the void, it is inconceivable that there should be any relation of any sort between them. Aristotle admitted to being baffled at the question of the infima species, i.e., the relation of the individual to the lowest universal. There he found ultimate mystery. On the one hand you cannot say that the individual is subsumed under the species entirely, lest there be nothing but species, and the whole individual disappear. On the other hand, you cannot have complete individuality without bringing the individual into relation with others. Aristotle therefore admitted that, as far as he could see, the relation of the individual and species, or the relation of the fact to law, remained a mystery. And since the day of Aristotle there has not been any advance made on this score, because modern philosophy has continued to build upon the same assumption that Greek philosophy build upon, namely that all things are at bottom one and return unto one. If there is to be any relation between the one and the many, it must be, according to all non-theistic thought, a relation of identity, and if identity is seen to lead to the destruction of knowledge, the diversity that is introduced is thought of as being ultimate. In other words, according to all non-theistic thinking, the facts and the laws that are supposed to bind the facts together into unity are first thought of as existing independently of one another and are afterward patched together. It is taken for granted that the temporal is the ultimate source of diversity. Accordingly, Reality is said to be essentially synthetic. The real starting point is then an ultimate plurality. And an ultimate plurality without an equally ultimate unity will forever remain a plurality.
It is this that is especially apparent in all forms of pragmatic thought. There the necessity of having any such ultimate unity is openly denied. And the only way we can meet the contention is to show that by denying ultimate unity they have also denied to themselves the possibility of having a proximate unity. There is no guarantee that the human mind can in any sense know reality that is near unless it knows reality that is far away. For all I know, the
next fact that I must adjust to a previous fact is a fatal automobile accident. How then do I know that it is not the most pragmatically valuable thing for me to know whether the fact of death does not immediately connect me with another fact, namely, the judgment?
It is clear that upon pragmatic basis, and for that matter upon antitheistic basis in general, there can be no object-object relation, i.e., there can be no philosophy of nature so that the sciences become impossible, and no philosophy of history, so that the past cannot be brought into relation with the present nor the future with the present. Then there can be no subject-object relation, so that even if it were conceivable that there were such a thing as nature and history, I would be doomed to ignorance of it. In the third place, there can be no subject-subject relation, so that even if there were such a thing as nature and history, and even if I knew about it, I could never speak to anyone else about it. There would be Babylonian confusion...
Our conclusion then must be that the various devotees of the open universe, who take for granted that the human mind can furnish all the universals that the facts require, must be regarded as having reduced human experience to an absurdity.
REASONING BY PRESUPPOSITION (125)
These things being as they are it will be our first task in this chapter to show that a consistently Christian method of apologetic argument, in agreement with its own basic conception of the starting point, must be by presupposition. To argue by presupposition is to indicate what are the epistemological and metaphysical principles that underlie and control one's method. The Reformed apologist will frankly admit that his own methodology presupposes the truth of Christian theism. Basic to all the doctrines of Christian theism is that of the self-contained God, or, if we wish, that of the ontological trinity. It is this notion of the ontological trinity that ultimately controls a truly Christian methodology. Based upon this notion of the ontological trinity and consistent with it, is the concept of the counsel of God according to which all things in the created world are regulated. (126)
125. Defense of the Faith, 116-120, 134-35. The reading selection, bearing the same title as used here, first appeared in Van Til's early and main syllabus, Apologetics (pp. 61ff.), from which it was reproduced in the chapter on "The Problem of Method" in what has become his best-known publication, The Defense of the Faith. It may deservedly be looked upon as the essence of his instruction on how to defend the truth-claims of Christianity.
126. It is imperative to bear in mind that Van Til described the presuppositional method as working from the outset with the distinctive doctrines of Christian
Christian methodology is therefore based upon presuppositions that are quite the opposite of those of the non-Christian. It is claimed to be of the very essence of any non-Christian form of methodology that it cannot be determined in advance to what conclusions it must lead. To assert, as the Chris-
theism (e.g., the Trinity, divine providence). Earlier in this chapter, it was pointed out that Van Til’s transcendental method is concrete, not abstract or formal. He never offered to discuss with the unbeliever merely the worldview of a god of some undetermined nature and character; rather, he always put forward the specific and full worldview of biblical Christianity. That is why the syllabus Apologetics and the book The Defense of the Faith both begin with detailed statements of Christian theology. These statements were not intended simply as a review, warming up to apologetics; they were for Van Til a defining part of the apologetical task. Accordingly, his presuppositional method could not be used in defense of “any other religion,” as many critics have mistakenly suggested.
In dealing with the advocates of other religions, the Christian apologist should use the presuppositional method in the same way that he would use it with atheists and materialists. That is, he makes an internal examination of the worldview that is offered by whatever religious devotee he is having the dialogue with. The fact that the opposing religionist speaks formally of “God” (or “gods”) is not a difficulty here, for he must define his specific concept of deity. His deity is not the Christian god, for Scripture says, “Their rock is not our Rock” (Deut. 32:31). Recall the devastating prophetic critique of the heathen’s lifeless idols, which are (contradictorily) under the control of those who bow down to them. The use of religious vocabulary does not change the applicability of the indirect method of disproving non-Christian presuppositions.
Most of the unstudied and superficial comments by people about comparative religion – for instance, that “all religions are alike” or “you can have your pick of sacred books” – can be easily contradicted by the apologist. Indeed, if anybody is tempted to be the spokesman and defender of “just any” non-Christian religion (so as to silence the Christian apologetic), it should be politely observed that the vast majority of the world’s religions cannot even offer epistemological competition to the Christian worldview. There are indeed other sacred books, but they are not at all like the Bible. An internal analysis of the metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions of non-Christian religions shows that they teach, metaphysically, that there is no god, or no personal god, or no god who is omniscient, sovereign, etc. Accordingly, from an epistemological perspective, these sacred books are not and cannot be anything like what the Bible claims for itself, namely, to be the personal communication and infallible verbal revelation from the only living, completely sovereign, and all-knowing Creator. The other religious books on their own presuppositions, give no reason to accept them as true or normative. And as for their own worldviews, these books as pieces of literature can have no epistemological or ethical authority. What they offer (when you can make sense of it at all) is simply one opinion against another.
The remaining world religions or cults that might seem at first to offer something in competition with Christianity (namely, a personal deity and a verbal revelation) are usually poor imitations of Christianity (using “borrowed capital”) or Christian heresies (departing from biblical teaching in a crucial way). Ordinarily, the best tactic is to reason with the advocates of these groups from Scripture, refuting their errors from the Scripture itself. This amounts to an internal
tian apologist is bout to do if he is not to deny the very thing he is seeking to establish, that the conclusion of a true method is the truth of Christian theism is, from the point of view of the non-Christian, the clearest evidence of authoritarianism. In spite of this claim to neutrality on the part of the non-Christian the Reformed apologist must point out that every method, the supposedly neutral one no less than any other, presupposes either the truth or the falsity of Christian theism.
The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. (127) The question is as to what the “facts”
critique of the opposing worldview. For example, Sun Myung Moon tries to authorize certain of his teachings by simply appealing to the Bible, but he has no justification for doing so, since he rejects other teachings of the Bible and refuses to grant its claim to plenary authority. Unless he accepts the Bible’s plenary authority, no simple appeal to what it says (that is, without outside warrant) can authorize the point he is attempting to make. There must be some outside warrant for it, and so the apologist will then want to examine the credentials of this extrabiblical authority.
people’s minds, the Muslim faith presents the greatest challenge to
presuppositional apologetics because, it is imagined, Islam can counter each
move in the Christian’s argument. But this is a mistaken notion. For example,
Islam teaches unitarianism and fatalism, has
different moral concepts, and lacks redemption. It can be critiqued internally
on its own presuppositions. Take an obvious example. The Koran acknowledges the
words of Moses, David, and Jesus to be the words of prophets sent by Allah;
therefore, the Koran, on its own terms, is refuted because of its
contradictions with earlier revelation (cf. Deut. 13:1-5). Sophisticated
theologies offered by Muslim scholars interpret the Koran (cf. 42:11) as
teaching the transcendence (tanzih) of
unchanging Allah in such an extreme fashion that no human language (derived
from changing experience) can positively and appropriately describe Allah – in
which case the Koran rules out what it claims to be. The Islamic worldview
teaches that God is holy and just with respect to sin, but that (unlike the
Bible – see the words of Moses, David, and Jesus) there can indeed be
“salvation” where guilt remains unremitted by the
shedding of the blood of a substitute for the sinner. The legalism of Islam
(i.e., good works are weighed against bad) does not address this problem
because bad works remain on one’s record in the very sight of Allah (who
supposedly cannot tolerate sin, but must punish it). Compare my lectures on
Islam and the debate (at
127. Van Til’s apologetic is often set forth and illustrated in terms of epistemological and metaphysical issues, but a very simple and understandable example of it can be given in the area of ethics. In my experience, the most popular argu-
and "laws" really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are? Are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are?
The answer to this question cannot be finally settled by any direct discussion of "facts." It must, in the last analysis, be settled indirectly. The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument's sake, in order to show him that on such a position the "facts" are not facts and the "laws" are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument's sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do "facts" and "laws" appear intelligible.
To admit one's own presuppositions and to point out the presuppositions of others is therefore to maintain that all reasoning is, in the nature of the case, circular reasoning. The starting point, the method, and the conclusion are always involved in one another.
Let us say that the Christian apologist has placed the position of Christian theism before his opponent. Let us say further that he has pointed out that his own method of investigation of reality presupposes the truth of his position. This will appear to his friend whom he is seeking to win to an acceptance of the Christian position as highly authoritarian and out of accord with the proper use of human reason. What will the apologist do next? If he is a Roman Catholic or an Arminian he will tone down the nature of Christianity
ment urged against Christianity is "the problem of evil." Unbelievers declare that the Christian worldview is logically inconsistent since it holds that God is powerful enough to prevent evil, that God is good enough not to want evil, and yet that evil exists. Suppose one asks, "How can you believe in a God who permits child molestation to take place?" The believer and the unbeliever apparently agree that molesting innocent children is morally outrageous and objectively wrong. But Van Til would ask what "reference point" (final standard, authority) is necessary to make this moral judgment "intelligible." Surely no autonomous or unbelieving presupposition or fundamental outlook will suffice, since each one, upon analysis, reduces to subjectivism in ethics, in which case child molestation could not be condemned as absolutely or objectively immoral, but simply taken as generally not preferred. Notice also that the usual presentation of the apparent contradiction within the Christian premises about God omit the equally important premise that God always has a morally sufficient reason for the suffering and evil that He foreordains. With the addition of that biblical premise, there is no logical problem of evil left. Everyone struggles psychologically to take God on His word here, to be sure, but that is different from there being an intellectual incongruity within the Christian faith. Unbelievers will not give up their psychological resistance to that premise until God offers His rationale for evil to them for inspection and approval - which is subtle but incontestable evidence that they beg the question, holding that God cannot be proven to be the final authority until they are first acknowledged as the final authority.
to some extent in order to make it appear that the consistent application of his friend's neutral method will lead to an acceptance of Christian theism after all. But if he is a Calvinist this way is not open to him. He will point out that the more consistently his friend applies his supposedly neutral method the more certainly he will come to the conclusion that Christian theism is not true. Roman Catholics and Arminians, appealing to the "reason" of the natural man as the natural man himself interprets his reason, namely as autonomous, are bound to use the direct method of approach to the natural man, the method that assumes the essential correctness of a non-Christian and non-theistic conception of reality.
The Reformed apologist, on the other hand, appealing to that knowledge of the true God in the natural man which the natural man suppresses by means of his assumption of ultimacy, will also appeal to the knowledge of the true method which the natural man knows but suppresses. The natural man at bottom knows that he is the creature of God. He knows also that he is responsible to God. He knows that he should live to the glory of God. He knows that in all that he does he should stress that the field of reality which he investigates has the stamp of God's ownership upon it. But he suppresses his knowledge of himself as he truly is. He is the man with the iron mask. A true method of apologetics must seek to tear off that iron mask.
The Roman Catholic and the Arminian make no attempt to do so. They even flatter its wearer about his fine appearance. In the introductions of their books on apologetics Arminian as well as Roman Catholic apologists frequently seek to set their "opponents" at ease by assuring them that their method, in its field, is all that any Christian could desire. In contradistinction from this, the Reformed apologist will point out again and again that the only method that will lead to the truth in any field is that method which recognizes the fact that man is a creature of God, that he must therefore seek to think God's thoughts after him.
It is not as though the Reformed apologist should not interest himself in the nature of the non-Christian's method. On the contrary he should make a critical analysis of it. He should, as it were, join his "friend" in the use of it. But he should do so self-consciously with the purpose of showing that its most consistent application not merely leads away from Christian theism but in leading away from Christian theism leads to destruction of reason and science as well. (128)
An illustration may indicate more clearly what is meant. Suppose we think of a man made of water in an infinitely extended and bottomless ocean of
128. Emphasis added.
water. Desire to get out of water, he makes a ladder of water. He sets this ladder upon the water and against the water and then attempts to climb out of the water. So hopeless and senseless a picture must be drawn of the natural man's methodology based as it is upon the assumption that time or chance is ultimate. On his assumption even the laws of logic which he employs are products of chance. The rationality and purpose that he may be searching for are still bound to be products of chance. So then the Christian apologist, whose position requires him to hold that Christian theism is really true and as such must be taken as the presupposition which alone makes the acquisition of knowledge in any field intelligible, must join his "friend" in his hopeless gyrations so as to point out to him that his efforts are always in vain.
It will then appear that Christian theism, which was first rejected because of its supposed authoritarian character, is the only position which gives human reason a field for successful operation and a method of true progress in knowledge.
Two remarks may here be made by way of meeting the most obvious objections that will be raised to this method of the Reformed apologist. The first objection that suggests itself may be expressed in the rhetorical question "Do you mean to assert that non-Christians do not discover truth by the methods that they employ?" The reply is that we mean nothing so absurd as that. The implication of the method here advocated is simply that non-Christians are never able and therefore never do employ their own methods consistently.
Says A. E. Taylor in discussing the question of the uniformity of nature, "The fundamental thought of modern science, at any rate until yesterday, was that there is a universal reign of law throughout nature. Nature is rational in the sense that it has everywhere a coherent pattern which we can progressively detect by the steady application of our own intelligence to the scrutiny of natural processes. Science has been built up all along on the basis of this principle of the uniformity of nature, and the principle is one which science itself has no means of demonstrating. No one could possibly prove its truth to an opponent who seriously disputed it. For all attempts to produce 'evidence' for the 'uniformity of nature' themselves presuppose the very principle they are intended to prove. (129) Our argument as over against this would be that the existence of the God of Christian theism and the conception of his counsel as controlling all things in the universe is the only presupposition which can account for the uniformity of nature which the scientist needs.
But the best and only possible proof for the existence of such a God is that
129. CVT: Idem [Does God Exist? (London: Macmillan, 1947)], p. 2.
his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world. We cannot prove the existence of beams underneath the floor if by proof we mean that they must be ascertainable in the way that we can see the chairs and tables of the room. But the very idea of a floor as the support of tables and chairs requires the idea of beams that are underneath. But there would be no floor if no beams were underneath. (130)
Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism. Even non-Christians presuppose its truth while they verbally reject it. They need to presuppose the truth of Christian theism in order to account for their own accomplishments… (131)
The true Christian apologist has his principle of discontinuity; it is expressed in his appeal to the mind of God as all-comprehensive in knowledge because all-controlling in power. He holds his principle of discontinuity then, not at the expense of all logical relationship between facts, but because of the recognition of his creaturehood. His principle of discontinuity is therefore the opposite of that of irrationalism without being that of rationalism. The Christian also has his principle of continuity. It is that of the self-contained God and his plan for history. His principle of continuity is therefore the opposite of that of rationalism without being that of irrationalism.
Conjoining the Christian principle of continuity and the Christian principle of discontinuity we obtain the Christian principle of reasoning by presupposition. It is the actual existence of the God of Christian theism and the infallible authority of the Scripture which speaks to sinners of this God that must be taken as the presupposition of the intelligibility of any fact in the world.
This does not imply that it will be possible to bring the whole debate about Christian theism to full expression in every discussion of individual historical fact. Nor does it imply that the debate about historical detail is unimportant. It means that no Christian apologist can afford to forget the claim of his system with respect to any particular fact. He must always maintain that the "fact" under discussion with his opponent must be what Scripture says it is, if it is to be intelligible as a fact at all… It is only as manifestations of that system that they are what they are. If the apologist does not present them as such he does not present them for what they are.
130. In using this particular illustration, Van Til was envisioning home construction as it was familiar to folks living on the East Coast. There are also houses built without elevated foundations or basements. The analogy is thus limited, but it still makes the point if the assumption about houses is granted for the sake of getting the point. This kind of house requires beams under the floor, and we readily accept that they exist, even though we do not observe them in the way that we observe that there are tables and chairs in the room.
131. Emphasis added.
Transcribed by Dawson Bethrick