Arguments for the Existence of God: Transcendental Arguments

Christian apologetics aims at a defense of Christianity against oncoming attacks on all fronts. So there’s the field of historical apologetics, scientific apologetics, counter-cult apologetics, philosophical apologetics, and so on. The brilliance of the apologetic approach known as presuppositionalism (also known as covenantal apologetics) is that it aims at the foundations of unbelief. Elsewhere I’ve discussed the flexibility of the term presupposition. So here I’ll used the term ‘transcendental.’ Cornelius Van Til and his apologetic disciples advocate a transcendental approach to defending Christianity. But what do Van Tillians mean by this often-confusing language?

Van Til defines a transcendental argument as one that “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.”  According to the The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Transcendental reasoning [focuses] on necessary enabling conditions either of coherent experience or the possession or employment of some kind of knowledge or cognitive ability, where the opponent is not in a position to question the fact of this experience [or] knowledge… and where the revealed preconditions include what the opponent questions.” (see the entry on “Transcendental arguments,”). According to presuppositionalism, the existence of God is the necessary “enabling condition” for coherent experience. The job of the presuppositionalist is to make the case that the “revealed preconditions” of discourse include what the anti-theist questions, namely the existence of God.

TA pic

The basic argument. Contrary to the claims of some, Van Til’s approach to apologetics isn’t allergic to presenting positive evidence in favor of its theistic claim (i.e. the God of the Bible exists). I would argue that a transcendental argument is indeed a form of positive apologetics.

Here’s transcendental claim:

1. If God doesn’t exist, then there are no objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc.]

2. There are objective grounds for [epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc]

3. Therefore, God exists.

This is a straightforward version of the argument. If the argument is both valid (constructed correctly) and sound (the premises are true) then the conclusion follows without fail. In fact, given the content of the claim (Logic presupposes the existence of God), if the conclusion is vindicated it turns out that it was possible because of the sustaining activity of God!

Van Til himself advocated a kind of two-step approach:

That means that the apologist is required to place himself on his opponent’s position, assuming its correctness for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position “facts” and “laws” have no meaning. Conversely, the non-Christian will be asked to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order to show that only upon the Christian basis are “facts” and “laws” intelligible. Van Til’s aim is to challenge the knowledge of God that the natural man has but suppresses. (quoted from Wesley A. Roberts, “Cornelius Van Til,” Reformed Theology in America, ed. David F. Wells, 183)

The point is that there are certain things the (average) non-Christian affirms. These things (epistemologically normative laws of logic, standards of ethical behavior, the scientific enterprise, human value and dignity, etc) are foundational to his thought and behavior. There’s no escaping them because they’re woven in the fabric of who we are as creatures of God living in his creation. The presuppositionalist is called to unmask the shocking truth that they cannot meaningful hold to these beliefs and also deny the existence of God. If you lose the foundation the building comes crashing down. An atheist no less than Nietzsche acknowledged this.

The attentive reader will note that in subsequent entries to this series this is what I’ll be doing, though not in a mechanic way. There is no establishing the truth of my position without also demonstrating the failure of its opposition.


Posted on March 27, 2013, in Philosophical Apologetics, Presuppositional apologetics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Awesome. Thanks for being a voice to those who may not have the blessing of a theological education on the graduate level.

  1. Pingback: Introducing the New Apologetics Q&A Page | KINGDOMVIEW

  2. Pingback: The Transcendental Argument and The Gospel | KINGDOMVIEW

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