One of the strongest arguments for the existence of God is the transcendental argument. I’ve covered elsewhere (see links below), but this all-encompassing argument claims that to deny the existence of the Christian God is to uncut the very meaningfulness of the most important everyday realities we take for granted.
This is all bold and exciting stuff, but so often it can seem distant from the central truths of the Christian faith. It can feel like a far cry from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But is this true?
I suggest that once we move past that initial sentiment, and reflect among what’s being taught in the transcendental argument, we’ll see that a proper handling of the argument actually creates a bridge, not a hindrance, to the gospel.
So let’s reevaluate the claims of the transcendental argument and see what it tells us about God and man.
What the argument tells us about God. The argument clearly communicates God as the one with whom we have to do. God is there, and he is not silent. In knowing anything about the world we, in fact, know the one true and living God.
Furthermore, we learn…
- only God accounts for the causation of the universe. This means he has the power to accomplish all that he wants to.
- God is the very standard of good and righteous behavior mean that he is not passive in evaluating our behavior (whether expressed in thought, word, or deed), and stands against our unrighteousness.
- God’s existence accounts for rationality and the laws of thought. This means that in our moments of intellectual clarity we reflect God, and when we reason against him we are turning his good gift against him.
What the argument tells us about humanity. But the argument goes further. Not only does it tell about who God is, but it tells us who we are.
- Man receives God’s revelation of himself through the things God has made.
- Man suppresses that revelation of God because of his hostility toward God
- Those who search (in vain) for alternate groundings for the laws of thought are not running toward rationality and logic, but running in the exact opposite direction.
And so if the argument is sound, it pulls back the curtain and reveals what is really going on. God, the true God, is revealed everywhere, in and through every created thing, to every human being. The unbeliever is ultimately not a Christian because they lack information, or require superior rational arguments. They have a deep-seated hostility toward the true God.
This is why the transcendental argument is an incredibly powerful tool in the apologist’s toolbox. It is a multifaceted argument, one that not only argues for the existence of God, but reveals man’s sin, and naturally leads to a biblical solution to the problem: the gospel.
Whereas the revealation of God in the created order is sufficient only to condemn us for our sin, the gospel reveals that the final Judge is also gracious and merciful. The gospel reveals the character of God as generous and forgiving, something the philosopher will search for in vain in their “first principles.” The gospel reveals that God can grant the power to overcome humanity’s rebellion and by the Spirit give him the ability to think God’s thoughts after him.
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What is the big claim made by the transcendental argument? No one puts it better than Cornelius Van Til himself:
Only the Christian theory of knowledge, based as it is upon the absolute authority of the word of God speaking in Scripture, makes communication of any sort possible anywhere between men. Without this presupposition man would have no integrated selves and the world would be a vacuum. Without this presupposition of the Christian theory of being there would be no defensible position with respect to the relation of men and things. Neither man nor things would have discernible identity. There would be no science and no philosophy or theology, for there would be no order. History would be utterly unintelligible. Finally, without the presupposition of the Christian theory of morality there would be no intelligible view of the difference between good and evil. Why should any action be thought to be better than any other except on the supposition that it is or it is not what God approves or disapproves? Except on the Christian basis there is no intelligible distinction between good and evil.
-Cornelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture, 61-62
We’ve looked at the transcendental necessity of God to ground the truths of logic so now let’s turn to laws of morality.
I believe in a Real Right and a Real Wrong. Now we turn to the issue of objective morality or ethics (I’m using them interchangeably here). Have you ever wondered whether our outrage at the evil in this world is an expression of personal distaste? Whether the recent Virginia Tech shootings were objectively evil? I ask this because I’m of the view that without the God of the Christian faith (i.e. the God revealed in the Old and New Testaments) the underpinnings of ethics are destroyed, and the moral motions that we feel every day of our lives are rendered non-sensical.
Now here’s an important note to take into consideration. I’m not saying that only Christians are moral people. On the flip side, neither am I saying that all non-Christians are horrible, evil people. What I’m talking about here is what are the fundamental foundations our assumption about reality that underlie our beliefs about morality, right and wrong. Richard Dawkins may very well be a nicer, kinder, and more law abidding citizen than I am. That’s not in question. The question is whether, on a worldview that rejects the existence of God, are those basic pillars that support our common everyday assumptions about ethics there? I don’t think that they are. Without the infinite-personal God of the Bible, how do we define good and evil, right and wrong? I’m convinced that we can boil down the matter to only left two alternatives: either 1) an individual subjectivist response, and 2) a collective subjectivist response. For the sake of handling the various possible replies, I have distinguished the alternatives. However, as we will soon see, both alternatives reduce to subjectivism and skepticism.
Individual subjectivist responses. This is the view that a given acts our behavior is good or bad because I have chosen it. If I commit myself to a given path, it is good. If I am made to do something I chose not to do, it’s bad. If the non-Christian claims moral justification (that which makes a good acts good, and a bad act bad) is found in what one chooses to do, we are left with no standard whatsoever by which we can condemn the worst types of behavior. Pedophilia, rape, incest, bestiality, and murder, are all morally acceptable. Why? Because for those that commit such acts, they were the products of active volition. This view can be quickly be placed to one side.
Collective subjectivist responses. The term “collective subjectivist” may strike some as paradoxical at best and oxymoronic at worst, yet such a title is fitting for “society says” moral relativism. According to this position, morality is, in a weak sense, objective in that the individual is not free to create moral norms from scratch. They are to live within the ethical structure of societal consensus. Such an ethical standard is collective. Yet, on the other hand, it nevertheless remains a subjectivist position on meta-ethics (i.e. on how we philosophically justify or provide warrant for the system we’re espousing). What makes the collective approach ultimately subjectivist and indeed relativist is that each society determines it’s own moral norms, and accordingly, one culture (or sub-culture) cannot condemn the actions of another. The problems for this approach are equally evident. If indeed no supra-cultural definition of evil (or good) exists, how can two or more cultures or sub-cultures with different standards of ethics be compared? Consistently applied, the collectivist subjectivist model prohibits us form labeling the crimes committed at Auschwitz evil. In fact, it becomes even more problematic because not all German citizens would have approved of the war crimes and genocide of the Nazis. So, what we are left with is at least two moral sub-cultures in WWII Germany, those that would call the Nazi actions evil, and those who participated in those actions and condoned them. But any system that strips us of the ability to make moral distinctions is highly counter-intuitive. A paradigm that seeks to explain our “moral motions” must respect the moral outrage we feel at events such as the holocaust. Moreover, we do instinctively know right and wrong in most cases. We can proclaim moral relativism from the rooftops all day, that is, until someone steals our belongings, or hurts our family members. Suddenly we feel that it’s not something that we simply dislike, but rather that it is something that’s truly wrong! Then we become moral absolutists.
Lastly, if we reduce we moral claims to preference claims then we would have to radically change the way we commonly speak. Instead of saying “The terrorists who flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings were wrong, and it was an evil act!”, we would have to replace it with, “I personally do not think that the Terrorists attack on Sept.11th was expedient, and it did not accord with my subjective tastes, but I could be wrong. I don’t want to “impose” my morality on anyone!” I feel my point has been made.
The Christian Response. Lastly, allow me to touch upon why I believe that the Christian God is the best bet for explaining the our ‘moral motions.’ When we find our selves taken with a belief that person X should not have committed Y act, what we’re saying is that person X is morally obligated to have done the right and good thing. In the case of murder, we’re saying that person X ought to have a respect for innocent human life, and ought it a word that implies obligation. But, we do not have obligations to mere material things. I have no obligations not to throw a stone across a beach. The stone demands no such loyalty. But both obligations and loyalty can be pledged to a person. Personal relationships imply certain obligations and can demand loyalty. But what about ultimate moral obligations? Moral obligations are, after all, hierarchical. My loyalty to my brother places certain obligations in my path, but my relationship to my mother demands an even higher level or loyalty. But my mother cannot simply ask me to rob a store. If she did, I would have to tell her that I couldn’t because it would break the law and would (in principal) cause civil unrest. But what if my government told me that I am obligated by my citizenship to randomly kill any person living in my immediate community that was not born in America? What should I do then? I would appeal to a higher standard of obligation. But what higher standard is there? Maybe one could say the ‘world community’, but that only pushes the question back one step.
Ultimately, who’s my greatest loyalty to? If i’m correct to say that obligations and loyalty only make sense in the context of personal relationships, then ultimate loyalty is due to an Ultimate Personal, or, as I’ve said above, a Personal Absolute. But Christianity is the only religion in which the greatest thing in existence (the ultimate metaphysical reality) is a Personal Absolute. In other philosophies, religions, and myths, you have absolutes that are not personal (like Plato’s form of The Good, Hegel’s Geist, Brahma is Hinduism, etc.), or you’ll find personal gods or principles that aren’t absolute (the Greek Pantheon, the god of Mormonism, thetans in Scientenology, etc.) Only in the Bible do you find a God, the final reality, that is both person and absolute/ultimate. This in my mind is strong evidence for the Christian conception of God as the best explanation for ultimate, objective, universally binding ethics.
Conclusion. Now this is my reason for rejecting an empiricism model of epistemology. It cannot account for the metaphysical assumptions that underlie the scientific method, and it cannot account for the existence of universal, immaterial absolutes, such as numbers, laws of logic, and universally binding principles of ethics. While on a Christian worldview all such things make perfect sense, and in fact can be explained (at least at the beginners level) to a child in Sunday School. One may not agree with the answers posited by Christianity, but they have to admit that Christians do have answers to these philosophical issues. Thanks so much for listening to this (rather extended) letter. Also, please forgive me for the great length of time it has taken to complete it. My prayer is that we can both understand the position of the other person fairly, and see where we’re coming from.
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I believe in the existence and power of logic. First, let me make it clear that (at this point at least) I’m not talking about our ability to use our reasoning capacities, as great as that is. I’m talking about the objective existence of the laws of logic. I believe that the validity and universality of the laws of logic defy a mere materialistic explanation. Let’s think of the “big 3.” These are the foundational and standard laws of logic found in most Intro to Philosophy books and all Logic textbooks.
1) First, we have the law of Identity. A is A
2) Second, we have the law of the excluded middle, A is either A or Non-A (it cannot be both.). Admittedly, philosophers have debated the validity of this one, but last I checked the debate isn’t over.
3) Lastly, we have the law of non-contradiction (otherwise known as, ironically, the law of contradiction). This law states that P cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same respect.
These laws of logic are universally true and even in denying them we utilize them. For instance, if we say that “there are no universal laws of logic,” we’re taking for a given that that statement is not the same as “there are universal laws of logic,” thus using the law of non-contradiction to argue against the reality of the law of non-contradiction.
Now, I’ve always found this problematic for those who are materialists on the one hand, yet who champion logic, reason, and “free thinking” on the other. I think it’s safe to say that we all (Christian and non-Christian) that laws of logic immaterial. Can we taste, feel, smell, weigh, measure, or hear the law of identity? Can we see the law of the excluded middle? Well, no, of course not. Are they then “not real”? Are they simply social convention? If so, then they aren’t universally binding. But we know that something that’s A cannot be both A and non-A in the same time or in the same respect, whether it’s in our culture or any other. If we throw away the universal validity of the law of non-contradiction, for example, then logically there’s no difference between Atheism and Christianity. But, of course, there is.
So, where do these laws originate? Why do they fit so perfectly with the world? How can we account for their universality? Those are important questions. If they were only social conventions, they we’d be saying that they don’t really exist. But if they this is the case, why do they always accurately reflect the external world? Why can’t we think without assuming their truth?
Now, I can imagine what someone might be thinking here. “Ok, ok, you’ve made your point. But how does the Christian makes seem of logic?” I honestly can’t think of laws of rationality being material “things.” They’re immaterial. But laws of thought govern minds (not merely brains). So, ultimate laws of rationality reflect an ultimate Mind. Without getting terribly into details, Christianity teaches that God the creator is a rational, orderly, logical being. The laws of logic simply describe to us how God thinks. Since we’ve been created in God’s image (as finite reflections of God on earth to represent Him) we think like him, though on a finite scale.
For instance, to say that my car is blue all over and yet say that it is the case that it is not blue all over is to, essentially, to affirm a falsehood. God is a God of truth and since I am to reflect His character, I should not affirm falsehoods or lies (thus abiding by the law of non-contradiction). Similar examples could be given regarding the other 2 laws. So, from a Christian theistic worldview, the universality and accuracy of logical reasoning are affirmed and grounded in my belief in not just any God, but specifically in the God of the Old and New Testaments, Yahweh.
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.
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.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to restructure the transcendental argument for God’s existence (aka TAG) in terms that the non-specialist can understand and use. I’ve written about this argument for the Christian worldview elsewhere (here, here and here), so I won’t go into detail now.
Those who are regular readers of Kingdomview know that my thought has been greatly shaped by a couple of thinkers, the chief of which, both theologically and philosophically, is John Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. His perspectival approach to thinking has lead me, more times than I can recall, to think in threes. It also helps me to understand how God’s word, God’s gospel, and its application to my life.
So, stated in “Framian” terms, the Bible speaks of God’s word, God’s world, and God’s image (human beings). How is TAG rearticulated in this triperspectival language? Well, here’s a shot:
The transcendental goal of apologetics is to witness to the reality that human experience (in all its fullness) doesn’t make sense unless
- God exists and is Who the Bible says he is,
- the world is what the Bible says it is, and
- we’re the type of people the Bible describes us to be.
The next step in our apologetic strategy is to demonstrate that, in one way or another, every non-Christian religion or vision of life (i.e. worldview) implicitly or explicitly attacks or denies one or more of these points.
A naturalistic worldview, for example, denies at least 2 points. There’s no God (scratch point 1). Perhaps, if we don’t dig too deep, the naturalist would agree with the Christian that this world is both glorious in one sense and miserable in another (which gets close to point 2), but they completely deny point 3, saying we’re not the image bearers of God (afterall, there is no God!) Therefore human beings do not have inherent worth, nor are we sinners (because there’s no divine law to break.)