Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Formal Introduction to the Transcendental Argument

A Formal Introduction to the Transcendental Argument
By Matthew Pickens

Some of you may already be familiar with formal logic (if not then this post should still make sense but I do think it worthwhile to do some basic introduction to logic work – any text book for an introductory college course should be sufficient although Gordon Clark, a Christian philosopher and theology in the 20th century, co-wrote a text book on logic that is pretty good). The purpose of this post is not to be a complete presentation of the transcendental argument but rather simply to give a brief introduction to it in formal terms.

So-called evidential apologists[1] like R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner tend to argue along the lines of inference or implication. So for example they would use the traditional theological proofs to show that God’s existence can be inferred from certain things in creation or that those things imply God’s existence. We’ll use the example of the teleological argument here. The teleological argument states that the appearance of design in the universe implies a designer. The common analogy used is that of a watch found on a beach. No one would assume that the watch came out of nowhere but would assume that there was a watchmaker. Formally the argument could be stated this way, where D is design and G is God’s existence:

D implies G
Therefore G

When we turn to the transcendental argument we find that rather than dealing with implication we deal instead with presupposition. So where the above use of the teleological argument says that design implies God the transcendental argument would use this argument to say that either design or lack of design presupposes God. That means that we cannot say anything meaningful about the order or lack of order in the universe apart from God’s existence. Bas van Fraasen has helpfully defined presupposition in logic as “A presupposes B if and only if A is neither true nor false unless B is true.”[3] Formally this would be stated:

A presupposes B if and only if:
If A is true then B is true, or,
If A is false then B is true.

This helps us to see how the transcendental argument says much more than the evidential argument. The evidential argument presents design in the universe to the questioner and from there infers or implies the existence of God as the designer. The transcendental argument deals with either the questioner who sees design or the questioner who sees a lack of design in the universe. What it does is argue that in order to make a meaningful statement about the universe one must presuppose the existence of God (specifically the Triune absolute self-existence, self-referential, and self-revealing God of Christianity). So this would restate the transcendental argument like this:

D presupposes G
Therefore G


D presupposes G
Therefore G

Moving closer to application we have to ask what this means in terms of our apologetics and evangelism. Again, I’m going to be brief here though in a minute I’ll recommend a number of books on the subject for further investigation. As Christians, particularly those of us in a Presbyterian or Reformed tradition, we hold that the Triune God is the Creator of the entire world and is thus the sovereign covenant Lord of it and all its aspects. All things are in personal relationship to him. Therefore all things in this world presuppose the Triune God for both their existence and meaning. Cornelius Van Til phrased this in a number of different ways but here is one instance:

Every bit of historical investigation, whether it be in the directly Biblical field, archeology, or in general history, is bound to confirm the truth of the claims of the Christian position. But I would not talk endlessly about facts and more facts without ever challenging the non-believer’s philosophy of fact. A really fruitful historical apologetic argues that every fact is and must be such as proves the truth of the Christian theistic position.[5]

All of this is to say that all facts presuppose the Christian position. As God is the wholly sovereign Creator and Lord this is not only about the facts of what and how things are but also the facts of reasoning. Everything presupposes the existence of the Triune God. Refusing to acknowledge this is both irrational and sinful. So we see two things about the thinking of non-believers when it comes to argumentation. First we see anything they thinking about, the fact that they think at all, presupposes the Triune God. They cannot make a meaningful statement or even participate in the argument unless the Triune God is. Therefore for them to say anything about design, causality, morality, existence, knowledge, or anything at all relies upon the point that the Christian wishes to make. Second, the unbeliever suppresses the truth of this in unrighteousness and tries to fit the facts, which can only make sense in the Christian worldview, into their own autonomous thought structures. More than not making sense this is ultimately a sinful act that betrays their covenantal rebellion against God, not only in their deeds but in their thinking (Rom. 1:18ff; 1 Cor. 2:6ff; Prov. 1:7). Thus it is not fruitful to simply present facts as if unbelievers will understand them on the same basis as believers and reason to the same conclusions. Instead their entire worldview for interpreting those facts and understanding them must be challenged. Van Til expresses it this way:

To speak of man’s relation to God as being covenantal at every point is merely to say that man deals with the personal God everywhere. Every manipulation of any created fact is, as long as man is not a sinner, a covenant affirming activity. Every manipulation of any fact, as soon as man is a sinner, is a covenant-breaking activity.[6]

Moving very briefly into application this has some enormous implications for how we do apologetics. It means that the so-called evidential apologetics as outlined above are insufficient for combating unbelief. The first expression of the teleological argument is not sensitive to the fact that after Adam’s fall all of humanity is in sinful rebellion against the creating and covenanting God. Unbelievers may freely accept the validity, perhaps even the soundness, of the argument while continuing in unbelief by asserting a designer of some sort but not the Triune God of Christianity. Only the transcendental method attacks unbelief at the deepest levels by acknowledging that all men are either covenant-breakers in Adam or covenant-keepers in Christ. There is no third option. The job of the apologist and the evangelist is not to meet the unbeliever as if they were a neutral seeker who merely weighed the evidences but instead to engage him and expose the sin of suppressing innate knowledge of God.

In terms of methods the best way to do this is what Van Til and others have called the “for the sake of the argument” approach. The apologist should adapt the unbeliever’s presuppositions for a brief time to show that under those conditions it is impossible to say anything meaningful about the subject at hand. They should then invite the unbeliever to think about Christian presuppositions “for the sake of the argument” to show how all of reality is understandable only within the Christian worldview. It would be beyond the course of this essay to discuss this in detail here but there are several introductory books on Reformed apologetics that would help to show application of these principles (and many other biblical principles) in the course of a simple apologetic or evangelistic encounter.

  • Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction by John Frame - I think that this is probably the best introduction to Reformed apologetics simply because Frame is such a clear writer and thinker. I've found this book to be excellent and helpful both in understanding Reformed apologetics and also in applying them.
  • The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith by Scott Oliphint - I hope to post a full review of this book soon but I think that this is a great book introducing Reformed apologetics as it shows how that apologetic is not driven by philosophy but by the consistent application of Scripture's teaching to the realm of apologetics and evangelism. Oliphint does not spend as much time on application as Frame does but I think that these two books (or possibly this and the next recommendation) can be used in concert to great benefit.
  • Reasons of the Heart: Recovering Christian Persuasion by William Edgar - I have only recently started reading some books by Dr. Edgar though I have read a number of essays and articles that he's written. To be honest I just got this book myself and have not finished it though I am very impressed so far. I think that this fits very well with the two books above. This book, like Professor Frame's, deals not just with apologetic principles but with the specific application of them in persuading an unbeliever. Again, I think that it fits very nicely with Dr. Oliphint's work to give a wholesome approach to apologetics.
  • Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg Bahnsen - This book is more complex and advanced than the others but it is excellent. Dr. Bahnsen was a fantastic apologist who engaged in a number of public debates with notable unbelievers (not only atheists but also agnostics and proponents of false religions). This is an extraordinarily comprehensive and helpful book for it's length (less than 300 pages). I would still recommend working through one or two of the above before getting at this but if you wouldn't be thrown off too badly by starting here either as Bahnsen was an able communicator even on some difficult topics.
  • Christian Apologetics (Second Edition) by Cornelius Van Til and edited by William Edgar - One of my desires is to see more Christians, both pastors and lay people, read more of Van Til's works. Van Til provided a great service to the church in helping to rearticulate a fully confessional and Reformed apologetic that was faithful to Scripture and serious in its application. I will admit that Van Til was not a very skilled writer and is often very difficult to understand. That is why this book is at the bottom of this list. I would really like to see people read at least two of the above before tackling this one (and this is a topic where I would be happy to interact with you over e-mail as you read through any of these books). I think that you would be very rewarded by doing so. P&R Publishing reprinting several of Van Til's works with editorial comments from Scott Oliphint and William Edgar is a great blessing for the church. These comments help to explain certain emphases and terms in Van Til's writing that he simply assumes the reader understands. This is a short and relatively cheap book so it shouldn't be hard to get and read through once quickly for overview and again more slowly for comprehension. I do think that this is probably the best entry point into his writings.

[1] I say “so-called” as often the term “evidential” is used as if presuppositional and transcendental apologetics did not make use of evidences. This is clearly not true to anyone familiar with the discussion. “Classical” is also often used to imply that the apologetic put forth by Sproul, Gerstner, Lindsley, and others is the way that the church has always done apologetics. This is also not true as the work of Robert Muller shows. These terms are useful as they point to a certain type of apologetics as opposed to the presuppositional and transcendental supported here but the implications often drawn from them are false.
[2] It should be noted that all of the formal articulations of arguments in this brief essay are very much abbreviated and simplified.
[3] Cited in “Van Til and the Transcendental Argument” by Don Collett in Reason and Revelation: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics ed. by K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 269.
[4] Here it should be noted that this line or argumentation is based upon the modus ponens. The modus tollens could not be simply applied here as the negation of G would not imply the negation of D. Instead it would say that we could not conclude anything about D at all but would say that D is neither true nor false.
[5] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1967), 199.
[6] Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing, 1972), 69-70.

No comments: