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The potential limits of Van Til's transcendental argument

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For Van Til, Christianity, and Christianity alone, provides the transcendental preconditions which make knowledge possible. That is, they provide a metaphysics such that knowledge claims can be made according to principles consistent with it. For example, the unbeliever cannot appeal to the laws of logic because the laws of logic are immaterial whereas the unbeliever, supposing he is an atheist, believes in a purely materialistic world in which no such universal laws exist. Christianity, on the other hand, accepts the existence of immaterial entities such as God and angels. Therefore, belief in such laws are compatible with Christianity.

John Johnson, however, has written an article entitled "How a Muslim Could Employ Van Til’s Apologetic System: A Response to Frame and Hays" in order to demonstrate that Van Til's apologetic method could be formally adopted to a Muslim apologetic and use by Muslims against Christianity. Johnson argues that while he believes Van Til's approach may do what some believe the more popular classical arguments for the existence of God may do, that is, proof the truth in theism, it is less clear that it is capable of intellectually vindicating Christianity.

Johnson's disagreement with Frame and Hays centers around a disagreement concerning the Muslim response to Paul in Romans 1. Johnson thinks that a Muslim could agree with Paul. Hays and Frame deny that this is the case on the grounds that Muslims reject the inspiration of the New Testament as well as Paul's understanding of original sin and natural revelation. In Romans 1, man is portrayed as suppressing the truth he has about God in unrighteousness, although He knows that there is a God whose attributes are known through general revelation. Since mankind is totally depraved any sort of common ground is impossible. The apologist, for Van Til, cannot attempt to occupy relatively pure common ground and stand on that common ground in such a way as to demonstrate to the unbeliever that the rest of his presuppositions are false. Rather, for Van Til, all of the unbeliever's manner of thinking is fundamentally wrong-headed because of original sin, and must be totally replaced with biblical presuppositions. Johnson quotes a Muslim scholar whose description of the genesis of mankind sounds very similar to that of Romans 1:

in the succeeding centuries, by and by, people swerved from the straight way of life (Islam) and adopted different crooked ways. They not only lost the Guidance owing to their negligence but also tampered with it because of their wickedness. They attributed to others the qualities and powers of Allah and associated others to rank with Him as gods and ascribed His rights to others. They invented different kinds of religions (ways of life) by mixing up all sorts of superstitions, wrong theories and false philosophy with the Guidance that was given by Allah. They discarded the right, just and moral principles taught by Allah and corrupted them and made such laws of life as suited their prejudices and lusts, and filled Allah’s Earth with chaos(Abul A’La Mawdudi).

Indeed, although Muslims do not accept original sin, it is precisely within the framework of their belief in man's original purity that they teach that Qur'an accurately represents a primordial rationality from which humans have strayed. For Christians, Christianity represents the primordial rationality from which humans have strayed, and we are all stuck in this irrationality unless and until God regenerates us, because we are fallen in Adam. For Muslims, Islam represents primordial rationality, we as humans are born pure, and instead of being born corrupt, it is only following a post-birth corruption that we abandon our initial predisposition to accept Islam. This is in accord with the Muslim concept of fitrah. The Muslim scholar Ibn Mazûr summarizes the concept thus:

And if his parents are Jews, they make him a Jew, with respect to his worldly situation; [i.e. with respect to inheritance, etc.] and if Christians, they make him a Christian, with respect to that situation; and if Magians, they make him a Magian, with respect to that situation; his situation is the same as that of his parents until his tongue speaks for him; but if he dies before his attaining to the age when sexual maturity begins to show itself, he dies in a state of conformity to his preceding natural constitution, with which he was created in his mother’s womb.

Thus:

Fitrah is also associated with Islâm and being born as a Muslim. This is when fitrah is viewed in respect to shahâdah – that there is no god but Allâh and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allâh – which makes a person a Muslim. Fitrah, in this sense, is the faculty, which He has created in mankind, of knowing Allâh. It is the natural constitution with which the child is created in his mother’s womb, whereby he is capable of accepting the religion of truth.[9] That fitrah refers to religion is further shown in a tradition in which it is related that the Prophet, may Allâh bless him and grant him peace, taught a man to repeat certain words when lying down to sleep, and said: ‘Then if you die that same night, you die upon the fitrah (in the true dîn).’ Also by the saying: ‘The paring of the nails is of the fitrah (i.e. of the dîn).

Johnson summarizes:

The perversity of rejection (kufr) can only be understood in terms of men’s refusal to have faith in or believe in what they secretly know. The Old Testament, the Gospels and the Koran concur that men willfully reject their creator. But this implies that men can disbelieve in what they know; knowledge does not entail faith although faith may entail, indeed encompass, knowledge(Johnson).

Johnson notes that both sides use the same argument to make their case. Each claims that the other willfully suppresses knowledge of the truth. He also argues that it is irrelevant that Christians teach original sin, since the main point has not to do with sin but with one's understanding of primordial rationality. It is precisely part of the point, for Muslims, that rejection of original sin is in accord with such a primordial rationality. Johnson summarizes:

The Van Tillian may claim, though, that the doctrine of original sin does not entail only a rejection of belief in God’s existence, but also leads fallen man to confuse true morality with false, and even to reject the moral and ethical demands that God makes upon his life. In other words, the Fall does more than merely turn one away from God; it also thoroughly confuses man’s moral compass. But Islam, even without the distinctly Reformed doctrine of utter depravity,[13] teaches much the same thing. Rejection of Allah seems to go hand in hand with the attempt to deny the moral obligations Allah has placed upon wayward humanity. Thus, those who reject Allah’s existence also attempt “to seek release from duties they secretly acknowledge as binding.”[14] And although it is often said that Islam sees sin more as a forgetting of the righteous path to God, rather than deliberate rebellion against him, “the Quran itself depicts fallen human beings as more than merely forgetful.” Humans are described in the Muslim scriptures as sinful (14:4), ungrateful (14:34), boastful (11:9-10), and rebellious (96:6).[15] True enough, sin in Islam is not the result of the contagion of original sin, but it is still a willful rejection of God’s laws. Sin “is acquired not inborn, emergent not built-in, avoidable not inevitable. It is a deliberate conscious violation of the univocal law of God.”[16] With or without original sin, in Islam man sinfully violates what he knows to be God’s truth, just as in the Van Tillian understanding of sin(Johnson).

Johnson's point seems to be that whatever distinctive of Christian doctrine to which the Christian points in order justify his claim can simply be dismissed as the Muslim as a result of man's willful suppression of the truth. On whatever grounds the Christian presuppositionalist grounds his accusation that those who disagree with him merely suppress the truth in unrighteousness, the Muslim can hypothetically appeal to his own doctrinal distinctives in order to assert the same point. Indeed, Muslims affirm their own version of illuminationism which in important respects parallels Calvinist epistemology.

The theory of divine illumination is generally conceived of as distinctively Christian, distinctively medieval, and distinctively Augustinian. There is some justification for this, of course, inasmuch as Christian medieval philosophers gave the theory serious and sustained discussion, and inasmuch as Augustine gave illumination a very prominent role in his theory of knowledge. Still, it is better to think of the theory in a wider context. Divine illumination played a prominent part in ancient Greek philosophy, in the later Greek commentary tradition, in neo-Platonism, and in medieval Islamic philosophy. Moreover, it was Christian medieval philosophers, near the end of the thirteenth century, who were ultimately responsible for decisively refuting the theory. I will suggest that we view this last development as the first great turning point in the history of cognitive theory.

I understand a theory of divine illumination to be a theory on which the human mind regularly relies on some kind of special supernatural assistance in order to complete (some part of) its ordinary cognitive activity. The assistance must be supernatural, of course, or it will not count as divine illumination. It must be special, in the sense that it must be something more than the divine creation and ongoing conservation of the human mind. (If this by itself were to count as illumination, then all theists would be committed to the theory of divine illumination.) The mind must regularly rely on this assistance, in order to complete its ordinary cognitive activity: otherwise, an occasional mystical experience might suffice to confirm a theory of divine illumination. But a defender of the theory need hold only that we require this assistance for some part of our ordinary cognitive activities: hardly anyone has supposed that every form of human cognition requires divine illuimination.

It is useful to think of divine illumination as analogous to grace. Just as a proponent of grace postulates a special divine role on the volitional side, so a proponent of divine illumination postulates a special divine role on the cognitive side. Grace is intended as an explanation not of all human desires and motivations, nor even of all virtuous desires and motivations. Rather, the proponent of grace holds that there is a certain class of volitional states, crucial to human well-being, that we can achieve only with special divine assistance. Likewise, the theory of divine illumination is intended as an explanation not of all belief, nor even of all knowledge. Rather, the theory holds that there are certain kinds of knowledge, crucial to cognitive development, that we can achieve only with special divine assistance. It is an odd fact that, despite the close analogy, grace is regarded not as a philosophical question, but as a theological one. It is an equally odd fact that, whereas divine illumination hasn't generally been regarded as plausible since the thirteenth century, grace continues to be taken seriously by many theologians. Perhaps both of these facts can be accounted for by motivational psychology's relative obscurity in comparison to cognitive psychology(Pasnau, 2011).

Indeed, apart from Augustine's illuminationist epistemology, such an epistemology is historically quite important within Islamic thought as well, with Suhrwardi being one of the school's leading exponents. Johnson quotes Shabbir Akhtar:

What, then, is the role of independent reason in the interpretation of scriptural claims? What is the true office of reason in theology?.... in the final analysis, faith has decisive priority over reason…. An intellect unenlightened by God’s grace cannot judge faith while an intellect enlightened by God’s grace can only judge faith favorably…. faith is indeed, in religious domains, the arbiter of reason and its pretensions.[18]

Johnson also notes that the general revelation furnished by the created world is used both by Christian presuppositionalists and Muslims:

Another area of agreement Between Paul and Muslims is the theater of God’s glory, the created world. The world-as-evidence-for-God argument is quite a powerful one, and it is only to be expected that Muslims, who attribute to Allah absolute sovereignty over the universe, would see in the creation proof of his handiwork. Paul insists every human being is without excuse for unbelief because the awe-inspiring universe testifies to the God who created it. Frame, commenting upon Paul’s argument in Romans, states that “the facts of God’s creation bear clear witness of him even to the minds of sinners.”[19]Similarly, when disobedient men “see Allah’s portents in Nature and elsewhere, they turn a blind eye.”(Johnson)[20]

One of the other pillars of Van Til's transcendental argument for the existence of the Triune God and the existence of the Bible is that only a Triune God can account for the sort of world in which we live. With specific respect to Islam, Johnson notes that Frame argues that Islam's doctrines of predestination is highly impersonal, and that Allah is capable of changing his nature arbitrarily. This quite opposed to the predestination proceding from the Triune God of the sort we find in Christianity, which is prudent, wise and according to a definite plan, and with a view to a definite end. Nonetheless, Johnson points out that Muslims themselves do see Allah as a god of love, and this view of Allah is reflected in many of the names which they give to their god. Johnson also points out that Geisler argues that the radically transcendent Allah is capable of interacting with humankind within the immanent sphere insofar as Allah's voice is seen to be in some respects distinguished from him.

Johnson does not, of course, believe that Muslims present a genuinely compelling vision of the world worthy of acceptance. He is a Christian. Islam is not objectively rational. He is simply pointing out that one could contrive a system of rationality that can construct conceptual artifices by which they can account for the sort of phenomena in a manner similar to that of Christianity. Indeed, it almost seems as though Van Til's transcendental argument is itself a kind of evidentialism insofar as it seems to present arguments for the internal coherence of Christianity which it assumes all interlocutors are obligated to accept simply because the argument is obviously in accord with a neutral criteria of rationality. On the other hand, if Van Til means his transcendental argument to be a mere assertion to which interlocutors are obligated to accept on the grounds that all know that Christianity is true and only suppress the truth in unrighteousness, this is perfectly consistent with presuppositionalism. But if it is intended as an argument to convince others of its truth by virtue of the obvious rationality of the argument rather than its truth, which is evident to all, then it is less clear that Van Til's transcendental argumentation is consistent with his presuppositionalism.

I believe that the question of whether or not Van Til's transcendental argumentation is really consistent with his presuppositionalism depends upon the underlying logic, not of the argument itself, but in his motive for the use of it. If when confronted with Johnson's objection, the Van Tillian simply says "ah yes, but the different between the transcendental argument for the existence of the Christian God and that of the Muslim god is that the Christian religion is actually true", such that the transcendental argument is less an argument intended to convince by means of formal rationality and more a dogmatic assertion whose end is to convince the interlocutor by virtue of its truth, which the unbeliever suppresses in unrighteousness, then the transcendental argument is a perfectly acceptable form of argument. But then again, if this is the underlying logic of the Van Tillian's motivation, it is perhaps more acceptable to refer to it as the transcendental assertion of the existence of the Triune God, such that Van Til's transcendental argument is more a formal presentation of the truth of Christianity rather than an argument for it.

There are different models of rationality, intelligiblity and inconsistency according to differing worldviews. What the presuppositionalist ought to do in order to remain consistent is to understand the transcendental argument for the existence of God as an assertion of Christianity's claim to both exclusive truth and exclusive rationality, rather than an attempt at impartially demonstrating simply that makes sense or is better to account for a phenomena to someone previously unfamiliar with it. Frame wants to argue that the Triune God is the only rational explanation for the universe. What I believe he must do in order to remain a consistent presuppositionalist, as well as prevent its appropriation by Muslims, is to acknowledge that the transcendental argument must remain a dogmatic assertion of Christianity's truth and a formal presentation of its objective rationality. He must be careful to not make it sound like he is attempting to demonstrate its rationality according to a neutral criteria of rationality. So for example, to the Muslim who attempts to argue that Islam cannot account for a transcendent god's interaction within the immanent realm, it might be better, not to give an elaborate, theological exposition of how Christ's incarnation is incomparably better able to account for God's immanence, but simply to reject Islam's account of Allah's interaction with the immanent realm on the grounds that Islam is false.

Despite the somewhat tentative nature of Frame’s statement above, Van Til (and to a lesser extent, Frame) ultimately thinks that the supremely personal God of the Bible is the only explanation for the universe. Van Til, writing about the natural world and human ability to understand it correctly, said 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 his existence is required for the uniformity of nature and for the coherence of all things in the world…. Thus there is absolutely certain proof for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism (italics mine)"(Johnson)[32]

It's these kinds of statements by Frame which make me nervous. What this sounds like to me is a form of rationalistic evidentialism. We can never know that Christiantiy is true merely by virtue of its internal coherence. This sounds like a kind of one-step apologetics, whereas presuppositionalism is better understood as a kind of no-step apologetics, which simply affirms and asserts the truth of the Christian worldview. We do not come to absolute certainty of the Christian worldview by virtue of antecedent consideration of its internal coherence. Anyone can contrive any theological system which, by its own standards of consistency, are internally coherent. Rather, we come to knowledge and acceptance of Christianity's internal coherence by virtue of conversion to acceptance and knowledge of its truth.

Here is a brief classification of the various number of "steps" involved in Christian apologetics, given to us by James K. Belby in his essay "Varieties of Apologetics", from Christian Apologetics: A Variety of Primary Sources:

1) Two-step approach - convince the unbeliever of the existence of a god, and then convince the unbeliever that the Christian understanding of God is the best candidate. This is the approach of classical apologetics.

2) One-step approach - The existence of God is presupposed, and the evidentialist attempts to simply convince the unbeliever of the truth of the Christian account of God. This is the approach of historical apologetics.

3) No-step approach - The believer assumes the truth of both the existence of God and the truth of the Christian God and simply affirms the truth of the Christian position. I believe this is what the consistent presuppositionalist does, and I believe that Frame's use of the transcendental argument may betray a tacit allegiance to something closer to a one-step approach.

Johnson argues that Van Til does not fall into precisely this trap:

Van Til, contrary to much popular belief, is not opposed to using evidences to help prove the truth of Christianity. In fact, he welcomes the use of evidence, provided it is presented as part of the overall Christian presuppositional worldview. What Van Til will not allow is for man, with his so-called autonomous reason, to examine the traditional apologetic evidences on their own merit, apart from the Christian presuppositions that Van Til says these evidences depend upon. Van Til is radically opposed to allowing men, with their sin-beclouded minds, to judge whether or not the God of the Bible exists based only on so-called “neutral” evidence (e.g., the traditional evidentialist appeal to the resurrection as proof that Christianity is true). He writes that “if man is not autonomous, if he is rather what Scripture says he is, namely, a creature of God and a sinner before his face, then man should subordinate his reason to the Scriptures and seek in the light of it (sic) to interpret his experience.”[37] Van Til is always insistent that the unbeliever must accept the Christian scriptures, because they are infallible testimony to the God of Christianity and, as shown above, only the Christian God can, in Van Til's system, satisfactorily explain the universe. The Bible, then, for Van Til, is the presupposition behind of all of his other presuppositions, for the Bible reveals the presuppositions upon which Van Til builds his entire system of apologetics (e.g., the fall of man, the noetic effects of sin, the triune personal God). He writes that “I take what the Bible says about God and his relation to the universe as unquestionably true on its own authority”[38](Johnson)

I believe that Johnson's representation of Van Til here is the posture we must adopt in all of our apologetics. We may use the transcendental argument for the existence of God if we wish, but we must not hope to convince anyone of the truth of the Christian religion simply because it is a demonstration of Christianity's formal coherence. The final cause of any conversion is God's effectual calling of a sinner to faith and repentance according to His unconditional election, and the formal cause of anyone's acceptance of the truth is the renewal of the sinner's heart. A presentation of the internal coherence of Christianity is never either necessary nor sufficient, whereas God's calling and regeneration are always both necessary and sufficient. The danger in the sort of antithetical critique in which presuppositionalists commonly engage is the risk of forgetting that the unbeliever operates according to radically different standards of consistency, intelligibility and rationality, such that an internal critique of his views will seem convincing to him. He will simply say that our adherence to the Christian worldview commits us to fundamentally wrong-headed ways and standards of thinking, and that our criticisms are thus irrelevant.

On the other hand, Johnson makes me a bit nervous here:

Now, what does the Muslim apologist claim? He claims, not surprisingly, that his scriptures are the only true revelation of God. In fact, the Muslim in this instance actually goes Van Til one better, for the Muslim claims that his Koranic presuppositions involve accepting the belief that the Bible contains errors and is not trustworthy! Just as Van Til insists that sinful, unregenerate man cannot be trusted to sit in judgment upon scripture, so the Muslim insists that the Bible is inferior to the Koran. Christians have no right to judge the Koran based upon the Bible, because the Bible contains willful misrepresentations of divine truth. The “revelations to Muhammad were a renewal of God’s earlier revelations to Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many other prophets, revelations that Muhammad said had been corrupted.”[39] This willful corruption of the Bible sounds a great deal like the sinful, deliberate rejection of God that Van Til claims all unbelievers are guilty of.

The Christian can easily counter the Muslim claim that the Bible has been corrupted; the manuscript evidence, for the New Testament especially, is so great as to virtually guarantee that the New Testament text we read today is essentially the same as what was contained in the autographs.[40] But of course, this does not matter at all to the Muslim apologist; his Koran says the Bible is corrupt, and that is all there is to it. Well, he must say this; there are too many contradictions between the Bible and the Koran. The Muslim apologist will not let textual scholars, with their Van Tillian “autonomous reason,” sit in judgment upon the Koran in this matter, any more than Van Til will let a non-believer sit in judgment upon the Bible. We thus seem to have reached a stalemate. Both Van Til, and his Muslim counterpart, argue that their particular scripture must be trusted, and all others rejected.[41] All of this will strike the unbeliever as fideism(Johnson).

On the contrary, it is essential that we maintain a staunchly presuppositionalist posture within such a debate. Why? Because if we don't, we contradict the Bible itself. "But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead'"(Lk. 16:31). The use of evidence is permitted, but in the last instance, we must simply and dogmatically accept the truth of the Bible and call the sinner to repentance. The emphasis should therefore always be upon insistence upon the truth of the Christian religion because of what the Scriptures say about itself, rather than upon the rationality of Christianity by virtue of its internal coherence.

I believe one of the reasons which Van Tillians are tempted to the transcendental argument is because the no-step approach of presuppositionalists looks a lot like fideism; an accusation to which presuppositionalists have repeatedly been subjected, and which they rightfully resent as a misrepresentation. Johnson notes that those who reject Van Til's Christian presuppositions are unbelievers and therefore cannot and will not respond to any sort of argumentation. The only thing left to do in such a case is to preach the Gospel. If they do accept Van Til's presuppositions, then they are Christians, Johnson points out, and thus, no argumentation is necessary. That is, in the case of the Muslim or the adherent of some other form of non-Christian theism, no argumentation is possible, since they will reject it. In the case of the one who accepts Van Til's presuppositions, no argument is necessary, since they are already Christian (Johnson). It is at this point that use of the transcendental argument, when used specifically against non-Christiain theists, runs the risk of becoming a form of rationalistic evidentialism:

I do not wish to claim that there is no value in the Van Tillian system; far from it. As I stated above, Van Til (and Frame) does a masterful job of showing how the non-theist has no rational basis for his perceptions of the world, since he will not allow for a proper theistic foundation for those perceptions. But, as I have shown in this paper, Van Til’s system does not fair nearly so well against a theistic, in this case a Muslim, position. Thus, I find myself returning to the premise of my original article, namely, that the Van Tillian system is more theistic than specifically Christian. I believe I have shown how a Muslim apologist could use this approach to apologetics to validate the Islamic faith in much the same way that a Christian could use it to authenticate the truth claims of Christianity. So, are Christians lost amidst the seas of religious doubt and despair when debating Muslims? Certainly not. But the Christian must use evidence that is unique to biblical religion, and not an apologetic system that lends itself to more than one version of theistic truth. Thus my insistence on the resurrection of Jesus in my original article as strong, objective evidence for Christianity, evidence that is not dependent upon presuppositions that are not unique to Christians(Johnson, emphasis mine).

The problem, then, becomes precisely this: That reliance upon the transcendental argument specifically within the context of debates with non-Christian theists who reject biblical authority and replace it with some other religious authority, runs the risk of becoming a form of one-step, evidentialist apologetics of the sort we reviewed above. Just as the historical apologist who assumes the existence of God but who attempts to prove its authenticity of the Christian account of God by means of historical arguments, the Van Tillian who engages in the transcendental argument likewise does assume the existence of God alongside the non-theist, but attempts to prove the truth of the specifically Christian account of God through rational demonstration of the internal coherence of Christianity, or the comparative incoherence of his opponent's worldview, or both. But in either case, a kind of neutral ground of reason is presupposed, especially in the sort of antithetical approach adopted by many presuppositionalists.

Johnson, John. How a Muslim Could Employ Van Til’s Apologetic System: A Response to Frame and Hays. Retrieved from: http://www.phc.edu/gj_john%20johnson%20frame%20hayes%20rebuttal1.php

Ibn Mazûr, Ibid. p. 1109; Lane, Ibid., pp. 2415-16.

Pasnau, Robert, "Divine Illumination", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/illumination/>.

Abul A’La Mawdudi, An Introduction to the Koran (Jamaica, NY: Islamic Circle of North America, 1982), 5.

Belby, . (1953). Varieties of Apologetics. In Christian Apologetics: A Variety of Primary Sources, Edited by Khaldoun A. Sweis and Chad V. Meister.

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