Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)

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Summary of Chapter 6

In this chapter, Dr. Fesko turns his attention to Van Til’s advocacy of the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter, TAG). Fesko’s main concern is not that TAG is a bad argument in itself, but rather that many Van Tilians treat it as the be-all and end-all of Reformed apologetics, to the exclusion of other apologetic arguments (i.e., more traditional theistic arguments and historical evidential arguments). He writes:

This chapter argues that the TAG is a useful tool within the apologist’s toolbox but is neither a silver-bullet argument nor the most biblically pure form of Reformed apologetics. … The degree to which apologists employ the TAG apart from the book of nature is inversely proportional to the degree to which they depart from the historic Reformed faith. (p. 137)

This chapter’s thesis, therefore, is that the TAG can be a useful argument but not at the expense of the book of nature. Christians can employ the connection between the innate and acquired natural knowledge of God in the defense of the faith. (p. 137)

Dr. Fesko’s approach in the chapter is to review TAG’s origins in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, to expose its “idealist elements,” and to raise some concerns about the use of TAG in Van Tilian apologetics.

Origin of Transcendental Arguments

The use of transcendental arguments can be traced to Kant’s attempt to refute idealism (specifically, skepticism about the existence of a mind-independent material world). The basic aim of a transcendental argument is to refute a skeptical position by showing that the skeptic has to presuppose the very thing he professes to doubt. Drawing from Robert Stern’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fesko writes:

Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)

Fesko immediately connects TAG with the “historic worldview theory” (HWT) critiqued in the preceding chapter. James Orr advocated HWT and also employed a transcendental method (so Robert Knudsen argues), with the consequence that Orr repudiated proofs or evidential arguments for the existence of God. Gordon Clark followed Orr in these convictions. Van Til, despite acknowledging the legitimacy of evidence, “sounds very much like Orr” at points.

Fesko notes that Van Til’s disciples have debated among themselves the extent to which evidential arguments are appropriate in apologetics. Greg Bahnsen appeared to repudiate them altogether, while John Frame and Thom Notaro have defended their use and their compatibility with Van Til’s method. Even so, Fesko remarks, “there is a tendency to discount or diminish the use of evidence among some of those who employ the TAG” (p. 141).

Van Til’s Transcendental Argument

Dr. Fesko offers a very brief summary of the genesis of Van Til’s TAG. Van Til’s doctoral dissertation was a critique of Absolute Idealism arguing that “the Absolute” of the idealists could not be identified with the God of the Bible. Nevertheless, despite his trenchant critique, Van Til co-opted some of the concepts and vocabulary of the idealists in his defense of Christian theism. Fesko summarizes Van Til’s apologetic:

The only way to argue for the existence of an absolute God was to do so by means of a transcendental rather than logical argument. He argued from the impossibility of the contrary. In other words, only by presupposing the existence of God could a person explain the coherence of the world around him. (pp. 141-42)

After quoting a section from Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith (3rd ed., p. 103), Fesko comments:

The similarities between Kant and Van Til stand out. Kant begins with the assumption, or presupposition, of the validity of human knowledge and then proceeds to employ reason to demonstrate the truthfulness of what those presuppositions imply. Van Til begins with the presupposition of theism and then seeks to demonstrate the implications of the truthfulness of that presupposition. (p. 142)

In Fesko’s estimation, however, Van Til’s argument is really “a subjective version of Aquinas’s second and fifth arguments for the existence of God”:

In other words, Van Til argues from the effect (the chairs and the table) back to the cause (the beams in the floor). But apart from objective referents, it represents only one person’s sense of a need for coherence rather than an objective necessity. (p. 142)

There are two further similarities between Kant and Van Til: (1) “both focus on the issue of epistemology,” and (2) “both employ a transcendental argument to account for their epistemology.”

Analysis

The bulk of the chapter is taken up with a threefold critique of Van Til’s TAG:

I address three questions related to the TAG: (1) Does Van Til engage in synthetic thinking because he employs the idealist TAG? (2) What is the importance and what is the necessity of acknowledging the correspondence theory of truth? (3) If apologists rigidly and inflexibly employ the TAG to the exclusion of other arguments, do they unnecessarily wed their apologetics to passing philosophical trends? (p. 143)

Synthesis Thinking?

Van Til, like Dooyeweerd, charged Aquinas with synthetic thinking for incorporating Aristotelian philosophy into his theology. He leveled the same accusation (albeit less vigorously) at Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Valentine Hepp. The implication is that Van Til regarded himself as one of the few Christian theologians to avoid synthetic thinking.

This raises two questions. (1) Are Van Til’s charges justified? (2) Is Van Til himself guilty of the same synthetic thinking he attributes to others? Dr. Fesko proposes to focus solely on the second question.

In Fesko’s judgment, Van Til “consciously drew on the arguments and terminology” of idealism, a philosophy that originated with Kant and Hegel rather than the Bible. However, Van Til did not employ the terminology of idealism “in a Kantian manner,” but instead “sought to fill them with Christian content.” Thus, for example, Van Til argues that the God of the Bible is “our concrete universal.” Similarly, Van Til retools the Kantian notion of “limiting concepts.”

Van Til’s justification for this approach was twofold: first, he observed a “formal similarity” or “formal agreement” between idealism and Christian theism; second, it allowed him to “build a bridge between Christianity and the idealist philosophers” (p. 145) whom Van Til wished to reach with the gospel. Fesko observes that Van Til is, in effect, trying to establish a point of contact between his Christian worldview and that of non-Christian idealism. But if this is so, then contrary to HWT those worldviews cannot be “entirely incommensurable” (p. 148).

Fesko thus turns the tables: in principle, Van Til is trying to do for idealist philosophy what Aquinas sought to do for Aristotelian philosophy, namely, to find common ground for the purpose of fruitful apologetic dialogue.

Broadly considered, Van Til and Aquinas employed a similar apologetic methodology. Both spoke to the philosophical trends of their day from the platform of the authority of Scripture: Aquinas spoke in an Aristotelian dialect and Van Til in an idealist one. Aquinas argued for the existence of God in terms of Aristotelian categories of causality, and Van Til in terms of Kantian transcendental argumentation. (p. 148)

Although Van Til and Aquinas have their obvious differences (e.g., Aquinas doesn’t hold to sola scriptura), “the broad outlines of their methodologies are similar” (p. 149). Van Til is therefore guilty of double standards when he charges others with synthetic thinking for doing what he himself has done.

Coherence Theory of Truth

Fesko’s second complaint about TAG is that “some of its proponents use one theory of truth to excess” (p. 149). He summarizes:

In terms of the TAG, the apologist makes the claim that the presupposition of the existence of the Triune God of the Bible best explains all reality — whether it is scientific experimentation, ethics, aesthetics, politics, philosophy, or anything else. This methodology rests on the coherence theory of truth. (p. 149)

According to the coherence theory of truth, truth is defined in terms of systemic coherence. Van Til apparently picked up his affinity for the coherence theory from British Idealists such as F. H. Bradley. Fesko remarks:

The coherence theory of truth certainly fits within Van Til’s apologetic and theological system. Van Til argues that the claims of Christianity best explain all reality. (p. 150)

The problem here, in Fesko’s judgment, is that adherence to the coherence theory of truth steers us away from the use of evidence and from the idea that truth has to involve correspondence with reality. Thus, for example, Greg Bahnsen’s presuppositionalist approach emphasizes the need to engage in an internal critique of worldviews, to demonstrate the incoherence of non-Christian worldviews and the coherence of the Christian worldview. Bahnsen repudiated the use of historical evidential arguments for the claims of the Christian faith.

Fesko’s contention is that apologetics should aim to show that Christian claims correspond to reality and it is appropriate to appeal to evidence for that purpose, as the apostles did. Van Tilians who think that TAG is the be-all and end-all of apologetics thus neglect the use of evidence and “the book of nature”:

Van Til believed that one had to examine the foundation of evidence, which was more important than the evidence itself. Hence, Van Til focused on the vertical and gave too little attention to the horizontal. (p. 152)

[William White’s] description of Van Til’s approach reveals the theoretical nature of his apologetics. In truth, if apologetics deals with theological claims about the world and the gospel’s place within it, then it might at times be theoretical but should also be equally concrete. The books of nature and Scripture work in tandem. (p. 153)

Passing Philosophical Trends?

Fesko’s third and final concern about the use of TAG can be summarized as follows: TAG has its roots in idealist philosophy, but tying our apologetic method to a particular philosophical movement is short-sighted, since such movements come and go. We don’t want the effectiveness of our apologetic to depend on the fortunes of idealism — or any other philosophical theory for that matter.

Van Tilians and others have criticized Aquinas’s theistic arguments as out-of-date in light of post-Enlightenment developments. But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: Kantian idealism has also been supplanted by the postmodernist movement.

[G]iven the recent philosophical seismic shifts, one has to wonder how effective the TAG can be. If the apologist happens to be interacting with a person who is devoted to idealism, then the TAG is a useful tool, but an apologist who happens to be dialoguing with a postmodern who rejects the tenets of idealism would need to employ other tools. To claim that the TAG is the most biblical form of apologetics fails to recognize its philosophical origins. It needlessly attaches apologetic methodology to certain idealist concepts that are neither purely biblical nor even philosophically necessary. (pp. 155-56)

Given the balkanized philosophical landscape, dogmatically adhering to one specific idealist-bound form of apologetic argumentation clearly hobbles the Christian apologist. (p. 156)

Conclusion

Van Til adapted elements of idealist philosophy for his defense of the Christian faith. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, Fesko maintains, but it’s unfair of Van Tilians to criticize Aquinas for adopting the same kind of approach in his day (i.e., using “Aristotelian categories to build a bridge to Muslim philosophers”). Moreover, the great emphasis Van Til and his followers place on TAG has led to a downplaying of the correspondence aspect of truth and the use of empirical evidence to vindicate Christian claims.

Dr. Fesko closes the chapter with some quotes from Geerhardus Vos to make the point that, while we do not want to “allow the unregenerate to sit in judgment over the Scriptures,” it is nevertheless legitimate for the apologist to employ arguments from effect (creation) to cause (creator), and to appeal to “both of God’s books, nature and Scripture” (p. 159).

Comments

Much could be said about the claims and arguments in this chapter. A full critique would require a lengthy excursus on transcendental arguments in general, and Van Til’s TAG in particular, which would require more time and effort than I can currently spare! So I will focus on responding to the main concerns Dr. Fesko raises.

1. The first charge against Van Til is that he unfairly accuses others of “synthesis thinking” when he is guilty of the same thing. Aquinas co-opts Aristotelian philosophy in order to engage with the unbelievers of his day; Van Til co-opts idealist philosophy for the same end. Both apologists are, in effect, drawing out common grace insights from unbelieving philosophies.

There’s some truth to Dr. Fesko’s observations here. On one level Aquinas and Van Til are engaged in the same kind of project, and some Van Tilians have overstated the extent to which Aquinas is guilty of “synthesis thinking” while insisting that Van Til is “synthesis free”. Even so, there are some crucial differences here. Aquinas doesn’t merely adopt a method from Aristotle; he adopts substantive metaphysical categories and assumptions. In other words, he incorporates both method and content into his own Christian theology and apologetics. What’s more, as I argued in a previous installment, some of these imported goods are inimical to a consistent Christian worldview. That’s Van Til’s concern with Thomism — not simply that insights are being drawn from non-Christian philosophies.

In contrast, while Van Til certainly co-opts Kant’s transcendental method (i.e., seeking to expose the preconditions of human knowledge), as well as some Kantian terminology, it’s far from clear that he incorporates any Kantian content into his own theology and philosophy. Van Til’s metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are radically different from Kant’s. Van Til is posing many of the same questions as Kant, but his answers are antithetical to Kant’s. The similarity between the two thinkers is formal rather than material.

At any rate, I’m not persuaded that Dr. Fesko has shown Van Til to be guilty of the specific kind of “synthesis thinking” that he attributes to Aquinas. The charge of double-standards hasn’t been sustained.

2. Recall that in his earlier discussion of Calvin’s relationship to scholasticism, Dr. Fesko himself appealed to a distinction between method and content. Scholasticism was “primarily a method of doing theology” which “does not require any specific philosophical or theological commitments” (pp. 53-54). Calvin employed “scholastic method and terminology” (p. 56) but that didn’t commit him to adopting any specific metaphysical or theological content.

My question is this: If such a move can be applied in defense of Calvin’s relationship to scholasticism, why can’t a similar move be applied in defense of Van Til’s relationship to idealism? Why can’t we say that Van Til appropriated some of the methods and terms of idealism without importing its questionable metaphysical and theological content? That’s exactly what I think we should say. If the method/content distinction can exculpate Calvin, it can exculpate Van Til too.

3. There is a wrinkle here, however. For Van Til, no method is strictly neutral; there is no presuppositionless method. Every method ultimately rests upon some metaphysical and epistemological content, whether or not that content is acknowledged or admitted. But that’s the genius of TAG. It adopts a method designed to expose the content upon which its very method rests. It employs a form of argumentation designed to expose the philosophical (indeed, theological) presuppositions of argumentation as such.

The complication, then, is that Van Til rejects a clean distinction between method and content. Although he co-opts a method from a non-Christian source, he argues that the method itself ultimately rests upon Christian content, upon biblical theism. As Van Til put it, the house of human knowledge must have foundations, and those foundations are supplied by Christian theism alone. Despite its historical origins, TAG vindicates the Christian worldview rather than the non-Christian worldviews of Kant and subsequent idealists.

4. Dr. Fesko’s second criticism is that Van Tilians are too closely allied with the coherence theory of truth. Some of the proponents of TAG use that theory “to excess” (p. 149). Honestly, I found it hard to make out what the argument is here. Although TAG may be compatible with a coherence theory of truth, it doesn’t presuppose or otherwise depend on such a theory. TAG is compatible with a correspondence theory of truth as well. As far as I can tell, Fesko doesn’t offer any good reason to think otherwise.

It’s quite unfair to suggest that Van Til didn’t think the truth of Christian claims involved correspondence to reality in some weighty sense. Consider, for example, chapter 1 of A Survey of Christian Epistemology where Van Til argues that a Christian epistemology will insist that truth involves both correspondence to reality and coherence. But he goes on to say that the Christian’s “correspondence theory” and “coherence theory” should be cast in distinctively Christian theistic terms, in contrast to what Van Til calls the “historical” correspondence and coherence theories. The correspondence aspect of truth is to be understood ultimately as alignment with God’s knowledge (thus we “think God’s thoughts after him”) and the coherence aspect of truth is to be understood ultimately as the internal unity and orderliness of God’s knowledge.

In any case, I cannot locate any cogent philosophical criticism of TAG here. Nor do I find a clear explanation of why endorsing TAG necessarily leads to the neglect of empirical evidence or “the book of nature”. The historical fact that some Van Tilians have been resistant to using any argument other than TAG doesn’t in itself support Dr. Fesko’s thesis (unless his thesis is meant to be a merely historical one). Thom Notaro has shown pretty convincingly that Van Til himself didn’t see any conflict between his presuppositional method and the use of evidence to defend concrete historical claims.

5. The third major criticism is that TAG has its roots in Kantian idealist philosophy, but it’s unwise to tie our apologetic method to any philosophical movement that is likely to pass out of fashion. I agree with the premise of the objection: it would indeed be foolish to hitch our wagon to yesterday’s philosophical trends — or to today’s, for that matter. (The same goes for today’s historical, scientific, and cultural fashions — a lesson that Christians have to relearn in every generation, so it seems.)

That said, philosophical movements can give rise to insights that outlive the movements themselves. Leibniz, for example, pioneered some insights into modality (the logic of possibility and necessity) that remain useful today, even though few contemporary philosophers would defend his metaphysical system of monads. The same is true of Kantian idealism. Few philosophers today are willing to defend Kant’s own transcendental arguments — let alone his entire theory of transcendental idealism — but there continues to be great interest in the utility of transcendental arguments in general as a response to skeptical challenges.

In short, once we recognize the distinction between (1) a philosophical movement and (2) the methods and terminology introduced by way of that movement, we’re in a position to see the abiding value of some of the latter even after the former has gone the way of the dodo. So is Kantian idealism a spent force? Pretty much. Is the use of transcendental argumentation so inextricably tied to Kantian idealism that if the father expires, the son has to be buried in the same grave? Far from it, as the contemporary philosophical literature testifies.

(A tongue-in-cheek aside: if we’re going to have a conversation about apologetic methods not being tied to passing philosophical trends, perhaps we should include as an agenda item the enthusiasm in some Reformed circles today for unreconstructed Aristotelian-Thomism!)

6. All this to say, it seems to me the central criticisms of TAG in this chapter are founded on a false premise, namely, that TAG is logically (not merely historically) tethered to Kantian idealism or the broader idealist movement, with all of its questionable metaphysical and epistemological baggage. It just ain’t so. Van Til’s transcendental argument is no more shackled to idealist epistemology than contemporary formulations of the cosmological argument are shackled to Aristotelian metaphysics.

(On the question of the relationship between TAs and idealism, it’s worth noting that there is a significant ongoing debate among philosophers over whether anti-skeptical transcendental arguments are able to refute idealism. See, e.g., Stern’s discussion of Stroud’s famous objections to TAs. But that issue doesn’t come up at all in Dr. Fesko’s assessment of TAG.)

7. Finally, I have to note some other questionable claims about TAG in this chapter. To begin with, recall Dr. Fesko’s summary of Van Til’s approach:

The only way to argue for the existence of an absolute God was to do so by means of a transcendental rather than logical argument. He argued from the impossibility of the contrary. In other words, only by presupposing the existence of God could a person explain the coherence of the world around him. (pp. 141-42)

Why is TAG characterized as “transcendental rather than logical”? Isn’t a transcendental argument a logical argument? If it’s a sound argument, it would have to be logically valid. Fesko seems to acknowledge this only a few pages earlier:

Stated in simpler terms, transcendental arguments make a specific claim, namely, that X is necessary for Y to exist. If Y exists, then it logically follows that X must also be true. In other words, a transcendental argument argues by way of presupposition. (p. 139)

So I confess I don’t understand what Dr. Fesko has in mind when he contrasts a ‘transcendental’ argument with a ‘logical’ argument. My best guess is that it’s meant to be a contrast between Van Til’s TAG and deductive effect-to-cause arguments (such as Aquinas’s Five Ways). In that case it’s a legitimate contrast, but misleadingly expressed.

Moreover, I don’t think it’s accurate to say TAG is meant to show that a person can “explain the coherence of the world around him” only by presupposing the existence of God. Rather, it’s meant to show that a person can have knowledge of a coherent world only if God actually exists. In other words, Van Til’s claim is that the existence of the triune God is a metaphysical precondition for all human knowledge (whether knowledge of God, of oneself, or of the world).

For related reasons, I take issue with Dr. Fesko’s claim that TAG is really just another effect-to-cause argument: “a subjective version of Aquinas’s second and fifth arguments” (p. 142). Generally speaking, TAs don’t reason from effect to cause, but rather from undeniable features/capacities of human cognition to necessary metaphysical preconditions of those features/capacities. That’s quite a different kind of argument. Some TAs may involve causal reasoning, but that’s not a universal feature of TAs by any means.

Consider, for example, the argument for God from logic. That’s a kind of transcendental theistic argument. But it doesn’t involve any effect-to-cause reasoning. So I think it’s mistaken to suggest that TAG is just a quirky kind of cosmological or teleological argument.

3 thoughts on “Reforming Apologetics (Transcendental Arguments)”

  1. Ron DiGiacomo

    Thanks for this series, James.

    Perhaps Dr. Fesko has confused Van Til with Gordon Clark regarding the prominence of a coherence theory of truth.

    1. That’s plausible. There are other points in the book where his criticisms would be more aptly directed at Clarkians than Van Tilians.

  2. Pingback: Mid-January 2020 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

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