Shall We Argue Transcendentally?

A Perspectival Debate on Apologetic Methodology

(Written for Professor John Frame, September 1995)

  1. Introduction
  2. Transcendental Arguments: Pro and Con
    1. Normative Considerations
      1. Do They Truly Necessitate Transcendental Argumentation? (Van Til's Argument From God's Truth)
      2. Or Do They Actually Legitimate Traditional Argumentation? (Frame's Counterargument From God's Truth)
        1. The Traditional Starting Point
        2. The Traditional Method
        3. The Traditional Conclusion
    2. Situational Considerations
      1. Do They Truly Necessitate Transcendental Argumentation? (Van Til's Argument From Total Depravity)
      2. Or Do They Actually Legitimate Traditional Argumentation? (Frame's Counterargument From Common Grace)
    3. Existential Considerations
      1. Do They Truly Necessitate Transcendental Argumentation? (Van Til's Argument From Philosophical Sophistication)
      2. Or Do They Actually Legitimate Traditional Argumentation? (Frame's Counterargument From Diversity of Background)
  3. The True Character and Role of Transcendental Arguments
I. Introduction

Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought[1] is bound to be a controversial book among students of Van Til, for in a series of summary statements at the end of ch. 21 (CVT 238-9), Frame appears to rehabilitate the entire traditional method of doing apologetics—the Aquinas-Butler school—and does so in the name of two principles: God’s common grace in the heart of the natural man, and God’s special grace upon the presentation of truth in whatever form that presentation takes (CVT 159-60, 166). More inflexible interpreters of Van Til will see Frame’s work as a radical departure from what they regard as Van Til’s distinctive and most significant contribution to apologetic methodology: transcendental argumentation. This latter approach has been long regarded by Van Til disciples as the only legitimate method of argument, a method that is both necessary and sufficient for honoring Christ in apologetic encounter with the natural man. Such disciples will undoubtedly see Frame’s work as paving the road back to Rome and her autonomously-conceived natural theology, a tragic undoing of Van Til’s legacy at the hands of a Westminster professor who should have known better. They may even redirect Van Til’s criticism of E. J. Carnell to Frame himself: "Starting from man as autonomous, Carnell [and now Frame] worked up a modern form of natural theology under the guise of common grace" (CFC 95).

The purpose of this essay is to give the modern-day Reformed apologist some perspective on this thorny dispute about the appropriate legacy of Van Til for apologetic method. The following pages will seek to defend at length the flexibility in method that Frame has enthusiastically brought to the Van Tillian school of apologetics, showing how Frame applies the principles of common grace and depravity to apologetic method more consistently than Van Til himself. But that flexibility will be defended in a way that remains sympathetic to the core concerns of those who would wish to maintain transcendental argumentation as the exclusive way to honor Christ in the defense of the faith. It will be seen that, despite well-intentioned criticism to the contrary, Frame’s "presuppositionalism of the heart" is the best way to preserve Van Til’s distinctive theological legacy while avoiding Van Til’s mistaken inferences from that theology to the area of methodology.

The present thesis proceeds in two steps. First, Van Til’s best arguments for a transcendental approach will be neatly presented, correlated with Frame’s best criticisms against the necessity of that approach. Second, in the aftermath of this hopefully illuminating exchange, an attempt will be made to more precisely articulate the proper relationship between transcendental and traditional arguments in the repertoire of the Reformed apologist.

II. Transcendental Arguments: Pro and Con

CVT is not Frame’s first published criticism of the necessity and sufficiency of transcendental argumentation for the task of apologetics. Frame’s thoughts in this regard can be found in AGG, and his general approach to the issue presupposes (at least implicitly) the perspectival epistemology presented in DKG. In the spirit of that epistemology, the following debate on method between the "transcendentalists" and the "traditionalists" will be organized perspectivally. Both the defense of transcendental argumentation, and the case for a more flexible method, can be made with reference to the norm of God’s truth, the situation of the natural man, and the existential climate of the apologetic encounter.[2]

The most clear, concise, comprehensive, and perhaps "classic" definition of transcendental argumentation—or reasoning by presupposition—is from Van Til’s Defense of the Faith, quoted here at length as a springboard for further discussion:

[A] consistently Christian method of apologetic argument, in agreement with its own basic conception of starting point, must be by presupposition. To argue by presupposition is to indicate what are the epistemological and metaphysical principles that underlie and control one’s method (DF2 99).

The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct. The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to "facts" or "laws" whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the "facts" and "laws" intelligible. The question is as to what the "facts" and "laws" really are. Are they what the non-Christian methodology assumes that they are? Are they what the Christian theistic methodology presupposes they are?

The answer to this question cannot be finally settled by any direct discussion of "facts." It must, in the last analysis, be settled indirectly. The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the "facts" are not facts and the "laws" are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do "facts" and "laws" appear intelligible (DF2 100-1).

A. Normative Considerations
1. Do Normative Considerations Truly Necessitate Transcendental Argumentation? (Van Til’s Argument From God’s Truth)

According to Van Til, the traditional arguments for Christian theism set forth defective representations of biblical teaching, defective in at least three essential aspects. They do not accord with the norm of God’s truth in their starting point, method, or conclusion:

Since Roman Catholicism and Arminianism are committed to a neutral starting point and methodology they are bound also to fall into the atomism of non-Christian thought. Since they will not look at all the facts as facts of the Christian theistic system, and flatly refuse to maintain that anything but a Christian theistic fact can exist at all, and with this claim challenge the non-Christian methodology from the outset of the argument, they are bound to be carried away to a non-Christian conclusion (DF2 121-2, my italics).

First, the starting point of the traditional apologist is an autonomously-conceived epistemology, employing general "laws" and empirical "facts" interpreted apart from the Scriptures and acceptable to both believer and unbeliever.

It is the very essence of the positions of Aquinas and Butler that human self-consciousness is intelligible without God-consciousness. Both make it their point of departure in reasoning with the non-believers that we must, at least in the are of things natural, stand on the ground of neutrality with them (DF2 199).

But for Van Til:

It is not as though we already know some facts and laws to begin with, irrespective of the existence of God, in order then to reason from such a beginning to further conclusions. It is certainly true that if God has any significance for any object of knowledge at all, the relation of God to that object of knowledge must be taken into consideration from the outset (SCE 201).

Second, the traditionalist’s method eschews God-honoring circular argument in favor of autonomous linear arguments: inductive argument by way of analogy, deductive argument from a priori principles of "reason," or an unstable combination of the two.

Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument. A deductive argument as such leads only from one spot in the universe to another spot in the universe. So also an inductive argument as such can never lead beyond the universe. In either case there is no more than an infinite regression (SCE 11).

Third, his conclusion is probable, not certain, and inevitably depicts a finite God: a "first cause," a designer of the world, a moral lawgiver, etc. This god is perhaps the god of the philosophers, but certainly not the infinite yet personal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob:

Both Thomas Aquinas and Butler contend that men have done justice by the evidence if they conclude that God probably exists. . . I consider this a compromise of simple and fundamental Biblical truth. It is an insult to the living God to say that his revelation of himself so lacks in clarity that man, himself through and through revelation of God, does justice by it when he says that God probably exists (DF2 197).

In not challenging this basic presupposition with respect to himself as the final reference point in predication the natural man may accept the "theistic" proofs as fully valid. He may construct such proofs. He has constructed such proofs. But the god whose existence he proves to himself in this way is always a god who is something other than the self-contained ontological trinity of Scripture (DF2 77).

Only transcendental arguments—arguments which presuppose the truth of Christian theism from the outset, reduce opposing positions to absurdity by indirectly proving "the impossibility of the contrary," and conclude with nothing less than the biblical God—honor the norm of God’s truth in every way.

2. Or Do Normative Considerations Actually Legitimate Traditional Argumentation? (Frame’s Counterargument From God’s Truth)

Frame effectively counters Van Til’s charges by showing how, in principle, no normative considerations are actually violated by the traditional method. Van Til’s criticisms overstate the case, and do not pay sufficient attention to what is actually going on in such arguments.

a. The Traditional Starting Point

The starting point of the traditional method is not necessarily an unbiblical or "neutral" epistemology. To be sure, various theories of truth—empiricist, rationalist, subjectivist, common-sense, etc.—have been adopted by apologists in church history. But (1) the soundness of a particular apologetic argument does not depend upon the epistemology of the one doing the arguing, and (2) many traditional apologists did not even self-consciously adopt an epistemology as a prerequisite to their work. So even when Van Til has been successful in identifying concessions to unbiblical thought in the epistemologies of past Christian thinkers, he has tied the subjective commitments of those apologists too tightly to the objective truth-content of their arguments. For example, in evaluating Van Til’s treatment in CTK of Augustine’s epistemology, Frame points out that Van Til’s criticisms are irrelevant to the issue of methodology:

It will not do to say that epistemological errors must produce bad arguments. To say that is to assume that in every apologist there is a perfect consistency between his epistemological theory and the arguments he employs. It is also to assume that every epistemological error logically requires the use of a bad argument. Those assumptions are false (CVT 203-4).

Similar confusion is found in Van Til’s account of the Roman Catholic starting point. In building up his apologetics by the direct method, the Roman Catholic can (according to Van Til)

to a large extent agree with the natural man in his conception of both the starting point and the method of human knowledge. He can therefore join the non-Christian in his search for the existence or non-existence of God by the use of reason without any reference to Scripture" (DF2 109).

But even if he can, the apologist doesn’t have to "agree with the natural man in his conception of both the starting point and the method of human knowledge." He can be subjectively committed to the self-attesting authority of Christ in Scripture while at the same time objectively in his argument be appealing to the knowledge of God which the natural man does have. Simply put, there is no necessary connection between the statement of an argument and the epistemology of the person who states that argument. God requires that our apologetic arguments be true, no more and no less.

b. The Traditional Method

The traditional method is not defective simply because it is direct rather than indirect. The norm of God’s truth licenses the traditional, direct approach in a number of ways.

First, the logical model exhibited in a transcendental method of argument need not be indirect. The transcendental case for God’s existence, setting forth God as the necessary presupposition for all intelligible predication, can be made either directly or indirectly as to its form. As Frame puts it,

in the final analysis, it doesn’t make much difference whether you say "Causality, therefore God" or "Without God, no causality, therefore God." Any indirect argument of this sort can be turned into a direct argument by some creative rephrasing" (AGG 76; cf. CVT 255-7).

At the very least, an indirect argument requires a direct one in order to be cogent.[3] Thus it is illegitimate to restrict all apologetic argument to an indirect form. Each form is convertible to the other, expressing the same truth in different ways. When Thomas Aquinas argued directly from the existence of motion to the existence of a first mover, he was not necessarily assuming that motion is intelligible without God. His argument can be used to establish the opposite claim, that any intelligible account of motion must acknowledge God. "His argument would have a ‘transcendental thrust," (CVT 257), setting forth God as the precondition of intelligibility with respect to causality, even though his argument is direct in form. So when Van Til states that "the method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct" (DF2 100), Frame doesn’t deny the distinction—just its apologetic importance.

Second, the practical strategy of the transcendental method—whereby the believer places himself upon the position of his opponent and assumes the correctness of his opponent’s method merely for argument’s sake—ultimately gains its persuasive power for exactly the same reason that traditional arguments have been persuasive. Both types of argument appeal, in the final analysis, explicitly or implicitly, to Christian truth which the unbeliever has already accepted at some level of his consciousness.

This is clear with respect to transcendental arguments once it is made plain that the criticism of the unbeliever’s worldview is not purely internal (CVT 259). When Van Til calls the believer to place himself upon the position of his opponent, and to assume the correctness of his opponent’s method merely for argument’s sake (DF2 100), he is not calling the believer to adopt all of the unbeliever’s position, including his rationalizations and self-deceptions! If that were the case, the Christian would drown with the non-Christian in his sea of unbelief (SCE 205-6). The comparison of worldviews requested of the unbeliever necessarily involves a Christian standard of comparison, for (1) no "worldview-neutral" standards of comparison are possible, and (2) a non-Christian standard will end in futility. So what really happens in the practical strategy which Van Til advocates "is that the Christian is telling the unbeliever how the unbeliever’s principles look to him as a Christian" (DKG 360). In that regard, a transcendental argument will only be persuasive if the unbeliever already accepts the standard of comparison the apologist is employing.

Consider Van Til’s exhortation to the unbeliever in his pamphlet Why I Believe In God: "You have assumed the autonomy of your own experience. Consequently you are unable—that is, unwilling—to accept as a fact any fact that would challenge your self-sufficiency. And you are bound to call that contradictory which does not fit into the reach of your intellectual powers. . . It is that sort of thing that I feel you have done with every fact of human experience. And I am asking you to be critical of this your own most basic assumption" (WIB 9). But how can the unbeliever be truly critical of his most basic assumption unless he abandons what is his most basic standard of criticism, his own autonomy? That is, Van Til’s exhortation to self-criticism will only be carried out, and the worldview-comparison will only be cogent, if the unbeliever accepts a Christian standard of criticism, i.e. Christ’s lordship over all knowledge-claims.[4]

In similar fashion, a traditional argument will only be persuasive if the unbeliever already accepts the Christian concepts implicit in the premises and logical connections of such an argument. The traditional arguments "work because (whether the apologist recognizes this or not) they presuppose a Christian worldview" (AGG 71-2), a Christian concept of cause, order, perfection, ethics, etc. Non-Christian understandings of these concepts lead to futility, which is the chief reason why the traditional arguments "do not work" for so many non-Christians. For example, the cogency of the ontological argument is in the Christian paradigm of perfection that is built into it. A Buddhist would oppose the ontological argument because nothingness, not pure being, would be a perfection for the Buddhist (cf. AGG 116-7). In the same way, the cogency of modern-day transcendental arguments is bound up with a particular (ultimately Christian) concept of "intelligibility," whether or not that concept is openly admitted by the unbeliever as Christian. Previous concepts of rationality or intelligibility (e.g. Plato’s) influential in history would not give a Christian conclusion. Thus each method of argumentation, transcendental and traditional, trades upon Christian truth already accepted by the unbeliever. In this regard, transcendental argumentation is not inherently more faithful to the norm of God’s truth than is traditional argumentation.

Thirdly, the above two considerations come down to saying that a direct method does not necessarily reveal a commitment to autonomy. The apologist cannot be said to conceive of facts independently of God simply because he starts his argument by appealing to those facts directly, not mentioning God explicitly at the outset. Scripture points to the evidence for God, and this evidence can and must be presented to the natural man, whether directly or indirectly. A direct argument such as Aquinas’ argument from motion can, as previously mentioned, have a transcendental conclusion. Conversely, an indirect argument may be guilty of autonomy if it employs a non-Christian conception of "intelligibility" or "rationality" (cf. CVT 257). When Clement of Rome compares the pagan belief in the ever-rising phoenix to the Christian belief in the resurrection, is he not reducing the unbeliever’s position to absurdity, for inconsistently accepting the one belief and not the other? "Surely Clement, implicitly, is doing that very thing. Is it necessary to do this explicitly rather than implicitly? Perhaps that is what Van Til wants to say, but I don’t know how he would argue for it" (CVT 194).

In the end, Van Til does seem to acknowledge a variety of legitimate modes of argumentation.

Obviously I cannot enter into a discussion of all the facts and all the reasons urged against belief in God. There are those who have made the Old Testament, as there are those who have made the New Testament, their life-long study. It is their works you must read for a detailed refutation of points of biblical criticism. Others have specialized in physics and biology. To them I must refer you for a discussion of the many points connected with such matters as evolution. But there is something that underlies all these discussions. And it is with that something that I now wish to deal (WIB 8).

Here Van Til seems to retreat from his thesis that transcendental argument is necessary in order for the individual apologist to discharge his responsibility. Otherwise Van Til would not refer his unbelieving hearers to the explicitly historical and "evidentialist" discussions of his colleagues.[5]

In summary, the apologist may express his commitment to the lordship of Christ over knowledge, in various ways. And he cannot be said to compromise God’s norms in his method if the premises, connections, and conclusions of his arguments are true.

c. The Traditional Conclusion

Lastly, Van Til’s objection that a traditional argument proves only a probable, finite god, is not persuasive.

With respect to the charge of finitude, it is not possible for the conclusion of an argument to exhaust the whole truth about God. If Aquinas’ argument from motion proves the existence of a first cause, then that conclusion is true as far as it goes; it certainly proves no less than that. As Frame puts it,

We should not, of course, be content to bring an inquirer only to embrace part of the truth. It is best to develop a system of arguments which establish as best we can the truth of the full biblical message. But I do not believe that every apologetic syllogism must conclude with the full richness of biblical revelation. Therefore, I am not scandalized by the fact that Aquinas’s argument for the first mover does not also prove God’s infinity (CVT 211).

Van Til’s objection concerning finitude seems to grow out of his concern that an apologetic argument not artificially separate the "thatness" of God (his existence) from the "whatness" of God (his definitive character). But, says Frame,

it seems that the emphasis on "that" and "what" is a matter of degree. The argument seems to be about how much theological definition of x needs to be included in a proof of x. In my opinion, Van Til does not present enough argument to require a particular degree of definition in an apologetic proof (CVT 146).

Ironically enough, a transcendental argument can also be subject to the same misdirected charge of finitude that Van Til directs toward the traditional arguments, and that on at least two counts. First, the transcendental conclusion that God is the source of all intelligibility is indeed true, but is not the whole truth about God. God’s holiness, justice, love, sovereignty, etc., still need to be established by subsidiary or supplemental arguments (cf. AGG 73, CVT 254-5). Second, in the spirit of Hume’s objection to the teleological argument, it is not clear why the epistemological requirements of a finite universe require a personal source of intelligibility which is itself infinite. Could not the job be done just as well by a finite god? The cause seems to be greater than the effect. This is to say, not that the transcendental argument excludes an infinite God, but that it needs to argue for that conclusion separately.

With respect to the charge of probability, Frame draws a distinction between the certainty of the evidence (absolute, based on the clarity of God’s revelation; cf. Ro 1:18-21, Ps 19:1), and the certainty of the arguments which reformulate that evidence in logical form (probable, based on our own fallibility as fallen human beings) (AGG 81-2, CVT 220-223). The clarity of revelation is preserved while remaining realistic as to the cogency of specific arguments.

Van Til devotes a lot of space to documenting the alleged shortcomings of traditional arguments and their conclusions. But he seems to be quite aware of the limitations of the transcendental method (perhaps in spite of himself) when he says that

This does not imply that it will be possible to bring the whole debate about Christian theism to full expression in every discussion of individual historical fact. Nor does it imply that the debate about historical detail is unimportant. It means that no Christian apologist can afford to forget the claim of his system with respect to any particular fact (DF2 118, my italics)

That is, the transcendental claim to exhaustiveness and certainty is a subjective commitment on the part of the apologist, a goal in his work which he must never forget, rather than a formal feature of individual arguments. Van Til continues:

He must always maintain that the "fact" under discussion with his opponent must be what Scripture says it is, if it is to be intelligible as a fact at all. He must maintain that there can be no facts in any realm but such as actually do exhibit the truth of the system of which they are a part. If facts are what they are as parts of the Christian theistic system of truth then what else can facts do but reveal that system to the limit of their ability as parts of that system? It is only as manifestations of that system that they are what they are. If the apologist does not present them as such he does not present them for what they are (DF2 118, my italics).

Thus the facts "exhibit" the truth of the system, though their ability to do so is limited by their being only "parts" of that system.

In closing this section on normative considerations, it must be remembered that the real normative issue with respect to apologetic method is, what is explicitly false in the traditional arguments? On that simpler (and more biblical) criterion the traditional arguments fare much better than Van Til has allowed. In summarizing his section on the church fathers Frame says,

Although I agree with Van Til in his theological evaluations, he has not persuaded me that these theological errors generally discredit the fathers’ apologetic reasoning. At most, he has shown in their apologetic work a significant error of omission: that they failed to attack explicitly and systematically the fundamental epistemological presuppositions of non-Christian thought. That omission is significant. But it does not entirely discredit their apologetic effort (CVT 205).

As we shall see, this omission may be relevant to the existential context of the apologetic encounter, but not the normative context of faithfulness to God’s truth.

B. Situational Considerations
1. Do Situational Considerations Truly Necessitate Transcendental Argumentation? (Van Til’s Argument From Total Depravity)

According to Van Til, the traditional arguments for Christian theism merely present the evidence for God’s existence, and fail to recognize the grave situation that mankind is in. Man is fallen, totally depraved, and so will inevitably distort the evidence presented to him by a traditional argument, reinterpreting the significance of that evidence according to his autonomous commitment. Unless the unbeliever’s autonomous standards of interpretation are directly challenged at every point and exposed as epistemologically futile (through the use of a transcendental argument which rests all predication upon the existence of God), the unbeliever will continue to take all the facts thrown at him by the traditional apologist "and toss them behind him in the bottomless pit of pure possibility" (DF2 204). Van Til expounds further:

Apologetics, like systematics, is valuable to the precise extent that it presses the truth upon the attention of the natural man. The natural man must be blasted out of his hideouts, his caves, his last lurking places. Neither Roman Catholic nor Arminian methodologies have the flame-throwers with which to reach him. In the all-out war between the Christian and the natural man as he appears in modern garb it is only the atomic energy of a truly Reformed methodology that will explode the last Festung to which the Roman Catholic and the Arminian always permit him to retreat and to dwell in safety (DF2 105).

The reason why the depravity of the natural man will resist a traditional argument is that the autonomy conceded in that method gives the natural man a way out, an excuse for unbelief, a reason for resisting the truth. Thus the normative and situational considerations are perspectives upon an interconnected whole. Because the traditional method is not according to God’s truth (Van Til’s normative argument), the depravity of the natural man is not challenged but affirmed (Van Til’s situational argument).

2. Or Do Situational Considerations Actually Legitimate Traditional Argumentation? (Frame’s Counterargument From Common Grace)

Van Til has performed a valuable service to the apologist by reminding him of the total depravity of man. But Van Til’s insistence upon the necessity of the transcendental method grows out of his "extreme antithetical formulations" of the antithesis between the thinking of the believer and unbeliever (CVT 153-7). Simply put, Van Til stresses the principle of total depravity in man’s situation at the expense of the principle of common grace, which is also operative in man's interpretative activity.

Consider the passage from Van Til previously quoted: "it is only the atomic energy of a truly Reformed methodology that will explode the last Festung to which the Roman Catholic and the Arminian always permit him to retreat and to dwell in safety" (DF2 105). Or, in a similar vein, "[Romanists and evangelicals] do not seek to explode the last stronghold to which the natural man always flees and where he always makes his final stand" (DF2 94, my italics). The clear implication is that every natural man will resist all traditional arguments, fleeing to that "last lurking place" of his own autonomy in every apologetic encounter. This is plainly contrary to fact, and to the entire history of apologetic encounter between believer and non-believer. It is contrary to fact because the natural man, while totally depraved, is by God’s common grace not utterly depraved. In his depravity he inexcusably and immorally suppresses the knowledge of God, but that suppression is limited by God’s common grace.

Thus "we do not know for sure that the unbeliever will reject the evidence" which is presented to him in a traditional argument (CVT 160). While Frame maintains "a distinctively Van Tillian view of knowledge," he differs substantially with Van Til’s "view of the noetic effects of sin" (CVT 148). Van Til himself confessed real difficulty in formulating the doctrine, admitting "that we cannot give any wholly satisfactory account of the situation as it actually obtains," and saying that the truth on the subject "lies within a certain territory" (IST 26).[6] Many times Van Til seems to deny any genuine knowledge to the natural man. But in some passages he admits that the unbeliever is "a mixture" (CVT 152), and that his interpretative activity does not always result in false conclusions (CVT 154). Frame confesses that "it is this insistence of Van Til that the unbeliever is in ‘actual possession’ of revealed knowledge that leads me to reject all of these ‘extreme antithetical formulations.’ For if any of these formulations is true, then it cannot be maintained that the unbeliever has an actual knowledge of God" (CVT 157).[7]

Affirming then this "mixture" in the natural man, Frame goes on to expound three perspectivally-related strategies for relating common grace to total depravity. In each case, the natural man’s suppression of the truth is seen to be less than total, paving the way for the effectiveness of traditional argumentation.

From a normative perspective, the antithesis between the knowledge of the regenerate and unregenerate can be characterized as total in principle, while in practice it is actually less than this. "Insofar as men are aware of their basic alliances, they are wholly for or wholly against God at every point of interest to man" (IST 29, my italics). Frame sees this "insofar" as crucial to the normative formulation (CVT 158), for "here Van Til recognizes quite explicitly that the unbeliever may well grant many truths of Christianity. All that antithesis requires in this strategy is that when the unbeliever speaks such truth we should regard him as inconsistent with his own principle" (CVT 158-9).

From a situational perspective, the unbeliever as a matter of fact lives in God’s world, and so his apostate system will never be intellectually satisfying to him. In the very nature of the case, his interpretations will be full of "inconsistencies, factual inaccuracies, existential dissatisfactions, etc." (CVT 161). Thus because of his situation as a resident of God’s world, he cannot suppress the truth completely. Indeed, his denials of the truth presuppose the truth.

And from an existential perspective the unbeliever is able to intellectually acknowledge the truth of the argument presented to him (by God’s common grace), even though he does not seek that knowledge according to the right goal, standard, and motive (because of his total depravity). He affirms the truth of Scripture (common grace), but like Satan and the Pharisees he affirms that truth hypocritically (total depravity). His knowledge is genuine, but considered from the ethical aspect it is still defective. The unbeliever suppresses the truth to the degree that he is epistemologically self-conscious (CVT 165).

This is a profound analysis and goes far to explain both the effectiveness and the legitimacy of traditional arguments, arguments which, although not explicitly challenging the natural man’s system of autonomous interpretation, trade on the borrowed capital the depraved man is unwittingly using by God’s common grace. Such grace seems to operate in a dual manner. First, that grace operates internally in the heart of the unbeliever by limiting the consistent carrying out of his professed antitheistic commitment. Second, that grace operates externally upon the environment of the unbeliever by allowing Christian thinking and action to influence history and the general culture, and thus the inherited belief structures of the unbeliever himself.

The sum of the matter is that Van Til fails to take into account (or at least make substantive apologetic use of) the principle of common grace in the natural man, even as many of the traditional apologists who preceded him naively failed to take into account the principle of depravity in the natural man. Neither principle is absolute in its expression.[8] Therefore, neither principle absolutely implies a particular apologetic method. The mistake of both schools has been to think that it does. Van Til in particular seems to only allow the epistemological significance of total depravity to influence his considerations on method, while neglecting the epistemological significance of common grace.[9]

Indeed, as with his normative considerations about "finitude," Van Til’s situational criticisms of the traditional method come back to bite his own method on the tail. In succinct fashion Frame additionally points out that, "to the extent that sin leads the unbeliever to repress evidence, it may equally lead him to repress the force of a transcendental argument" (CVT 160)! So what is the real advantage of such argumentation? This leads to the third and final set of considerations, pro and con.

C. Existential Considerations
1. Do Existential Considerations Truly Necessitate Transcendental Argumentation? (Van Til’s Argument From Philosophical Sophistication)

These final considerations are perhaps the most difficult to classify. Van Til acknowledged important differences between some unbelievers and others. As Frame puts it:

One difference to which Van Til often refers is a difference in "self-consciousness." "There is therefore a gradation between those who sin more and those who sin less self-consciously. . . " Self-consciousness in this sense is sometimes a function of learning: unbelievers tend to be more explicitly antagonistic to Christianity when they are philosophizing than when they are speaking from common sense. Sometimes it is also a function of historical differentiation (CVT 164).

Thus there is an existential climate to the apologetic encounter, having to do with the individual unbeliever’s own pursuits, concerns, abilities, and place in history. This is not to say that the truth of apologetic argument is actually culturally relative. It just means that so-called "intelligibility arguments" use the borrowed Christian capital of Western civilization in the hearts of men to make their conclusion persuasive. Most Westerns are concerned about preserving objectivity, or logic, or empirical science. So the transcendental argument "speaks to" many of them, showing how God preserves these intellectual values. But in the East, or in a more "advanced" post-modern and deconstructionist age, it is doubtful that the concerns of a transcendental argument would really carry much weight, for the intellectual values it preserves are no longer fashionable in those cultural and historical contexts. The options presented would not be live, forced, and momentous (to use William James’ terminology). We should still seek to reach such "irrationalists," but perhaps in a different way.

Similarly, if the unbeliever is a (Western) philosopher by trade, he will most likely be familiar with the strongest intellectual criticisms of Christianity, and perhaps have self-consciously adopted a sophisticated anti-theistic system of thought. And if he is living in the modern (post-Kantian) stage of history, his philosophical precommitments are likely to be much more explicit and consistently followed through than that of those who preceded him. Transcendental argumentation answers this explicit intellectual challenge of alternate worldviews head on, while traditional argumentation does not. If it is the case that it is "the self-sufficiency of the ‘natural man’ that must first be brought under some pressure, before there is any likelihood of his even considering the truth in any serious fashion at all" (SCE 207), then surely an explicit, self-consciously thought-out commitment to self-sufficiency must be brought under a greater amount of pressure by the apologist.

It is interesting in this regard to identify the various opponents in the Van Til corpus who regularly come in for a beating under the transcendental method. It is usually the Western philosopher-types! It is the "pragmatist philosopher" who invariably regards the resurrection of Christ as a fluke of nature, a hopeful candidate for "Ripley’s Believe It or Not"—until he is confronted by a presuppositional argument. It is the idealist philosopher who rests secure in his concrete universal—until informed by the Reformed apologist that he must know everything in order to know anything. It is the empiricist Hume and the rationalist Descartes who each reason peacefully in accordance with their chosen epistemology—until they are equally disabused of the naive notion that their "facts" and their "laws" may be brought into fruitful relation with each other. These are the paradigm recipients of the transcendental argument in the Van Tillian literature, and for good reason. Their commitment to well thought-out systems of thought make them ripe for the epistemological picking.

By way of contrast, Van Til identifies those whose intellectual "temperament"—whether lethargic, irrationalist, etc.—may actually exclude the appropriateness of transcendental argumentation:

In such extreme cases the only method that may approach their thought at all is a vigorous testimony to one’s own convictions about the truth of Christianity, and specifically its implications with respect to the judgment day. If they are too intellectually lethargic to do any thinking on their own account, if they have so far succeeded in drowning the voice of humanity within them, there seems to be nothing left to do but to testify. In a sense, of course, the whole presentation of the Christian theistic system to those who believe it not is a matter of testimony. But we mean here testimony that is no more than a vigorous statement of one’s belief of the truth without expediting any immediate intellectual response. Testimony to such and prayer about such is about all that we can do. It may be that our testimony and our prayer will lead them to begin some intellectual operation of some sort, so that we may begin to reason with them (SCE 211).[10]

That is, the particular existential climate of the apologetic encounter may not be conducive to highly intellectual discussions about presuppositions and epistemology. The necessity of transcendental argumentation is conditioned by existential considerations.

2. Or Do Existential Considerations Actually Legitimate Traditional Argumentation? (Frame’s Counterargument From Diversity of Background)

The existential perspective, as defined above, is perhaps the only perspective considered which Frame would wholeheartedly endorse as "necessitating" transcendental argumentation! He repeatedly recognizes the need to make apologetics "person-variable," so that its arguments "deal with each inquirer according to his own special needs, concerns, interests, problems" (CVT 167; cf. AGG 64, 72, 89-90, DKG 118-9, 152). Thus, in Frame’s view, some of the church fathers should have been more sensitive to this perspective:

Granted the sophistication of their opponents, and the nature of the questions at issue, I believe that Irenaeus and Tertullian would have been better off to argue in a more Van Tillian way... their apologetic should also have been more ‘presuppositional’... I criticize these church fathers, rather (apart from their specifically theological weaknesses), because their arguments were inadequately contextualized, inadequate for their Gnostic audience (CVT 200; cf. AGG 72).

It is not as though the church fathers necessarily asserted something in their arguments that was not true. Rather, the way they presented their arguments was not entirely appropriate for the kind of people who heard them. Likewise, even though Van Til was unwise to link a transcendental goal in argumentation to a particular method of argument, he

is a reliable guide as to the overall emphasis most needed in apologetics today. When dealing with educated people, we will often, perhaps usually, find it inadequate merely to present standard logical and evidential arguments. Those arguments may be sufficient for some, and we should not despise those who present them simply and naively. But among those who are culturally aware, we must challenge unbelieving presuppositions; otherwise we will be misunderstood as reinforcing them (CVT 238).

III. The True Character and Role of Transcendental Arguments

We have seen that there are three types of consideration to which Van Til appeals in order to justify the necessity of transcendental argument: normative, situational, and existential. We have also seen, upon analysis, that only existential considerations can serve as a justification for the use of transcendental over traditional arguments in some apologetic situations. But is there a way to more precisely articulate the proper relationship between transcendental and traditional arguments in the repertoire of the Reformed apologist? This was the question asked at the outset of this paper.

There appears to be some unclarity on this issue even in Frame. At one point he considers what is really involved in achieving the conclusion of Van Til’s transcendental argument:

Van Til phrases his conclusion in a way that makes it look far simpler than it is. One gets the impression that all the arduous labors of past apologists, proving this or that, can now be bypassed. Now, it seems, we only have to prove one thing, that universal intelligibility presupposes God. But that one thing is so complex that it in turn presupposes all the other things (CVT 254).

Thus transcendental and traditional arguments are dependent upon each other for their collective cogency. Every argument presupposes the rest.

But if this is truly the situation, then how can Frame later say that

the transcendental argument provides a foundation for theistic argument. For the transcendental argument eliminates the possibility of autonomous reasoning. Once autonomous reasoning is refuted, other arguments may be needed to build up positively the details of the Christian case. Those arguments can proceed freely, presupposing a Christian-theistic epistemology" (CVT 267).

If transcendental argument "presupposes all the other things," then how can that same transcendental argument provide a "foundation for theistic argument," in order to "build up positively the details of the Christian case"? Which is the foundation for which? Is it that transcendental argument may initially prove only a negative conclusion (the futility of autonomous reasoning and how it leads to total skepticism) while needing more traditional arguments to prove its positive conclusion (the necessity of a "full-blown" Christian theism for intelligibility)? But how could the initial critique of autonomy proceed without a picture of its necessary alternative being simultaneously developed?

The solution to this dilemma is to realize that the traditional (!) distinction between transcendental and traditional arguments has almost completely broken down under Frame’s analysis. But that distinction, having been enforced for so long, has a tendency to return at inopportune moments. Transcendental arguments are no longer to be identified by the method they employ; direct arguments will do the job just as effectively as indirect ones. Nor are they to be identified by their explicit starting point (as distinct from the personal commitment of the apologist). Nor are they to be identified by their conclusions being either exhaustive of biblical doctrine or certain in epistemic ranking. All these criteria have been exposed as red herrings in the search for a truly Reformed method of apologetics. Indeed, it may not be possible to identify a particular argument as "transcendental" in the relevant sense. Rather, as Frame himself brings out, the goal of the entire apologetic discipline (not the conclusion of a single argument) should be to establish the "transcendental conclusion": the necessity of presupposing the uniquely biblical God for universal intelligibility (CVT 255).

This is where Frame’s "presuppositionalism of the heart" is so important (CVT 257; AGG 85-88). Christian apologists must first and foremost remain committed in their hearts to the lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life: morally, spiritually, and intellectually. They must retain a specifically Christian conception of knowledge, reality, and ethics in their arguments, despite contemporary cultural and intellectual pressures to make concessions to the wisdom of the world on these matters. They must not give in to the distortions of these concepts as made by philosophers and other thinkers in history. There is no aspect of God’s revelation which has not been subjected to the distortion and suppression of the depraved intellect. Thus the Christian must remain careful and vigilant to set forth nothing less than the truth in their arguments. Apologetics is the whole gospel to the whole man, and even as the man in his fall ended up distorting the entire breadth of God’s revelation, so Christian apologetics must seek to restore man to right thinking with respect to all of God’s revelation.

The apologist must always be asking himself, "What is my goal in defending the faith to unbelievers? Is it to set forth anything less than the biblical God? God forbid! And if the necessity of God for all rationality is my ultimate goal in providing ‘reasons for faith’ (1Pe 3:15), then how do my specific arguments measure up? Do they contribute to the achievement of that goal (situational perspective)? Are they faithful to biblical truth (normative perspective)? Are they sensitive to the unbeliever’s particular circumstances and questions (existential perspective)?" These are the clear and compelling questions that must be asked, and they are more than enough to keep any apologist busy devising particular apologetic strategies in faithfulness to his God. But these are also simple questions, uncomplicated, few in number, and thus immensely liberating in their scope. May God grant the day when "transcendental argumentation," as defined above, truly becomes the "traditional argument" in the church of Jesus Christ!


[1] Unpublished manuscript by John M. Frame, August 1994. Now published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1995. Hereafter referred to as CVT. Abbreviations for works by Van Til, cited throughout this paper, are those supplied by CVT.

[2] I realize that by thus "Framing" the debate in terms of the DKG epistemology, I may appear to have inevitably biased its outcome. But hopefully even the non-Framian reader will perceive that this is just one of many ways to partition the polemical pie for pedagogical purposes!

[3] In the above example, the indirect argument would receive its necessary supplement by a direct argument which concluded, "There is causality."

[4] But this is simply one way of describing the initial stages of conversion from its intellectual aspect! Accepting Christ’s lordship over all knowledge, this intellectual repentance and conversion at the root level will eventually work its way outward to challenge the various strands of the unbeliever’s whole web of (un)belief.

[5] And yet transcendental argument is said to be "something that underlies all these discussions." Perhaps this is the "foundational" role of such argument to be discussed later in this essay.

[6] The irony is that, for all of VT’s cautious notes about the difficulty of defining the noetic effects of sin, he seems quite confident in expounding the "clear" implications of that problematic doctrine for apologetic method! E.g. "The natural man will always, invariably, only distort the truth of God, therefore we must argue indirectly, etc."

[7] A delightful account of the difficulty which the various "mixture" passages in Van Til raise for his "extreme antithetical formulation" is given by Gordon Lewis: "One begins to wonder whether Van Til’s strictures upon any common ground have not died the death of a thousand qualifications. Van Til’s evangelical opponents would claim no more than that unbelievers may discover much truth. When Van Til says that believer and unbeliever have no common ground, we must add, no common ground in principle, ultimately; but, however inconsistently, there may be much truth in common relatively, proximately, formally, and linguistically!" In Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims (Moody Press: Chicago, 1976), p. 138.

[8] Consider the implications of "absolute common grace" for apologetic methodology! Would there even be a need for apologetics in that case?

[9] Though he regularly affirms the metaphysical significance of common grace for point of contact.

[10] Van Til goes on to mention those who are "unsuited" to an "intellectual consideration of the truth to any great extent." To these "it is obvious that it would be useless to present the intellectual argument for Christian theism in any subtle and detailed form." Rather, "a simple presentation of the truth in positive form, and once more largely by way of testimony, may be all that is required" (SCE 211).

© 1999 Greg Welty

Last Revised: 19 July 1999