(Guest Post): By Joshua Pillows
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Many books, articles, and other source materials have been written with the aim of presenting presuppositional apologetics in an elementary or primer fashion so as to reach those Christians who wish to fulfill the biblical mandate of giving a defense of their faith (1 Pet. 3:15) without the need to get bogged down in the more academic and philosophical issues. However, behind every apologetic lies a particular argument (or arguments), for that is what giving a defense of something implies. Our evidentialist brothers and sisters who defend the faith tend to use historical evidences to prove the veracity of Scripture, that Christ really was the Son of God, or even more broadly, that Christianity is true. Our classical brothers and sisters typically utilize the “classical” arguments which trace back to the Medieval Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in which they argue from a variety of subjects such as cause, order and design, motion, necessity, and perfection in order to prove the existence of God.
However, the presuppositional approach utilizes its own specific argument which operates in a diametrically opposed way (both philosophically and theologically) and upon which all of the preceding arguments presented are formulated – a transcendental argument (hereafter TA). Many aspiring presuppositionalists know how to use the apologetic against non-Christians, but as to whether they can accurately articulate the underlying argument is another story. It is the purpose of this short article to succinctly lay out the transcendental argument for the existence of God (hereafter TAG) so that both the layman and the scholar can accurately understand the foundation of the apologetic they are employing.
Formulation and Examples
Van Til described his argument this way: “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be in order to make it what it is.”We are immediately confronted with a straightforward definition from the modern “Father” of this apologetic. In layman’s terms, we can take “any fact” from our human “experience” and converse with our opponent about what must be the case in order to make the fact being discussed intelligible. That is, we are looking for what necessarily must be the case in order to make sense of x. While a TA can technically be formulated in any number of different ways, a general formulation can run as follows:
Premise 1: In order for p to be the case, q must be the case since q is a necessary precondition for p.
Premise 2: p is the case.
Conclusion: Therefore, q is the case.
Since this may seem somewhat abstract for an elementary article, one could do no better than to present the argument in its preserved form by substituting the p’s and q’s with every-day circumstances.
Premise 1: In order for there to be a floor on the second story of my house there must be beams holding up the floor since the placement of beams is necessary for upholding a floor.
Premise 2: There is a floor on the second story of my house.
Conclusion: Therefore, there are beams holding up the floor in my house.
From this one example alone it is hoped that a great deal of readers have already attained a better understanding of a TA. At base it is not entirely difficult to understand. Here is another example, but laid out in a literary fashion:
Imagine you are a nurse working in a psych ward. Throughout your time there you have come to befriend many patients despite their cognitive deficiencies. However, one particular patient insists to you that there is no such thing as air. He likes to argue that you can’t see air, you can’t taste air, touch it, hear it, or smell it. You smile and kindly reply, “But how can you or I be alive if there wasn’t any air for us to breathe?” Still, he insists that air does not exist. Our bodies are entirely self-sufficient. You kindly continue to explain that our bodies have lungs which take in air for us to stay alive. Air, you explain to him, is necessary for humans to exist. Or, to put it another way, you explain to him that in order for us humans to exist there must be air for us to breathe, and since we do in fact exist and are alive, there is indeed air for us to breathe.
From the preceding examples it is hoped that the reader now has a better grip as to what a TA entails. We can summarize the nature of the argument with three points:
1. A transcendental argument is able to operate on absolutely any fact of experience. The presuppositional apologist thus has an unlimited number of facts to choose from to utilize his argument.
2. A transcendental argument argues for its conclusion indirectly rather than directly. That is, rather than ripping up the carpet to “directly” prove that there are floorboards underneath the floor, a transcendental argument shows “indirectly” what must be the case for the floor to be there in the first place. Or rather than “directly” showing the psych patient air molecules in a neon light, you instead argue “indirectly” for their existence by showing if they (or air) didn’t exist, neither would we.
3. A transcendental argument has objective force. This is a crucial distinction to the other arguments listed at the beginning. This “indirect” way of proving something is so powerful that it is absolutely impossible for it fail to prove what it’s intending to.
The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God
How, then, do we apply this powerful argument to prove the existence of God (and by extension the truth of Christianity)? Given the previous discussion we can summarize the method in this way: The proof for God’s existence is that without Him you cannot prove anything. That is to say that the existence of God and the truths of Christianity are necessary in order to explain why experience is intelligible to us. Why is it that we experience uniformity in our experiences? What accounts for humans being capable of possessing knowledge? What makes science possible? What justifies why murdering people is wrong? Van Til maintained that only the Christian worldview can account for such regularities. But notice that if only the Christian worldview can account for such intelligibility, then this would mean that all non-Christian systems of thought are wrong. This is a pretty bold claim to make. Van Til’s transcendental program is not in the business of proving a probability; it is rather a dogmatic, full-proof argument which proves absolutely the existence of God.
One last point must be clarified in order to proceed giving examples of Van Til’s TAG. There is only one transcendental argument for the existence of God. How that one argument is formulated is a matter for another discussion, but the point now is that presuppositional apologetics uses only one baseline argument. However, since that one argument can be used for “any fact of experience” as Van Til put it, there are in effect a plethora of transcendental arguments, then. That is, there is only one TAG in form, but many TAGs in terms of content – whether we talk about science, logic, morality, or uniformity with our opponent. At the end of the argument, the conclusion that the Christian worldview alone justifies experience is the same.
Example 1: Science and the Uniformity in Nature
What makes sense of the fact that science is even possible in the first place? The practice of science rests on a number of different preconditions, but one in particular would be that nature operates in a uniform fashion. That is, we are able to do tests, to make predictions, experiments, and so forth. Any reality which did not allow such normalities would preclude the possibility of science altogether. Thus, we can conclude that the uniformity of nature is a necessary precondition for science. That is to say that the uniformity in nature is a transcendental. The layout of such a TA would run as follows:
Premise 1: In order for science to be possible nature must operate in a uniform fashion since the uniformity in nature is a necessary precondition for the possibility of science.
Premise 2: Science is indeed possible.
Conclusion: Therefore, nature operates in a uniform fashion.
At this juncture we come to a crucial distinction that must be made. This TA does not prove the existence of God, but merely the uniformity of nature and nothing else. Such a narrow argument is classified as a “local” transcendental argument. But Van Til’s TAG seeks to prove both the existence of God and all the truths of Christianity. We must therefore ask why is nature uniform to begin with? It is not enough to offer a local TA for the possibility of science, for the opponent can simply make the comeback that an explanation for the uniformity in nature is now required. To this the presuppositional apologist can prove the existence of God.
Why does nature operate in a uniform fashion? The uniformity in nature is not just a precondition for the venture of science; it is a precondition to all of human experience. If nature was not uniform we could not live our lives as we know them. We would have no way of knowing that the universe could spontaneously combust within the next 5 seconds and we all perish with it. Or perhaps the “law” of gravity could significantly change such that we all start floating into space and perish there instead. There could therefore be no life as we know it now. Herein lies a TA for the existence of God.
Premise 1: In order for nature to be uniform requires the existence of the Christian God and nothing (or no one) else to uphold and sustain it, since the immutability and providence of this God is a necessary precondition for nature to be uniform.
Premise 2: Nature is uniform.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian God exists (and by extension, Christianity is true).
In short, not only does the Christian worldview justify the uniformity in nature and thus the possibility of life as we know it, but for the non-Christian opponent the conclusion is even more devastating. Since the Christian worldview justifies the uniformity in nature, the non-Christian opponent must assume that Christianity is true in order to argue against it! Herein lies the absolute power of Van Til’s TAG.
Example 2: Ethics
Why is molesting children wrong? Why is murdering someone wrong? Why ought we not violate another person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? In instances in which you converse with atheists apologetically (that is, in defending the faith), they will almost invariably hold to a utilitarian view of ethics: what is moral is that which benefits the entire wellbeing of a society, not what benefits your personal, selfish desires. At first blush this may seem like a sufficient answer since most of us would say this much is self-evident of common sensical. Maybe our atheist opponent has enough of an argument to justify why such horrific things listed above are wrong. He does not, however, for we must now ask why is the wellbeing of a society the morally correct view? The hidden assumption in positing this ethical view is the presupposition that following selfish desires is immoral. But this has not so much been proven as it has been taken for granted. In attempting to prove this point the atheist can’t appeal to his utilitarianism since this would be logically circular. He must rather appeal to something greater which delineates or determines what is and isn’t ethically sound. But as an atheist this leads to a problem since naturalistic atheism makes no appeals to the divine, to the immaterial, or the spiritual. He therefore cannot justify his utilitarian views over against a selfish egoism.
The problem is much worse, however. The preceding criticism is purely epistemological, that is, dealing solely with the merits of his argument (namely, he has no justification for his ethical argument except upon pain of logical circularity). Yet there is a more devastating problem which is metaphysical in nature, that is, dealing with his view of man and the cosmos. As a materialist holding to evolutionary theory there is no intrinsic value embedded in the universe, let alone man. Man is nothing more than material atoms conglomerated together which somehow miraculously form life and self-consciousness. But if such a scheme of things is true then his thoughts, words (and therefore arguments), and actions are nothing more than the result of unguided physical processes in the brain. He is not volitionally making an ethical argument (despite the fact that he thinks he is); he is only uttering words which the atoms in his brain made him utter. Everything is blind and deterministic in this view of man and reality. Moreover, if everything is deterministic and there is no such thing as choice, then there is no such thing as ethics either! The study of ethics intrinsically relies on a “free will” view of man. It relies on the possibility of man making choices either for himself or society, either for good or evil. Since there is no possibility of free will on the atheist’s worldview, ethics is rendered unintelligible.
Upon showing the absurdity of the atheist’s worldview to try and justify morality, the Christian presuppositionalist must therefore show how on his Christian worldview can he not only justify morality, but can justify it in an absolute and objective sense. First and foremost, God has created the universe out of nothing for His glory and as such it reflects the glory and character of God (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 19:1). This holy God created man in His image so that he may walk in the ways of God, “imaging” his Creator in the universe He created (Gen. 1:27). Man is therefore not reduced to mental deterministic processes, but possesses a free will to make his own decisions (Joshua 24:14-15) and is therefore morally obligated to follow the commandments of God (Ex. 20:1-20; cf. John 14:15, 21). Lastly, the absoluticity and objectivity of God is best summarized as follows:
In creation God made all things according to his unsearchable wisdom (Ps. 104:24; Isa. 40:28), assigning all things their definite characters (Isa. 40:26; 46:9-10). God also determines all things by His wisdom (Eph. 1:11), preserving (Neh. 9:6), governing (Ps. 103:19), and predetermining the nature and course of all things, thus being able to work miracles (Ps. 72:18). The decree by which God providentially ordains historical events is eternal, effectual, unconditional, unchangeable, and comprehensive (e.g., Isa. 46:10; Acts 2:23; Eph. 3:9-11).
Given this view of man and reality, the Christian apologist has an absolute, forceful argument not just for justifying why molestation or murder is wrong, but for justifying the possibility of ethics as a philosophy. How, then, should the presuppositionalist formulate his transcendental argument for God’s existence ethically? We can summarize it as follows following our form:
Premise 1: In order to make sense of ethics/in order to justify why x is morally wrong, the Christian worldview must be true since the Christian worldview is a necessary precondition for making sense of ethics/justifying why x is morally wrong.
Premise 2: We can make sense of ethics/justify why x is morally wrong.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian worldview is true.
Once more we can aptly observe that our atheist opponent must rely on the fact that Christianity is true in order to put forth his anti-Christian (in this case, ethical) philosophy. Not only is he left without justification for making sense of ethics or why any particular instance is morally right or wrong, he is committing himself to the truths of the Christian worldview in order to make his arguments at all.
Example 3: Knowledge
The fortunate outcome of giving a lengthy exposition concerning the ethical evaluations of atheism is that this final example concerning knowledge will be much shorter.
How is it that us human beings are capable of possessing this thing called knowledge? We possess beliefs, we give justifications for our beliefs, and these beliefs must, in fact, be true. But what makes sense of all of these conditions for knowledge? Given our preceding discussion of the atheist’s view of reality and of man, everything in existence is material (or at least has a material explanation). Such a deterministic scheme of man and the universe makes this thing we call knowledge problematic; atoms moving around in the brain do not formulate volitional justification, that is, legitimate reasons for believing x. Any “reasons” given are nothing more than the particular combination of atoms in the brain “talking”. From our discussion over the uniformity in nature, the possibility of knowledge must assume that nature operates in a uniform fashion wherein all the facts of the universe are necessarily connected, not contingent and prone to changing in the next five seconds. Even putting these grandiose issues aside, there is still no justification in the first place for the validity of man’s reasoning on atheist grounds. The atheist is left helplessly in subjectivism.
From a Christian perspective, knowledge is saved. From the exposition of reality given in the discussion of ethics with God creating the universe and man after Him, man possessing a will, God being rational, etc., Christianity is the life raft for the sinking would-be autonomous man. We can thus formulate this TAG as such:
Premise 1: In order for knowledge to be possible the Christian worldview must be true since only the Christian worldview justifies the preconditions necessary for knowledge.
Premise 2: Knowledge is possible.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian worldview is true.
From the preceding exposition and application of Van Til’s TAG it is hoped that the reader still learning presuppositional apologetics has a stronger grasp of the underlying argument used in the apologetic. We see the absolute force of Van Til’s argument in that any non-Christian wishing to get his philosophy off the ground must inescapably rely on the Christian’s philosophy in order to begin the process. There is no point in reality in which man can escape the clear revelation of God. As such, unbelief is not a result of insufficient evidence, but of an immoral choice to spit in the face of God as a result of his love for sin. As Van Til always portrayed it, the disrespectful child can slap his father’s face but only because his father is holding him up in his lap to do so. Therefore, the proof of God’s existence is that without Him, you couldn’t prove anything.
 Cornelius Van Til, “A Survey of Christian Epistemology”, 18.  Van Til used a similar floor-beams argument in his works. Obviously, there are technically other ways in which to hold up a floor besides beams, but the general point is still made.  Bahnsen, Always Ready, 180.