Philosophy against Misosophy


Michael R. Butler


Essays by Me

Essays by Others



From The Standard Bearer: A Festschrift for Greg L. Bahnsen, Steven M Schlissel, ed., Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002. Text has been taken from the typo-riddled version posted here, and then corrected and formatted. (If I have missed any typos, or inadvertently introduced new ones, please let me know so I can correct them as well.) Some of Butler's reference notes cite papers posted on this site, for the text of which I've pro-vided links. Butler puts the Van Til-Bahnsen tran-scendental argument for the Christian world-view (existence of the Christian God) in the context of the history of and academic literature pertaining to transcendental arguments.  Penned by someone who knew Bahnsen well and has been regarded by many as the latter's protégé , this paper is a criti-cal discussion of Van Til and Bahnsen from within their shared framework.

Anthony Flood

Posted July 6, 2013


The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence

Michael R. Butler


If, therefore, we observe the dogmatist coming forward with ten proofs, we can be quite sure that he really has none.  For had he one that yielded . . . apodeictic proof, what need would he have of the others? 

Immanuel Kant


I. Introduction

A. Van Til and the Copernican Revolution of Apologetics

B. Bahnsen’s Contribution to Presuppositional Apologetics

1. Practice of the Presuppositional Method

2. Biblical Defense of Presuppositionalism

3. Organizing and Explaining of Van Til

4. Self-Deception  

II. The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence

A. Van Til on TAG

B. Bahnsen’s Defense of TAG

Obj 1. The Nature of TAG

Obj 2. The Uniqueness Proof for the Conclusion of TAG

Obj 3. The Mere Sufficiency of the Christian Worldview

Obj 4. The Move from Conceptual Necessity to Necessary Existence  

C. Conclusion

III. Transcendental Arguments in the Recent Philosophical Literature

A. The Nature of Transcendental Arguments

B. Kant and Transcendental Arguments

C. Strawson

D. Objections

1.  Stroud

2.  Körner

E.  In Defense of Transcendental Arguments

1.  Stroud

2.  Körner

IV. TAG Again

A. Objections 2 and 3 Revisited

B. Objection 4 Revisited

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction


A. Van Til and the Copernican Revolution of Apologetics

Cornelius Van Til revolutionized Christian apolo-getics in the twentieth century.  His system of the defense of the faith rejected the common practice among Christian apologists of assuming a neutral, autonomous point of view when confronting unbe-lief.  In its place he urged a presuppositional, theo-nomic approach of establishing the truth of Chris-tian theism.  He maintained that because God, speaking in his word, is the ultimate epistemo-logical starting point, there is no way of arguing for the faith on the basis of something other than the faith itself.  God’s authority is ultimate and thus self-attesting.  To argue for the faith on any other authority is to assume there is a higher authority than God himself to which he must give account. But the very attempt to do this is self-defeating.  Consequently, the Christian apologist must stand upon God’s authoritative word and presuppose its truth when contending for the faith.  This stand does not relegate the apologist to fideism.  Indeed, the very opposite is the case.  Upon the rock foundation of God’s word the Christian is able to demonstrate the foolishness of unbelieving thought while at the same time vindicate the greatness of divine wisdom.

Put in historical context, we see in Van Til the confluence of two great streams of Christian thought: the apologetic tradition that seeks to establish as beyond question the truth of Chris-tianity and the epistemological tradition that sub-jugates man's intellect to God's revelation. Secu-larists and even many Christians have rejected this synthesis as impossible.  Such critics maintain that either Christianity must be based on faith to the exclusion of reason or Christianity must be tested by the deliverances of reasons in order to establish its truth.  Van Til showed that only on the basis of faith can there be reason (credo ut intelligam).  In thus combining a biblical, Reformed epistemology together with a non-compromising apologetic argument, Van Til brought about a “Copernican Revolution” in Christian thought.

Over the years, however, Van Til's revolution-ary thought has been subjecteed to criticism from many quarters. As a seminal thinker Van Til concentrated on the major components of his apologetic system, but neglected to develop and elucidate a number of its more intricate features. Consequently Van Til bequeathed the task of tying together the loose ends of his system to his followers.


B. Bahnsen’s Contribution to Presuppositional Apologetics

It thus fell to Van Til’s successors to fill the gaps in his seminal and programmatic apologetic sys-tem.  Unfortunately, while Van Til’s followers have been numerous, most have either been uncritical and have contented themselves with merely regurgitating Van Til’s slogans or, at the other extreme, have so fundamentally departed from their mentor that their apologetic methodology only bears superficial resemblances to Van Til's approach.[1]

Of Van Til's disciples that remained in basic agreement with him, only two can rightly be considered to have further refined and elaborated his apologetic outlook: Greg L. Bahnsen and John M. Frame.  Since this article is written in honor of the former, it is his contribution to Van Til's apolo-getic methodology that I will be concerned with.[2]

As a student of Van Til, Bahnsen understood from Van Til himself what the fundamental difficulties or gaps were with his apologetic system.[3]  Much of Bahnsen’s career was devoted to firming up the foundation that Van Til had so carefully laid. Bahnsen’s defense and elaboration of Van Til’s apologetic methodology can be seen in five main areas: the practice of the presuppo-sitional method; the biblical defense of presupposi-tional apologetics; organizing and explaining Van Til’s system; analysis of the phenomenon of self-deception; and the elaboration of the Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence.


1. Practice of the Presuppositional Method

While Van Til wrote extensively about apolo-getic methodology, he seldom engaged in the actual practice of apologetics.  Only in his short track, “Why I Believe in God” does he set forth a defense of the faith directed against the unbeliever.[4]  Aside from this work, Van Til con-fined himself to the more theoretical aspects of apologetics.  This relative neglect of the practice of the defense of the faith and concentration on abstract and meta-apologetic issues is perhaps one of the main reasons why Van Til’s methodology is so neglected and misunderstood in the church today.

Bahnsen realized this lack of practical apolo-getics was a deficiency in Van Til.   “[I] wish that Van Til had given more attention to making prac-tical applications of his presuppositional method—to actually defending the faith against the enemy, rather than debating methodology so much within the family of faith."[5] To rectify this, Bahnsen dedicated much of his career to the practice of apologetics. He did this by conducting many class, seminars and conferences instructing Christians on how to defend the faith (as he liked to say, “taking it to the street” He was also involved in numerous debates with such well-known atheists as Gordon Stein, George H. Smith, and Edward Tabash.[6] Bahnsen's clear and powerful defense of Christianity on these occasions serve as a model of the practice of presuppositionalism. Apart from the pedagogical value of these debates, Bahnsen's performances established his reputation as one of the foremost Christian apologists of the foremost Christian apologists of his day.  Frame’s tribute is fitting: “Bahnsen is one of the sharpest apologists working today.  In my view, he is the best debater among Christian apologists of all apologetic persuasions.”[7]


2. Biblical Defense of Presuppositionalism

The one criticism that perhaps disturbed VanTil the most was that of G. C. Berkouwer.[8]  Berkou-wer notes, with a good deal of irony, that although Van Til claims to have arrived at this apologetic system from the Bible himself, there is a conspicuous absence of biblical exegesis in his writings. To this charge Van Til readily confessed: “This is a defect.  The lack of detailed scriptural exegesis is a lack in all of my writings.  I have no excuse for this.”[9]  He later added, “I would like to be more exegetical than I have been.  Dr. G. C. Berkouwer was right in pointing out my weakness on this point.”[10]

Bahnsen helped fill in this lacuna with the publication of a syllabus on biblical apologetics.[11]  In the syllabus he demonstrates not only must our apologetic methodology come from Scripture, but that Scripture teaches the necessity of defending the faith in a presuppositional man-ner. Bahnsen furthers this case in his comparison of the Socratic method of philosophy with the pre-suppositional method practiced by Paul and other biblical writers.[12]  Socrates’ autonomous search for truth is shown to be completely out of accord with biblical principles of epistemology.  For Paul, Christ is the foundation of all truth and knowledge and apart from him there is only ignorance and darkness.  Beyond these biblical studies of the proper theory of apologetics, Bahnsen’s looks at the actual practice of apologetics in the New Testament in his important exegetical study of Acts 17.[13]  This article shows in painstaking detail that Paul’s defense of the faith before the Areopagus, far from being a display of the evidential or “classical” method of apologetics, is thoroughly presuppositional in nature. Through these studies Bahnsen demonstrates explicitly what Van Til took for granted: that presuppositional apologetics, when properly understood, is synonymous with biblical apologetics.


3. Organizing and Explaining Van Til

One of the major obstacles in the way of promoting presuppositionalism has been Van Til's own writing style.  Friends and critics alike have expressed chagrin at his “tortuous English,” his re-dundant and unclear style, his penchant for sloganizing and his disorganized presentation of themes.[14] Though he considered these criticisms overstated, Bahnsen likewise recognized these shortcomings in Van Til. “‘[I]ssues of communica-tion’ did sometimes become a problem for Van Til."[15] Bahnsen's publication of Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis goes a long way in correcting these deficiencies.  In the book, Van Til’s apologetic writings are  logically organized and given extensive introductions that both explain and defend Van Til’s views. Bahnsen also provides a running commentary in footnotes so that the reader is guided through even the most difficult of Van Til’s passages.


4. Self-Deception

One of the central features of Van Til's apolo-getic system is that it declares the unbeliever to both believe in God and not believe in God.

Van Til’s apologetic system is that it declares the unbeliever to both believe in God and not believe in God.  That is, natural man believes that God exists, that he the Creator, is eternal, all-powerful and just and yet he does not, in another sense, believe these things.  At first glance, it appears that these two claims contradict each other.   How can somebody believe something and at the same time disbelieve the same thing?  This problem has not only been seen as a great diffi-culty by sympathetic followers of Van Til,[16] but Van Til himself recognized the paradoxical nature of this claim posed a problem for his apologetic system.  He says of this issue that it “has always been a difficult point”[17] and he recognizes the challenge that opponents of his view put forth:

It is ambiguous or meaningless, says the Arminian, to talk about the natural man as knowing God and yet not truly knowing God.  Knowing is knowing.  A man either knows or he does not know.  He may know less or more, but if he does not “truly” know, he knows not at all.[18]

The difficulty that the Arminian points out is how can the natural man both believe in God and yet not believe in God? It is apparent that the natural man is engaged in some form of self-deception. He believes in God, but then suppresses this belief (in unrighteousness) in order to allow himself to not believe in God.  The difficulty is that he is not merely pretending to not believe in God, but that he actually deceives himself into not believing in God.  In other words, the unbeliever lies to himself and believes the lie he tells.  Thus two difficult problems emerge.  It appears that the natural man both believes p and believes –p.  But this is implausible. Except for madmen, nobody consciously believes such contradictory proposi-tions.  Furthermore, how is it possible for the natu-ral man to lie to himself and believe the lie that he is telling?  After all, if he knows he is telling a lie, why would he believe it?  It would seem that such a psychological condition is hardly possible.

Bahnsen tackles these difficult problems in his doctoral dissertation, A Conditional Resolution of the Apparent Paradox of Self-Deception.[19]  A more accessible treatment is found in his article, “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presup-positional Apologetics.”[20] In these works, Bahn-sen shows how natural man can believe that God exists (a first-order belief) and yet can deceive himself into believe that he does not have such a belief (a second-order belief). Thus the natural man does not believe both p and -p, but rather he believes p and also believes (falsely) that he does not believe p.  Moreover, self-deception, like falling asleep, is a self-covering intention.  When self-de-ception is successful, the original intention is co-vered in the process.

The above criticisms and difficulties are all given satisfactory answers and resolutions by Bahnsen. Where Van Til was hard to understand or disorganized or where he was too abstract and theoretical, Bahnsen brings clarity and practical illustrations. Where there were objections to the biblical warrant of Van Til’s system or concerns about the apparent paradoxical corollaries that emerge from it, Bahnsen provides a clear defense and analysis.

There is one objection to Van Til’s system that has yet to be addressed.  And this is perhaps the most serious.  This has to do with the nature of the presuppositional or transcendental argument for God’s existence (TAG hereafter).  It is to this objection that I shall now turn. 



[1] Examples of the former include Jim Halsey, For a Time Such as This (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) and William White, Van Til: Defender of the Faith (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1979).  See John M. Frame’s incisive comments about the “movement mentality” of some of Van Til’s followers in Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub-lishing, 1995), 8ff. The two most respected apolo-gists that fit in the latter category are Van Til’s students Edward J. Carnell and Francis Schaeffer. Interestingly, Carnell quotes his apologetic mentor only once in this books on apologetics, and that in a footnote. An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 41, n. 22. Schaeffer never published any acknowledgement of his dependence on Van Til.

[2] I would be remiss to pass over this opportunity to say a few words of appreciation for John Frame. Though Frame is more critical of Van Til than of Bahnsen (his criticism of Van Til’s transcendental argument, for example), he has certainly offered many valuable insights and performed a genuine service for the Christian community in his sympa-thetic and philosophically sensitive treatment of Van Til’s work. Even when disagreeing with some of Frame’s conclusions about Van Til, the Christian scholar is always forced to take Frame’s considera-tions seriously.  This can be said of very few theo-logians.  Unfortunately Frame’s work on Van Til has not been fully appreciated by both those within and without the Reformed community.

[3] Bahnsen’s personal acquaintance with Van Til is of some interest at this point.  Bahnsen studied un-der Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary during the early 1970’s. Bahnsen was recognized by Van Til as an outstanding student and was even called upon to lecture for him when he (Van Til) became ill. After Bahnsen earned the M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from Westminster and completing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Southern California, Van Til favored inviting him to join the Westminster faculty. Despite this endorsement, he was never asked to teach at the institution. Frame says the reasons the Westminster faculty did not offer Bahnsen a position were his theonomic view and “some other considerations.” Frame, Van Til, 393.

[4] “Why I Believe in God” (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1948).  Van Til does offer many examples of philosophical criticism of other, non-Christian worldviews, but these tend to be highly abstract, enthymematic, and written in a difficult style.  They are, thus, of limited practical use.

[5] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998), 675, n. 268.

[6] Audio tapes of these debates are available from Covenant Media Foundation (

[7] Frame, Van Til, 392.

[8] “The Authority of Scripture (A Responsible Confession)” in E. R. Geehan, ed., Jerusalem and Athens: Critical Discussions on the Theology and Apologetics of Cornelius Van Til (Philadelphia: Pres-byterian and Reformed, 1971), 197-203.

[9] “Response by C. Van Til,” in Geehan, ed. Jeru-salem and Athens, 203.

[10] Toward a Reformed Apologetic (Philadelphia: privately printed, 1972), 27; quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til, xviii, n. 4.

[11] The syllabus has been incorporated as part of Bahnsen’s posthumously published book, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, Robert Booth, ed. (Texarkana, TX: Covenant Media Foun-dation, 1996).

[12] “Socrates or Christ: The Reformation of Chris-tian Apologetics,” in Gary North, ed., Foundations of Christian Scholarship: Essays in the Van Til Perspective (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1976), 191-239.

[13] “The Encounter of Jerusalem with Athens,” Ashland Theological Bulletin 13 (Spring 1980): 4-40. Also published as an appendix in Always Ready.

[14] These criticisms are stated in Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 218; Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Chris-tian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 1968, 1968); John M. Frame, Van Til; Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).

[15] Van Til, 675, n. 268.

[16] See, for example, John M. Frame, “Cornelius Van Til,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Handbook of Evan-gelical Theologians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 156-167.

[17] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theo-logy (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974, 25.

[18] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955) 363-4.

[19] University of Southern California, 1978.

[20] Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 1-31.  


Next II. The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence