Philosophy against Misosophy


Michael R. Butler


Essays by Me

Essays by Others



The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence

Michael R. Butler


IV. TAG Again

With the survey of the recent philosophical lite-rature on TAs complete, we are now in a position to see how this debate bears upon TAG. The two major objections, that of KØrner and Stroud, as should be apparent, are similar to objections (2) and (4) above.  Specifically, KØrner’s argument against the possibility of a uniqueness proof is the identical concern as objection (2). While Stroud’s concern about what he considers to be the illegitimate move from what we must believe to be the case in order for us to account for human experience (or a particular slice of human experience) to what must be the case is roughly the same concern as the move from conceptual necessity to necessary existence.  I shall turn to these objections in order.


A. Objections 2 and 3 Revisited

Recall that objection (2) against TAG maintains that it is impossible to provide a uniqueness proof for the conclusion that the Christian worldview is the necessary precondition for experience.  This is due to the fact that there is no way of refuting all possible competing worldviews.  Thus, even if all actual worldviews in competition with Christianity (naturalism, Islam, etc.) are shown to be false and Christianity is shown to be a sufficient precondition for experience, it does not follow that Christianity is the necessary precondition for experience.

But as Førster has pointed out, TAs, and, by im-plication, TAG, do not set out to provide a uni-queness proof by refuting an indefinite or infinite number of worldviews.  Rather the proof is pro-vided by refuting the negation of the conceptual scheme or worldview that one is attempting to es-tablish.  It subjects the non-Christian worldview to an internal critique and shows that, on its own terms, it is contradictory, arbitrary and cannot pro-vide sufficient preconditions of experience.

What, then, is the nature of the non-Christian worldview?  Simply put, all non-Christian systems presuppose that experience can be accounted for on autonomous lines.  The non-Christian world-views share the common feature that experience can be made sense of independently of God and his revelatory word. Thus all non-Christian worldviews deny the Creator-creature distinction, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the biblical doctrine of man as being created as God’s image. They deny the fall and the noetic effects of sin. They deny the neces-sity of Christ's redeeming work for not only per-sonal salvation, but the salvation of the human in-tellect. They also deny the necessity of divine re-velation, the foundation of all of these doctrines.

From this we can see that Van Til is correct: “We have constantly sought to bring out that all forms of antitheistic thinking can be reduced to one.”[87] Bahnsen elaborates on this important insight:

Despite “family squabbles” and se-condary deviations among unregene-rate men in their thinking, they are united at the basic level in setting aside the Christian conception of God. The indirect manner of proving the Christian position is thus to exhibit the intelligibility of reasoning, sci-ence, morality, etc., within the con-text of biblical presuppositions ... and then to make an internal criticism of the presuppositions of autonomous thought (in whatever form it is pre-sently being discussed) in order to show that it destroys the possibility of proving, understanding, or communi-cating anything.[88]

Thus the Christian apologist may boldly assert that without an absolute personal being as the foundation of all things, there is no possibility of ethics.  Without the ontological Trinity as the fount of all being, there is no possibility of unifying the particulars of human experience. Without the com-bined doctrines of the Trinity and man being God's image bearer, there is no possibility of predication and thus language. Without the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence there is no ground for inductive logic and science.  Without a good and all-powerful God that creates both man and the natural realm there is no reason to believe that our senses are reliable.  From these considerations it is clear why TAG is often described as an argument that proves the impossibility of the contrary.[89] There is, at bottom, one non-Christian worldview and this worldview is easily reduced to absurdity.  Førster’s insight is relevant at this point.  When one version of the non-Christian worldview is refuted, the general non-Christian worldview is refuted for all of them are variations on a common theme.

The radical relativist may at this junction assert that there is no way we can set a limit on what is conceivable.  He, in effect, says that it is conceivable (possible) that there are other worldviews that are inconceivable to us.  Here Davidson’s arguments against the notion of a conceptual schemes is relevant.

The Davidsonian contention about conceptual schemes is that it makes no sense to speak of a possible conceptual scheme that is inconceivable to us.[90]  If a conceptual scheme is so different from ours that we are not able to somehow map it out against ours, we will not even recognize it as an alternative conceptual scheme.  Indeed, the very notion of an inconceivable conceptual scheme is without significance.  The relativist’s contention that there may be conceptual schemes or worldviews so radical from ours that we cannot conceive of them and that one (or more) of these conceptual schemes or worldviews may be able to provide a set of sufficient conditions for experience is thus abortive.  No sense can be made of such a claim.  And with this, the fangs of objection (2) are effectively removed.

We are not quite out of the woods yet, how-ever.  As we saw earlier, the critic of TAG offers a special version of this objection.  Objection (3) contends that there is another (conceivable) worldview that does provide sufficient precondi-tions for experience and thereby cuts off the proof that the Christian worldview is the necessary pre-condition of experience. This worldview is in many ways identical to Christianity except that it contra-dicts it a one or more points.  The example men-tioned above was Fristianity.  Fristianity is said to be identical to Christianity except for the fact that instead of a Trinity it has a quadrinity.  With regard to this objection, the recent literature on TAs is of little help.

The only way we know that God is a Trinity is that he revealed it to us—mere speculation or em-pirical investigation would never lead us to this conclusion. But the Fristian worldview, which is, ex hypothesi, identical to Christianity in every other way, asserts that its god is a quadrinity.  But if Fristianity is otherwise identical to Christianity, the only way for us to know this would be for Fristian god to reveal this to us.  But there is a problem with this. Supposing Fristianity had in-spired scriptures (which it would have to have since it is all other ways identical to Christianity), these scriptures would have to reveal that the Fristian God is one in four.  But notice that by positing a quadrinity, the Fristian scriptures would be quite different from the Christian Scriptures. Whereas the Christian Scriptures teach that, with regard to man's salvation, God the Father ordains, God the Son accomplishes, and God the Spirit ap-plies, the Fristian scriptures would have to teach a very different order.  But exactly how would the four members of its imagined godhead be involved in man’s salvation?  

More fundamentally, whereas in the Christian Trinity we read that the personal attribute of the Father is paternity, the personal attribute of the Son is filiation and the personal at-tribute of the Spirit is spiration,[91] what would be the personal, distinguishing attributes of the members of the Fristian quadrinity?  What would their relationship be to each other?  Further questions flow out of this.  How would the quadrinity affect the doctrine of man and sin? How would redemptive history look different? What about eschatology?  This all needs to be spelled out in detail.  This illustration reveals a general problem.  One cannot tinker with Chris-tain doctrine at one point and maintain that other doctrines will not be affected. It does no good for the proponent of Fristianity to claim that the only difference between his worldview and the Christian worldview and the Christian worldview is over the doctrine of the Trinity.  Christian doctrine is sys-tematic, and a change in one area will necessarily require changes in others.  It is necessary, there-fore, that the advocate of Fristianity spell out how this one change in doctrine affects all other doc-trines.  But once this is done, there is no guarantee that the result will be coherent.

Thus without providing the details of Fristian theology, this objection loses its punch. It can only be thought to be a challenge to Christianity if it, like Christianity, provides the preconditions of experience. But without knowing the details, we cannot submit it to an internal critique.  Until this happens, we can justifiably fall back on the conclusion that there is no conceivable worldview, apart from Christianity, that can provide the preconditions of experience.

At this point the proponent of object (3) may attempt one last desperate stand.  He can argue that we can take Christianity at it stands and, ra-ther than replace one of its doctrines with another, simply remove some distinguishing feature.  For example, rather than positing something as prob-lematic as a quadrinity, the objector may simply invent a religion identical to Christianity except, say, that the book of Jude was never written and thus has no place in its canon.

But this is not a worldview that is relevantly dif-ferent from the Christian worldview. For all it really does is ask us to think counterfactually about the Christian canon. That is, the answer we give to the counterfactual question, “Did God have to inspire Jude to write his epistle?” answer is, of course not.[92] Furthermore, for much of redemptive history God’s people did not have the privilege of reading Jude (old covenant times) and even in the era of the Church, Jude’s canonicity was not universally acknowledged until the fourth century.  Are we to infer from this that the old covenant people or certain second century Christians did not have a genuine Christian worldview?  Such a conclusion would be absurd.

With this, objection (3), as presently advanced, is not a threat to the conclusion of TAG—that Christian Theism is the precondition of human experience.


B. Objection 4 Revisited

Turning now to objection (4)—the contention that the move from conceptual necessity to neces-sary existence is unwarranted—it is clear that much of the contemporary literature on TAs is rele-vant to TAG.  Stroud’s arguments against moving from the necessity of believing or accepting a conceptual scheme to demonstrating what the world is actually like can be easily restated in terms of TAG.  The challenge is, thus, to bridge the gap between having to believe the Christian worldview because it provides the necessary pre-conditions of experience and showing that the Christian worldview is true.

Grayling’s distinction between option-A and op-tion-B TAs is helpful at this point. Recall that Bahn-sen's response to this objection was that the de-bate between the Christian and the non-Christian assumes that one of the view has to be true. While this may indeed be the assumption between oppo-nents in a debate, Bahnsen provides no reason for why this assumption is correct. Without an argu-ment for this contentious assumption, Bahnsen seems forced to construe TAG as an option-B TA.  The Christian worldview is shown to be the ne-cessary precondition for experience in general and the necessary precondition for rationality in parti-cular.  To deny Christianity, a move that presuppo-ses rationality, is to presupposes Christianity.

If TAG does show that we must believe in Chris-tianity in order to make our experience possible, this is certainly a powerful apologetic tool. The problem, however, is that while TAG, on an option-B interpretation, demonstrates that the Christian worldview is a necessary precondition for experi-ence, it does not prove that the Christian world-view is true. For it may be that our experience of rationality, morality, science, etc. are illusory. Bahnsen’s reply to Montgomery that we must make the “gratuitous assumption” that at least one worldview must be right is without foundation.[93] Surely, we can, for argument’s sake, conceive of the world being ultimately irrational and amo-ral.  And if can do this, it follows that TAG, on this interpretation, fails to prove that Christianity is true.

One way out of this predicament is to make the strong modal claim that the world is actually ra-tional, that universals exist, that our sensory facul-ties do get us in touch with the external world, etc. Given this premise, it can readily be shown that TAG does get us to the truth of Christianity.  For if the necessary precondition of experience is the Christian worldview and if our experience must be of a real, mind-independent world, this conclusion follows immediately.  The problem, of course, is how to prove such strong modal claims.  Certainly this cannot be achieved by using contemporary TAs such as Strawson’s, for Stroud has shown that such arguments need either an addition factual premise or a verification principle in order to work.

There is another way around this problem.  If, as some have maintained, Van Til was something of an idealist, we can see how he was able to bridge the gap between thought and reality. This reading of Van Til, however, is not only implausible, but there is nothing in his writings that indicate that he relied upon some version of idealism to make the move from what we must believe to what the world is like.  Furthermore, even if Van Til was an idealist, this would be of little help to the Christian who is, like Bahnsen, an epistemological realist.[94] But the major problem with this move is that Christian theology and idealistic metaphy-sics and/or epistemology are fundamentally at odds with one another.

It is difficult to see a way through this predica-ment.  All exits seem to be blocked off, and it ap-pears that the Christian apologist is forced to con-ceive of TAG as an option-B TA. And, as such, the claim that TAG proves the existence of God can no longer be made. This seriously diminishes force of TAG. It seems that the best the presuppositional-ist can do at this point is to argue that the most likely explanation for the fact that the Christian worldview is the necessary precondition for experi-ence is that Christianity is true. But notice that even if it is granted that this is the most likely explanation, the argument for God’s existence is reduced to one of probability claim. And if it is probable or even highly probable that God exists, it follows that there is the possibility that he does not exist—even if the probability of this is very low.

Before we abandon hope, there may be a way out of this problem. The source of the present diffi-culty seems to be the way in which the TAG has been set up. Given the context of this discussion, the tendency is to conflate the notion of the Chris-tian worldview with the notion of a conceptual scheme. Although there is a certain surface similarity between the two, these two notions do not, in fact, correspond to one another. It is a seri-ous error to conceive of the Christian worldview as nothing more than a mere conceptual scheme that organizes our experience. Certainly Christianity does, in some sense, organize our experience, but it does more than this. The Christian worldview is much richer than the conceptual scheme that is the precondition of, say, re-identifying particulars.  Christianity provides us with a detailed metaphy-sical, epistemological, and ethical system. The foundation of this system is an absolute personal God who has created all things, including man.  This God, moreover, has given man his word so that he may know the truth.  The Christian worldview, thus, not only provides a way to organize experience, but it tells us that a sovereign God has revealed truths about the world to us.

Stated another way, the necessity of a concep-tual scheme cannot guarantee anything about the way the world must be.  For while such a scheme may organize our experience, it itself is dumb and mute and cannot, definitionally, tell us anything about the world itself. But the Christian worldview is not a mere conceptual scheme. It claims to do more than simply provide us with the necessary preconditions of experience. The Christian world-view posits a sovereign, creator God who is both personal and absolute in his nature. This God is, moreover, a speaking God who reveals truths to us about himself and the world. In his revelation to us he declares that he has made a world and that this world exists independently from himself and us.[95] On the basis of his revelation, therefore, which is itself the necessary precondition of experience, we can know truths about the world and God.


V. Conclusion


In setting forth TAG, Van Til gave the Christian apologist a powerful argument for Christian The-ism.  Indeed, Van Til claimed that this argument is “absolutely sound.”[96]  As we have seen, how-ever, there have been a number of objections raised against this argument.  Van Til left it to his followers to answers these objections.  But while in Bahnsen we find an able defense of TAG, much of what he says is merely programmatic in nature and calls for elaboration.

In the footsteps of Van Til and Bahnsen, I have endeavored to elaborate and defend TAG against common objections.  In order to do this more ef-fectively I have surveyed the relevant philoso-phical literature in order to set these criticism in sharper focus and formulate the objections in the strongest possible way.  In doing this, I hope to have offered a more thorough and robust defense of TAG.  And though this defense of TAG is not meant to be the last word—certainly vigorous debate will continue and further refinements will need to be made—the conclusion we may draw is that none of the common criticisms of TAG are cogent. And as a corollary to this, we can justi-fiably maintain that TAG accomplishes just what Van Til set it out to do: establish the truth of the Christian worldview as the necessary precondition for human experience.





[87] Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, xi.

[88] Bahnsen, Van Til, 489.

[89] Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 205.

[90] I am borrowing from the insights of Davidson and generalizing them for my own purposes.  No doubt Davidson would reject the use of “concei-vability” to replace his own term, “translatability.”

[91] See Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, William Hendriksen, trans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 304-13.  Bavinck states, “The trinity is not capable of being augmented or decreased, it is ‘complete.’” He then cites Augus-tine, “But within the essence of the trinity in no way can any other person whatever exist out of the same essence.”

[92] Saying this does not imply that Jude is thus unnecessary.  God determines the canon because he determined Jude to be a part of it, in another sense, it is most necessary.

[93] Bahnsen, Van Til, 487, n. 41.

[94] It is interesting to pause at this juncture and ponder what Jonathan Edwards, who almost certainly held to some version of idealism, could have done with TAG.

[95] Independently in the sense that God is distinct from his creation.

[96] Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 256.


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