Please Support the Bible Translation Work of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
The transcendental argument is used by some presuppositional apologists to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. It is patterned after Immanuel Kant’s reasoning in Critique of Pure Reason. A transcendental argument is neither deductive nor inductive. It is more reductive, arguing back to the necessary preconditions of something being the case.
As used by presuppositional apologetics, the transcendental argument affirms that, in order to make sense of the world, it is necessary to postulate the existence of the triune God as revealed in the Bible. This argument is employed by Cornelius Van Til and a modified form is used by Francis Schaeffer.
Van Til’s thought is rooted in Herman Dooyeweerd, who got it from Kant. Once Kant’s agnosticism is accepted, first principles, such as the principle of causality cannot be applied to the real world. This occasions the necessity of finding some other way to get at reality. The transcendental realist (see Realism) argues that this can be done in the same way that Kant posited the existence of a priori forms and categories of sense and the mind. Using this kind of reduction, they seek to find the necessary conditions for something being so. Kant himself concluded that it was necessary to posit God and immortality in order to make sense out of moral obligations (see Moral Argument).
Some apologists have made a minimal use of the transcendental argument. John Carnell, for example, seemed to use it to defend the principle of causality. Van Til made maximal use of it, claiming that the whole Christian system is based on it. Others are in-between, asserting that it is necessary to posit the existence of the basic laws of reason, a theistic God, and perhaps some other things in order to make sense out of the world.
Transcendental and First Principles. Classical apologetics is based on such first principles, as noncontradiction, causality, and analogy (see Cosmological Argument). Presuppositionalists reject traditional proofs for God’s existence (see God, Evidences for) in favor of many of the atheistic and agnostic arguments (see Agnosticism; Atheism). They seem to replace the traditional first principles of knowing the real world with a new transcendental principle. This raises the question of the relationship between the transcendental principle and the traditional first principles.
Similarities and Differences. There are similarities and differences in the use of the transcendental principle and of first principles by evangelical apologists. In general, the following comparison will represent the thinking of representatives of the positions of Thomas Aquinas and Van Til. Other viewpoints differ but generally follow one of these two lines of thinking.
Similarities. In both systems the principles operate like a first principle. There is nothing more basic than either in terms of which it can be proven to be true. It is interesting that transcendentalists give a status to their principle that they deny to traditional first principles. This appears to be a valid criticism of transcendental apologetics.
Both believe their respective principle(s) can be used to prove the existence of God.
Both hold that their principle(s) apply to the real world. Unlike Kant, however, they believe one can know reality (see Realism; Agnosticism) by means of their principle(s).
Both hold that their principle(s) can be understood in a meaningful way, even by finite human beings. They do not have equivocal meaning as understood by God and by us.
Both believe their arguments are valid, even if rejected by others.
Differences. Transcendentalists have only one principle—the transcendental principle. Traditionalists look to many first principles, including noncontradiction, causality, and analogy.
Transcendentalists presuppose their first principle with no attempt to demonstrate it. Traditionalists offer proof of the first principles by showing that they are self-evident or reducible to the self-evident. This can be seen in the article on First Principles.
While both imply a causal connection between the world and God, transcendentalists deny the ontological validity of the principle of causality. The transcendentalists insist that it is transcendentally necessary to posit a First Cause (i.e., God) of the finite world in order for it to make sense. But how does this differ from saying that every finite, contingent existence needs a First Cause, which is precisely what the first principle of causality demands?
The transcendental principle formally speaks of the necessary condition, but not the sufficient condition, of something. The principle of causality gives both. Thus, the transcendental principle does give only a necessary condition, not an actual cause, of the finite world. For a necessary condition (e.g., dry leaves) only explains how a fire is possible. It still takes ignition (a sufficient condition) to explain how it is actual.
Conclusion. The transcendental principle is neither self-evident, nor can it, by definition, be justified in terms of something more basic than itself. As such, it is without foundation. However, first principles, such as noncontradiction and causality, are self-evident or reducible to the self-evident. Hence, they serve better as a basis for apologetics.
John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles
Van Til, Cornelius, In Defense of the Faith
By Norman L. Geisler
Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 729–730.
Leave a Reply