Towards a Biblical Presuppositionalism Pt.2

The Transcendental Principle in Apologetic Argumentation

The impending task is to describe and defend the importance of espousing a transcendental principle during an apologetic assignment. However, before this is accomplished, essential background pertaining to the transcendental principle is necessary. In order to completely understand the main tenets of the transcendental principle, this phrase should be described in relation to what is referred to as the transcendental method[1] as established in theological and philosophical literature. The 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is traditionally accredited with this development, and John Frame, in his Apologetics to the Glory of God, describes the basic idea as adopted by Kant. Speaking of the transcendental method, Frame indicates that it, “Does not try to prove that genuine knowledge is possible; rather, it presupposes that it is. The transcendental method then goes ahead to ask what the necessary conditions of human knowledge are.”[2] Kant’s transcendental method would prove to influence a number of scholars such as G.W.F. Hegel, but more importantly, inspired the Christian philosopher and theologian, Cornelius Van Til, who would become champion of this method within a Christian framework. Again, Frame comments on Van Til’s use of the transcendental method, “He noted that in Scripture God is the source of all reality, and hence all truth, all knowledge, all rationality, all meaning, all actuality, and all possibility.”[3] Essentially, the Triune God of the Bible is the necessary condition for any knowledge, rationality, or meaning; nothing is possible unless this God exists.

The question then becomes one of how might this transcendental method be employed in Christian argumentation. For centuries, Christian apologists have diligently formulated theistic arguments to combat unbelief, of which many are presently used. However, to Van Til, and many of his subsequent followers, these so-called traditional arguments in favor of Christian theism are not the most formidable way to argue against unbelief, as they often end in compromising aspects of the biblical revelation of God. Thus, Van Til concludes that, “the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument.”[4] In Van Til’s mind, this meant that the only legitimate way to debate is to argue in the negative and never the positive. That is to say, that unless the Triune God of Scripture exists, nothing is possible. Thus Frame concludes in evaluation of Van Til’s thought, “We should not use arguments, he said, which prove that God is, e.g., merely a first cause or an intelligent designer or a moral legislator.”[5] Van Til’s apologetic method sought to provide argumentation that established Christianity as an entire system while avoiding piecemeal arguments that only portrayed a portion of the truth at best. While Van Til’s concern is certainly valid, it is not clear that traditional arguments that prove that God is, merely require that God is a first cause or intelligent designer or a moral legislator. Surely from a Christian perspective, though God is certainly these, He is at the same time abundantly more, and this is assumed even in traditional argumentation. Furthermore, there is a sense in which the traditional theistic proofs are extremely useful, especially if they embrace a transcendental principle. Though Van Til offers great insight in regards to applying the transcendental method in arguing for Christian theism, it is necessary to improve upon his view of the traditional arguments. This is where a transcendental principle is required. Rather than adopting one argument that is transcendental, one ought to make the transcendental method a principle[6] that can be used with all theistic argumentation. Afterall, Frame is right to suggest that, “There is no argument guaranteed to be persuasive to all people.”[7] Apologetic arguments are person variable. If this transcendental principle is applied properly, it will make the traditional arguments ultimately more persuasive in light of rebellious unbelief.

In order to endorse the idea of a transcendental principle in apologetic argument, it would be wise to parade its legitimacy by considering it in regards to the teleological argument as an example[8]. William Dembski, in his article, An Information-Theoretic Design Argument, defines teleological argumentation in this way,

The design argument begins with features of the natural world that exhibit evidence of purpose and from there attempts to establish the existence and attributes of an intelligent cause responsible for those features.[9]

Dembski’s objective is to demonstrate how information theory displays evidence of purposefulness which ultimately leads to an intelligent agent, and he does this by emphasizing what he terms, complex specified information.[10]  This implies that in order for one to detect intelligence, there needs to be evidence of choice, “For an intelligent agent to act is therefore to choose from a range of competing possibilities.”[11] For example, this is true for humans during speech. Whenever a person engages in meaningful dialogue, they must choose from a range of possible sound-combination that might have been uttered.[12] This necessitates specificity behind choosing particular words for speech and not others. Furthermore, in order to detect intelligence, complexity is also required. For example, the deep meaningful words of poetry versus the random arrangement of letters in a children’s alphabet soup imply complexity[13]. Therefore, when information appears to be specific and complex, it is safe to infer an intelligent agency. Teleologically, Dembski’s argument can be applied to many areas of the created universe. For instance, information rich DNA expresses complex specified information in that certain ordered sequences of DNA determine the genetic makeup of any given organism. This complex specified information is what makes the difference, for example, between a human and poison ivy. The information in DNA that determines genetic makeup is very specific and complex. Dembski’s argument can also be applied in the area of cosmic fine-tuning, the idea that,

The physical laws of nature, when given mathematical expression, contain various constants (such as the gravitational constant) whose values are not determined by the laws themselves; a universe governed by such laws might be characterized by any of a wide range of values for these constants.[14]

Fine-tuning arguments suggest that the conditions for a life permitting planet are precisely what are needed in order for life to thrive. Often it is alleged, that if one constant would have been distorted in the slightest one way or another, life would not be possible. For example, if the gravitational constant were otherwise than what it currently is, life would not be possible. Some like to say that the odds appear to be stacked with the intent of promoting life. The information that results from this sort of observation, and many others in a similar fashion, is both specific and complex.

Nevertheless, in regards to the information-theoretic design argument, Dembski concludes that, “An information-theoretic design argument therefore doesn’t so much lead us to God as remove us from paths that lead away from God.”[15] Dembski, for whatever reason, does not want to place a positive identification to the intelligence involved, even though he argues from a Christian persuasion. If this argument were to be presented with a transcendental principle in mind, it would suggest that it makes sense to understand the universe as displaying patterns of complex specified information due to the intelligence responsible. The only entity capable of producing complex specified information at this level is an absolute personal being that interacts and sustains His creation as Scripture attests. The idea of absolute personality is only found within biblical theism and ultimately corresponds to the existence of complex specified information in the universe. In reality, the God of the Bible created the cosmos by the power of His word (Genesis 1, John 1:1-18), and currently sustains it by the power of His word (Hebrews 1:3); the same word that provides information to God’s people about Himself. The transcendental principle argues that if given the absolute personal God of Scripture, then complex specified information exists. It is illogical to recognize the existence of such complex specified information while denying the reality of God. In the final analysis, the skeptic must deal with the fact that the universe displays cases of complex specified information which necessitate the existence of an ultimate mind to communicate that information.

Concluding Remarks

In the great debate over proper apologetic methodologies, all provide much needed insight for how to engage an unbelieving world. However, the one participating in an apologetic encounter must work hard at employing a method that can truly stand up to defeat sinful skepticism, and in order for this to happen, God’s Word must be at the forefront of our minds. By commissioning the very Word of God, the apologist is able to address the sin of unbelief in all areas of life, and it is only through a presuppositional apologetic that Scripture is accurately used to contest unbelief. From the witness of God’s Word comes the transcendental principle which must be used with any argument for Christian theism. This will make it ultimately more persuasive to the unbeliever. May God grant current defenders of the faith the ability to understand the need for a true biblical apologetic.

WORKS CITED

Beckwith, Francis J., William Lane Craig, and J.p. Moreland, eds. To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview. Downers Grove: Intervarsitypress, 2004.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996.

Craig, Willam Lane. Reasonable Faith; Christian Truth and Apologetics. Third ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008.

Frame, John. A Theology of Lordship. Vol. 1, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Phillipsburg: P&r Publishing, 1987.

———. Apologetics to the Glory of God. Phillipsburg: P&r Publishing, 1994.

Gundry, Stanley N., and Steven B. Cowan, eds. Counterpoints. Vol. 2, Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

Hoffecker, W. Andrew, ed. Revolutions in Worldview. Phillipsburg: P&r Publishing, 2007.

Oliphint, K. Scott, and Lane G. Tipton, eds. Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics. Phillipsburg: P&r Publishing, 2007.

Palmer, Donald. Looking at Philosophy. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-hill, 2010. For more on Protagoras, see.

 


[1] It is not clear that there is even a difference between saying “transcendental principle” or “transcendental method”, but for the sake of the argument, it would be wise to show how the transcendental principle relates to what has been referred to as, the transcendental method.

[2] John Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (Phillipsburg: P&r Publishing, 1994). 70.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cornelius Van Til as quoted in: K. Scott Oliphint and Lane G. Tipton, eds., Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics (Phillipsburg: P&r Publishing, 2007). 258.

[5] Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God. 71.

[6] I personally prefer to use “principle” due to treating it as a norm for Christian argumentation. Christians ought to argue with the transcendental principle in mind.

[7] Frame, 62.

[8] As noted earlier, due to time and space, the teleological argument proves to be a cogent argument if used transcendentally. Other traditional theistic arguments follow suit in the same fashion when articulated in light of the transcendental principle.

[9] William A. Dembski. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J.P. Moreland, eds., To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview (Downers Grove: Intervarsitypress, 2004). 77. Dembski uses “design argument” synonymously with teleological argument. I find this article to be most fascinating.

[10] Ibid., 88.

[11] Ibid., 89.

[12] Ibid. This is true for animals as well. Dembski also gives the appropriate example of lab rats in a maze.

[13] Think about the soup that children eat consisting of letter of the alphabet. As they are floating in the soup, they do not convey any information from an intelligent agent unless placed in a specific and complex order.

[14] Willam Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith; Christian Truth and Apologetics, third ed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 158.

[15] Dembski, 94.

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