Michael Butler on Frame’s Critique of the Transcendental Argument

“Cornelius Van Til was the apologist of antithesis. He, perhaps more than any other Christian thinker, made clear that there is a radical distinction between the Christian worldview and those that stand opposed to it. It is not surprising, therefore, that a man who laid such emphasis on this distinction would also attract antithetical views of himself. Van Til seems to be either devoutly followed or scornfully repudiated. With him, one is either hot or cold; there is no neutrality.

In his recent book, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought, John Frame endeavors to move beyond these polarized views of the late Westminster apologist. On the one hand he rejects the “movement mentality” that has characterized many of Van Til’s followers. This mentality is typified by the conviction that Van Til’s thoughts and formulations are beyond criticism. On the other hand, he rejects the “debunkers” whose open hostility toward Van Til’s teaching prevents them from having any genuine understanding of it. Rather, Frame attempts to sympathetically and yet critically analyze Van Til’s thought. For the most part, Frame’s book is a great success. It is the most comprehensive book on Van Til, detailing his contributions to both theology and apologetics. Frame’s work is systematic, offers many fresh insights, clears up several minor ambiguities in Van Til’s writings and gives a number of criticisms. It is a significant contribution to apologetics and theology in general and to Van Til-scholarship in particular. It, along with Greg Bahnsen’s forthcoming book, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis, is by far the best analysis of Van Til’s thought to date.

With this said, I must go on to point out one major fault. Though I tend to agree with most of Frame’s criticisms of Van Til, there is one in which I think he is profoundly mistaken. Specifically, his strictures against Van Til’s apologetic methodology are in many ways misguided. In what follows, I will examine what I take to be mistakes in Frame’s view and attempt to vindicate Van Til’s thought in these areas. Frame summarizes Van Til’s apologetic method as follows:

(1) It [Van Til’s apologetic method] seeks to show that all intelligibility depends on, or presupposes, Christian theism.
(2) It is indirect rather than direct, negative rather than positive . . . (3) It requires each member of the discussion to “place himself upon” his opponent’s position “for the sake of argument” in order to show how that position affects the intelligibility of predication. Though certainly not exhaustive, this is an accurate synopsis of Van Til’s methodology. Frame has reservations about each of these three points, however. Though I think Frame’s reservations are wrong on all three counts, space allows comments on only two. I shall consider them in order. Frame maintains a number of qualifications are needed for

(1). First, it is much more difficult to prove that all intelligibility presupposes Christian theism than Van Til would have us believe. There must be additional arguments to supplement Van Til’s transcendental argument.

Second, these additional arguments are often of the traditional kind. In his previous book he questions “whether the transcendental argument can function without the help of subsidiary arguments of a more traditional kind.”

Third, the main reason that subsidiary arguments are needed to prove the Christian worldview is that it (the Christian worldview) has many elements to it and these elements require their own arguments.

Fourth, the above points lead us to adopt the view that demonstrating that intelligibility presupposes Christianity should not necessarily be considered the conclusion of an argument, but the goal of apologetics.

To the first qualification I answer yes and no. On the one hand, transcendental arguments tend to get complicated, especially when dealing with sophisticated non-Christians. Most often, the apologist must say more to his opponent than, “Christianity provides the necessary preconditions for intelligibility and your worldview does not.” This statement of the argument is more programmatic than anything. On the other hand, though this argument is simple, it is nevertheless sound. It may be necessary to give more detail to the opponent when he raises questions and objections, but this does not mean the argument is in anyway defective. The basic argument is sound and its soundness is proven when all the questions and objections are answered.

As for the second qualification, though it is often true that transcendental arguments for God’s existence are not simple and require many subsidiary arguments, these sub-arguments will also be transcendental in nature. Frame seems to think that these subsidiary arguments are of a more traditional kind. I will have more to say about traditional arguments later, but for present purposes the following example should demonstrate that a recourse to them is unnecessary. In defending the faith against a materialistic atheist, for example, a Christian apologist may argue that materialism cannot account for the mind. Specifically, it makes no sense to believe that our mental activities come about through chemical reactions in the brain. Only within a Christian worldview are minds possible. This is, in principle, the end of the argument. Materials simply cannot account for the mind. However, materialist philosophers have come up with sev ffb eral theories (eliminativism, identity theories, functionalism, property dualism, and so on) to solve this problem. The apologist’s task at this point is to hear the theory being offered. He then shows that that particular version of materialism still cannot account for the mind. The materialist can further refine his theory and the apologist must once again patiently listen and then proceed to refute it. Notice that while there are several arguments involved in this debate and the arguments are progressively more sophisticated, they are fundamentally the same kind—all are transcendental in nature.

Frame’s third qualification is perhaps the crux of the matter. He writes: Proving Van Til’s conclusion [the God of the Bible exists] . . . is a pretty tall order. It requires a highly complex argument to show that all the elements of biblical theism are presupposed in intelligible communication. I have already said something about the complexity of the transcendental argument. Notice here that Frame thinks the particular elements of Christianity need to be proved. This claim can be interpreted in two ways. The first way is simply to claim that while Christianity is defended as a unit, the apologist can only speak of one thing at a time. That is, he starts with the full Christian worldview, presupposing the authority of the Bible, the doctrine of God, man, the fall, redemption in Christ, and so on. He then goes on to refute the non-Christian worldview by an internal critique (proving it is contradictory and arbitrary) and demonstrates that it is only the Christian worldview that makes human experience intelligible. This does not entail, however, that the apologist speaks of every aspect of the Christian worldview at once. He cannot, for instance, simultaneously argue that morality and the principle of induction are possible only on the Christian worldview. But this has to do with the limits of human communication. This does not mean that he argues for the truth of Christian theism one isolated point at a time and then adds them together at the end. On this interpretation, Van Til would have no disagreement. The other way to interpret Frame’s claim is that the apologist first proves that God exists, then that God is sovereign, then that God is triune, and so on. This approach, typical of traditional apologetics, is what Van Til called the block-house method—the method that seeks to prove Christianity one doctrine at a time much like a brick-layer builds a wall one brick at a time. Which way, then, is the best way to interpret Frame? I do not think he is clear at this point. This is not because of any un-clarity in his writing, but rather because he has not settled on either position. Or, perhaps I should better say, he does not think either position is entirely satisfactory. Frame gives the illustration of a Muslim who while agreeing that a personal god is necessary for human intelligibility denies that this personal god is triune. At this point the Christian apologist must go on to show that a personal unitarian god is not sufficient. This type of god cannot account for unity and diversity, universals and particulars and so on. From this I gather that Frame thinks that while non-Christians may reject parts of the Christian worldview, they may accept some. And so the apologist’s job in this case is to convince the opponent that his worldview is not rich enough. The non-Christian must supplement his worldview with more distinctly Christian ideas in order to account for intelligibility. It is helpful at this point to remember that the presuppositional method not only defends the Christian worldview as a unit, but that it sets Christianity apart from all other worldviews. As Bahnsen used to say, it is in a league of its own. There is a sharp antithesis between Christianity and all other worldviews. There may be formal similarities between Christianity and Islam, for example, but there is, in principle, no real agreement. And so to argue that the non-Christian needs to supplement his worldview with more distinctively Christian doctrines is not to reason transcendentally. I believe the motivation behind Frame’s error here is that the apologist should combine the transcendental method with more traditional arguments. Indeed, he thinks that there is no real difference between these two methods except as a matter of rhetoric. I shall show the problem of conflating these two methods in the next section.

The fourth qualification is in one sense legitimate. The goal of an apologetic encounter should be to prove that Christianity alone can account for human experience. However, this should not be thought of merely as a goal. It is a goal that can, by God’s grace, be accomplished. Frame seems to admit this, but thinks it is much more difficult than Van Til would have us believe. He notes that there are often time constraints that cause an apologetic encounter to end before any conclusions are demonstrated and that sophisticated non-Christians will have many detailed objections that deserve consideration. Again, these are legitimate observations. However, limited time or sophisticated opponents should not cause the apologist to think that Christianity cannot be proved even in these situations. Simply because time is limited and subsidiary arguments are often necessary does not imply that the Christian worldview cannot be proved in principle and the non-Christian worldview disproved in principle. Of course more could be said in any given apologetic encounter—more could always be said!—but further discussion will simply reinforce what has already been established.

Turning to (2), Frame believes Van Til has erred here as well. Van Til claims that only transcendental or indirect arguments bring us to the conclusion that the God of the Bible exists. Van Til states, “The method of reasoning by presupposition may be said to be indirect rather than direct.” He explains what he means by this as follows: The issue between believers and non-believers in Christian theism cannot be settled by a direct appeal to “facts” or “laws” whose nature and significance is already agreed upon by both parties to the debate. The question is rather as to what is the final reference-point required to make the “facts” and “laws” intelligible. How is this to be done? The Christian apologist must place himself upon the position of his opponent, assuming the correctness of his method merely for argument’s sake, in order to show him that on such a position the “facts” are not facts and the “laws” are not laws. He must also ask the non-Christian to place himself upon the Christian position for argument’s sake in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do “facts” and “laws” appear intelligible. Against Van Til, Frame argues that transcendental arguments may be either direct (positive) or indirect (negative). For example, in Apologetics to the Glory of God, Frame asks: Are indirect arguments really distinct from direct arguments? In the final analysis, it doesn’t make much difference whether you say “Causality, therefore God” or “Without God, no causality, therefore God.” How are we to understand this? Interpreted one way these two arguments are really the same. The first is an enthymeme which when spelled-out reads: “There is causality and therefore God exists [for without God there could be no causality].” The second is also enthymematic which when spelled-out reads: “Without God there is no causality [but there is causality] therefore God exists.” Understood this way, Van Til would have no disagreement. This interpretation is not what Frame means by a direct or positive argument though. In his book on Van Til he writes: We can certainly conceive of a positive argument that would lead to a transcendental conclusion. We might, for example, develop a causal argument for God’s existence, prove that the ultimate cause of the world must have the attributes of the biblical God, and thus establish that all intelligibility in the universe derives from God. Notice that he is speaking here of a causal argument. Specifically, he is speaking of the traditional cosmological argument (an argument that concludes there must have been an Ultimate Cause, and this Ultimate Cause is God, since there are causes in the world). And this is certainly something Van Til would take issue with.

The question before us then is, is the traditional cosmological argument (or other traditional arguments for God’s existence) a version of the transcendental argument stated in a direct or positive way? Put differently, was Van Til right about the distinctiveness of his argument for the existence of God? or is Frame right in saying that the transcendental argument is just a restatement of traditional arguments? To answer this a few words about transcendental arguments are in order. Popularized by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), transcendental arguments attempt to discover the preconditions of human experience. They do so by taking some aspect of human experience and investigating what must be true in order for that experience to be possible. Transcendental arguments typically have the following form. For x [some aspect of human experience] to be the case, y also has to be the case since y is the precondition of x. Since x is the case, y is the case. The argument mentioned above serves as a clear example of a transcendental argument. For causality to be possible, God has to exist since the existence of God is the precondition of causality. Since there is causality, God exists. A corollary of this is that whenever non-believers employ the concept of causation, they are borrowing from the Christian worldview since only on a Christian worldview does causation make sense. Does the traditional cosmological argument take this form?

A brief sketch of it will prove that it does not. Essentially the argument is outlined as follows. There are causes in the world and these causes are contingent. There is either an infinite number of contingent causes or there is a finite number. Since there could not be an infinite number (an infinite chain of contingent causes is impossible) there must be a finite number. Since there is a finite number, there must be a first cause. The argument concludes by identifying this first cause as God. Notice that this argument does not show that the precondition of causality is God. Rather, it assumes that the non-believer is perfectly justified in believing in causation and/or using the concept of causation. The non-believer may not have thought through the implications of the world being causally ordered—i.e. there must be a First Cause—but this does not mean he cannot make sense of causation. It is not arguing that the precondition of causation is God. Indeed, it assumes that human experience and understanding in general and causation in particular are perfectly intelligible outside the Christian worldview. Thus, even if the cosmological arguments were sound, the unbeliever is perfectly justified in believing in and/or using the concept of causation. This leads to a further point. None of the traditional arguments for the existence of God (cosmological as well as others) are in fact sound. All have been repeatedly refuted (see the writings of Hume, Kant, Russell and many contemporary philosophers). And the reason for this failure is precisely because they do not presuppose the Christian worldview. Rather, the traditional arguments give the concepts of being, causation, purpose, etc. to the non-Christian; they assume that all of these are intelligible on the unbeliever’s worldview. This being the case, the apologist has already conceded to the non-Christian that the world is intelligible without reference to God.

According to Frame, the traditional arguments are better than this, however. He contends that the traditional argument from motion, for example, “does not necessarily begin with the assumption that motion is intelligible apart from God.” Moreover, he seems to say that the traditional arguments are best understood as making this assumption. Indeed, Frame asserts that Aquinas himself believed that the world is unintelligible apart from God. If this were the case, Frame’s assertion that Aquinas and Van Til are not as far apart as Van Til thought would be legitimate. Is this really the case though? Are the traditional arguments presup-positional after all? While it is certainly true that the cosmological argument (or any other traditional argument) can be presented so as to presuppose the Christian worldview, this is not how it has been historically formulated. There is not one remark in Aquinas or Bishop Butler (Frame’s major examples of traditional apologists) that even hints of the idea that the God of the Bible is the necessary precondition of intelligible experience. Why, then, does Frame make this error?

As I alluded to earlier, Frame thinks that because Aquinas’s cosmological argument attempts to prove the existence of God on the basis of causation in the world, that this may be construed as the claim that the world is unintelligible apart from God. But this is to equivocate on the word ‘unintelligible.’ Let me explain. The traditional cosmological argument, for example, tries to show that we could not explain the existence of the world without God. Stated another way, without positing the existence of God we would be ignorant of the origin of the universe. We would not know how it came into existence and so the universe would be, in this sense, unintelligible. The transcendental argument, however, attempts to demonstrate that we could not account for the world, causation or whatever human experience we wish to speak about without presupposing the existence of God. Without this presupposition, the world would be, in this other sense, unintelligible. This is a difficult point and so an analogy may be helpful. I do not know how jet engines work. In my current state of ignorance, jet engines are, in one sense, unintelligible to me. Does my ignorance, however, preclude me from believing in jet engines and intelligently using the concept in communication? Of course not. I am justified in believing in them and am quite capable of speaking about them even though I do not know the mechanics of jet engines. And so in another sense, they are perfectly intelligible to me. In the same way, the traditional arguments at best show that non-Christians are ignorant of how the universe came about. It is in this sense that it is unintelligible to them. These arguments do not show, however, that their belief in the universe, causation and so on, are unjustified. In this sense, these things are granted to be perfectly intelligible to them. Contrary to Frame, then, the traditional arguments do not have transcendental conclusions. They may conclude that God is the transcendent cause of the universe, but this is very different from concluding that his existence is transcendentally necessary. Though subtle, this distinction stands at the very center of Van Til’s methodology.

It is easy to exaggerate the differences that Frame has with Van Til’s apologetic. In many instances, Frame makes much needed clarifications and qualifications of Van Til’s views. Occasionally Van Til overstates his case and in many instances his writing is obscure. Because of these deficiencies it is appropriate to qualify, re-formulate and expand upon his work. To engage in this task is, contrary to the movement-mentality, not to exhibit a fundamental disagreement with Van Til, but rather pay him a deeper appreciation. For the most part, Frame points out genuine short-comings in Van Til’s presentation of his thought and makes improvements. But while I do not want to exaggerate the differences I also do not want to sweep genuine disagreements under the rug. Frame does have a very different understanding of transcendental arguments than did Van Til. And as I have argued, this re-formulation of Van Til in this regard is c1d not an improvement. Indeed, it is a substantial retrogression to the traditional apologetic arguments.”

(Michael Butler, Frame on Van Til and Transcendental Arguments)


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