Notes from Greg Bahnsen’s lecture, Survey of Christian Epistemology (Transcendental Argumentation) 7,8/16. Please see the book here.
“…in history lies the best proof of our philosophy of human life.” (9)
-if you study the history of human thought, you will learn that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world.
“Every system of philosophy must tell us whether it thinks true knowledge to be possible. Or if a system of philosophy thinks it impossible for man to have a true knowledge of the whole of reality or even of a part of reality, it must give good reasons for thinking so.” (9)
-We do believe that is it possible to know things because knowledge has been given to us by Christ.
“We cannot choose epistemologies as we choose hats. Such would be the case if it had been once for all established that the whole thing is but a matter of taste. But that is exactly what has not been established. That is exactly the point in dispute.” (9)
-His approach to the theory of knowledge is the exact opposite of voluntarism and subjectivism. His approach is to show the Christian theory of knowledge is the absolute necessity for all people.
“In the second place, every system of philosophy has a theory of metaphysics…On the contrary, as the word metaphysics suggests when used in the narrower sense, we shall have to do only with the most ultimate concepts of human thought. We shall even limit ourselves, almost exclusively, to the concept of God. But the definite understanding will be that our concept of God has specific implications for every branch of human knowledge” (10)
-We are defending Christianity as an entire world and life view, not in a piecemeal fashion.
“We shall find that the Christian theory of metaphysics is the only one that really takes the matter of metaphysics seriously. For the others it has really become a question of taste.” (10)
-Every other philosophy of life reduces to relativism and subjectivism.
“The conviction at the basis of such an attitude must be that it is rationally
impossible for man to have any knowledge of ultimate things. It will be necessary for us to insist that our opponents make reasonable to us this claim that man can have no knowledge of ultimate things” (10)
-The unbeliever will say that no one can know ultimate things for sure. Van Til says that this is what they are supposed to prove. The only thing that they say they can show for sure is that Christianity is wrong.
“We may further observe that in these two divisions of epistemology and metaphysics we deal from a philosophical point of view with that which theology deals with from a theological point of view.” (10)
-philosophy and theology are not categorically different, VT just thinks their approach and audience is different.
“Philosophy deals with no concepts that theology does not deal with. It is but a matter of terminology.” (10)
“In it he ought to learn that his opponents have exhausted themselves in trying to find a solution for the problems with which he is dealing, and have found no such solution.” (10)
Chapter 1: Epistemological Terminology
“According to Scripture, God has created the “universe.” God has created time and space. God has created all the “facts” of science. God has created the human mind. In this human mind God has laid the laws of thought according to which it is to operate. In the facts of science God has laid the laws of being according to which they function. In other words, the impress of God’s plan is upon his whole creation.We may characterize this whole situation by saying that the creation of God is a revelation of God. God revealed himself in nature and God also revealed himself in the mind of man. Thus it is impossible for the mind of man to function except in an atmosphere of revelation. And every thought of man when it functioned normally in this atmosphere of revelation would express the truth as laid in the creation by God. We may therefore call a Christian epistemology a revelational epistemology.” (11)
-Our theory of knowledge is revelation. Knowledge is not possible apart from revelation of God. God has created the facts of science and the human mind. In the human mind God has laid the laws of human thought by which they should operate. The impress of God’s plan is upon his whole creation. Our mind works according to the laws God placed in it. God also makes interaction between our mind and the world possible.
-Van Til doesn’t think that we choose one theory of truth over the other. The coherence and correspondence theories of truth are not alternatives to the same question. The correspondence theory is talking about the nature of truth. The coherence theory is talking about how we know what is true. The coherence theory says if what you are claiming cannot be put within a sensible theory that hangs together then it is not true. The correspondence theory says what is true corresponds to the objective world. As Christians, we hold to both. It is not one or the other.
-Someone might think we you are arguing presuppositionally, what you are doing is “you’ve got you’re subjective point of view and another person has his subjective point of view, so no one has the right to claim objectivity. After all, if everybody’s thinking is controlled by presuppositions, then no one can get outside of all presuppositions to tell us what the objective situation really is.” The very posing of this question poses a certain conception of objectivity, namely, you’re only objective when you are free of presuppositions.
“In ordinary speech we understand by an “object” anything that exists “out there,” that is, independently of the human mind. We then claim to have objective knowledge of something if the idea that we have in our minds of that thing corresponds to the thing as it exists independently of the mind. (12)
“The coherence theory of truth implied a new conception of objectivity. For it,
objectivity no longer was the correspondence of an idea to a certain object supposed to exist in total independence of the mind. For it, objectivity meant a significant reference to the whole system of truth.” (12)
“the Christian conception of objectivity stands closer to the latter than to the former
position….For us, too, the primary question is not that of the out-thereness of the cow. What we are chiefly concerned about is that our idea of the cow shall correspond to God’s idea of the cow. If it does not, our knowledge is false and may be called subjective.” (13)
-Someone might say there are all these different presuppositions so no one can be objective. Van Til says objectivity is from God’s point of view. Those who are presupposing God’s revelation have objectivity. Everyone else’s minds are subjective rather than objective since they are distorting God’s revelation.
“When therefore we examine the various epistemological views with regard to their
“objectivity,” we are interested most of all in knowing whether or not these views have sought the knowledge of an object by placing it into its right relation with the selfconscious God.” (13)
“there can be no more fundamental question in epistemology than the question whether or not facts can be known without reference to God.” (13)
-He does not mean linguistic reference like it is impossible to talk about gardeners outside without talking about God in the sentence. Rather, when I talk about the gardeners, I can only make sense of them being separate intelligences out there that have freedom and yet there are universal laws by which I can understand them and communicate with them. I cannot talk about the gardeners unless I also discuss that they are creatures of God.
“Suppose then the existence of God. Then it would be a fact that every fact would be known truly only with reference to him. If then one did not place a fact into relation with God, he would be in error about the fact under investigation. Or suppose that one would just begin his investigations as a scientist, without even asking whether or not it is necessary to make reference to such a God in his investigations, such a one would be in constant and in fundamental ignorance all the while. And this ignorance would be culpable ignorance, since it is God who gives him life and all good things. It ought to be obvious then that one should settle for himself this most fundamental of all epistemological questions, whether or not God exists. Christ says that as the Son of God, he will come to judge and condemn all those who have not come to the Father by him. (14)
“At this stage we are interested only in seeing what sort of method of investigation is involved in Christianity. At the outset it ought to be clearly observed that every system of thought necessarily has a certain method of its own. Usually this fact is overlooked. It is taken for granted that everybody begins in the same way with an examination of the facts, and that the differences between systems come only as a result of such investigations. Yet this is not actually the case. It could not actually be the case. In the first place, this could not be the case with a Christian. His fundamental and determining fact is the fact of God’s existence. That is his final conclusion. But that must also be his starting point.” (14)
-When we engage in discussions with people about the truth of Christianity or if you argue about theory of apologetics with Christians, it is taken for granted that we all have a common epistemology. Both believer and unbeliever have their circles, but Van Til says their circle is destructive of human experience. When we are talking about our ultimate presuppositions, the only way we can prove it is to rely upon it. Let’s say a human scientist wants to prove the human eye can see things. He will have to rely upon his eyes to prove that eyes can see things. There is nothing wrong the utilizing your ultimate authority even while examining your ultimate authority. If someone says, “my ultimate presuppositions that we only know things via observation.” He will either have to use observational evidence to support that or he wouldn’t be able to support his claim. If he uses another consideration to prove his claim, then he’s given up observation as his ultimate presupposition. The starting point and conclusion being the same means that that is our ultimate presupposition.
“If all things must be seen “in God” to be seen truly, one could look ever so long elsewhere without ever seeing a fact as it really is. If I must look through a telescope to see a distant star, I cannot first look at the star to see whether there is a telescope through which alone I could see it. If I must look through a microscope to see a germ, I cannot first look at the germ with the naked eye to see if there is a microscope through which alone I can see it. If it were a question of seeing something with the naked eye and seeing the same object more clearly through a telescope or a microscope, the matter would be different. We may see a landscape dimly with the naked eye and then turn to look at it through a telescope and see it more clearly. But such is not the case with the Christian position. According to it, nothing at all can be known truly of any fact unless it be known through and by way of man’s knowledge of God.” (14)
“But if it be readily granted that a Christian begins with a bias, it will not so readily be granted that his opponents also begin with a bias. Yet this is no less the case. And the reason for this is really the same as that given above in the case of the Christian. We may again illustrate with our telescope analogy. The antitheist is one who has made up his mind in advance that he will never look through a telescope. He maintains steadfast in his conviction that there are some facts that can be known truly without looking through a telescope. This much is implied in the very idea of starting to see whether there is a God.” (14)
-The way one begins the knowing process tips you off as to whether they will accept the Christian approach to knowledge. If they begin without presupposing the truth of Christianity, they are already assuming that Christianity is wrong since they reject that Christianity is necessary to make sense of anything.
“we seek to implicate ourselves more deeply into a comprehension of God’s plan in and with every fact that we investigate.”(15)
“Thus in starting any investigation the general precedes the particular.” (16)
-We begin with all-knowing God who has a general plan. What we are doing when we are learning about the world is learning about the particulars in the plan of God.
“The greater the amount of detailed study and the more carefully such study is undertaken, the more truly Christian will the method be.” (16)
“the whole fight is one about two mutually opposite philosophies of life, instead of about the hiding or nonhiding of certain facts.” (16)
9. Deduction and Induction
“The anti-Christian holds that any sort of fact may appear.” (16)
-They say that they can’t rule out anything
“On the other hand, the Christian holds that no fact will appear that could disprove the ultimacy of the fact of God, and therefore of what he has revealed of himself and his plan for the world through Christ in the Scriptures.” (16)
-The question then is what are the limits of possibility. The answers to what is possible is a give away to what worldview that someone is using. According to us, God determines what is possible. Everything you reason about possibility, you are presupposing his existence. If there is a god according to the unbeliever, that god is part of the universe where everything is possible, so it is possible that god does not exist. Does the unbeliever believe that anything is possible? If so, then it’s possible that the universe could have been opposite where not anything is possible.
“If the Christian position should prove to be right in the end, then the anti-Christian position was wrong, not only at the end, but already at the beginning.” (17)
Christians are both deductivists and inductivists, because the transcendental argument uses both of them.
“One more point should be noted on the question of method, namely, that from a
certain point of view, the method of implication may also be called a transcendental
method. We have already indicated that the Christian method uses neither the inductive nor the deductive method as understood by the opponents of Christianity, but that it has elements of both induction and of deduction in it, if these terms are understood in a Christian sense. Now when these two elements are combined, we have what is meant by a truly transcendental argument. A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.” (18)
“Any method, as was pointed out above, that does not maintain that not a single fact can be known unless it be that God gives that fact meaning, is an antiChristian method. On the other hand, if God is recognized as the only and the final explanation of any and every fact, neither the inductive nor the deductive method can any longer be used to the exclusion of the other. That this is the case can best be realized if we keep in mind that the God we contemplate is an absolute God. Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument.” (19)
-If God is self-sufficient and in need of nothing, then the only argument that we can use to prove God is a transcendental argument. If you reason in another way, you are going to use an argument that doesn’t presuppose the existence God who gives meaning to your argument.
“It is the firm conviction of every epistemologically self-conscious Christian that no human being can utter a single syllable, whether in negation or in affirmation, unless it were for God’s existence.” (19)
-Those Christians who use a neutral evidential approach to apologetics are not being self-conscious of their theory of knowledge. They are complacent with sharing their autonomous theory of knowledge with unbelievers. What kind of god is proven? A god that is not absolute.
“Thus the transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is. It does not seek to find whether the house has a foundation, but it presupposes that it has one.” (19)
“A truly transcendent God and a transcendental method go hand in hand.” (19)
-We can only argue for the Christian transcendent God from the impossibility of the contrary.
“It thus appears that we must take the Bible, its conception of sin, its conception of Christ, and its conception of God and all that is involved in these concepts together, or take none of them. So also it makes very little difference whether we begin with the notion of an absolute God or with the notion of an absolute Bible. The one is derived from the other. They are together involved in the Christian view of life. Hence we defend all or we defend none. Only one absolute is possible, and only one absolute can speak to us. Hence it must always be the same voice of the same absolute, even though he seems to speak to us at different places. The Bible must be true because it alone speaks of an absolute God. And equally true is it that we believe in an absolute God because the Bible tells us of one.” (20)
-Only the Christian circle will make any kind of reasoning possible, so it is not a vicious circle. If God is absolute, then how could we know this God without revelation? Let’s say you have a row of religious texts. How do you know which is divine revelation? You don’t know it just because people agree that one is the religious text. Only God identify his own revelation, and in the nature of the case, it has to be a self-attesting self-identification. How do you know the Bible is self-attesting? Because when you look at the Bible claims to be self-attesting (it says it is God’s Word. And, those who reject this claim will be reduced to absurdity.
“And this brings up the point of circular reasoning. The charge is constantly made that if matters stand thus with Christianity, it has written its own death warrant as far as intelligent men are concerned. Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? Our answer to this is briefly that we prefer to reason in a circle to not reasoning at all. We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning that is possible to finite man (about ultimate presuppositions). Or we may call it spiral reasoning. We must go round and round a thing to see more of its dimensions and to know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating. Unless we are larger than God we cannot reason about him any other way, than by a transcendental or circular argument. The refusal to admit the necessity of circular reasoning is itself an evident token of opposition to Christianity. Reasoning in a vicious circle is the only alternative to reasoning in a circle as discussed above.” (20)
-The unbeliever accuses us of reasoning in a circle by assuming the Christian God. That’s because you cannot reason apart from the Christian God. If the preconditions of intelligibility are truly preconditions, then you must assume them even while you are arguing about the preconditions of intelligibility. Since we believe God is the precondition of intelligibility, you must assume Him even when arguing whether he exists or not. If you do not reason in a circle, then you are rejecting God as the precondition of intelligibility. Van Til is claiming that the kind of circularity that is involved in transcendental reasoning is different from the circularity that we find in the vicious logical fallacy of begging the question. In transcendental matters, one must reason in a circle way. If your transcendental is truly transcendental, then you must rely upon it even while you debate about it.