“For man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness.”
-Van Til, Defense of the Faith, pg. 113
There are a couple different facets to Van Til’s Transcendental Argument for God, or “TAG”. Some people would even say that there are 3 perspectives on TAG- a normative perspective (the essence of TAG), a situational perspective (TAG applied in different ways and for different contexts), and an existential perspective (a personal application)- I am one of those people.
There’s been much ink spilled defining TAG, less so on different applications of TAG, but I’ve hardly seen anyone talk about personal reflections or applications of Van Til’s TAG. So in this post I’m going to spill some digital ink sharing how God has used TAG to encourage me in my faith.
Now if you’re unfamiliar with transcendental arguments in general see my post, C.S. Lewis’s Transcendental Argument for God for an introduction. If you’re familiar with transcendental arguments in general but not Van Til’s in particular, then it can be boiled down to a pithy twist on Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum” or “I think, Therefore I am”. Descartes sought to doubt everything he could until he hit rockbottom and from there he figured he could build on what he was unable to doubt as his foundation. For Descartes this was the fact that “he thinks”, if he thinks then he must exist, if he doubts that he thinks, he still must exist in order to have those doubts (dubito ergo sum).
Van Til’s transcendental argument goes more like, “I think, therefore I AM”. If I think, then the Great “I AM”- Yahweh, the God of the Bible- must exist. Now, of course this is a pun based off Descartes’ system but it sums up Van Til quite well. For Van Til, God is the presupposition that makes sense of logic, science, and morality. Rational thought, predication, knowledge, truth, the uniformity of nature, ethics- everything presupposes God. As quoted above, “self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness”, i.e. I think, therefore I AM.
Van Til goes extremely hard and makes no concession for the unregenerate man when explaining TAG. When dealing with unbelievers, “One shows that on his assumptions all things are meaningless. Science would be impossible; knowledge of anything in any field would be impossible. No fact could be distinguished from any other fact. No law could be said to be law with respect to facts. The whole manipulation of factual experience would be like the idling of a motor that is not in gear. Thus every fact- not some facts- every fact clearly and not probably proves the truth of Christian theism. If Christian theism is not true, then nothing is true. Is the God of the Bible satisfied if his servants say anything less?” (The Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, pg. 264). It’s passages like these that have taught me, as James Anderson puts it, “it’s never too early to go full presupp”. Van Til reminds the believer that if God is who He says He is, then of course nothing will make sense without Him, so instead of watering down our claims, we need to present God for who He is.
While I’ve learned a lot from Van Til, and I plan to continue to learn from him the rest of my life, I want to reflect on just three personal applications of TAG that have helped my faith: TAG reminds me to be humble, TAG reminds me that God “Is”, and TAG invites me to ponder.
TAG Reminds Me to Be Humble
As I study theology, philosophy, and apologetics, I’ve found it easier and easier to puff myself up in pride. “I know what a transcendental argument is, I bet Steve doesn’t know that!”. Such a stupid thing to do- yet I still find myself doing it. But as I reflect on Van Til’s TAG, I’m reminded that any thought I’ve ever had presupposes the God of the Bible. God gives me my existence. His thoughts are so above mine, His wisdom is so magnificent, His understanding is so unsearchable. How could I- a creature of the dust- ever puff myself up in the face of God almighty? I’m constantly reminded to take Van Til’s perspective over Descartes’. “I think, therefore I AM” puts me in my proper place. My job isn’t to compare myself to God’s other creatures. I have no business arrogantly jockeying for position amongst other men. I haven’t been made in their image, why would I think they’re the standard to judge myself by? TAG continues to remind me that I’ve been made in God’s image, He is the goal, the standard, and the motive. When it comes to intellectual success, having my thoughts transformed by the renewal of my mind as it’s conformed to Christ’s is all important, and comparing myself to to others is utter vanity.
Another aspect of TAG that reminds me to be humble is it’s implications for the uniformity of nature. Why is the universe uniform? Why is there order? Why does gravity secure me to the earth? How do I know the future will be like the past when if comes to the laws of nature? Well, the uniformity of nature presupposes the existence of God. If God is holding all things together, if He’s made the universe in an orderly way and made us with the capacity to reason and figure out His divine ordering, then I can trust that my next step will be on the concrete sidewalk, and not into a bowl of pudding. I can lay down at night without tying myself to the bed and the bed to the floor because I’m trusting God to not reverse the law of gravity in my sleep. If there is no God, there’s no way to know if the future will be like the past. You might say, “well, the sidewalk wont turn into pudding in the future because no sidewalk ever has before” but that’s begging the question. You’re saying the future will be like the past because the past is like the past. If there were no God, then every step you take is literally a leap of blind faith- you’re assuming the future will be like the past with no justification. If God exists, then we can be justified in trusting that the future will be like the past because God has promised to continue the times and seasons until the consummation of all things. God is holding all things together for His glory and our good.
When I keep this in mind, how could I have any thoughts of effrontery? My every step depends on the Lord. My every thought presupposes His existence. When my thoughts are properly oriented, there’s no room for any thoughts but humble ones.
TAG Reminds Me that God “Is”
Van Til’s TAG serves as a safety rack for my thinking. Every time an anti-theistic argument starts getting a little too heavy I remember I have two crash bars on either side of me to protect from collapsing. As Van Til says, “Christianity is the only reasonable position to hold. It is not merely as reasonable a other positions, or a bit more reasonable than other positions; it alone is the natural and reasonable position for man to take.” (ibid., pg. 255). And why is the Christian position the only reasonable position? Because even “antitheism presupposes theism” (A Suvey of Christian Epistemology, pg. xii). For an atheistic or outright anti-theistic argument to have any force, they must tacitly presuppose the existence of God. When they charge the Bible with being evil, they’re presupposing an ultimate standard of good by which to judge. When they Charge Christians with being illogical, they’re presupposing universal, immaterial, and necessary laws of logic. When they say that Christianity is unscientific, they’re presupposing a uniformity of nature that only makes sense in a metaphysic wholly different from their own. These things make sense if the God of the Bible exists, they don’t if He doesn’t.
TAG reminds me to check the foundations. I don’t have to be afraid of opposition to Christianity; if it is the truth- which I wholeheartedly believe it is- then in some way every argument against Christianity will need to steal truth from it in order for it to make sense at all.
In order for human thought and speech to make sense, predication must work. We can’t think without being able to say “this is this”, “this is that”, or “this is not that”. But does predication presuppose God? Van Til answers, “Theism holds that all predication presupposes the existence of God as a self-conscious being, while anti-theism holds that predication is possible without any reference to God. This at once give to the terms “is” and “is not” quite different connotations. For the anti-theist these terms play against the background of bare possibility. Hence “is” and “is not” may very well be reversed. The anti-theist has, in effect, denied the very law of contradiction, inasmuch as the law of contradiction, to operate at all, must have its foundation in God.” ( The Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, pg. 292). If Van Til’s contention stands, if logic and predication presuppose God, then even a statement like “God is not real” presupposes God’s existence.
TAG Invites Me to Ponder
When I reflect on the implications of Van TIl’s TAG, all my gears start turning. If predication presupposes God, then there are thousands of examples I could use in an argument for God’s existence. “Logan is a dog” could be a proof for God! TAG invites me to be creative in my presentation of God as the necessary precondition of intelligibility. The late Dr. Greg Bahnsen nailed this point when he talked about the “toothpaste proof for the existence of God”. The implication being that if you wake up in the morning and squeeze the tube of toothpaste and expect toothpaste to come out, then the God of the Bible- whom the uniformity of nature, along with all of human thought presupposes- must exist.
God is creative and wonderful. He’s revealing Himself everyday from moment to moment in the things He’s created- including us, His image bearers. Van Til’s TAG provides the proper framework to view the world as it truly is. Nothing is merely itself in and of itself, everything is what it is because God is.
When we look at reality correctly, everything presupposes God. The implications of TAG are manifold.