I recently had a short dialogue with Doug Douma, author of The Presbyterian Philosopher: The Authorized Biography of Gordon H. Clark, concerning Van Til’s Transcendental Argument for God. Doug is a “Clarkian” and I am a “Vantillian” yet we were able to have a friendly disagreement.
If you know anything about the Clark/Van Til controversy, you know that friendly conversations don’t always happen. Both Gordon H. Clark and Cornelius Van Til were brilliant philosophers, Christian apologists, and they were both calvinist theologians. Both used an apologetic method called “presuppositionalism”, but they’re approaches definitely differ (either greatly or minutely based on who you ask).
Due to a denominational dispute, along with a disagreement over the incomprehensibility of God, there arose an animosity between the two and it’s only escalated between their followers. Usually, discussions between Clarkians and Vantillians are less like an in-house debate amongst brothers and more like the bitter rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys. But I like Doug, I think he’s a sharp thinker and a first rate historian- I even wrote a positive review for his book. Since we have mutual respect for each other, we can have genuine disagreement in a friendly way. I think the following dialogue can serve as an example of how Clarkians and Vantillians can disagree in a gracious way.
(TAG stands for the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God)
Doug: Is TAG ever noted in the Bible? Did the early church fathers ever use TAG?
Parker: Would you accept TAG if any early church fathers used it? Doesn’t that go against Clark’s epistemology?
Doug: (1) I only ask about the early church fathers as confirming the teachings of the Bible. As they weren’t very good at that at times, I don’t take much credence in what they wrote. But almost all good doctrines as “the faith once delivered” are present in some church father or another.
(2) Accepting something as true because written by the early church fathers would be against Clark’s epistemology.
Any thoughts on my two questions?
Parker: Thanks Doug, yeah I only asked to show a similarity in both of our thoughts, just because the early church father’s said or didn’t say something doesn’t make it true or false. In light of that, I’m not super concerned to find TAG in their writings. Maybe they do use some form of it, but that doesn’t sway me either way, and apparently it wouldn’t sway you either.
Is it noted in the Bible? I think you know that the words “Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God” can not be found in the Bible. Though it might not be expressly set down in Scripture, I think it’s certainly deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom knowledge and understanding. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. The fool says in his heart there is no God.
I think from biblical statements like these you can see that unless you presuppose the existence of the God of the Bible, you’ll be left in foolishness.
Doug: Since I believe the Bible is true, naturally I agree with the Bible when it says “the fool says in his heart there is no God.”
But if there is a logical proof for God, it presumably wouldn’t depend on a prior belief in the Scriptures.
I think a first question to ascertain the answer to is whether TAG is claimed to be a proof or not. Do any of the authors you’ve cited in the OP call it a “proof”?
By the way, I very much appreciate your tone and reasoning. The majority of people in these types of discussions do not seem to be seeking truth, but seeking to win an argument.
Parker: Likewise, brother. I continue to learn from you and appreciate your tone, your work, and your counterpoints.
I don’t believe there is one syllogistic expression of TAG. It’s a family of arguments. Is it a proof? Van Til often called it a proof. I’m not sure, though. I don’t feel confident planting a flag on that yet. Probably depends on how we define proof.
I see it as an argument or maybe a meta-argument, an argument for how we should argue for God. I think Van Til set down the guidelines of Transcendental Christian argumentation, and now those of us who come after figure out different ways to apply it. I think it’s probably most effective as a negative argument against opposing worldviews. (Here I see much in common with Clark’s approach, showing the axioms of secularism- or whatever other non-Christian worldview- result in self-contradiction then exhibiting the internal consistency of the Christian system.)
I’m always interested in the Clarkian view on circular reasoning. I think that’s why you say:
“But if there is a logical proof for God, it presumably wouldn’t depend on a prior belief in the Scriptures.”
I would think, since Clarkian’s believe that logic is deduced from Scripture, all logical demonstrations ultimately presuppose Scripture. What am I missing?
I agree with Van Til’s idea of spiral reasoning. If God is who He says He is, He’s the ultimate reference point for everything, all truth points to Him, turns on Him, presupposes Him- however you want to say it. If that’s the case, all logical arguments or proofs (though I’m not confident with that word as of right now) must presuppose God. So one way to put TAG would be to say that if any argumentation is possible, God must exist, as He alone makes sense of the preconditions of argumentation.
I know you’ve heard all this before man. Hopefully that’s coherent.
Doug: It seems to me that the idea that one could prove Gods existence is contrary to the idea of a sovereign God. That is, God can only be known if He wants to be known. He must reveal himself to us; not have us prove him.
The Bible always assumes God’s existence, but never (as far as I’m aware) seeks to prove his existence.
I would agree with Calvin on the “sensus divinitatus” – that all men have an innate knowledge of God. In that respect, trying to prove God’s existence would be seeking to do so to people who already know God.
These are just some scattered thoughts, and not meant constitute a full argument on my behalf.
But it would seem to me that sin alone wouldn’t account for the rejection of non-believers to the “proofs” for God’s existence. If they were logical proofs wouldn’t they find acceptance by those who are marginally logical? The proofs are attempting to appeal to one’s logical sensibilities are they not?
Proofs of the existence of God, it seems to me also, would not be proving much but a vague concept of God. I know Van Til tries to say that the proof includes the triune-ness of God, but even so that would only prove a generic tri-une God.
Ultimately, belief comes only by the working of the Holy Spirit in us, not forced by logical argumentation. And this belief requires some understanding of the Jesus of the Bible and the Gospel of salvation in Him. TAG does not produce any of such understanding about Christ.
I’m working on a speech for the Geneva Institute in TN this summer. There I’m talking some of Clark’s method. That is, he first argues that we must show the logical contradictions in the alternate views. And we must clear up any misconceptions of Christianity or arguments the person has against it. This then frees one up for the presentation of the Christian view. And it is the Christian view itself — particularly Christ and the Gospel — that must be included so that one might have faith (given by the Holy Spirit) in that necessary object of faith.
Parker: Man, I agree with so much of what you’ve said! Proving God’s existence might be contrary to the idea of a sovereign God if and only if God can only be known if he wants to be know, annnd He has decided not to be known. But we know, from Scripture, that He does want to be known, both from His General revelation in Creation (where we can see at least His Divine Nature and eternal power) and His Special Revelation in the Word. So God is sovereign and wants to be known, though I’d agree He can’t be properly known without His Special Revelation.
I agree that the Bible assumes (presupposes!! 🙂 ) God’s existence. I also agree with Calvin concerning the sensus divinitatus. This is why Van Til says that the job of the apologist is to remove the mask of the unbeliever and expose their suppression. Everyone knows God in a sense, but apart from grace we all suppress the truth in our unrighteousness.
I’m a little baffled by your thought that sin alone wouldn’t account for the non-believer’s rejection of proof for God’s existence. From my understanding of total depravity, men are depraved in every aspect of their being: mind, will, desires, heart etc. So even if their reason is unaffected by sin (though I think it is) their reason isn’t untethered from their will and desires. Their desires guide their will which uses reason to suppress the truth. This is why all of us need the Holy Spirit to regenerate us prior to us choosing Christ. We need a heart of flesh not a heart of stone which previously used our reason to build up strong holds to hide from the gospel.
This is why Van Til uses the analogy of a buzzsaw. While the non-believer might be awfully sharp, their starting point is off, their settings are wrong and so they cut at an angle and ruin their whole project.
I think there are ways to formulate TAG that would end up (if they worked) proving a vague concept of God. Though Van Til says we presuppose the Biblical Triune God and His revelation in Scripture. And not only does our reasoning presuppose the God of Scripture, unbelievers tacitly presuppose the God of Scripture in their attempts to argue against Him. Only if the Biblical worldview is true can we reason, debate, argue, think etc.
So the proof, if it is a proof, for God’s existence is that the Biblical worldview makes sense of even the idea of intelligibility. The non-believer seeks to step off the biblical worldview in order to argue against it, yet in doing so they must tacitly presuppose the truth of the biblical worldview, thus proving the truth of the biblical worldview (in which God is presupposed or as you’ve said “assumed”). So God is proved indirectly, not in the direct way of autonomous thought where God is in the dock and man is the judge. But by the impossibility of the contrary, the fact that you must presuppose the God of Christianity in order to argue at all proves He exists.
Let’s keep this going man I wanna turn it into a blog post for sake of clarity and to show how a Clarkian and Vantillian can have a beneficial dialogue.
Doug: On general revelation I would note this: https://douglasdouma.wordpress.com/2018/05/10/gordon-clarks-view-of-romans-120/
How is concluding the impossibility of the contrary not a judgment itself? How is this conclusion any less autonomous than any other argument’s conclusion?
Parker: If the truth is one, and we believe God’s word is truth, then anything that’s contrary to God’s word is foolishness. The fool says in his heart there is no God, any worldview that doesn’t presuppose the God of the Bible is foolishness. This is either directly based off the Scriptures or at least deduced from it, right? Would Clark say that other worldviews are possibly true?
Doug: Clark disliked many of the ways philosophers used the term probability. I suspect his views there would extend to the use of “possibility.”
I don’t see much value in the term “possibly true.”
Parker: Alright, but if Christianity is true, and it makes exclusive claims to truth, then any system that’s opposed to Christianity can’t be true, right?
Doug: Yes, but then you’re assuming Christianity to be true (per Clark) rather than proving it (per Van Til).
Welcome to the dark side. 🙂
Parker: Lol I’m presupposing Christianity to be true, and saying it’s proved to be true by the fact that in order to try and deny it’s truth you have to tacitly presuppose it’s truth.
Haha I love you dude, this has been helpful for me to get some clarity on Clark and have to consistently think through some more Van Til.