Swimming in the Glorious Deep Blue Sea

Article by   November 2015
Over the past months, we have been looking at some specific, recent objections to a Covenantal (presuppositional) approach to apologetics. In this article, we reach the end of this series on "responses" to objections. There is one final objection to Covenantal apologetics that is offered and that needs to be addressed. In order to address it, it will be necessary to quote it at length. Under the title, "The Insufficiency of the Transcendental Argument," there are two primary objections. The first objection is this:
Presuppositionalists do a good job in showing the need for some kind of transcendental move. However, their reasoning (or lack thereof) that the entire Christian theology is a necessary part of the transcendental condition leaves one unconvinced. For example, one can see how it is necessary to posit a theistic God to account for meaning, truth, and morals. However, there seems to be no logical necessity for positing Trinitarianism. Why would not some form of monotheism do the job? Even if a plurality of persons is shown to be necessary, why three persons? Would not two or four persons in the Godhead do? What about seven, which is a perfect number?[1]
Because the objection is unclear in its notion of a "transcendental move" and its phrase "part of the transcendental condition," It might be helpful first to explain what is typically meant, in a Covenantal approach to apologetics, by a transcendental approach. To put it as simply as possible, it refers to an argument that recognizes and utilizes the notion of the "impossibility of the contrary." And what might that mean? Does it mean, as the objection above states, that "the entire Christian theology is a necessary part of the transcendental condition"?

Whenever concepts such as "necessary" and "impossible" are employed, it is crucial that they be properly defined. One of the more popular ways to define them is in terms of modal semantics. Because "necessity" and "possibility" are modes of existence (or of nonexistence), the terms are sometimes explained in the context of "possible worlds." A possible world is not a thing, but is a possible state of affairs. So, there is a possible world at which everything is just as it is, except that I am scuba diving right now instead of writing this piece. Though that state of affairs (i.e., "world") is possible, it is not actual. There is much more to be said about this, but this should do for now.

In order to put some flesh on the bones of these notions it is going to be important for us to swim into the deep, blue, glorious, sea of Reformed theology. Only with and in that theology can we understand the transcendental approach to apologetics. The term "transcendental" is not necessary to the approach, but the concept, given the theology that undergirds it, is.

The problem with possible worlds and modal semantics is that they never adequately take account of the ultimate source and distinctions required for a Christian account of such modes. The uncritical assumption is that modes such as "necessity" and "possibility" are the same for God as they are for man. But that uncritical assumption is destructive of the notion of necessity, possibility, or any other mode, and for two reasons.

The first reason that necessity and possibility, when typically employed, simply hang in the air, on their own, can be introduced with a question, "Is it possible that God not exist?" To put it in the context of possible worlds (which is a possible state of affairs), we would say, "Is there a possible world at which God does not exist?" The historic, Christian answer to such a question is an emphatic, "No!" There can be no possible world at which God does not exist because God himself exists necessarily. And if God exists necessarily, then any notion of possible worlds must presuppose, not abstract possibility, but actual necessity. In other words, the possible can only properly be defined and understood within the context of the absolute necessity of God, and all that his necessary existence entails.

The second reason that possibility and necessity are empty concepts apart from God's existence is that whatever is necessary with respect to creation is only and always hypothetically necessary, and never absolutely necessary. Only God's existence, and all that his existence entails, are absolutely necessary. Here another definition is required. 

The theological phrase, "hypothetical necessity" is not the most perspicuous. The notion of a "hypothesis" is usually thought to be something tenuous.  But theology uses the term, in this case, according to its etymology. "Hypothesis" comes from hupo, meaning "under," and thesis, meaning "place." So, a "hypothetical necessity" is a necessity with something "placed under" it. That is, it cannot be an "absolute" necessity, because an absolute necessity relates to nothing but itself. Nothing can be "placed under" it. Any hypothetical necessity always has some relative condition attached to it.

When the Triune God -- Father, Son and Spirit -- determined freely to ordain whatsoever comes to pass, all that was ordained -- and there was nothing that came to pass that was not ordained -- became necessary. But that kind of necessity is hypothetical, because it is "placed under" God's free decision to decree. And this distinction requires that we take a deep breath so that we can dive down a little deeper to see better what this hypothetically necessary decree contains.

In the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 5, "On Providence" we have a brilliant and concise exposition of how the working out of God's decree will take place. Section 2 is important for our discussion:
Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.
God's decree guarantees that "all things" will come to pass in exactly the way they were decreed to happen -- that's hypothetical necessity. But notice also that, in the context of this necessity, God's providence falls out "either necessarily, freely, or contingently." Why these three distinctions?

The short answer is because God's revelation requires them. There are intricacies here that can't detain us (for example, what is the relation of that which falls out necessarily in God's providence to the hypothetical necessity of God's decree? Are these two ways of saying the same thing? Two kinds of hypothetical necessity? We'll have to leave that here for now). Here is one way to think about these three categories: When we think of a square, we recognize that it is impossible that it be a circle. Given a square, in other words, there is no possible world at which it could be a circle. It is, in that sense, necessary (Remember that its necessity is hypothetical, it depends on God's decreeing and creating activity. So, its necessity, rather than a constraint on God, is actually decreed by him). God's providence falls out necessarily with respect to squares. It also falls out necessarily with respect to his promises.
So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us (Heb. 6:17-18).
This means that, once God decides to show the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guarantees it with an oath. Given God's character as Truth, and his sworn oath, that which he determines with respect to salvation must happen in exactly the way he has guaranteed it (contra Barth).

So, there is necessity in both general and special revelation. But, as the Confession says, God's providence also falls out "freely." We need not dwell on this here, except to say, with the Confession (9.1), that man's will is "neither forced, nor, by any absolute necessity of nature, determined good, or evil," and thus has the natural ability to choose (even when or if that choice is morally constrained). When we choose something, we do so according to the natural ability of the will, which is the biblical view of freedom.

The third category of the mode of God's providence is that it falls out "contingently." This is just another way of affirming that, within the context of the necessity of what God ordains, some of what he ordains remains contingent. The beauty of this affirmation is its utterly mysterious character. This kind of treasure that we discover in our deep sea dive is so luminous it threatens to blind us. The biblical logic goes like this: even as God's decree and providence fall out immutably and infallibly, there remains real contingency in the historical working out of that providence. So, just to use one example, when Saul disobeyed the Lord, Samuel pronounced the Lord's judgment:
And Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever (1 Sam. 13:13).
In other words, the contingency of Saul's disobedience is recognized. If he had obeyed, the Lord would have established his kingdom forever. This contingency in no way undermines or subverts God's immutable and infallible decree. But we must also recognize that God's immutable and infallible decree in no way undermines or subverts the contingencies of history. The two, though seemingly at odds, require each other in order properly to be understood.

We can now jump out of the deep waters of Reformed theology, towel off, and get back to our original discussion of the transcendental approach. When it is said, above, that "there seems to be no logical necessity for positing Trinitarianism," questions will have to be broached. Logical necessity follows from a state of affairs that "could not be otherwise." The objector asks, "Why would not some form of monotheism do the job? Even if a plurality of persons is shown to be necessary, why three persons? Would not two or four person in the Godhead do?"

Is it the case, we must ask, that, as with God's existence, God's Triunity "could not be otherwise?"  Why wouldn't some form of monotheism do the job? One response to this is because "the job" that is supposed to be done is a defense of Christianity, and a defense of Christianity requires a specific form of monotheism, the Christian form. Would the objector think that the monotheism of Islam would "do the job?" Its form of monotheism is unable to do anything but demonstrate its utter idolatry.

Or we can put it like this: if, as all Christians would agree, God's existence is absolutely necessary, then it cannot be the case that his Triunity is only hypothetically necessary, or that it is contingent. That is, the absolute necessity of God necessarily includes his Triunity, as well as all other of his essential characteristics. So, to answer the objector's questions specifically, no other form of monotheism will do, because any other form is idolatry and utterly false. And there is no possibility that God could be two persons or four because being three persons is absolutely necessary, just as necessary as his existence. To think that it might be possible that God be two or four persons is to adopt a pagan, abstract notion of possibility, rather than seeing God (and his absolute existence) as the ground of any meaningful notion of possibility, or of anything else.

Does this mean, as the objection states, that we must "posit Trinitarianism"? It depends. What it does mean is that our understanding of God's absolute existence is acknowledged through and by his special revelation to us. Since that revelation must be the ground on which we stand in order to defend God's existence, it may be that we will need to "posit Trinitarianism." How else could we explain the very "faith" that we are meant to defend, if the Triune God did not decree and condescend to accomplish his creative and redemptive purposes? And both the decree and condescension require Triunity, apart from which no such things as decree and condescension are possible.
This brings us to the second objection, which is stated this way:
...while it is transcendentally necessary for there to be a revelation from God in order to make sense of the world, what is the logical connection between a canon of 66 books (the Bible) and that conclusion?[2]
Much can be said here, but we can at least point out the basic point of agreement. It is, indeed, transcendentally necessary for there to be a revelation from God in order to make sense of the world. In affirming that, however, don't we need to move from the abstract to the concrete? Don't we need to have an actual revelation from God to which we can point, a revelation with real content and which itself consists of propositional truth? Of course we do, and the Bible is it. So, the "logical connection" between the transcendental necessity of revelation and the Bible is that the Bible, and it alone, is identical with the content of the special revelation that is transcendentally necessary. This doesn't mean, of course, that one must use every book of the Bible, or the entire doctrinal content that flows from it, in order to defend the faith. What it does mean is that one is not allowed to excise any of those books, or any of their content, even as one uses various teachings from it in one's defense. In that sense, then, the 66 books entail the "impossibility of the contrary" in that, unless we have those books, and just those books, we do not have God's revelation as it has been given to the church.

All of this is to say that the transcendental approach requires the two principia of Reformed theology. It requires that we affirm the absolute necessity of God's existence -- and all that is entailed by it, including his Triunity -- and it requires that we affirm the Bible as, in this age, the self-attesting revelation of this God. Without these two principia, there is no possibility of a Christian defense of the faith.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013), 172.

[2] Geisler, "Reviews," 72

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