Transcendental Meditation

Scott Oliphint
No, not Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (for Derek and more "seasoned" readers).
A question recently came to me from a reader concerning what Cornelius Van Til called the transcendental method of apologetics. The question was whether or not this method could be explained in "simple terms." This question obviously comes from an educated and informed reader. Whether or not it is a question that other readers might have will likely remain a mystery. However, since I committed to answering questions from readers, I am constrained to respond.

It may surprise many that this aspect of Van Til's apologetic is among the easiest and least technical to explain (but not, necessarily, to apply). Van Til was quite clear on what he meant by the term "transcendental." In order to see the validity of the term and concept, however, a little context might be helpful. Why keep something simple when it can be made complex?

As we have discussed in previous articles, one of the most significant advances during the time of the Reformation was the affirmation of the central and foundational status of Scripture. The problem was not that the medieval church had not previously held Scripture in high regard. It was, rather, that the soteriological implications of what we can know and how we know had not been given their due theological weight. In other words, prior to the Reformation (generally speaking), it was thought that man's reason was not so bad after all; what was needed for salvation was a change of heart, not so much of mind. So, there was thought to be general agreement on what all men could know, and what could be known was thought to be the same for anyone, Christian or not.

In contrast to this, in Reformed thinking, the depravity of the mind, including unregenerate reason, was affirmed. There could not be, therefore, a religiously neutral aspect of our human constitution that was common to both believer and unbeliever. Our thinking, as well as our willing and our doing, were all in opposition to God (cf. Rom. 8:5-7). Reformed Christians sought to make clear that the "light of natural reason" could not be the same for all people, regardless of their spiritual status. Where, then, does a Christian stand in order properly to know, and to think about, the world, himself, etc.? If our reason, in Adam, is depraved, it is not able to provide the solid foundation that is needed for knowledge of ourselves and of everything around us.

So, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the status of Scripture was given its proper place; it was affirmed as principial. This meant, in part, that Scripture's self-attestation was part and parcel of a Reformed doctrine of Scripture. As self-attesting and principial, Scripture's status - its authority and attributes - were not, in the first place, something that could or should be logically demonstrated. That which is foundational, as Scripture was affirmed to be, is itself known immediately and indemonstrably. In other words, we do not come to Scripture's authority as something that is given (mediately) at the end of a syllogism. It carries its authority within itself, and testifies, in and of itself, to that authority.

This emphasis on Scripture's status as principial impacted the entirety of theology, and of the church. One of those impacts included the way in which the so-called "theistic proofs" were understood and applied. Before the Reformation, because the totality of sin's effects on man were, at least, underestimated, it was thought that the best way to prove God's existence was by beginning with commonly held rational or evidential principles. The burden of Christianity, it was thought in this scenario, was that it had to show itself to be reasonable or sufficiently evidential if it were going to be deemed fit or rational to believe.

A couple of centuries after the Reformation, and because of the influence of the Enlightenment, the reasonableness of Christianity was thought to be, not simply an aspect, but a requirement, if someone was going to pass the (assumed) bar of rationality or evidential sufficiency in believing the Christian faith. That which could not be rationally or evidentially proven, so it was thought, could not be rationally held. It was the burden of the Christian, so we were told, to show his beliefs to be rational or evidentially sound. This Enlightenment emphasis has remained, in some quarters, to the present day. Many responses, therefore, in light of this obligation of reasonableness, or of evidential sufficiency, have been attempts to demonstrate that our belief in Scripture's authority, or in the existence of God, meets the demands of rationality or evidential sufficiency (even though such demands have never been universally agreed upon, but that's a topic for another time).

When affirming the principial status of Scripture, however, Reformed Christians were also affirming that something had to be the immediate and indemonstrable ground, the absolute foundation, upon which everything else could be known or understood (this notion of a principial ground, by the way, was not invented by the Reformers; it goes back at least to Aristotle). But this kind of foundational affirmation was not intended to cease all discussion, as if it could only be asserted but never argued. One of the ways in which one's affirmation of Scripture's immediate ground is argued is by showing what follows when Scripture is affirmed in this way. Another way is by showing what follows when Scripture is not affirmed as the foundation. In other words, it is not the case that an affirmation of Scripture as our principial foundation destroys arguments altogether, leaving us only with a shouting match of principial foundations. Rather, given this foundational status, arguments can be presented that work through both the positive benefits of Scripture as foundation, and the negative implications of denying its foundational status.

For this reason, primarily, during the period of the Reformation, the theistic proofs were wrenched from their theologically weak medieval context and were transplanted into the Reformed context, in which the existence of God and the authority of Scripture were affirmed to be the two basic principles of a Reformed view of theology. Once transplanted, the theistic proofs served more as rhetorical or persuasive arguments, than as logical demonstrations. To assume that we have to demonstrate such things, in a Reformed context, was to deny the principial status of God's existence and Scripture's authority.

"But wait a minute," you rightly protest, "what does this have to do with the original question about transcendental method?" Much in every way.

If we think of the transcendental method as an approach that is designed to show, as Van Til put it, "the impossibility of the contrary," we can begin to see how the Reformed affirmation of that which is immediate and indemonstrable comes to the fore. The word "impossible" in this phrase means, not that someone cannot hold a contrary position, or that someone cannot attempt to live the position that he holds. The notion of "impossible" means, in effect, that "the contrary" position cannot be consistently believed or lived out. By consistency here is meant that the principles and details of the "impossible" position held cannot hold up under their own weight. That is, the "impossible" position is going to be, in every case, self-destructive. The word "contrary" in the phrase simply refers to any position that is contrary to the Christian position.

In other words, and (finally) more simply, the transcendental method, i.e., the impossibility of the contrary, holds that Christianity is true and anything opposing it is false and, in and of itself, self-destructive. This should be obvious to any Christian. Christianity is true. We believe that it is true, but it is true whether we believe it or not. This means also that Christianity is true, even for those who are not Christians. If it is true for those who are not Christians, and those who are not Christians refuse to believe it, then, by definition, those who are not Christians believe and live out that which is false.

But "what is true" and "what is false" does not refer simply to propositions or ideas that we hold in our minds. When we say something is true, we are saying, at least, that it comports with reality. Truth refers to the way the world, and all things in it, actually are. So also, "what is false" refers to an illusion; it does not describe or refer to the way the world really is.

"But," you continue to object, "don't people hold some beliefs and know some things that are true?" This is where it might be useful to see why some who use the term "transcendental" take their cue from Immanuel Kant. Kant set out to argue, against David Hume (the radical empiricist), that it was, in fact, proper to affirm the reality of cause and effect. How did Kant do that? He began by affirming that there was cause and effect. "But wait just another minute," you importunately continue to implore, "you can't argue that there is cause and effect when you start by affirming that there is cause and effect." But this objection assumes that everything that we hold to be rational must first be demonstrated. To hold that, however, is self-refuting; it cannot rationally or evidentially demonstrate its own criterion.

What Kant understood in his argument against Hume is that if you begin with the reality of cause and effect in order to show that reality, you must ask the question as to the pre-conditions for a proper understanding of cause and effect. In other words, Kant's question was something like this, "Given cause and effect, what are the presuppositions behind that fact, and which make it possible?"

The reality of cause and effect, therefore, can be shown (not that Kant was successful in his attempt) if one is able to get to the foundations of that which makes cause and effect possible. Cause and effect, Kant understood from Hume, cannot be demonstrated on an empirical basis. The only way to establish its validity is by exposing universally valid presuppositions that alone can justify our affirmation of it.

As an "impossibility of the contrary" argument, therefore, a Covenantal, Reformed apologetic will be intent to argue, not in terms of the standard notion of proofs, but in terms of rhetorical argument, or persuasion, as its primary mode of discussion. Or, as we said above, with Scripture as the principial foundation for all that we know, the standard proofs, if utilized, take on the character of persuasive arguments, based on Scripture, and not of syllogistic demonstrations.

Now, moving past the more technical, the simple truth that the term "transcendental" communicates is that Christianity alone is true. Whenever we meet up with some position, theory, idea or concept that is opposed to Christianity, we need not be experts in those ideas; all we need to know, initially, is that if it is a non-Christian position, it is, by definition, false. It has the seeds of self-destruction within itself. Patient probing will often times uncover those seeds. Once uncovered, it is important to replace them with the imperishable seed of the Word of God (Luke 8:11; 1 Peter 1:23), which alone will not, because it cannot, self-destruct.

On a more parochial note, I don't think the term "transcendental" in Van Til's own writing, is as central as is sometimes thought. He used the term early on in his career, dropped it for decades, and only picked it up again at the end of his career when he needed to respond to Herman Dooyeweerd (for whom the notion of transcendental was central). The concept behind the term is central in Van Til, but the term itself is just one (technical and philosophical) way to express the fact that Christianity is true, and that a proper way to that truth was by probing the presuppositions that were attached to any and every position. In that way, the concern moves from the method of strict proofs, to the assumptions and ideas that are behind any and every proof. The move, then, is from proofs per se, to persuasion. More on this, perhaps, in later articles.