Tuesday, December 10, 2013

TAG: Dealing with Conceptual Necessity and Ontological Necessity


One of the questions I heard from the audience at the SES debate between Jason Lisle, Richard Howe, and Scott Oliphint had to do with the idea of conceptual necessity and ontological necessity in TAG. The question was directed at Richard Howe. Unfortunately, Howe did not address the question. So I hope to give it a little more treatment here. I only ask that you recognize this is a theologian speaking and not a philosopher. You may want to note that point when you recognize the obvious absence of philosophical jargon in my post.

TAG is a presuppositional apologetic tactic that stands for the Transcendental Argument for God. In my last post I defended TAG over against the classical method and tried to be as brief and as simple as I know how. I am sure I left a lot to be desired from those who are more adept in Christian apologetics. I humbly request that the reader keep in mind that my goal is to reach a broader audience. I want to stimulate and challenge those who are familiar with this field as well as encourage others to become more familiar with this field. Sometimes that task exceeds the skills and limitations of this blogger’s abilities. But I am working on it every week, bit by bit.

One of the most challenging objections to TAG is the fact that conceptual necessity does not require ontological necessity. Michael Butler frames the problem for us: “The challenge is, this, to bridge the gap between having to believe the Christian worldview because it provides the necessary preconditions of experience and showing that the Christian worldview is true.” Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “conceptual scheme.” A conceptual scheme, in this context, is a way or method of organizing our thoughts and experiences in order to make sense of the world. The underlying premise is that good conceptual schemes are subject to rational justification. Therefore, a conceptual scheme that is irrational should be abandoned. While it is true that Christianity, if viewed as a conceptual scheme, is superior, it does not follow that it is necessarily true. It only means that Christianity provides the necessary preconditions for experience. It simply means that Christianity has succeeded in constructing a way to organize our thoughts and experiences that is impervious to the objections and challenges of its competitors. Hence, conceptual necessity says nothing about truthfulness. In other words, conceptual necessity does not necessarily lead to ontological necessity.

The problem with this objection to TAG is that it is a mistake to view Christianity as merely a conceptual scheme. The Christian apologist is not merely interested in providing the unbeliever with the best or even the only conceptual scheme that makes experience intelligible. He is interested in much more than that. He is interested in proclaiming and defending the truth. He is, after all, not a philosopher as much as he is a Christian theologian, and a follower of Christ. He does not seek to wax philosophical, but rather to confront unbelief with the power of the gospel. He knows that only the power of the gospel can effect what he desperately seeks: radical and supernatural change. It is not an argument he seeks to win, but a heart. He does not enter the intellectual parade that so many others do when they have these discussions. Rather, he seeks to persuade men that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. That no man finds God, or the truth, except through Him!

TAG is a powerful argument because it is constructed upon man’s ultimate epistemological authority, God’s Word. It is an argument that is built upon the fact of God and His creation. What many young apologists seek is something that should be of grave concern to the Church. They seek an approach that is, for the most part, philosophy through and through. In fact, William Lane Craig promotes this sort of pursuit. Richard Howe himself did not pursue a theological education. He is educated in philosophy. For many young apologists, this is the preferred way. Martin Luther wrote, “What are the universities, as at present…schools of Greek fashion and heathenish manners, full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith, and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even further than Christ. Now my advice would be that the books of Aristotle, the ‘Physics,’ the ‘Metaphysics,’ ‘Of the Soul,’ and ‘Ethics,’ which have hitherto been considered the best, be altogether abolished, with all others that profess to treat of nature, though nothing can be learned from them, either of natural or spiritual things. Besides, no one has been able to understand his meaning, and much time has been wasted, and many vexed with much useless labor, study, and expense.” [Luther, Three Treatises, 4, 92-93, via, McManis see below]

“Instead of writing in clear, perspicuous, practical, accessible language, they {Christian apologists} opt for specialized oft incomprehensible metaphysical terminology that the average Christian does not understand.” [McManis, Biblical Apologetics, 362-3] Clearly, something has gone wrong in Christian apologetics and we must work hard to correct it. The transcendental argument for God is an appeal to the authority of Scripture. Positively, it contends that we have to take God at His word. Negatively, it subjects all non-Christian worldviews to a vicious, but fair internal critique. It demands that they be able to justify their system without contradictions and inconsistencies.

TAG argues for God from the impossibility of the contrary. “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.” [Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 10] For the Christian, no fact can be what it is, apart from God. Every fact is what it is because God has made it to be what it is. However for the unbeliever, it is a remarkably different story. When we turn the guns of reason on the non-Christian worldview, something very interesting happens. The non-Christian worldview, in all its different versions, is shown to be arbitrary, inconsistent with itself, or entirely lacking the preconditions necessary for the intelligibility of knowledge. {Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic, 513]

I agree wholeheartedly with Clifford McManis when he argues that philosophy has hi-jacked Christian apologetics. This seems profoundly obvious to me. The apologetic mandate of Scripture is given to every single believer. It is within the power of each and every Christian to engage in this practice. It is not reserved for some manufactured office of “apologist,” fabricated by lovers of philosophy. There is no such gift or office, alluded to in Scripture. What is declared in Scripture is that all believers must give a reason for the hope that is in them with gentleness and respect. This begins with the authority of God’s truth, the preaching of the gospel of Christ, and the demolition of every mouth that seeks to subvert God’s truth. That is precisely what TAG seeks to accomplish without compromise.


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