Friday, October 24, 2014

The Transcendent and The Transcendental

Transcendent and transcendental are two theological terms that can be easily confused. The best way to understand the difference is to understand the respective meaning of the terms, and perhaps even more importantly, how they relate to one another.

When we say that something is transcendent we are saying that it is beyond the limitations and ordinary range of human experience. We are referring to a state of being that is above and beyond the normal limitations of the material universe. God is a transcendent being, which means that God extends beyond the limitations and ordinary range of human experience and the material universe.

John Frame writes, "The concept of transcendence builds on biblical texts that describe God as "most High" (Gen. 14:18-22; Deut. 32:8) or "high and lifted up (Isa. 6:1)." [Frame, Systematic Theology, 39] We don't hear much about God's transcendence in American Pop-Christianity. Nevertheless, the only philosophically defensible version of Christian is the one expressed in Scripture. American culture has hi-jacked Christianity and transformed it into a man-centered psychological mechanism designed to serve the urges, whims, and desires of greedy, materialistic Americans. To be sure, American culture is not alone. Christianity has always been subject to the perversions of every culture in which it finds itself. Yet, it cannot be over-emphasized that Christian apologists must seek to defend the particular God of biblical Christianity in particular. The particular God of Christian theism is the absolute God who transcends space and time. This God can only be defended using a very specific method if we are to avoid proving that God is nothing more than the pagan finite god of the Greek philosophers.

It is easy to confuse the transcendent with the transcendental. When we say that something is transcendental we are usually referring to a concept in philosophy. Transcendentalism is a system of philosophy that emphasizes the spiritual and the intuitive above the empirical and the material and even perhaps the rational. For the purpose of this project, transcendental refers to a very specific method for arriving at truth claims. “One of the rhetorical effects of a faithfully executed apologetic is that the unbeliever proves to indirectly affirm the truth of the Christian worldview as he relies on induction, logic, predication, and other tools to construct a position that so thoroughly undermines them.”[1] 
It is the nature of the transcendental argument to indirectly prove that the unbeliever’s inductive and/or deductive approach actually destroys itself by showing that the very foundations for his epistemology are unintelligible and self-refuting of the ultimate commitments necessary for his own conceptual scheme. In other words, his later beliefs refute his earlier or more basic beliefs. 

The inductive method begins with the supposed brute facts of the universe and from those facts moves through a series of arguments to a particular conclusion. The inductive approach seeks to provide conclusions that are highly probable. The degree of probability is in direct correlation to the strength of the evidence supporting the claims. Contrary to induction, the deductive method seeks to provide rational certainty about specific claims. Provided an argument is valid, that is to say that if the conclusion follows logically from the premises, and provided that the premises are true, it follows that a deductive argument is sound and certain.

Van Til would take strong exception to Christian apologists using either method. Both methods rely solely on the natural man’s ability to organize brute facts in the universe and reason correctly about those facts apart from and independent of God. The Christian apologist, precisely because he is defending the claim that there is an absolute, self-contained, transcendent God, cannot possibly rely on induction and deduction to argue for such a God. The very transcendent nature of God requires a very different method if it is to be faithful to the God it seeks to announce and defend.

“But we realize even more clearly and definitively the distinctiveness of transcendental arguments when we contrast their logical character (that is, the truth-functional relation of their conclusions to their premise) with that of rational and empirical arguments.”[2] 
The transcendental argument for God then begins with uncontroversial aspects of human experience, such as morality, or love for instance, and claims that the existence of the Christian God is the necessary precondition of those experiences. TAG asks what has to be the case in order for x to be the case? The argument form basically says that for x to be the case y has to be the case because y is the necessary precondition for x.[3] 
The transcendental argument then explores what else has to be the case since human rationality is the case.

[1] B. A. Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 93.
[2] Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til's Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&​r Publishing, 1998), 501.
[3] See Michael Butler’s paper, The Transcendental Argument for God’s Existence.

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