The Transcendental Argument, Ultimate Presupposition – Gordon Clark / Cornelius Van Til Differences

Gordon Clark and Cornelius Van Til are two of the biggest names in the realm of presuppositional apologetics. There is a lot of both agreement and disagreement between the two sides. So far, the videos I’ve made have leaned towards the Van Til side, both because Greg Bahnsen—who is arguably a better defender of Van Til than Van Til himself—is a gifted teacher and debater, and because I myself am still learning the exact differences. Although some people have said that I actually lean towards the Van Til side, I think that I technically lean more towards the Clark side.

The purpose of this series is to help clarify the differences between the two sides. I’ll try to be as fair as possible, although I’m happy to be corrected if I say anything that’s wrong. As much as possible, I’ll use quotes from people who know more about Clark and Van Til than I do.

First topic: the Transcendental Argument. I’ve actually already made a video about the Transcendental Argument, but I’m starting to reconsider my exact view of it. First, what is it?

This is how Bahnsen summarizes it: “I suggest we can prove the existence of God from the impossibility of the contrary. The transcendental proof for God’s existence is that without Him it is impossible to prove anything.” In other words, Bahnsen also writes that every person, both believer and critic, must “recognize the subordination of all thinking to God’s Word because it is our absolute, transcendental presupposition that makes intelligibility, thinking, evaluating, and meaning possible.”

How does Clark differ from Van Til regarding this?

Doug Douma writes this:

“Clark argues against all known world views which compete against Christianity, not all possible world views. The latter is impossible since an infinite number of world views could be offered, some just minor variations of Christianity. We have to take the Bible as our axiom.”

So, it seems that the precise difference between Bahnsen and Clark in this area is pretty subtle, but it might be this: 

  • Bahnsen’s starting point is that Scripture is the necessary foundation for intelligibility and that this assertion can be demonstrated, whereas Clark’s starting point is more simply that Scripture is true.
  • Of course, Clark’s starting point teaches that Scripture is the necessary foundation for intelligibility. However, since there are an infinite number of possible and unknown worldviews, it’s logically impossible to demonstrate, as a “proof,” that no other possible or unknown worldview could theoretically also make intelligibility possible.
  • I think Clark would say that if Scripture is true, we should believe and assume that all non-Scriptural worldviews will fail, and we should demonstrate how all of the worldviews that are known fail. But, again, we can’t demonstrate the failure of all possible and unknown worldviews.

I think one Van Tillian response to this is that Scripture, which is our ultimate presupposition, teaches that there are only two worldviews, Christian and non-Christian, and that it’s the Triune God that makes intelligibility possible.

The Clarkian response to this might be that this isn’t how Bahnsen uses the Transcendental Argument. He justifies his contention that non-Christian worldviews fail to provide a foundation for intelligibility on a case-by-case basis—he explains why materialism fails, why dualism fails, why non-theistic religions fail, and why the known theistic religions fail.

In fact, Bahnsen’s argumentation looks very similar to Clark’s reductio ad absurdum apologetic method. They both step into non-Christian worldview and demonstrate how they fail by being internally inconsistent.

Again, the difference seems to be that Bahnsen would say that it’s possible to demonstrate that all non-Christian worldviews—including all possible and unknown worldview—fail because of what Scripture teaches. Clark, on the other hand, would probably say that that’s, logically, an impossible endeavor—however, at the same time, since Scripture is our ultimate presupposition and axiom, we should believe, assume, and demonstrate that all existing non-Christian worldviews fail.

So again, it seems that Clark’s ultimate presupposition is that Scripture is true, whereas Bahnsen’s ultimate presupposition is that the truth of Scripture demonstrates the failure of all non-Christian worldviews. While Clark would probably agree that Scripture teaches and implies the failure of all non-Christian worldviews, Clark would probably say that Bahnsen’s ultimate presupposition is not capable of demonstrating what it claims to be able to demonstrate.

So that’s my best attempt to summarize the difference between Clark and Van Til concerning the Transcendental Argument. If you think I’ve missed anything, let me know your thoughts.

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