i Think, Therefore “I AM”: Van Til’s TAG

“According to the principle of Protestantism, man’s consciousness of self and of objects presupposes for their intelligibility the consciousness of God. In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final reference point in interpretation. The Protestant principle finds this in the self-contained ontological Trinity. By his counsel the triune God controls whatsoever comes to pass. If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate final reference point in human interpretation.”
-Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, pg. 97

If the above quote confuses you, fear not! I’ll be spending the rest of this post trying to flesh out it’s implications and clarify what Van Til means. I chose to write this post after somewhat of a skirmish in an apologetics Facebook group concerning Van Til’s apologetic method and how we should state it. Some people think we should state it as “I think, therefore I AM” and others think it should be some version of “The Lord is thee I AM, therefore I think”. I’m under the impression that both work well in conveying our dependence on God, but the former is more effective in conveying the thrust of Van Til’s apologetic.

For my readers’ sake, I’ve decided to give some historical background to the phrase “i think, therefore I AM”, both it’s philosophical roots and the biblical origin of “I AM”. My end goal is to defend the formulation “i think, therefore I AM” and provide a helpful exposition of Van Til’s Transcendental-Presuppositional apologetic method. I know I’ve already risked losing some of my readers with that philosophical jargon but bare with me, it’ll all be explained.

Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am) – Descartes’ Dictum
The phrase, “I think, therefore I am” has become famous through the teachings of the rationalist French philosopher, René Descartes, as well as the popular ‘80s movie, Bladerunner. As a rationalist, Descartes was skeptical about sense experience due to it’s lack of certainty- our senses can always deceive us after all. So Descartes sought to doubt everything he could until he hit rock bottom: certainty! Descartes finally achieved cognitive rest with his phrase “I think, therefore I am”- for doubt though he tried, he felt he couldn’t consistently doubt his own existence.

In his Principles of Philosophy, we find one of Descartes’ clearest expositions of his dictum,

As long as we are doubting, we cannot doubt that we exist; and this is the first thing we know when philosophizing methodically. Thus by rejecting all those things that we can in any way doubt and even pretending that they are false, we easily suppose that there is no God, that there are no heavens or bodies, and that we ourselves have no hands or feet, nor indeed any body at all – but not, however, in such a way that we, who think these thoughts, are nothing. For it is impossible for us to think that whatever thinks does not exist during the very time that it thinks. Therefore [despite the most extravagant assumptions, we cannot prevent ourselves from believing that this inference] this knowledge, ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’, is the foremost and most certain that occurs to anyone who philosophizes methodically.” (Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, Penguin Classics, pg. 113-114)

Here we see that Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum depends on a similar phrase, “dubito, ergo sum”, or “I doubt, therefore I am”. For if Descartes doubts that he thinks, he still has to think, and if he thinks then he exists.

Some have argued that by this same reasoning, one could say “I stink, therefore I am” along with other hilarious examples. But these criticisms miss Descartes’ rationalistic emphasis. For Descartes, sense experience can always be deceived, thus I stink, therefore I am can always be subjected to doubt. Similarly, Descartes says that to say “I see” or “I walk, therefore I am” can also be doubted since we often have dreams where we are walking or seeing things but we aren’t actually seeing or walking. But, even if we’re being deceived by a demon in all our thinking, we are still thinking, thus we still exist.

Some have found an overwhelming similarity between Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum and Augustine’s si falor, sum. Augustine spilled lots of ink refuting the skeptics of his day. His chief skeptical opponents were, ironically, the Academics or Academicians, i.e., those who studied in Plato’s Academy. This is ironic because Plato spent much of his time refuting the Sophists and Skeptics of his own day, only to have his own school turn towards skepticism itself.

In responding to the Academicians, Augustine says, “Where these truths are concerned I fear none of the arguments of the Academicians when they say: “What if you’re in error [concerning your existence]?” If I’m in error, I exist [si fallor, sum]. Someone who doesn’t exist surely can’t be in error! In light of this fact, I exist if I’m in error. Therefore, since I exist if I’m in error, how can I be in error about my existing, when it’s certain that I exist if I’m in error? Because I would have to exist if I were in error, then, even if I were in error, I am therefore undoubtedly not in error about knowing that I know. For just as I know that I exist, so too I know this very fact – that I know it.” (The City of God 11 .26, in Against the Academicians and The Teacher, Hackett, pg. 162).

I admit that I’m swayed by those who think Descartes straight up ripped off Augustine with not even so much as a footnote giving credit. But whereas Augustine used this line of reasoning as a refutation of skepticism concerning the self, Descartes used it as his bedrock foundation for building an entire epistemology, and indeed his entire philosophy. Whereas Augustine was firm in his allegiance to God, Descartes found it easy to “suppose there is no God”- a sentiment that Van Til most vehemently opposed. Indeed, Descartes’ own contemporaries found this troubling, as Pascal is attributed with saying, “I cannot forgive Descartes: in his whole philosophy he would like to do without God; but he could not help allowing him a flick of the fingers to set the world in motion; after that he had no more use for God.” (Pensées, Penguin Classics, pg. 330). But, I digress.

Now that we have a firm grasp on the origin of “I think, therefore I am”, we can move on to the roots of the “I AM” in the version of the saying that I want to defend.

The capitalization of “I AM” comes from one of the most famous instances of God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. In the third chapter of Exodus, God tells Moses that He’s heard the cries of the people of Israel and He’s going to use Moses to free the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt under Pharaoh. But Moses is afraid and says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”. God reassures Moses that He will be with him. Then Moses asks God to tell him His name in case the Israelites doubt that he has really been sent from the God of their ancestors. It’s here that God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” (Exodus 3:14).

Man, I love that! But what does it mean? Lots of people mistake the “I AM” (אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, ‘eh-yeh) in Exodus 3:14 with the Tetragrammaton, which is the Hebrew name of God transliterated as YHWH (pronounced Yahweh). As a quick aside, Tetragrammaton simply means tetra: four, and gramma: letter, so four letters: YHWH. While these two words are different, it’s easy to get them mistaken since it’s only a verse later where the Tetragrammaton shows up,

“14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD (Yah-weh,YHWH, יְהוָ֞ה, Tetragrammaton) the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (ibid.)

So what’s the connection between ‘eh-yeh and Yah-weh? The ESV Study Bible note to Exodus 3:14 suggests that they both represent forms of the verb “hayah”, “to be” (pg. 149). Similarly, John Calvin suggests that ‘eh-yeh is in the future tense, meaning “I will be what I will be”. And “…immediately afterwards, contrary to grammatical usage, [God] used the same verb in the first person as a substantive, annexing it to a verb in the third person..” (Calvin’s Commentaries v.II pg. 73). Biblical theologian, Geerhardus Vos, agrees with Calvin when he writes that “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh… is abbreviated to Ehyeh and finally turned from the first into the third person Yahweh.” (Biblical Theology, pg.117). Though he’s skeptical that their origin is to be found in the verb hayah, contra Louis Berkhof (c.f. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pg. 49).

So what is God’s point in saying “I AM WHO I AM”? The answer is contested today. There are those who would suggest ontological implications and there are others who want to stay within the immediate context so as to avoid eisegesis, opting rather for covenantal implications. Matthew Henry, fitting nicely into the ontological camp, suggests 4 possible meanings:

1. That God is self-existent (aseity)
2. That God is eternal and unchangeable (immutability)
3. That we cannot search God out (Incomprehensibility)
4. That God is faithful and true to all his promises
(Matthew Henry’s Commentary v. I, Revell, pg. 284)

In the same vein, Calvin says, “This is very plain, that God attributes to himself alone divine glory, because he is self-existent and therefore eternal; and thus gives being and existence to every creature. Nor does he predicate of himself anything common, or shared by others; but he claims for himself eternity as peculiar to God alone, in order that he may be honored according to his dignity.” (Calvin’s Commentary II, pg. 73).

But those in the more modern camp have suggested that “the main focus of this passage is on the Lord’s promise to be with Moses and his people.” (ESV SB footnote, pg. 149). Similarly, Berkhof says, “The meaning is explained in Ex.3:14, which is rendered “I am that I am,” or “I shall be what I shall be.” Thus interpreted, the name points to the unchangeableness of God. Yet it is not so much the unchangeableness of His essential Being that is in view, as the unchangeableness of His relation to His people.” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pg. 49).

I think the split on this point into two camps (at least two) is unnecessary. As Vos notes, “…being determined from within, and not subject to change within, He is not subject to change at all, particularly not subject to it in relation to His people.” (Biblical Theology, pg. 119). Thus, it is because of the unchangeableness of His essential Being, his ontology, his aseity, that His people can trust Him to be faithful to His Word. I find it equally possible that God is both revealing essential truths about His ontology as well as the surety of His promise to be with Moses and the Israelites.

Doubtless there is more to be said about this matter, but I’ve gone on long enough!

i Think, Therefore “I AM” – Van Til’s Transcendental Methodology
We finally return to the opening quote from Van Til, “… man’s consciousness of self and of objects presupposes for their intelligibility the consciousness of God.” Elsewhere, Van Til states the same truth even more succinctly, “For man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness.” (The Defense of The Faith, 4th ed., pg. 113). This is the major thrust of Van Til’s transcendental argument in a single sentence!

Let’s take a quick excursus to define a transcendental argument. Transcendental arguments get their name from philosopher Immanuel Kant- though he called them transcendental deductions, rather than arguments. In a transcendental argument you take a given of human experience, and you try to find out what must be true given the given. So if you have some incontrovertible element of human experience, let’s call it “X”, what must be true given X? Well Y is a precondition of X such that in order for X to be, Y must exist.

While Kant made the word “transcendental” famous, people have traced this type of argument all the way back through the history of philosophy. Think back to Augustine’s Si fallor, sum. This can be thought of as a negative transcendental argument (from here on “TA”).

1. I’m mistaken about my thought that I exist.
2. Being mistaken presupposes thinking.
3. A precondition of thinking is existence.
4. I can’t be mistaken about my thought that I exist. (From 2 and 3)
I exist.

Van Til was not shy about his endorsement of TAs. According to him, “A truly transcendent God and a transcendental method go hand in hand.” (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, pg. 11). And put even more blatantly, “..the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument.” (ibid.) Van Til also gives us a very clear and concise definition of a TA just one page before that last quote, “A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which is wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is.” (ibid. pg. 10). Given Van Til’s definition, we can see why he’d say “For man self-consciousness presupposes God-consciousness”. If man is to be self-conscious then He must be conscious of God, since God is a necessary precondition of consciousness, man is self-conscious, therefore God must exist. This form is completely in line with the title of this post: i think, therefore “I AM”. If I think, then the Great I AM, the Creator of the Universe, must exist.

But what of the charge that we ought to switch the order? That the I AM must go first. Well, as I’ve stated above, I think that one works too, I just don’t think it’s the best way to convey Van Til’s point. Though, Van Til himself did put “I AM” first in at least one of his works, “For Descartes’ formula, “I think, therefore I am,” we now substitute, “God thinks, therefore I am.” The actuality of God’s existence is the presupposition of the intelligibility of the concepts of possibility and probability.” (Christian Theistic Evidences, 2nd ed., pg. 78).

Well, then it’s settled, right? How could I still argue my point if the man himself disagrees? There are a few ways I can respond here. I might respond that this quote comes from Van Til’s Christian Theistic Evidences syllabus which was there first course he taught at Westminster Theological Seminary back in 1937. I might say it represents his less-than-mature thought. But I don’t think that discrediting one of my heroes is the way to go. We don’t need less Van Til to shed light on this topic, we need more Van Til!

I think Van Til’s twist on Descartes in Christian Theistic Evidences was really just a one-off pithy expression. He wasn’t even talking about Descartes in the section that the quote comes from, he was talking about Idealism.

Against the claim that “to start with ‘i think’ is a man-centered way to formulate it”, we can go directly to Calvin and Van Til. When speaking of our human knowledge, Calvin says, “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” (Institutes, Hendrickson, pg. 4). So, at least for Calvin it’s not so clear whether we start with knowledge of God or of self. Especially since we’re made in God’s image. Though he does go on to say, “Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him” (ibid.). Which might indicate that Calvin did believe we come to knowledge of ourselves first which immediately drives us to knowledge of God.

Following Calvin who elsewhere spoke of “proximate” and “remote” causes concerning God’s relation to man’s sin, Van Til spoke of “proximate” and “Ultimate” starting points. Though he says, “I do not think there is any essential difference between Calvin’s usage of the word “remote” and my usage of the word “ultimate”. (Defense, 4th ed., 243).

For Van Til, one has to start with knowledge of self as a proximate starting point, but never an ultimate starting point.

“As a help to clarification of the subject we may perhaps suggest a distinction between an immediate and an ultimate starting point. By an immediate starting point is meant the place where knowledge of facts must begin. It is of course quite consistent with a theistic position to say that we must start with the ‘facts’ as that term is understood ordinarily. Neither Augustine nor Calvin would have objected to saying that knowledge of self was their immediate and temporary starting point. But when the question of an ultimate starting point is raised the matter is different. In that case Augustine and Calvin would both have to say that their ultimate starting point is God. That is, they could intelligently think of their own non-existence but were unable to think intelligently of God’s non-existence” (A Survey of Christian Epistemology, pg. 120)

“We are willing to start with any fact as a proximate starting point, but refuse to admit before the investigation has begun that there can be no such fact as God.” (ibid., pg. 202)

“The very conviction that there is not a single fact that can really be known unless it is interpreted theistically gives us this liberty to start anywhere, as far as a proximate starting point is concerned.” (ibid., pg. 204)

“We may start our process of acquiring knowledge and of discussing whether we have true knowledge of any ‘fact’. But this is only the immediate or proximate starting point. The real difficulty begins with the question of ultimate starting point.” (ibid., pg. 130)

“The basic contention of Christian theism with respect to the self is that God is the ultimate subject of Knowledge.”
(ibid., pg. 133)

“According to the principle of Protestantism, man’s consciousness of self and of objects presupposes for their intelligibility the consciousness of God. In asserting this we are not thinking of psychological and temporal priority. We are thinking only of the question as to what is the final reference point in interpretation. The Protestant principle finds this in the self-contained ontological Trinity. By his counsel the triune God controls whatsoever comes to pass. If then the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting point, it remains true that God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate final reference point in human interpretation.” (Christian Apologetics, pg. 97)

“If we begin the course of spiral reasoning at any point in the finite universe, as we must because that is the proximate starting point of all reasoning, we can call the method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method.” (ibid., pg. 201)

So it’s clear at this point that Van Til believed that the transcendental method involved starting with any point of human experience as a proximate starting point and showing that it’s ultimate starting point, it’s ultimate reference is the Ontological Trinity. God is the ultimate presupposition of intelligibility; If we are to think, then God exists. This is what is mean when we say, contra Descartes, i think, therefore “I AM”.

“i think” is our proximate starting point.

“I AM” is the Ultimate starting point.

Van Til further drives this point home (as if the quotes above weren’t enough) in his diving board analogy. We are like someone standing on the tip of a diving board. If we look down we might only see the end of the diving board beneath our feet (proximate, i think). But if we were to turn around and look back on the rest of the board, we’d see that it’s real/permanent or ultimate starting point is it’s connection to it’s base and it’s connection to the ground (Ultimate, “I AM”) (Survey, 120).

So Van Til’s problem with the antitheistic tradition is not that they start with human experience. Rather, “The great difference may be expressed by saying that Augustine, Calvin and others of the most consistent theists have taken the human self and reasoned from it as from a proximate starting point, while Descartes and the whole antitheistic tradition in general has reasoned from the self as from an ultimate starting point.” (ibid., pg. 132). Descartes, Plato, Kant, and all the other “greats” start and stop with the self as both proximate and ultimate stating points. Christians start with ourselves as proximate and reason transcendentally to the Ontological Trinitarian God of Scripture as our ultimate starting point, i.e. if I think, then He is.

Can the Transcendental Argument for God actually be argued?
With that last horse thoroughly beaten, let’s close out this post by seeing if Van Til’s Transcendental Method can be formulated successfully. Over the years there’s been lots of criticism of TAs in general and Van Til’s TA for God (TAG) in particular. In order to give a detailed account of even a few of the major criticisms of TAs and TAG I’d need a lot more blog posts- maybe I’ll take up that task in the future. But for now we’ll consider one criticism of TAs and one criticism of TAG.

One of the most important criticisms leveled against TAs in general comes from Barry Stroud. Stroud’s major contention is that even if TAs are sound, they only work in proving that human minds think a certain way, they don’t prove anything about the way the world really is. Stroud’s argument has served to deflate many a TA proponent’s metaphysical ballon. If one were to posit some sort of philosophy like Idealism, where everything is ultimately “mind”, then they could successfully pass through Stroud’s argument unscathed. It doesn’t matter for the Idealist if TAs only have conceptual conclusions because everything to them is conceptual anyways. Idealism, however, is not as prominent as it once was, and for those of us who aren’t Idealists and who don’t think Idealism is a tenable option, the problem seems to stand.

In response to Stroud’s argument against “world-directed” TAs, that is TAs that seek to establish metaphysical conclusions, the Christian proponent of TAG can respond in at least two ways. The first way to respond is to agree with Stroud’s conclusion but not his implications. Ok, so what if we can only establish conceptual or epistemological conclusions? If TAG establishes, not that God exists, but only that you must believe that God exists, part of you affirming the conclusion of TAG is that you actually believe that God exists. If you’re forced to believe that God exists, then you must believe that God exists- you’re not forced to think that He exists but able to think that He actually doesn’t exist. To this blogger, that still seems like a major loss for the non-believer.

A second way to respond to Stroud’s conclusion is to distinguish TAG from TAs in general. TAs in general seek to establish brute facts- facts like “I exist”. One of the reasons that Stroud’s critique works so well is because of the weakness of brute facts. An isolated brute fact isn’t rich enough to establish metaphysical claims- indeed, a brute fact is a mute fact. In Vantillian terms, if you start with yourself as a proximate reference point and end with yourself as an ultimate reference point, how could you expect your conclusion to be anything other than merely conceptual? Starting and ending with yourself as proximate and ultimate, then trying to reach a metaphysical brute fact is a great way to feel the force of Stroud’s argument.

Van Til’s TAG, on the other hand, seeks not to establish one brute fact like “there is an objective reality” or that “I exist”. TAG seeks to establish the Ontological Trinitarian God of Christianity as revealed in the Bible. That God is the God of a worldview that can furnish the metaphysical implications we seek. This is the God that makes sense of the laws of logic, the uniformity of nature, the apprehension and application of logical laws by persons in time and space, and even the moral underpinnings of logical inference like “you ought to believe the truth”.

So the problem with TAs in general then, is not inherent in the transcendental method itself, the problem is in the self-referential way that TAs are used to establish impotent brute facts. They’re presuppositions aren’t rich enough. The God of the Christian worldview, in TAG’s case, is seen to be the necessary precondition of all intelligibility, such that if He’s not presupposed then we can’t make sense of anything.

Having dealt with one objection against TAs in general, we can now move on to a one major objection against TAG specifically: “Proponents of TAG talk a big game, but never actually demonstrate it.” I’m not sure how I feel about this objection. On the one hand, I understand it. Van Til seems to have asserted the transcendental method rather than actually putting it forth as an argument. And even if he did set it out as argument here or there, he definitely spent a majority of his time asserting rather than arguing. On the other hand, I think it’s been demonstrated lots of times and in lots of different ways by guys like Greg Bahnsen, James Anderson and Greg Welty, Matt Slick, Sye Ten Bruggencate, Don Collett, B.A. Bosserman, Michael Butler, and others. I’ve also tried my hand at different formulations of TAG Here, Here, Here, and Here to list a few.

While there are lots of different ways we can twist and contort Descartes’ famous dictum, I’ve demonstrated that the best way to formulate it, concerning Van Til’s apologetic method, is to use our knowledge of self as a proximate starting point, “i think”, and then use the classic all caps “I AM” to represent God as our ultimate starting point. Thus, i think, therefore “I AM”.


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