Please accept my apology in advance for waxing rhetorical for dogmatic and persuasive flavor. I am also paraphrasing Van Til, Bahnsen, and James Anderson from memory as I do not have the time or desire to hunt down all of the exact quotes and respective references. The topic I am addressing often calls credentials into question so I will go ahead and set my own out on the table. Each day I listen to at least an hour and usually more of lectures on presuppositional apologetics in addition to my reading in that area. I have a B.A. in Religion which involved my studying under a Muslim who did his PhD in Islam and is published in that area. I also have formal education in Medieval Islamic philosophy. The experience of having debating a Muslim formally is not a necessary condition of being able to properly address the subject of how to use apologetics in discussion with Islam, but it is helpful as an illustration of how principle and theory actually look in practice. I have debated informally with Muslims but hold off on a formal debate until I have given more time to studying the Quran. To say that I know nothing of covenantal apologetics and their relation to Islam or that I know nothing of Islam is thus not quite right, but I certainly do not consider myself any kind of expert on either. For more on covenantal apologetics I would refer the readers to the writings and lectures of Cornelius Van Til, Greg L. Bahnsen, and K. Scott Oliphint. For excellent examples of apologetics specifically addressing Islam I refer the readers to the work of James R. White, Sam Shamoun, and Acts 17.
Concerns About TAG and Islam
A “Frequently Asked Question” is if – or how – TAG should be employed in the case of Islam. There are generally two main concerns when it comes to using covenantal apologetics and specifically the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG) in the context of the challenge from Islam:
- The concern that TAG only establishes the existence or rational necessity of the classical theistic god or “general theism” (if it even establishes that).
- The concern that while TAG may certainly prove the existence or rational necessity of the specifically Christian God it is unclear as to how this is the case.
The first concern is usually offered by third generation Van Tillians and especially those who for whatever reason are making a case against strictly following the presuppositionalist method of apologetics as perhaps most notably developed and popularized by Van Til and Bahnsen. It is safe to say that both Van Til and Bahnsen explicitly rejected this concern as being a valid one. Van Til addressed or at any rate attempted to address such systems of thought as Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and Liberalism in terms of his covenantal apologetic and transcendental approach. In answer to a question from one of his students as to how Islam should be answered, Van Til said, “the same way.” Bahnsen expresses a similar sentiment in his lectures, writings, and debates. If Van Til and Bahnsen are to be followed here then it must be the case that even Islam may be addressed in debate with TAG whether or not one knows how this works out in theory or actual practice and we can move on to addressing the second concern. On the other hand there are some troubling implications of not following Van Til and Bahnsen here. If TAG only proves general theism then a great many of the objections raised against traditional proofs for God apply to TAG as well. For example – if the “Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas prove the wrong god then TAG does as well. How do we get to the Christian God? How do we get to the Bible as being God’s Word? How do we answer secular and naturalistic transcendental arguments? It appears to me that there are a host of worries with parting ways with Van Til and Bahnsen at this point. Of course, many people have parted ways with Van Til and Bahnsen on this point and have done so knowingly while making explicit their disagreements with the (they will often and rightly note) fallible men. Responding to the aforementioned more radical departures is not my purpose here. Believing that TAG only establishes the existence or rational necessity of the classical theistic god or “general theism” (if it even establishes that) carries with it a long list of implications that I believe result in serious enough inconsistencies as to be worth rejecting along with their source which is the belief in the first concern in question.
The second concern appears to be the more common one and is often view as lending evidential support to the first concern. The second concern is that while TAG may certainly prove the existence or rational necessity of the specifically Christian God it is unclear as to how this is the case. Recall also that this concern is being raised with respect to covenantal apologetics and specifically the Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG) in the context of the challenge from Islam. Hence I will be addressing Islam in particular here using TAG and not other theistic systems of thought. (Note this well before raising the objection that I have not demonstrated in this post that TAG proves the specifically Christian God.)
Two-Step Apologetic Approach
The two-step apologetic approach of the covenant apologist is generally defined in terms of two verses from Proverbs:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Prov 26:4-5 (ESV)
The Muslim unbeliever is not to be answered through allowing the principles of his or her thought to go unquestioned or through accepting them since they are antithetical to the Christian worldview. To attempt to help the Muslim by joining the Muslim in affirming his or her anti-Christian principles is to join the Muslim in attempting to build a worldview apart from what God has revealed to us. The Muslim must be shown that Islam is – according to God – untrue. There are many other things that the Word of God has to say with regard to Islam once we understand where it fits into the Bible’s scheme of categorizing other religious faiths. Additionally we must set forth the Christian worldview in as much of its fullness, truthfulness, beauty, splendor, etc. as possible and with as much clarity as we can muster. Since we are finite creatures and thus by nature are limited to talking about only one topic at a time we must be wise in our words and address those concerns which are preeminent in the present unbeliever’s thoughts. The discussion might therefore take an almost purely theological route or it might be rather existential in nature (these are only two examples and it will always be implicitly if not explicitly theological in nature). Most likely the conversation with a Muslim will be rigorously exegetical and otherwise theological as the topics of the person and work of Christ as well as the mystery of the Trinity are explained from the pages of Scripture. Nevertheless the entirety of the Christian worldview will be entailed by a discussion of any particular topic as will be quickly seen when any topic is exhausted in such a way that it bleeds into other topics or is otherwise questioned so that an appeal to some other explicitly Christian understanding of a subject is brought to bear upon the original topic to show how it fits into the overall worldview being set forth. In this first step of a covenantal apologetic a positive case for the Christian worldview is made which includes any pertinent topics which must be addressed for the sake of coherence or persuasion. Thus if the argument the Christian chooses to employ is to be philosophical and more specifically epistemological in nature then the Christian should at this point describe how the Christian worldview entails a Christian epistemology and sufficient account for knowledge especially with respect to whatever epistemological worry might be brought up.
While we are not to answer the Muslim according to his or her ultimate anti-Christ presuppositions we are nevertheless to answer the Muslim. This time the Muslim must be answered in accordance with his or her false presuppositions. The Muslim believes things that are not true because they do not comport with what God tells us. Hence the Muslim view is absurd and we can demonstrate such by pointing out its inconsistencies when it is taken as a whole on its own terms and thought through carefully. Islam will not be implicitly accepted by the Christian in apologetic discussion, but Islam will be treated “fairly” according to its own presuppositions and the way that they work out in accordance with the Islamic variety of the denial of the Christian worldview.
Epistemological Aspect of TAG
The Christian may very well choose to employ an apologetic argument which is philosophical and more specifically epistemological in nature. Perhaps this explicitly epistemological aspect of TAG is what most people have in mind when they object to the ability of TAG to address other religious and especially monotheistic religious varieties of unbelief. Two of the underlying assumptions of this complaint are that TAG must be explicitly philosophical or epistemological in nature and that monotheism is the epistemological starting point that satisfies the requirements of transcendental preconditions of intelligible human experience. Neither of these is correct.
While TAG is certainly philosophical or epistemological in nature and perhaps even ultimately so it is not always necessary to emphasize these elements of the argument to the exclusion of others. Part of the problem here is that even differentiating between various aspects of TAG so as to speak separately of the epistemological aspect of TAG appears to indicate that these categories are wholly separate from one another when they are really not. It really should ‘go without saying’ that an inconsistent position is insufficient to provide the preconditions of intelligible human experience. Hence any kind of argument as to the inconsistency of the unbelieving worldview fits quite nicely into TAG. Having set down so much groundwork in an already lengthy post let’s move on now to apply the covenantal apologetic as captured by Proverbs to Islam in terms of epistemology.
Sufficiency of the Christian Worldview
The Bible teaches the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity very briefly stated is that there is one God who is three persons and each person is fully God. Although the Bible never uses the term “Trinity” each of the parts of the doctrine are clearly set down for us in Scripture and have been summed up as already mentioned with the label “Trinity” being applied to them. God is ultimately one (there is one God). God is ultimately three (God is three persons). Neither the one-ness nor the three-ness of God is ontologically superior to the other. However, both the one-ness and the three-ness of God are ultimate in a metaphysical sense. God exists singularly, simply, and a se. He does not depend upon anything else outside of Himself for His existence (or necessary existence for that matter). God – all that He essentially is – is not metaphysically contingent upon anything else. Both the one-ness and three-ness of God are essential to who He is. Again, they are not superior one to the other nor do they depend upon anything outside of themselves and thus they might be described as metaphysically co-ultimate. The Christian worldview includes a long list of metaphysical claims. One such claim is that there is a Creator/creature distinction. Everything that exists is either Creator or created; there is no in-between. We have just seen another claim that stems from a Christian understanding of metaphysics. One-ness and three-ness are ontologically co-ultimate. Derivative of this is the following claim which we will momentarily see as being of the utmost importance for epistemology: unity and plurality are ontologically co-ultimate.
The Triune God of Scripture is unity and plurality and understands Himself comprehensively, coherently, and perfectly. God reveals Himself in that He has created everything that exists apart from Himself by divine decree and has set all facts in relation to other facts in an elaborate scheme which exhibits unity and plurality throughout and hence reflects in a created fashion the very nature of God in His unity and plurality. God alone has perfect understanding of the comprehensive relations that obtain between that which He has created in all of their unity and plurality and has revealed the foundational epistemological principles of unity and plurality to us in creating us in His image, creating the world around us, and giving us His Word. Our epistemological starting point is what God has revealed to us. Implicit and explicit in this presupposition is the ontological co-ultimacy of unity and plurality. Metaphysics and epistemology are intimately tied up in each other as may be especially seen here. The ontological co-ultimacy of unity and plurality in God (as may be observed since finitely displayed on a derivative creaturely level) makes human epistemology possible as a result of God’s nature and knowing. The reason that we are able to make sense of the world is because the Triune God of Scripture exists. The Christian worldview is sufficient to account for human intelligibility at least with respect to unity and plurality. Now we are in a position to complete our argument.
Argument From Islam
Van Til argued that we can take any fact of experience and from it show that God exists. Similarly Bahnsen argued that we take some undoubted (though not necessarily un-doubtable) general principle belonging to the unbeliever in some apologetic encounter and show that it implies that God exists. Both Van Til and Bahnsen were so radical in this teaching that they stated that the “fact” or principle could even be “God does not exist.” If this is the case then there is an “Argument from Atheism” which proves that God exists. This argument would of course be transcendental. The same should apply even to positions like agnosticism. According to Van Til, “Anti-theism presupposes Theism.” There is a sense in which the Muslim joins the atheist or agnostic in terms of belief or lack thereof in God. Some would no doubt say that this is nonsense since the Muslim does believe in a god, though it may be a different god from the God of Christian Scripture. Thus the assumption behind both concerns described at the beginning of the post is that Islam as a monotheistic system is somehow immune to the use of TAG with respect to it as a theological or philosophical system. The monotheistic claim of Islam should thus suffice in an argument from Islam which is transcendental in nature. To be fair then we will start the argument from the following assertion:
First the proposition must be evaluated in terms of the Christian worldview. If we assume that Christianity is true then we can conclude in terms of this assumption that Islam is false. To state that Allah exists is to imply that the Christian God does not exist. The Christian God claims to be the only God and even states in His omniscience that He does not know of any other God. Additionally Allah of Islam is distinct from the God of Christianity. Most notably for the sake of the present discussion is the difference between Allah and the Christian God in terms of unity and plurality. Islam does not have a Trinity. Indeed, Muslims vigorously argue against the Trinity. Understanding the respective theologies of Christianity and Islam one may argue that if Christianity is true, then Islam is false. Although this argument does not appear to be very interesting it is in reality a crucial step to TAG.
Second the proposition must be evaluated in terms of the Muslim worldview. Assume for the sake of argument that Islam is true. Consider: Allah exists. It cannot be the case that both Allah and the Trinity exist. Hence Islam does not share a metaphysic or epistemology with Christianity with respect to unity and plurality. Muslims are emphatic about the ontological one-ness or unity of Allah to the exclusion of any plurality in him. If it is the case that ultimately everything is ontologically unity then the plurality assumed in the affirmation of the proposition “Allah exists” as exhibited in the two words, their many letters, the distinction between existence and non-existence, Allah as distinct from other gods and God, etc. is principally unintelligible. The reason for this is that if reality is ultimately “one” then distinctions of any sort are impossible – which is absurd. Alternatively if plurality is ontologically ultimate then there can be no relations between anything. Epistemology is rendered impossible again. The Muslim in the example here wants to affirm “Allah exists,” but is stuck on the philosophical problem of the “one and many.” In order to be consistent with Islam the Muslim must deny the Christian’s epistemological answer to the “problem,” leaving no solution from within Islam. Yet this denial of ontologically co-ultimate unity and plurality is not consistent with the implicit acceptance of the same in the Islamic affirmation that Allah exists and so a contradiction results. Therefore if Islam is true then Islam is false. The Muslim may accept the Christian’s metaphysic and corresponding epistemological principle of unity and plurality, but only once the Christian worldview is accepted, and accepting the Christian worldview results in a contradiction between affirming the existence of the Trinity and affirming the existence of Allah together.
Assuming that Christianity is true, Islam is false. Assuming that Islam is true, Islam is false. An affirmation of Islam results in its denial. However, even this contradiction cannot be rendered intelligible upon the Muslim’s presuppositions as has been demonstrated. The contradiction is intelligible in terms of the Christian worldview as has been demonstrated. Thus Islam presupposes Christianity.
There are any number of ways to employ this sort of argument. It is certainly not necessary to use in an apologetic encounter with a Muslim or even the best to use in an apologetic encounter with a Muslim, but it is certainly not the case that TAG is not applicable when it comes to other monotheistic systems of non-Christian thought such as Islam.