Apologetic Mirror Objection

David Byron recently commented on this post which concerns TAG and Islam. Rather than letting a rather lengthy comment linger on an old post I have decided to post it here in full. Part of being a good apologist is being aware of common objections to one’s methodology and arguments. This leads to further study and a stronger apologetic. It also equips the apologist to be able to at the very least recognize a particular objection in the context of an apologetic encounter. Byron writes out a helpful description of what has elsewhere been labeled the Apologetic Mirror Problem (AMP). He applies it to the Transcendental Argument for God (TAG). Cornelius Van Til anticipated and responded to AMP, though as far as I know it did not carry this name at the time and he likely was not viewing it in strict relation to the later “TAG.” However, Van Til’s response will not be posted or evaluated here. Also, I do not mean to imply that AMP is refuted by the following considerations or to imply that Byron would not agree with them (especially Manata’s points). Rather, Byron’s explanation of AMP will be quoted followed by a few brief comments from me followed next by Paul Manata’s attempt at responding to AMP as an extension of Chapter 7 of James Anderson’s book  Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status.

The fundamental problem with attempting to rebut (say) Islam with TAG is that the attempt allows asymmetrical special pleading.

(a) The apologist identifies some factor that seems characteristic of Christianity but not Islam. (Above, you propose the equal ontic ultimacy of the one and the many.)
(b) The apologist asserts a link between this factor and the conditions of possible discourse. (Above, the assertion that “Allah exists” is the specimen of discourse thus preconditioned.)
(c) The apologist alleges a performative inconsistency between the discursive act in (b) and the performer’s denial of the preconditional factor in (a).

Step (c) is what Van Til (following Dooyeweerd here) called the “negative transcendental critique”. Let’s call it the NTC. The problem with the NTC (identified in the first sentence of this post) is that it depends on *disallowing* special pleading on the part of the apologetic target, while *insisting on* special pleading on the part of the apologist.

As Van Til rightly noted, a scripturally constructed model of Christian Theism will have all sorts of junctures at which prima facie inconsistency must be addressed by an appeal to mystery. For example, Van Til placed some emphasis on the Full Bucket problem– how can an all-glorious God be further glorified? In general, Van Til’s epistemology requires that there be apparent paradoxes that the believing Christian holds as *merely but not actually* apparent. The Christian must trust that behind the appearance stands a coherent state of affairs known at least to God.

When it comes time to perform the NTC, however, the Christian apologist tolerates no such appeals to mystery; any apparent contradiction or insufficient explanation is taken (without further argument) as an actual contradiction or inadequacy in the model.

This asymmetry poses a problem for TAG because it can cut both ways. The Muslim apologist could assert, for example, that the lack of an explicit resolution of the One/Many problem is simply a mystery, not a crippling conceptual defect. Likewise, he could assert that Christian appeals to mystery in trinitarian ontology are illegitimate.

How could the Christian apologist object to this asymmetry while also employing and depending upon it?

For that matter, the criteria by means of which we discern what are and are not the conditions of possible discourse are by no means obvious. So the Muslim apologist could even argue (for example) that the one/many problem isn’t resolved by unity and plurality in God, but by unity in Allah and plurality (mysteriously inherent) in his revelatory words.

Considering, as you do, the question of whether scoping TAG to vanilla Theism rather than to the more intensive Christian Theism is important. But if the utility of TAG against Islam (or indeed against any revelatory epistemology) is the criterion by means of which you try to decide this scoping problem, it’s also important to consider whether TAG (and particularly the prescribed NTC) really achieves what you suppose it does.



While Byron takes AMP to be the fundamental problem with TAG with respect to (for example) Islam, it does not appear to be the case that Byron’s concerns should be limited to this narrow of an application. The concern would extend, it seems to me, to any other (even non-religious) position as well. Finally, I see no reason for limiting AMP to TAG. AMP would apply equally as well to any apologetic given that, “a scripturally constructed model of Christian Theism will have all sorts of junctures at which prima facie inconsistency must be addressed by an appeal to mystery.” There is no reason to restrict the main element of the NTC – identifying inconsistency – to a transcendental argument, though we might then want to change the label. It seems that AMP pertains in particular to the element of identifying inconsistency rather than to the NTC as a whole, but identifying inconsistency is a mark of any good apologetic, not just the Van Tillian variety.

While it would be improper for a Christian apologist to be intolerant toward appeals to mystery from an opposing worldview, I am unsure of which Christian apologist Byron has in mind here. Such intolerance does not fit within the Van Tillian scheme since the opposing worldview is taken as a whole upon its own terms for the sake of argument, and this includes appeals to mystery as a part of that position.

The Muslim apologist certainly could assert that the lack of an explicit resolution of the One/Many problem is simply a mystery rather than a crippling conceptual defect, but this assertion would need to be supported by actual argument. The Muslim could likewise assert that Christian appeals to mystery in Trinitarian ontology are illegitimate, but again the assertion needs to be supported through argument.

Byron suggests that the Muslim apologist could argue that the one/many is not resolved by unity and plurality in God, but by unity in Allah and plurality in his revelatory words. However, this would be to place the revealed (note: contingent and not ultimate) words of Allah on par with Allah in terms of ontological ultimacy. Not only are there problems with this move, but I suspect the Muslim would not want to do this for theological reasons. Mystery in Christianity is, so far as I know, consistent with and entailed by Christian theology, whereas here it would stand in contradiction to Muslim theology. Additionally if the ultimacy of unity and plurality in God are analogous to the ultimacy of Allah and his alleged revelatory word, then the Muslim cannot argue that the one/many is not resolved by unity and plurality in God.

The following is from Paul Manata’s excellent review of James Anderson’s book Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status. This part is quoted from his treatment of chapter 7 of the aforementioned book which is titled “The Model Defended.”

(RAPT – model for the rational affirmation of paradoxical theology;
MACRUE – merely apparent contradiction resulting from unarticulated equivocation)

Not to leave the reader completely unsatisfied, I will discuss one objection: the apologetic mirror problem. The objection runs thus: So, say Anderson has succeeded. Isn’t this a double-edged sword? It would seem that other religions (or philosophical systems) could make use of this defense. This might affect the myriad apologetical arguments Christians have given based on internal contradictions between the teachings of various non-Christian religions and philosophies.

Anderson notes that this objection has some bite. But one thing it does not do is entail that Christians are irrational in believing paradoxical Christian doctrine. The most one would concede is that adherents of these other systems are also rational in affirming their apparently contradictory doctrines. In addition, the rationality of those non-Christian beliefs would depend upon the truth of those systems, just as the Christian RAPT model does. Furthermore, these systems would need to come up with and develop their own RAPT model; Anderson’s would not be congenial to the vast majority of non-Christian systems. They would also need to come up with their own criterion. Anderson’s do not allow just any set of seemingly contradictory beliefs to be labeled a MACRUE. Anderson’s model depends upon divine revelation also. Thus, only a small minority of religions could even hope to ride Anderson’s coattails here. All the rest would need to develop their own system, from scratch. As I am sure James Anderson would attest, this is no easy feat! At the end of the day, then, Anderson says that for the few religions that could make use of his approach, this is simply the price we must pay for reconciling orthodoxy with rationality. In his estimation, “the price is worth paying.”

I would go further by suggesting that the best apologetic arguments against Islam and Judaism (two of the best candidates for riding Anderson’s coattails) based on internal contradictions are not things they could appeal to paradox for a resolution. For example, Islam claims that the Gospels are inspired by Allah. The Gospels teach that Jesus is God.52 The Koran says he is not. Therefore, the contradiction is that Jesus is and is not God. Is the Muslim really going to accept both these claims about Jesus:

(J1) Jesus is very God of very God.
(J2) Jesus is not very God of very God.


(J1A) Jesus was crucified and died for the sins of man.
(J2A) Jesus was not crucified and did not die for the sins of man.

Or, inconsistencies between their own apologetic practices and what their own holy book teaches:

(A1) The Bible is not reliable as a witness to Jesus.
(A2) The Bible is reliable as a witness to Jesus.

I do not see how.

Further arguments made from God’s just and righteous requirements as revealed in the Torah (which both religions accept as divinely inspired) as inconsistent with what both Islam and modern day Judaism teach about how man can be right before God, are likewise claims I find hard to believe they would be able to appeal to paradox in order to resolve. Not only this, if they do not accept Anderson’s constraints, then they cannot fully ride his coattails. They must spend the time coming up with their own account of paradox and what criteria must be met for a set of theological claims to be paradoxical, and provide details as to how it can be warranted. This may take a while, and so there is no immediate apologetic mirror problem. If they do accept his constraints, I do not see how appealing to a MACRUE helps them out with the majority of the best our apologetic arsenal has to offer. Lastly, if they develop such an account, then they must grant us the ability to appeal to paradox as well. Therefore, they would also lose some of their apologetical arguments based on internal contradiction So it might be a six in one, a half dozen in the other, at best.53 Therefore, I do not find much to worry about in regards to this objection at all.

52 See Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case For The Divinity of Christ, by Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and J. Ed Komoszewski (Kregel, 2007), for an excellent case for the deity of Christ.

53 At best because it is not even clear that their arguments from internal contradictions are even accurate. For example, the Muslims are famous for taking us to be teaching tri-theism (cf. Sura 5:116, for example).

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