Thursday, September 15, 2011

Circles & Crosses

Circular arguments are usually an indication of sloppy thinking. As believers we are to be people of truth and should do our best to give honest and proper reasons for our conclusions and using fallacious arguments such as circular reasoning should be avoided. Not every situation, however, is the same. One of the areas where we are most likely to be accused of using circular logic is in our acceptance of Scripture as God’s word. A simplified exchange between a Christian and a non-Christian might go something like this:

Christian:         I believe the bible is God’s word.
Non-Christian: Why do you believe that?
Christian:         The bible claims that it is God’s word.
Non-Christian: That is circular reasoning!

Of course the non-Christian is absolutely correct, this is circular reasoning. That does not mean, however, that in this case the Christian is engaged in sloppy thinking. There is an important difference between this example and most others where circular logic would be unacceptable. The difference is that the Scripture is the authority or basis of reasoning that is the foundation of the Christian system of thought. It is, as Gordon Clark used to say, the axiom or starting point for all subsequent reasoning for believers. The old time theologians used to say that the scripture was norma normans non normata which is Latin for “the norm that norms but is not normed”. It means that the scripture establishes itself and does not rely upon anything else for its authority or legitimacy. It is the standard by which everything is judged and it is not itself judged.

Therefore within the framework of Christian faith an appeal to the truth of the bible to support the conclusion that the bible is true is an appeal to the foundational authority of Christianity itself. It is not simply an argument resulting from a logical progression but is rather a question of presuppositions. While those who reject the authority of scripture will not accept that the truth of the bible stands on its own, in fact, all systems of thought eventually must make a similar circular appeal to some unproven authority. There is no such thing as a purely objective approach to ideas.

If someone rejects the proposition that the bible is God’s word they are then forced to accept one of two alternative propositions; that the bible is not God’s word, or that the bible might not be God’s word. The first alternative suggests that the person has tested the scripture by some other authority and found it to fall short. The second alternative implies that it needs to be tested by some other authority so that a conclusion can be formed. This creates an interesting dilemma, however, because ultimately they are arguing that another authority be accepted in the place of the scripture but cannot demonstrate the superiority of that authority without appealing to it just as the Christian has done with the bible.

If the person appeals to some other alleged divine revelation such as the Koran, the mystical experience of a Buddhist monk, or the Bhagavad-Gita then they must show why their starting point is superior to that of the Christian. Of course they cannot do this without a circular appeal to their own chosen authority.

Perhaps, others would say that we need to evaluate the scriptural claim scientifically. Unfortunately this does not solve the problem because science has its own authoritative starting point. Scientific observations and judgments are built upon the authority of materialistic and empirical assumptions. Unfortunately for those who make an ultimate appeal to science, the primacy of empirical data cannot itself be demonstrated empirically so it is ultimately accepted by faith. Like the Christian and his or her bible it is an appeal to an assumed authority.

Ultimately any other historical or philosophical standard that is set up to evaluate the truth claim of the bible is elevating some other arbitrary authority above the word of God. There are plenty of other reasons to believe the teaching of the bible than its own claims about itself but it is its self-testimony (that we come to understand and believe through the enlightening work of The Spirit) that establishes it. It does not rely upon anything outside itself for its authority.

As believers we have a responsibility to think clearly and sloppy and circular logic should be avoided. Our acceptance of the bible as the true word of God, however, is not a conclusion based upon our reasoning from some other authority. When we reason backward from various conclusions to our dependence upon the truth of the bible we have arrived at the fountainhead. We cannot, and need not, go back any further. This is the foundation for all knowledge and truth. As Christians we do not have to feel intellectually inferior for our reliance on the bible. All systems choose their own starting points. We should boldly proclaim that God’s word stands in judgment over us and not us over it. We know that is true because the bible tells us so.

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