Essay / Theology

Running in Virtuous Circles: The Truth of the Bible

Have you ever wondered why application forms ask you to list references? I recently filled out a reference form for a friend, and as I was saying things like “this person is reliable, trustworthy, and a good judge of character,” it occurred to me that one reason I thought he was a good judge of character is that he thought highly of me –that is, judged my character good. In fact, the reason he was advising his potential employer to call me was that he thought I was reliable and trustworthy enough to say that he was reliable and trustworthy. He had vouched for my ability to vouch for him, so I vouched for him as he had vouched for me. But what did this tell the person who was considering hiring him? The only real information being generated by the process was that my friend and I had a mutual admiration society, and considered each other trustworthy. I hope some other information or evidence is introduced into that hiring process, or else the potential employer is trapped in a vicious circle.

Circularity Toon by Don Addis When Christians say that the Bible is trustworthy, skeptics are quick to point out that their arguments are circular: the Bible is true because it’s the word of God. God wouldn’t lie, and God says the Bible is true. As illustrated in this “Faith-Based Connect the Dots” cartoon by the redoubtable freethinker cartoonist Don Addis, an argument that presupposes its own conclusion is an argument that leads you round and round.

Given that the Bible is in fact the word of God, there are nevertheless right ways and wrong ways to go about claiming something like that. If you simply assert it, or assert it in a tail-chasing, self-proving way, you are giving people no reason –literally no reason, a lack of rational appeals– to entertain your claim. If you’ve ever been trapped in a conversation with a conspiracy buff, you know how this goes:

“Dude. The government is intentionally poisoning the sky with chemtrails.”
“But there is no evidence of what you are saying.”
“Exactly. The government is hiding the evidence. The lack of evidence proves that it is a government cover-up.”
“Oh look, this is my stop. Well, see you later.” (walks fifteen blocks under poisonous secret biological warfare chemtrail sky just to get away from chemtrail guy)

Circular argumentation is bad, and anybody who wants to be taken seriously ought to take the time to review the evidence for what they believe. When somebody asks why Christians believe the Bible is true, we ought to be able to point to evidence that is publicly available to any interested inquirer, evidence that doesn’t just assert authority but actually gives them something to think about. R. A. Torrey had “Ten Reasons I Believe the Bible is the Word of God” on the tip of his tongue at all times. John Calvin, though he was very clear that the most important thing is the witness of the Spirit, filled a whole chapter of his Institutes with some of the “reasons, neither few nor feeble, by which the dignity and majesty of the Scriptures may be not only proved to the pious, but also completely vindicated against the cavils of slanderers.” The Bible comes to us equipped with demonstrable antiquity, external corroboration, fulfilled prophecies, and historical effects which are adequate to commend it to any impartial investigator, and put it on a totally different level from conspiracy claims and mere assertion. Of course, to present the claims of Scripture in a credible way, you need to know the evidence. Any good apologetics organization anywhere can get you started on that task –you can even go get a degree in it.

Once you’ve added the heft of evidence to your claim, you’ve escaped the vicious circle and are ready to participate in polite human discourse. Suddenly, people can tell the difference between your claims and the claims of the guy on the corner shouting, “I am God! Hear thou my words, for they are true, for I speak them, and I am God!” When other devout people, in all sincerity, put forth their own holy books with putative revelations from God, you’ve got something to talk with them about instead of degenerating into “Is not,” “Is so,” “Is not,” “Is so,” “Is not,” “Is so.” People who make claims bring evidence; that’s just how we do things in civilized society.

But there’s another thing to watch out for as you think through what is true about the Bible. While you’re staying out of the question-begging fallacy, don’t let the charge of circularity scare you away from the legitimate circularity that is always necessarily involved in believing that the Bible is God’s word. Yes, your thoughts must travel in a biblical circle for the following two reasons.

First, “what you believe about the Bible” is your doctrine of Scripture. Just like “what you believe about Jesus” is your christology, and “what you believe about God” is your theology, and “what you believe about the church” is your ecclesiology, so “what you believe about the Bible” is your bibliology, an inelegant word for your doctrine of Scripture. Now, where do Christians derive their doctrines about anything? They derive them from Scripture. The source of all our knowledge about the things of God is the word of God. When you are framing your ideas about creation, salvation, the Holy Spirit, or anything else, we take our information and our interpretive keys from Scripture. When the time comes to frame some theological claims about Scripture itself, we behave exactly the same way we do in the other areas. We put together a biblical theology of Scripture. The only alternative is to have an un-biblical theology of Scripture, and who wants that? Insofar as the doctrine of Scripture is one of the doctrines, one among many, of a scriptural religion, it is legitimately circular to have a biblical theology of Scripture.

Second, if I may be so rude as to appeal to Aristotle, “first principles are indemonstrable.” That is, if you are going to prove anything, you have to presuppose other things that count as proof, which rely on other things that count as proof, until you get to first principles that you can’t prove because they’re first. Aristotle applied this to that self-evident fundamental building-block of all reasoning, the law of non-contradiction (X can’t be X and not-X at the same time in the same sense), and this first principle was nowhere more memorably defended than by Avicenna, who said “Those who deny a first principle should be beaten or exposed to fire until they concede that to burn and not to burn, or to be beaten and not to be beaten, are not identical.” Ouch! Harshly put, but point taken: there would be no talking to somebody who denies that first principle, because they would be both denying it and not denying it at the same time.

Aside from being morally outrageous and wrong, beating and burning have been conclusively proven to be ineffective in persuading people to consider the truth of your religion in a reasonable way. But the philosophical point about indemonstrable first principles also applies to the fact of divine revelation. If there is such a thing as God’s word, it would necessarily be the highest authority by a factor of infinity, and incapable of being proved by something higher or prior. What would you use to prove it? If you put “God says so” in one side of the balances, what could possibly go into the other side of the balances to exert equal weight? No arguments, no human authorities, no evidences, no historical probabilities, no analogies with other trusted things, no nothing could balance it out or weigh as much. If –and of course it’s a big if, the biggest– there’s a word of God, it’s the absolute truth with no peer or measure. The mind which received it would have to orbit that truth, necessarily moving in a circle around it. Of course it’s one thing to say how such a revelation would have to be received, and another thing altogether to say that the Bible is such a revelation. If you say the latter, you can’t just assert it and expect anybody to pay more attention to you than to the last umpteen people who asserted divine authority for their own favorite books. You have to bring some evidence, which brings us back to where we started this post. Full circle.

There is a kind of circular argument that is a logical fallacy: it presupposes the thing it is claiming to prove, and thus is simply asserting itself without real argumentative support. But don’t lapse into circlephobia: not every circle is vicious. There are good reasons for thinking in a circular fashion about the Bible. That circularity –a biblical theology of Scripture as the word of God– is legitimate, virtuous, and far from vicious.

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