Christianity and Circular Reasoning

Round, and around, and around

Circular reasoning is probably one of the most common fallacies in discourse. We often let it pass by unchecked because we rarely have, or take the time to work out the reasoning behind a conclusion. Unless it’s patently obvious, we keep trucking right along with our lives. 

Neil Carter, however, assumes that this is a problem, a problem specifically for Christians and he tells us about this in his post “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker” where he accuses Christians of committing any number of logical fallacies. This post is the third in a series of responses to Neil’s accusations and the operating thesis is that atheism has, in fact, broken Neil’s thinker. 

Let’s just also be clear: I have no doubt that Christians, the average Christian in the pew, is not the most thoughtful person and may, on occasion, engage in bad reasoning. This series is about the specific charge leveled by Neil at the Christian faith in particular. In this particular post, we will look at the charge of circular reasoning. 

Neil starts off,

[Circular reasoning],…happens when your conclusions somehow derive their basis from an assumption inherent in the question itself, which of course should not be accepted until the thing being asked has been settled in the first place. 

The historic Christian response is that their position was settled when Jesus rose from the grave as a fact of history. Now, the Christian admits that there’s a whole bunch of other cars in that train, but the engine is the resurrection. He continues:

The most obvious place this happens is when someone tries to argue that the Bible is a reliable book because the Bible says the Bible is a reliable book.

He cites 2 Timothy 3:16-17 as a proof text for this claim, the problem is that it’s not a passage that I’ve ever seen used to that end. I have heard King James Onlyists in an attempt to use Psalm 12:6 in an attempt to defend the reliability of their chosen translation, the problem is that the context doesn’t allow it. The actual argument would be that since the Scriptures are inspired by God, and therefore carry his power to bring about his purposes, then they would be reliable, but that’s a theological argument. Neil inserts this jab:

Of course, if you’re a woman of God, the previous epistle makes clear that your job is to be quiet and learn from the men.

I’ve dealt with this one a long time ago. 

Neil says,

Chuck Colson, who served time in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal (what is it with evangelicals and corrupt administrations?), argued that Jesus must have been resurrected from the dead just as the Bible says because the original 12 disciples were tortured and killed for insisting that he was, and why would they do that for something they knew was a lie?

Well, according to Colson’s biography, he didn’t become a Christian until around the time of his incarceration—I’m guessing that it’s something about that free time in jail that makes a man reflective—so his snide parenthetical is simply ad hominem. However, his argument stands: why would people risk dying a horrible death over something that they know is a lie? It defies common sense. Colson’s question is meant to start people thinking. 

Neil writes,

Leaving aside the obvious reality that people die for delusional beliefs all the time (see September 11, 2001), Colson’s point depends entirely on the assumption that the Bible accurately tells us who the original 12 disciples were and what they went through (note: it never really goes into much detail, but let’s not get sidetracked by that right now).

That’s not the question, Neil. People may willingly die for something that they don’t know is false; the question is, do people willingly die for something that they know is false? 

Neil writes,

Taking his argument at face value, the point is that Colson couldn’t even see that he was essentially arguing that a story in the Bible was true because people named in the Bible underwent hardships for which we have little other evidence than the Bible itself to know in the first place. He didn’t even see the circularity of it because he had become desensitized to circularity itself. (Emphasis original)

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Let’s just say that Colson is making an argument, it should look something like this:

  1. People don’t normally allow themselves to die for things that they believe are false. 
  2. People may allow themselves to die for something that they don’t know is a false belief. 
  3. The disciples of Jesus believed and claimed that he had risen from the dead and that this was not false. 
  4. The disciples were killed for their claims. 
  5. People don’t normally die for things they believe are false (from premise 1).
  6. People may die for things that they don’t know is a false belief (from premise 2). 
  7. Therefore the disciples died for something that they believed was true. 

I’m know that I’m kind of slow, but I’m not seeing anything circular about that reasoning. What’s interesting is that the only disciples mentioned in the Bible dying for their beliefs, one directly and the other indirectly, the former being Stephen and the other being James the brother of John, both mentioned in Acts. The others we know about either through church tradition or in other works, such as Josephus. Clearly, Neil doesn’t understand the argument that Colson is making and is simply making an assertion rather than proving it. But let’s be clear: even if the Bible was all the evidence that we had, which it’s not, it’s still MORE evidence to prove the claim than to falsify it. Remember, the burden is on the person making the claim, and Neil has not proven that Colson’s argument is, in fact, circular. 

Neil then turns his ire onto Timothy Keller, writing,

Or take evangelical darling Tim Keller for example. As I’ve quoted before in my review of one of his chapters in The Reason for God, Keller argues:

Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible.

Aaaannd how do we know that was Jesus’s view of the Bible? We know this because the Bible tells us it was. DuhI (sic)

I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Keller, I think that he’s a little too mushy, but this is one where Neil may have a point, except that he doesn’t. What do I mean?

Keller is deferring to the authority on this issue as it relates to him as a believer. He’s making an epistemic claim, and epistemic, or ultimate claims, are inherently circular. As Cornelius Van Til notes in the first chapter of his book A Brief Survey of Christian Epistemology,

The charge is constantly made that if matters stand thus with Christianity, it has written its own death warrant as far as intelligent men are concerned. Who wishes to make such a simple blunder in elementary logic, as to say that we believe something to be true because it is in the Bible? Our answer to this is briefly that we prefer to reason in a circle to not reasoning at all. We hold it to be true that circular reasoning is the only reasoning that is possible to finite man. The method of implication as outlined above is circular reasoning. Or we may call it spiral reasoning. We must go round and round a thing to see more of its dimensions and to know more about it, in general, unless we are larger than that which we are investigating. (Chapter 1 pdf, Emphasis added) 

The charge that I would have to make is that Keller seems to be arguing from silence, because I would have to ask where did Jesus ever say that the Scriptures are reliable? I would argue that by “reliable” what Keller seems to mean is authoritative because Jesus constantly quotes it to his opponents. Reliable and authoritative are two different things and need to be considered as such. 

Neil closes this section by writing,

Once again I say that outside of religion, begging the question is considered a logical fallacy. Inside religion, however, it’s just the way you’re supposed to think. (Emphasis original)

Notice that Neil winds up where he began? That’s circular reasoning on full display. The best examples that he gives either demonstrably aren’t circular or are instances of epistemologically circular. Neil is simply criticizing the ultimate authority of Scripture in the life of the Christian. Neil ignores his own bad reasoning, commits more of the same and walks right into his own trap. 

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