The Fallacies with “The Circular Argument” Against Presuppositionalism

This will be a geeky post, sorry.

Occasionally, I like to write on topics pertaining to apologetic methodology. My primary purpose is to sharpen my personal thinking in the matters of how my exegesis and theology shape my overall approach in apologetics and evangelism. My objective has always been two-fold: I want to make sure I am defending the faith accurately as well as engaging unbelief effectively.

I approach the subject of apologetics as a presuppositionalist as opposed to one who would consider himself a classic apologist or an evidentialist. Most Christians who fancy the subject of “apologetics” operate in the matrix of classical/evidentialist apologetics. That is because the classic/evidential apologetic is the most popular and the one the average church-going red state evangelical Christian is familiar.

Proponents of the classical approach are also known to have a disdain toward presuppositionalism. Their blog articles and lectures will often times offer withering critiques of presuppositionalism, attempting to show how the approach is “illogical,” or “blind fideism,” or other such terrible descriptors. I also think it is important to offer a response to those criticisms in order to demonstrate how my apologetic theology is not only biblical, but robust.

One common objection claims that a presuppositional defense of the faith is circular. The classical proponent will claim, for example, that the presuppositionalist believes Christianity is true because the Bible tells him Christianity is true and because Christianity tells him the Bible is true, the Bible is thus true, and because the Bible is true, Christianity is true, etc., and so the circle is formed.

Consider the following illustration I copied from a pro-classic apologetic blog post:

circularIt’s supposed to picture just how illogical a presuppositional defense of Scripture truly is. A presuppositional will claim, for instance, that the Bible is infallible. When asked to prove his assertion he will respond by saying, “It’s infallible because the Bible is the Word of God.” But when asked “How do you know the Bible is the Word of God?,” he answers by saying, “Because the Bible tells us so!” When asked why he believes the Bible to begin with, he responds by saying, “Because the Bible is infallible!” And so on and so on, around and around. Underneath the picture at the blog article, the author writes, “This kind of argument is not the kind of “apologia” mentioned in scripture. God always backed Himself up with evidence.”

See what terrible thinkers presuppositionalists truly are? Shake my head. If they give that ridiculous response to their local community college social studies teacher when asked why they reject same-sex marriage, they’ll embarrass Jesus and make Aristotle cry.

Let’s evaluate that objection and offer some comments in response.

— 1. First off, I have always been troubled with the classic apologists and their avoidance of biblical authority. They seem to intentionally avoid using the Scriptures when defending the faith. The inconsistency here is jarring. Christian apologists, who are intending to make a case for the Christian faith, who in point of fact derive their faith from the Bible, ignore its authority when engaging unbelievers, claiming any appeal to Scripture’s authority in a discussion is circular. I truly don’t get that.

Now. Maybe there are some traditional classicists who would object to my concern. They are not dismissing the Bible at all, but are, as the author noted under the picture, wanting to back up their appeals to Scriptural authority with evidence. The Bible, however, is evidence, is it not? It’s an established historical document, why isn’t that fact good enough? It would be like saying we can’t appeal to the letters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams when discussing the American Revolution without first showing evidence that the two men wrote those letters.

— 2. Moving along to a second point. In case you don’t know this, pretty much everyone argues in a circle. That statement may cause my classical detractors to fall face down on a fainting couch, but I believe I’m correct with my assessment. That’s because everyone assumes (or *ahem* presupposes) the truthfulness of some unquestioned, unspoken starting point.

For instance,

logicI affirm the truthfulness of this argument, even though it is circular.

Michael Kruger, in his insightful discussion about the sufficiency of Scripture in apologetics, writes in a footnote about so-called circularity as it pertains to the meter stick,

To deny circularity when it comes to an ultimate authority is to subject oneself to an infinite regress of reasons. If a person holds to a certain view, A , then when A is challenged he appeals to reasons B and C . But, of course, B and C will certainly be challenged as to why they should be accepted, and then the person would have to offer D, E, F, and G as arguments for B and C. And the process goes on and on.

Obviously it has to stop somewhere because an infinite regress of arguments cannot demonstrate the truth of one’s conclusions. Thus, every worldview (and every argument) must have an ultimate, unquestioned, self-authenticating starting point.

Another example: imagine someone asking you whether the meter stick in your house was actually a meter long. How would you demonstrate such a thing? You could take it to your next-door neighbor and compare it to his meter stick and say, “See, it’s a meter.” However, the next question is obvious, “How do we know your neighbor’s meter stick is really a meter?” This process would go on and on infinitely unless there were an ultimate meter stick (which, if I am not mistaken, actually existed at one time and was measured by two fine lines marked on a bar of platinum-iridium alloy). It is this ultimate meter stick that defines a meter. When asked how one knows whether the ultimate meter stick is a meter, the answer is obviously circular: the ultimate meter stick is a meter because it is a meter.

This same thing is true for Scripture. The Bible does not just happen to be true (the meter stick in your house), rather it is the very criterion for truth (the ultimate meter stick) and therefore the final stopping point in intellectual justification.

Just like trusting that your meter stick is really a meter, the simple point is that everyone argues in a circle to some degree. The issue is whether or not that circle is a vicious circle, or one that is self-refuting. In the case of Scripture, I don’t believe that saying the Word of God is infallible, because it is the Word of God, is a vicious, self-refuting circular argument. The reason being has to be that God’s Word is, well, God’s Word. He is an infallible God and He spoke it, hence it is God’s infallible Word.

— 3. Picking up on the last point, the circular objection as presented in that illustration is a strawman. (The last time I checked, strawman arguments are usually considered illogical, but I digress). The Christian believes the Bible is God’s Word not because the Bible alone tells us so (though that should be enough), but because God revealed the Bible.  We know that, obviously, from the Bible itself, but Jesus also confirmed the Scriptures as God’s Word as did the prophets and apostles. Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles are historical, real life people. Jesus was in fact the very Son of God sent by the Father. I would think if He affirmed that the Word of God is the Word of God without first appealing to outside lines evidence that supposedly establish the Bible as worthy of being called the Word of God, I’d be inclined to take Him at His Word alone.

— 4. And that leads to one final fallacy with the circular objection: Never did Jesus, the prophets, or the apostles prove the Bible’s authority with their audience first. They proclaimed it as if the Bible was authoritative at the outset.

Take for instance Paul’s missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts. At first, Paul would go to the Jews who were scattered about in the various areas where he and his friends would pass through. However, the Jews rejected the Gospel message and turned Paul away. In some cases, he was persecuted by them. Eventually, Paul turned exclusively to the gentiles, who were already inclined to hear his message of salvation. Acts 13:46ff states,

46 Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.
47 “For so the Lord has commanded us, ‘I HAVE PLACED YOU AS A LIGHT FOR THE GENTILES, THAT YOU MAY BRING SALVATION TO THE END OF THE EARTH.'”
48 When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.

Note a couple of important points. First, Paul told the Jews that he wanted to speak to them the Word of God first, but since they rejected it, he and his friends were turning to the gentiles. In other words, Paul was taking that “word of God” to the gentiles.

Now a question. How did the gentiles of Asia Minor know what Paul told them was the Word of God? Honestly? How familiar were they with the OT history of Israel? With the prophetic promises of the Messiah? The fulfillment of those prophecies in the person and work of Jesus?  Did Paul have to convince them first with lines of evidence that the Word of God was worthy of their consideration? It certainly doesn’t look that way. In fact, all that Paul had to do was preach it and they believed it.

Secondly, notice that belief in the authority of the Word of God was a spiritual matter. Verse 48 states that when the gentiles heard of Paul’s change of plans, they rejoiced and glorified the Word of the Lord, and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed. In other words, their acceptance of God’s Word was not due to the presentation of compelling lines of textual evidence or historical proofs, but because they were appointed to eternal life and God’s Spirit working in their hearts to believe.

Now I can hear my objectors saying, “but Paul was giving them the Gospel, not telling them to believe the Bible!” But where exactly is the Gospel message laid out? Where is it presented? Why in the pages of Scripture.

As I close, I don’t want the reader to go away thinking that I reject the idea of presenting evidence to an unbeliever in an apologetic encounter. In fact, I can be equally critical of other presuppositionalists who turn apologetic encounters into repetitious slogans and the appeals to the laws of logic and what not. I am not opposed to providing non-biblical answers to challenging questions. When textual evidence or intelligent design style proofs come up to further along the discussion, I will certainly present that information. There is no special protocol that has been violated if a presuppositionalist uses those arguments.

What needs to be kept in mind is that I am not giving up my commitment to God’s Word as my ultimate authority. I proclaim it as established fact, even though I know the unbeliever will insist on proofs as to why he must believe it. The reason being is because it is the Word of God alone that contains the Gospel which in turn is the power of God unto salvation.

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19 thoughts on “The Fallacies with “The Circular Argument” Against Presuppositionalism

  1. All apologetics begins with a set of axioms. I think the approach used depends on what issue is being discussed. I began as an evidentialist, but fell into presuppositionalism as I got heavily into the creation / evolution issue; although I didn’t know there were names for the methodologies. Yes, evidence is great, but in the issue of origins (for example) it ultimately come down to this: Do you believe what the God who was there has to say about beginnings or do you believe the person speculating billions of years (allegedly) after the fact?

  2. You say is the Bible is “the ultimate meter stick”, I take to meaning absolute proof. The problem is the bible is really only the stick. What bible measurement do we have that is 100% accurate? If the bible was proven not with faith but in evidence in earthly terms to be as accurate as the metre stick we all would be Christians by now.

    You need relevant supportive information to confirm people who wrote the bible existed and that the events did really happen. A book written so long ago by questionable characters containing stories that appear fictional and fantastical do require much more in the way of credibility than just the words. Many of the writers have little credibility such as Moses whose existence as well as the veracity of the Exodus story, is disputed among Archaeologists and Egyptologists. Even Jesus himself is not 100% confirmed, and there are good reasons to doubt his existence and even if he did exist it is debatable it was as portrayed in the Bible. Nobody knows exactly what he looked like or even what his skin colour was.

    You will have to prove the Bible is factual enough to convince the scientific communities just as many people in the many different fields of research have done and have been able to build on the evidence of their concepts, theories and hypotheses over many years, whereas religious research and exploration for new evidence has hardly moved forwards for many years.

  3. SKL YJD: “If the bible was proven not with faith but in evidence in earthly terms to be as accurate as the metre stick we all would be Christians by now.”

    What sort of evidence would prove the Bible true? Would this evidence you’re looking for really cause you to become a Christian?

    SKL YJD: “You need relevant supportive information to confirm people who wrote the bible existed and that the events did really happen.”

    Similar question: What would constitute relevant supportive information? What kind of evidence would confirm the existence of those who wrote the Bible?

    SKL YJD: “You will have to prove the Bible is factual enough to convince the scientific communities…”

    How do you know scientific conclusions are correct?

  4. Pingback: Mid-July 2015 Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

  5. Craig, you ask: “What sort of evidence would prove the Bible true? Would this evidence you’re looking for really cause you to become a Christian?” and “What would constitute relevant supportive information? What kind of evidence would confirm the existence of those who wrote the Bible?”

    The world is convinced King Tutankhamen was around about 1400 BC and we know he existed, how he lived and died. In contrast take a look at the controversy regarding the existence of Jesus and his experiences as portrayed in the Bible from about 2000 years ago. Almost all the events that had taken place in the Bible were recorded by Christian writers who we arguably know nothing about. The few non-Christian writings are regarded as forgeries but the most conspicuous missing evidence is the written recorded events by what should have been hundreds of witnesses regarding what must have been extremely memorable events as detailed in the Bible.

    Historic evidence by first hand witnesses who lived at the time should not be too much to ask of any such document of such calibre, historic standing and reverential respect among the faithful. If this and undisputable physical evidence of certain events were available that could be tested and approved by historians and pass the laws accepted by the scientific community I am sure everyone would become a Christian.

    You ask: “How do you know scientific conclusions are correct?”

    I am not a scientist and I nobody knows if each scientific hypothesis is correct but I do know they are never considered correct because questions, assumptions, research, concepts and theories are tested, retested, compared, analysed and adjusted regularly until conclusive.

    I am optimistic because I have been lucky enough to be able to be a witness and a recipient of the knowledge and technology available today from many decades of major developments. I have absolutely no doubt at all that thousands of learned professors, scientists and teachers are working to discover more about our lives and our universe because we have a natural thirst for this knowledge knowing our futures depend on it.

  6. Well, the “circle” can only be shown to be right by its “transcendental” necessity. The God of Scripture has to be in order for us to be sure of anything. Biblical epistemology is revelatory. Any other view of knowing provides a foundation of sand. Hence, Van Til’s approach (as opposed to Clark’s axiomatic one) argues for what he called “the impossibility of the contrary.” Thus, presuppositionalism asks what has to be the case in order for any proposition to be true.

  7. Where can this infallible complete Bible called the Word of God you speak of be found?

  8. Reblogged this on They Call Me Pastor and commented:
    Excellent article, well worth reading.

    If you notice in the replies at the end, one skeptical of this approach, and of the Bible in general it seems, actually illustrates the argument being made by the author by unknowingly admitting that what he “believes” is by faith; faith in the “thousands of learned professors, scientists and teachers…” in whom he places his faith. Also, in the respondent’s words, “Historic evidence by first hand witnesses…,” etc. reveals that it is not more evidence that the reader needs since the Bible is the product of 39 first-hand accounts (40 including Moses, who was given the account of the creation by the Creator) all of whom were carried along by God Himself to write an infallible, completely accurate account of God’s revelation to man through history.

    I recommend that you read all the way through this excellent article including the responses.

  9. I have reblogged this post at They Call Me Pastor (aka, randomtheoloblog.wordpress.com). I hope that is ok with you. It is always quicker to ask forgiveness than get permission.
    :-)

  10. Derek Writes,
    You can ‘presuppose’ anything you want. Doesn’t make it true

    A few thoughts in response,
    – That’s not what presuppositionalism is saying. I would agree with that sentiment.
    – Everyone, regardless of worldview utilize unquestioned axioms or “faith commitments” when presenting their particular theory of why we know what we know. Even Derek.
    – The validity of presuppositions can be tested. IOW, whether or not we have a tight logically cohesive circle or not.

  11. Reblogged this on The Tavern and commented:
    In my most recent post on homosexuality, I mentioned presuppositions a few times. In light of those comments, I thought I would share this article in defense of presuppositionalism. It’s worth reading the comments as well. You may also find some good food for thought here and here.

  12. Pingback: Articles on Apologetics and Evangelism | hipandthigh

  13. Mankind will always be limited in his knowledge, Finite beings, with fallible minds prone to sin, Therefore for the sceptic I say you don’t have an intellectual, or evidential problem, there could never be good enough to satisfy your God hating self, you have a moral problem. It’s sin debt that can only be paid by Christ. If an apologetic doesn’t convince you is it wrong? Not at all! Let God be true, and every human being a liar. As it is written: “So that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” Romans 3:4

  14. Pingback: Composing a Doctrinal Statement [on the Scriptures] | The Tavern

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