Arguing in Circles: Part II

Christian apologetics is drawn from the well-spring of Scripture.  Like the head and tail on the monetary coin, apologetics shares its foundation with evangelism. The two are necessary branches stemming from a proper biblical theology. You cannot divorce apologetics from the Bible any more than you can separate evangelism from the knowledge of God. To sever the cord is to cut-off the umbilical life line necessary for Christian faith/Christian theism, which is inescapably Trinitarian.

Unfortunately, there are those that bear the name of apologist in light of the Christian faith-system that do attempt this form of mental gymnastics. Rather than start with Scripture when reasoning with an unbeliever, they prefer the method that steers clear from anything that might label them a circularist—i.e. one who reasons in a circle.  Instead of beginning with biblical truths, they prefer to present various forms of argumentation—different shades of evidence—that will hopefully lead the individual they are witnessing to, to the probability (possibility) that some divine creator being exits.

This line of so-called Christian argumentation leads to a generic god, not the God of the Bible. It would be arrogant (the assumption goes) to ask the unbeliever to accept the idea that the Christian God exists at the outset. In order for that to take place, many small steps must first be taught and accepted before the unbeliever is moved far enough down the line to embrace what the Christian says he/she believes in.

**Saying “the Bible says so,” or “this is what the Bible says is the truth” is very embarrassing to many popular Christian apologists. 

When Christians assume the Bible’s validity and veracity and argue from that standpoint they somehow damage (it is thought/claimed) the apologetic endeavor. The Christian worldview becomes laughable to the surrounding populace who deems it, nonintellectual, unreasonable, foolhardy, and as a result will turn people away from the faith. Or, so the objection goes.

No, I’m not making this stuff up. I’ve read such things in apologetic texts, listened to them on various radio or podcast platforms, been told it in graduate level classes, and heard it preached from the pulpit. On one occasion I attended a seminar at a neighboring Christian college where this attitude was expressed.

A pastor who ministered in Las Vegas, NV asked the speaker about what he believed was the wisest way to witness to people struggling with the concept of gay marriage. The Prof. who was the head of the Philosophy Department at the school chided using the Bible as a way to defend biblical marriage—one man, one woman.  He claimed that a better approach would be to appeal to historical evidences for traditional marriages and scientific studies that showed the benefits of heterosexual marriages.  Strongly implying to the questioner that using biblical truths would not change people’s hearts on the issue; more than likely driving them in the opposite direction.  (To be fair the speaker did not deny Christ and professed Him as his savior, but evidently not Lord of his thoughts.)

Since many Christian apologists are fearful of either being equated with or practicing question-begging (i.e. circular reasoning), they assume there is a better way to get people to Jesus Christ. The Bible is good for Christians, just not unbeliever’s. What many Christian apologists/philosophers fail to realize is that when it comes to ultimate standards circular-reasoning not only happens (everybody does it), but is absolutely necessary. Something Joe Boot recognizes as a bit of “…a catch-22 situation…In other words, you have to start somewhere; in order to reason at all something must be taken for granted.”1 Why? Because “…in order to argue at all we necessarily presuppose the truth of something, and that something must be taken as self-evidencing—a truth that need not (or cannot) appeal to anything else or beyond itself for verification.”2

Surprisingly there are a significant number of professed Christian apologists who fail to understand the necessity of this position. There are, I think, a few reasons for this, but I’m only going to briefly touch on one in this post.

“Well, what is it?” you ask. The answer: A failure to see that the Bible teaches us to do it.

Understanding the Charter Verse of Christian Apologetics

Christian apologetics is the believer’s attempt at defending/defining Christian belief to the surrounding populace. Such a defense is meant to be a cogent argument for the truthfulness of the Christian worldview; an offer of the hope that is within us. If we are going to do this faithfully, then we need to understand how the Bible commands all Christians to do so. The answer lies in the following verse:

  • “…but honor [set-apart] the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1Pet 3.15; HCSB).

As I noted in the past this verse is drawn from Isaiah 8:12-13.  At a time when many Hebrews in Judah were being tempted to follow the “logical” thinking of the day, the Lord through His prophet Isaiah, tells them to not adopt worldly thinking.  What were they to do? They were to base their thoughts and actions upon the Word of God.

Listen, because this is important, Israelites were being commanded to stand upon God’s revealed instruction not the evidence all around them. If they were making decisions based on the evidence, then their faith would have failed because things were looking pretty bleak at that time.  And yet, they were told “Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed…” (1Pet 3.14; Isa 8.12; cf. 7.2). Notice that those who were afraid in Isaiah’s time were those who had deviated from the truth of what God had spoken, Isaiah was sent to a people who refused to bow the knee to the Lord and honor His Word (see Isa 6.8-10).

Both Peter and Isaiah tell God’s children not to fear or be disturbed.  Both men of God are speaking about the various trials that true believers in their particular context struggle with. What is to keep them sated; to calm their fears? The Word of the Lord. In both contexts believers are told to regard Him as holy. Both Isaiah and Peter tell the people of God that their foundation, which is the Lord of Hosts, is to be that ground on which they stand.

It is true that in Peter’s application of this command (and yes, it is a command to sanctify the Lord as holy in our hearts) seems to offer a unique twist. For he says that we must always be ready to give an apologetic to anyone who asks. But in response I ask you, “Do you suppose that people in Isaiah’s day wouldn’t have asked their fellows who had settled the matter in their heart, ‘What gives you such hope? Do you not see the danger before us? The suffering that seems so evident? How can you trust that the Lord will deliver?’” Both Peter and Isaiah tell believers to start and finish their reasoning on the same ground.

Peter says, “Christian, you must first start with Christ in order to answer for Christ.” How many times have you read that verse (1Pet 3.15) and failed to see that the very ground for Christian apologetics is circular? We are commanded to start with Christ (set Him apart as Holy) as our hearts primary commitment. Likewise, when we are confronted with the various opinions of Mr. and Mrs. Worldly-Wise, we do not abandon our treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2.3); rather, we tear down their opinions by bringing them unto submission under Christ Jesus (2Cor 10.4-5).  The desire to appear neutral when witnessing to those outside the Christian faith is a practice of folly, plain and simple. And not only does Peter tell us not to reason with the world in that way, but the Bible is filled with texts that validate a subtle form of circular argumentation.

Biblical Evidences for Circular-Argumentation

“It is written,” “Have you not read?” “You err because you do not know the Scriptures.” These are the common rebuttals that Jesus used during His earthly ministry. When challenged, when tempted (i.e. tested), when His practices were inquired about, whatever the circumstance might be Jesus’ go to was the Word of God. Our Lord was confident that Scripture could not be broken and would stand the test of time. He instructed His people to reason in the same way so that they would know the truth and the wisdom that comes from heaven above. He taught that the Scripture is a necessary presuppositional commitment.

There are many texts that we could draw this truth from. Jesus used it in order to justify His disciples picking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2.23-28), to prove He was the Messiah to John the Baptist while he was in prison(Matt 11.1-6), His driving of the money changers out of the temple complex (Mark 11.17), to lightly chastise his disciples for not discerning the truth of the empty tomb (Luke 24.25-27), on proper divorce procedures (Matt 19.3-8), and yes, even providing the grounds for the source of one’s faith and witness (John 5.45-46; Luke 16.30-31).

“Yes,” you say “but that was provided in a Jewish context. Those people had been raised on the Bible3, but what about the Gentiles? What about people who don’t believe?”

I can think of two instances that we are provided with that help us in this regard. First, the testing of Satan. Second, Paul in Athens (addressed in the next post).

The Testing of Satan…

After Jesus had been anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry, He was immediately lead into the wilderness where he fasted for 40 days. When this period was finished, naturally he was famished. Having deprived His body of necessary nutrition the Lord was weak. In walks that vile serpent of old Satan, the great adversary, to test Him.  “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (Matt 4.3).  What is the implication of this statement?

“Jesus, you believe you are the Son of God…prove it. If you really have divine authority, take these stones—you know your hungry—and turn them into bread. Not only will your body get sustenance, but you will also prove to me that you are who you say you are.” Notice, Satan does not ask for Jesus’ credentials from Scripture, but prefers that Jesus prove He is the Christ using some other standard.

What is the Lord’s response? Does He meet the devil where he is at by appealing to some other proof? Does He look at this unbeliever and think “I’ll show him something that he cannot deny?” No, He does not. Jesus presupposed the Bible as an authoritative foundation to refute His opponent. In fact, the text that the Lord cites is one that states unequivocally that it is only possible for a person to truly live when they are dependent upon every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt 4.4; Deut 8.1-3). It is possible that you passed by my point without realizing it, so allow me to repeat it “it is only possible for a person to truly live when they are dependent upon…” the Word of God. Christian apologetics is an act of living dependently in this fashion.

Had Jesus acquiesced to Satan’s demands, He would have proven not that He was the Son of God but that He was not worthy of such a title. In order to turn those stones to bread He would have had to deny Himself; showing that man could faithfully live by some other means before His Creator. Such irrationality you will never find in the mind of God. Jesus proved in His appeal to Scripture as the ultimate standard for living not only that He is rational, but that He is none other than God’s unique Son; a perfect representation of the image of God.  By the way, Jesus used the same approach before the Sanhedrin when they charged Him with blasphemy (Mark 14.61-64). And according to the writer of Hebrews God made His promise to Abraham on the same presuppositional grounds:

  • “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since He had no one greater to swear by, He swore by Himself…For men swear by something greater than themselves, and for them a confirming oath ends every dispute. Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us” (Heb 6.13, 16-18; italics added; HCSB).

A subtly circular argument on which the promise to the heirs of God rest. Part III will focus on Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens.