By: John M. Frame
Is everyone called to embrace circular argument?
Only in one sense.
Circularity in Presuppositional Apologetics
We are not called to use arguments such as this:
“The Bible is true; therefore, the Bible is true.”
One can certainly say that there is a kind of circularity in presuppositional apologetics, but the circularity is neither vicious nor fallacious. It sounds circular to say that our faith governs our reasoning and also that it is in turn based on rationality. But it is important to remember that the rationality of which we speak, the rationality that serves as the rational basis for faith, is God’s own rationality.
The sequence is as follows: God’s rationality → human faith → human reasoning.
(The arrows may be read “is the rational basis for.”)
God gave us rational equipment so we might gain knowledge
So in this sense, the sequence is linear, not circular. But if faith is in accord with God’s own thought, then it goes without saying that it will also be in accord with the best human reasoning, which images God’s. God gave us our rational equipment not to deceive us, but so that we might gain knowledge. Apart from sin, we may trust it to lead us into the truth; and even to sinners, the facts of God’s creation bear clear witness of him to the human mind (Rom. 1:20).
In biblical argument, therefore, there is both reasoning and evidence: the clear revelation that God has given of himself in the created world. So it is both right and proper to use evidences and human logic to confirm faith. Scripture does this very thing, frequently calling on people to look at the evidences of the truth (Ps. 19:1; Luke 1:1–4; John 20:30–31; Acts 1:1–3; 26:26; Rom. 1:19–20). Biblical religion is unique in its appeal to history as the locus of divine revelation. God has plainly revealed himself both in nature and in historical events. So it is quite legitimate, as we will see, to argue on the basis of evidence, such as the testimony of five hundred witnesses to the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6).
“Circularity” in the Eyewitness Account
Eyewitness accounts may be used argumentatively as follows:
- Premise 1: If Jesus’ postresurrection appearances are well attested, then the resurrection is a fact.
- Premise 2: His postresurrection appearances are well attested.
- Conclusion: Therefore, the resurrection is a fact.
This is not a circular argument on any reasonable definition of circularity. And yet a certain circularity becomes evident when someone asks, “What are your ultimate criteria for good attestation?” or “What broad view of human knowledge permits you to reason from eyewitness testimony to a miraculous fact?” The empiricist philosophy of David Hume, to use only one example, does not allow for that kind of argument. The fact is that the Christian here is presupposing a Christian epistemology—a view of knowledge, testimony, witness, appearance, and fact that is subject to Scripture. In other words, he is using scriptural standards to prove scriptural conclusions.
Every philosophy must use its own standards in proving its conclusions: otherwise, it is simply inconsistent
Does that procedure deserve to be condemned as circular? Everyone else reasons the same way. Every philosophy must use its own standards in proving its conclusions; otherwise, it is simply inconsistent. Those who believe that human reason is the ultimate authority (rationalists) must presuppose the authority of reason in their arguments for rationalism. Those who believe in the ultimacy of sense-experience must presuppose it in arguing for their philosophy (empiricism). And skeptics must be skeptical of their own skepticism (a fact that is, of course, the Achilles’ heel of skepticism). The point is that when one is arguing for an ultimate criterion, whether Scripture, the Qur’an, human reason, sensation, or whatever, one must use criteria compatible with that conclusion. If that is circularity, then everybody is guilty of circularity.
John M. Frame (AB, Princeton University; BD, Westminster Theological Seminary; MA and MPhil, Yale University; DD, Belhaven College) holds the J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando and is the author of many books, including the four-volume Theology of Lordship series.
Adapted from Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief