Circular Reasoning = Expensive; One Giant Step Closer to Christianity = Priceless

I’m about to say something that may raise your hackles. But, please, hear me out, hang with me through the end of this post, and give some consideration to my argument before you remove me from your bookmark menu… 🙂

There are few things that frustrate me like prominent young-earth creationism ministries do. (Did you just gasp?)

Do I believe that the young-earth creationists’ research project is a worthwhile endeavor? Yes, yes I do. I believe their avenue of intellectual inquiry is reasonable, and that their hypothesis deserves to be explored. As long as the data is treated honestly and with scientific integrity, I say go for it.

Am I intellectually committed to a young-earth view? No, I am not. After years of study on the topic, I have reached the conclusion that it is best to make sure you fully understand each point of view (theologically and scientifically) and to realize that it is absolutely not an issue worth dividing over. It is a hermenutics issue, NOT a biblical authority issue. There are sometimes multiple possible interpretations of biblical passages that are theologically and linguistically reasonable. I will not go into the details of that issue here. Suffice it to say that if a particular interpretation of scripture is plausible and it solves external problems (such as scientific ones), then I believe you are justified in accepting that interpretation.

What bothers me about young-earth organizations (more so than their accusations of compromise aimed at old-earth creationists) is that they shoot themselves in the feet when it comes to offering a viable apologetic to non-believers.  You often hear them make statements like, “We should start with the Bible, view everything in the world through the lens of Scripture, and adjust our beliefs about the natural world accordingly.” Of course the Bible should be our ultimate authority on everything; if we hold Scripture to be the inspired word of God, and we understand its factual reliability based on centuries of rigorous historical and textual research, we should trust it to be completely and utterly true (while accepting that there is some latitude in how some passages can be interpreted).

However, when it comes to defending the faith and keeping our hearts united with our God-given intellect, we need to examine this approach more closely. When someone asks you why you believe the biblical claim that “God created the heavens and the earth,” how far do you think you’re going to get with them by answering, “For the Bible tells me so”?  This is a fallacy known as circular reasoning, and it is fatal to our apologetic and to having a reasonable faith ourselves!

What we need instead is extra-biblical evidence that supports the truth of the Bible. (Notice that I did not use the word “prove.”) Philosophers use the fancy phrase “epistemic grounding.” We need to meet the non-believer where they are–observable nature–and carry them towards the truth of Christianity. As believers, we benefit from having both intellectual AND spiritual reasons for our beliefs, and we escape the trap of having a privatized theology where our confidence in the Bible is based exclusively on internal feelings.

I believe this is where intelligent design theory is enormously useful. I call it a “stepping stone apologetic” for Christianity. What I mean by this is that it isn’t a direct argument for the faith, but it is an indispensable step in the cumulative case for it. By demonstrating that nature bears hallmarks of design, such as the specified complexity of the genetic code, we show the plausibility of a Creator.

I love the way Dr. John Mark Reynolds stated it:

No, intelligent design is not a uniquely Christian movement, and no, it does not get us all the way from John chapter one, verse one to John chapter one, verse fourteen. And yes, it is broad and diverse, capable of holding any number of people, from neo-Platonist pagans to Islamic persons, to Jewish persons. But I will tell you this: We will never get the culture to John 1:14 if we do not first establish, as the Greeks did before, that John chapter one verse one is credible and worth believing.

Amen.

16 thoughts on “Circular Reasoning = Expensive; One Giant Step Closer to Christianity = Priceless

  1. Great post. The whole thing really resonates with me. I feel exactly the same way about YEC–I appreciate the effort and the research project, but I feel they’re doing it the wrong way and I disagree with them about the conclusions.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Melissa! It seems most reasonable that in order to establish credibility there would need to be answers to questions that come from outside the Bible that would at the very least corroborate. In light of this, do you think the church is for the most part, out of touch with the culture by concentrating mostly inwardly?

  3. It’s good, and in keeping with epistemic humility, to point out the circular nature of reasoning that applies to the authority of Scripture, the claims of “design” in the analysis if natural phenomenon, etc. However, it’s also extremely important to point out that this circularity is a feature of all epistemology, not just those which happen to be grounded in theism.

    That is, there is no such promised land as objectivity for the human thinker. As all knowledge is ultimately “of mind,” we cannot claim in any of logical endeAvors that this or that line if reasoning is more “objective” than the other. All are fundamentally enslaved to the subjectivities of finite human existence…even science.

  4. I don’t agree that Young Earth Creationists (YEC) are valid scientists.

    The natural sciences are the branch of philosophy that focuses specifically on the operation of nature. Ideally, they are reading the book of nature to determine what God has produced there.

    Theology is the branch of philosophy that examines what God has revealed verbally and in Church practice.

    If the Christian religion is true (mind you, I believe that it is), then what the natural sciences find will eventually agree with what God has revealed by other means, because God is consistent and rational. I emphasize eventually because there is no guarantee that every finding of science will necessarily confirm what we know from theology at every step in the inquiry. What we know about the natural world may be incomplete, and what we know about what God has revealed by other means may also be incomplete. So it is not reasonable to expect that every finding of science will confirm what we know from theology — not until knowledge is complete, of both nature and theology.

    To bring the Bible into the laboratory and say “Thus-and-so conclusion is invalid, because the Bible says otherwise” is to mix theology with the natural sciences. In effect, it demands that the findings of natural science conform to the findings of theology at every step of the journey. This actually damages the exercise of science by hindering scientists from drawing whatever conclusion is warranted by the facts. Scientists must be free to examine the natural world honestly, without the interference of theologians. Commentary is welcome, but intervention is not.

    Young Earth Creationism begins from theology, and forms hypotheses based on their interpretation of theology. YECers will not accept any conclusion that does not conform to their theology. This is an unacceptable incursion of theology into the examination of the natural sciences, that, again, damages the examination of the natural world.

    If the examination of the natural world is being damaged in a similar fashion by adherents of another religion — like, for example, metaphysical naturalists insisting that no designer is permitted in biology — then the proper cure is to point out how this incursion, likewise, damages the forward progress of the examination of the natural world. Allowing other religions and philosophies to damage the process will simply cause the whole investigation to grind to a halt.

    This is what the Intelligent Design movement is trying to achieve. Phillip Johnson did exactly what I describe when he wrote “Darwin On Trial”: he blew the whistle on non-theistic religion co-opting the examination of the natural world. Their goal is to return the examination of nature to an objective footing, so the examination can continue honestly.

    This is very different from the objectives of the YEC groups. They want to make natural inquiry subject to biblical theology on a daily basis. While their devotion to the Bible is admirable in a way, their methods are unacceptable.

    Metaphysical naturalism distorts scientific inquiry, but methodological naturalism does not. Methodological naturalism merely presupposes that God’s world is rational, not that there is no God. The very exercise of examining the natural world rests on methodological naturalism. To object to it is to end the rational inquiry into nature.

  5. @existdissolve states it correctly. No matter what epistemological framework you start with your foundations are going to be circular.

    If you want your epistemic grounding to be reason, then the question becomes how do we know our reason to be correct? Well the only way to test is with our reason, see the circularity?

    Also, the example you gave was one might call narrow circularity, and bringing the extra-biblical evidences would still be circular, but more broad in nature.

    I’m sure you’re aware of the pre-suppositional approach to apologetics which actually takes what your post is against and uses it as an offensive. The Collision dvd with Wilson and Hitchens is an example I think.

    1. While it’s true that we make the assumption that human reason can directly access truth, that’s not the same type of vicious circularity that I wrote about in this post. I believe we can know true things about reality, because I believe God gave us a the faculty of reason for the express purpose of obtaining truth. Had He not, we would never be able to come to a saving knowledge of Him. If all reasoning is circular (therefore unreliable) then your claim that “No matter what epistemological framework you start with your foundations are going to be circular” would not be a reliable statement in itself.

  6. @Melissa, I don’t take that b/c something is circular it’s unreliable. We all know circularity is generally bad in reasoning, however, when you get to the roots of pretty much any system it’s going to be there. At that point we just have to accept various axioms or truths or assumptions etc.

    So, you said that you believe we can know true things about reality, b/c you believe God gave us the faculty of reason for the express purpose of obtaining truth. This statement is akin to the Cartesian circle, and I’m sure you see this reasoning to a degree is the same as the people you wrote against in your post. Except you place trust in your mind/reason, whereas they place trust in the Bible. Bible said God is true, Bible is God’s word, therefore God is true. Melissa says God is true, Melissa has good faculties, God made Melissa, therefore God is true. A bit reductionist but you get the point.

    As for the last ‘if then’ statement in your response, again, I did not say all reasoning is circular (nor do I accept b/c something is circular it is therefore unreliable). As for my statement itself, I’m referring to the epistemological aspect, I’m not actually doubting it per se. I’m only saying circularity is hard to escape no matter how hard you try.

  7. How is using the Bible to prove that the Bible is true circular reasoning? The Biblical canon is comprised of 66 books written by different persons in different places and during the course of hundreds of years. The Bible is not some kind of conspiracy by a select group to propagate certain ideas. It has come to transcend nations, peoples, cultures, and time itself.

    Why should we not accept what has continually been proven over that which is purely theory? “Extra-biblical” evidence will only go so far in trying to convince someone, because “evidence” can always be found to support the contrary. The power to save lies in the Bible and the work of the Holy Spirit and not in convincingly putting together scientific findings to support the Bible.

    The only benefit I see in using “extra-biblical” evidence is that it may help a person arrive at the correct Biblical conclusion provided that that person examine both the Bible and extra-biblical evidence objectively. This is something few people are willing to do. Most people just heap up evidence to the contrary and shut their eyes to any other evidence that might disagree to their own skewed subjective view.

    I always love when agnostics and atheists throw the “circular reasoning” argument out there. It is merely a ploy for Christians to abandon the most powerful weapon that they have.

    I guess Moses, the apostle Paul, and all the the other writers of the Bible for that matter had the exact same agenda…. They were all trying to prove creationism/ intelligent design. Brilliant.

    Awesome blog by the way. I just found it while blog surfing. 🙂

    1. Hi, thanks for your comments. Using the Bible to prove that the Bible is true is circular from the perspective of the naturalistic non-believer. Because the Bible contains claims about supernatural events in history, the naturalist regards the entire canon as suspect. This is unfortunate and unfounded, but in order to meet the person where they are and draw them toward the truth, we need extra-biblical epistemic grounding to support the truth of the text.

      No argument ever won a person to Christ. That’s the Holy Spirit’s exclusive territory. However, MANY have become open to the truth through evidential arguments. I have close friends who didn’t open their mind to the possibility of Christianity being true until they’d examined support for Scripture for quite some time. C.S. Lewis is another great example.

      Paul frequently used evidential argumentation in his apologetic. For instance, he pointed to the fact that multitudes of people saw the risen Christ. He testified of his own physical encounter.

    2. I agree that evidential arguments are for the benefit of the honest seeker (i.e. C.S. Lewis). The fact that evidence can be found to support the Bible and that first-hand empirical evidence (Paul’s testimony) is also readily available to back its claims is proof to the rationality of the Bible’s claims.

      I guess I just assume that the honest seeker does his/her best to approach the evidence and biblical claims objectively and without presupposition. But these people are few and far between. So, “meeting people where they are”… I will have to think more on this.

      Thanks for gettin’ me thinkin’!

    3. Well, an honest seeker likely would give Scripture a pretty fair shake…but there are so many who don’t fit the “honest seeker” category–they think their preconceived notions about the Bible are factual. If they can be shown that other disciplines corroborate Scripture rather than refuting it, a huge stumbling block is removed. The Emperor suddenly has no clothes, so to speak. Of course, there are many who simply refuse to consider Christianity, and no amount of evidence will ever matter to them.

      This is not to undervalue internal textual consistencies, though.

  8. I’d like to point out a few fundamentals here if I may. There was no such thing as science when the Bible was written, nor was there such a thing as history as a discipline for that matter, and it was written in quite primitive times. Which isn’t to say that those primitive people weren’t some of the greatest God-inspired thinkers and poets and storytellers who ever lived. But they believed the world was flat, that the earth was covered by a big dome that God called the sky. (Gen. 1:6). Try getting an educated non-believer, who hasn’t checked his or her brain at the door, to buy into that kind of “science” from any kind of reasoning, circular or otherwise. The Bible is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life. It points to the glorious, loving and merciful God who is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The Bible is the Truth; but, for God’s sake, that doesn’t mean it’s all true from a factual and empirical standpoint. My favorite piece of literature after the Bible (and the Bible is great literature among other things) is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s masterpiece contains Truth about the ugliness of slavery, and tons more Truth about the human condition than any history books, but it’s a work of fiction, and one that takes us deeper into the study of history of America and the history of slavery and the human condition through the ages. Christian faith and the Bible are NOT at odds with science just because they aren’t science and aren’t about science. The Bible and Christian faith (and Christian Tradition) are about the loving God who created the world in ways that science can and will reveal little by little –while never reaching that transcendent realm where God dwells enough to explain it all. You just can’t put the Love and Grace or The Holy Spirit and the Ultimate Creator under a microscope back on Mother Earth no matter how far your satellite might venture out. Christian faith and the Bible aren’t about scientific facts but about finding meaning in life–and science can’t begin to teach us anything about meaning, about the human condition and right and wrong, love and evil, etc.. Faith and science and matters like evolution aren’t either/or but both/and propositions. One is not a threat to the other–or shouldn’t be. And yes, there are “internal text consistencies” in the Bible. But we people of faith have to concede our Bible’s limits from the scientific standpoint and argue from the standpoint of what it is, rather than make it into a science book, which it’s not. With science exploration and discoveries advancing at the speed of light, we can’t be trying to make Creationism and “young earthism” and such be the science we might want science to be in order to preserve the integrity of our Bible in ways that aren’t even necessary to preserve the integrity of the Bible. Otherwise, the Chris Hitchens and the hostile atheist scientists of the world will prevail in winning hearts and minds that we aim to win over to a God whose love and grace is extravagant in a broken world that stands in need of God’s healing power.

    1. Dear Paul,

      Thank you for your comments. I would agree that the Bible is not, and was not intended to be, a science textbook. However, there were practitioners of science and historical record keeping during the time that the majority of Scripture was written. The meticulous techniques of Babylonian astronomy pre-date the New Testament, as does the work of the “natural philosophers” (aka scientists) of ancient Greece.

      The spherical shape of the earth was established and accepted by all educated Greeks and Romans before the Gospel accounts or the Epistles were written. So, the apostle Paul, for one, would be an example of a biblical author who understood the spherical nature of the earth. Scriptural allusions to the earth being “flat” are not propositional claims about the shape of the planet. They are colloquialisms, idiomatic expressions, etc. Yes, some of the writers probably believed that the earth was flat, but one must be clear that nowhere does Scripture claim that erroneous proposition to be true.

      I completely disagree with the statement, “…that doesn’t mean it’s all true from a factual and empirical standpoint.” When Scripture is correctly understood within its appropriate historical, cultural, geographical, linguistic, and literary contexts, every claim it makes can confidently be accepted as truth. The original, inspired manuscripts were inerrant, and we can have a high level of confidence in the text we now possess. This approach to the Word has never failed me.

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