Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Thursday, July 05, 2007

    Circular reasoning

    One of the top posts on Wordpress the last few days was this one:
    Don't ask me to read your holy book

    Having just gone through a light discussion with a couple of atheists, I came across the little gem above, which seems to typify the current mode of thinking among non-believers. The premise seems to be that reading a "holy book" is nothing but circular reasoning, since the "holy book" is the thing that validates itself.

    Since the issue seems to be circular reasoning, we read on.

    Let me quote from our non-believer:
    Let me reiterate what I consider myself to be. I am a skeptic. I am a naturalist (i.e,. I look for natural, as opposed to supernatural causes). I’m not a scientist in the sense that I work with science, but I’m a fan of the scientific method."


    "Naturally, I can’t find out if the premise is true by assuming the premise. That would be circular reasoning. "


    "This is some elementary advice to theists who wish to justify their faiths to nonbelievers or believers of other faiths: never rely on your conclusion to prove your conclusion."

    Talk about being hypocritical. Why is it that people like this want to apply one set of standards to the theist, and another to themselves? It must be ignorance, arrogance or just plain foolishness. Does this writer not see how he shoots himself in both feet right before he puts them in his mouth? He himself is guilty of vicious circulus in probando.

    His conclusion of inherent circularity in holy books apply equally as well to his position. "I am a naturalist because I look for natural causes." His conclusion of naturalism is therefore found in his premise, he is a naturalist because he believes only natural causes can exist. It is question begging in his own favor of the highest order. We see no reasoned argument for why naturalism is deemed to be true, but even if we do, we may dismiss it with equal disdain by saying that he should not ask us to read his argument, it assumes naturalism in the premises.

    Of course, he will make no mention of the things he holds to by faith (uniformity of nature, omnipotent chance and reliability of the senses), nor will he show the natural causes of the scientific method. Not only is he circular, but the axioms within his circle are firmly suspended in mid-air. For an argument to be valid, the premise have to be undeniable. Clearly, the naturalist premises are not.

    The key is how the different schools of thought withstand internal critique. Naturalism struggles with internal critique, because it is inductive by nature. Any of its conclusions can be viewed with skepticism, because we can never examine all the evidence in all relationships in all senses. It further refuses to admit to its own metaphysical components. For example, how can the naturalist prove the laws of logic by use of the scientific method, without being viciously circular? It is a metaphysical assumption held to by a groundless faith.

    Christianity may be or not be circular, but it withstands an internal critique much better than naturalism. Furthermore, our friend may be surprised to know that not all circular reasoning is fallacious. Also, there are many proofs for theism and Christianity that are not viciously circular.

    This is just a further example of how much the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the other pop-lit atheists have set back reasoned thinking and debate. Arrogance and intellectual dishonesty are not arguments, they are sad demonstrations of a bankrupt philosophy hiding behind bravado.


    Swordbearer said...

    Excellent Post!

    It's strikes at the heart of the issues, clearly lays out the truth, and exposes both the vanity and weakness of some who though they smugly rest in their own comforts and conclusions, do so to their own harm.

    Wonder if it ever occured to this writer that he may be seeing only the elephant he falsely presupposed to be in the room to begin with?

    His own presuppositions are revealed when he says "I look for the natural, as opposed to the supernatural."

    August said...

    That is exactly the point, Sword.

    It is a battle between worldviews, and we are looking to see which worldview can account for itself best. In that battle, there is no neutrality or default position.

    Swordbearer said...

    And the fact that some fail to see this (and apply it to themselves)... ON ONE LEVEL, not only brings their confidence into question, but their conclusions as well.

    Sam said...

    As a floundering Christian searching for answers, here's my problem. They (the non-believers) have accused us of circular reasoning. We (believers) have accused them of circular reasoning. Who wins really?

    Aren't we just bombarding eachother's ships here? The faith we practise today is still based on circular reasoning. We have a tendency to automatically shut off anything that could contradict it because "they" are wrong. It is only after, do we look for an argument to prove them wrong.

    I wish, as a critically thinking Christian (I'd like to call myself that) I could slip into the world of an atheist and understand the reasons why he believes what he does; and then work from there. Atheists would never find Christ because Christians told them they were wrong.

    panta dokimazete said...

    I hate that you are floundering, because there is no reason to do so. My faith is secured in Christ and my reason is bound to His glory. I refuse to capitulate an inch to any worldview that is not. SDG!

    Anything less dishonors my Saviour.

    Sam said...

    panta dokimazete, no one's asking you to capitulate anywhere... i for one, also would not dare to move an inch away from the Christ I love. But why do I have a feeling i would not win a atheist for Christ if i don't understand the reason for His atheism myself. Yes, it is like walking through the valley of the shadow, because we're so vulnerable at that point... but shouldn't we take that risk?

    panta dokimazete said...

    Sam - I am really not trying to sound harsh, but you are basically saying "Let's assume the worldview of the enemy so we can understand them better." Presumably, with the thought that by doing so, we can find a "middle ground" and by doing so, bring them along to truth.

    The issue with this approach is that in order to do so, one must be willing to "give credence" to what we know as false suppositions that the material naturalist/atheist has assumed, accepted and asserts.

    That is, that somehow the world and human existance can make sense without God and therefore Christ.

    Scripturally, this is not a sound apologetic approach.

    Our job is to proclaim the gospel - "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us".

    The atheistic worldview does not acknowledge sin, since they have rationalized it into part of a bio-chemical/psychological behavior paradigm, therefore - if no sin, no need for a Savior.

    Why in the world would I adopt or sympathize with this view, even for a second?

    a) it dishonors Christ, and Christ is more precious to me than empathizing with an atheist

    b) it diminishes my well-considered faith to give any credence to this spiritually bankrupt worldview and adopt the mind of the enemy

    Again - not trying to sound harsh, but there are lines I refuse to cross. I can sympathize and agonize over the destructiveness of the worldview and the folks under the bondage of this sinful worldview, but I will confront it as Christ did - graceful, yet straightforward, uncompromising and firm.

    I pray that you will, also.



    Puritan Lad said...


    To add to this discussion, it is not your job to win the atheist to Christ. That is something that only the Holy Spirit can do. This will be accomplished with prayer and the gospel, not by trying to empathize with atheism.

    Why Do We Believe? said...

    Puritan Lad:

    You say it is not a Christian's job to win an atheist over to Christ, yet many sects of Christianity believe just that. And for good reason, too; it says to do just that in the Bible, in several places:

    "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
    –Matthew 28:19,20

    "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature."
    – Mark 16:15

    Either these sects have corrupted this verse, or they are following this verse exactly by trying to convert as many as possible to their faith. How do you square this interpretation with your interpretation that only the Holy Spirit can convert someone to Christianity?


    Puritan Lad said...


    My comment was directed toward Sam, who wants to start his evangelism to atheists on some imaginary "neutral" ground. Yes, we are the means by which God wins unbelievers. But as far as are responsibility goes, we cannot save souls. That is something only God can do.

    We may be the means, but "Salvation is of the Lord" (Jonah 2).

    Sam said...

    JD: I feel i didn't explain myself well enough. I don't want to 'assume' their world-view. (I mean, why assume something that is false?) And I am not talking about stepping into a 'middle ground' that compromises on the truth. I shudder to think of it.

    I have beaten so many of my atheist friends in debate, with my meagre readings of great apologists, but isn't the whole point to win them over and not defeat them?
    I just wish to understand WHOLLY the REASON WHY they choose to believe in the falsehoods they do, when the truth is staring at them in the face. (or rather written in their hearts as Romans 1 says) Is it fear? A wall to justify wrongdoing?
    Mere philosophical defence of the truth, (easy as it sounds) still sounds incomplete in working for transformation, or making disciples

    swordbearer said...

    Thanks for the clarification.

    You are right in that our goal is not simply defense of the faith (though that has it's important place) but in love to "persuade" others with gospel. 2 Cor 5:11 "Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men..." I like the word "winsomely" in describing this.

    On the other issue, I think the point has been made: There's a difference between assuming the worldview of another or suggesting "neutral" ground ... and studying to understand the reasons why unbelievers oppose the gospel and embrace the worldviews they do.

    Many Bible verses speak to the reasons behind this - rebellion, love of unrighteousnes, unbelief, etc.

    While knowing these issues is helpful, we must keep in mind that while they may be applied to help try to get others to recognize, face and deal with their true condition and orientation, only God can regenerate (give new life / orientation).

    This is not meant to dissuade your search in this area (for I believe these issues extremely valuable and useful to apologists), but to make sure you understand what it can ultimate get you so that you don't put false hope in the answers doing more for you than they will. Keep up the good work!

    Why Do We Believe? said...

    Sam, Swordbearer:

    I am still a little intrigued by your difference of opinion with regards to attempts to convert non-believers.

    Sword seems to be suggesting that one can only go so far, and should not put more effort into converting non-believers than is healthy. Doesn't this go against Jesus' main instruction to all Christians (hence the "evangelical" sects)? How do you know when "enough is enough"?

    Sam seems to be implying that there is some way to meet in the middle with non-believers, and yet you (Sword) are discouraging this. Do you truly think that there is zero overlap between the Christian world-view and the atheist? If so, you've got things drastically wrong.

    I would challenge all believers who wish to converse with non-believers to actually read and understand our (yes, our :P) perspective, to the point that one could recite it back to us without offense. This is what non-believers strive to do with the religiously inclined, and it strikes me as odd to just give up the ship because you assume no commonalities of thought.

    Just my two cents/mini-challenge. :) Thanks for the openmindedness, Sam.


    swordbearer said...

    Ashley (Why Do We Believe?)

    You have misunderstood my position.

    In regard to converting unbelievers, one must distinguish between the power of salvation and the process of evangelism.

    As far as the power of salvation, this belongs entirely to God. Believers cannot regenerate anyone. (This is true regardless of what understanding they have or what evangelistic techniques they use). Salvation belongs to our God.

    As far as the process of evangelism, believers should use all in their arsenal to lead one to Christ and persuade them with the gospel.

    This being said, even when one uses all in his arsenal; one must recognize saving mercy and grace comes from God.

    As far as your statement that believers should "...actually read and understand our (yes, our :P) perspective, to the point that one could recite it back to us without offense", this is not the point under discussion. The point under discussion deals with whether the evangelist shoulld "assume" or "accept unbiblical presuppositons" from the unbeliever's perspective when evangelizing. (It's an issue of presuppostional apologetics; not familiarity with perspective).

    Puritan Lad said...

    Ashley: "Do you truly think that there is zero overlap between the Christian world-view and the atheist? If so, you've got things drastically wrong."


    While there is "overlap" in the two worldviews, we will not agree on just what that overlap consists of. For example, if we begin with "science" or "logic", we are assuming a priori that such things make sense in a worldview without God. It is that point that needs to be challenged.

    What "overlap" may we appeal to in our apologetics? We may appeal to the knowledge that all men have of the true, Living God, but tends to suppress (Romans 1:18-22). We don't look for any unbelieving or "neutral" common ground, because there is none. There is no neutral position on anything, and even if there was, that position would be forbidden to us. The charter text for Christian apologetics (1 Peter 3:15) begins by commanding us to "in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy". It is only then that we may be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect".

    Any other method of apologetics implicity denies the lordship of Christ over human knowledge, and, at best, shows that God "probably" exists.