If the Bible contains circular reasoning, does it discredit it?

One of the reasons why I wonder about this is because in most academic/professional fields circular reasoning would discredit the research/answer/ect... Does this apply to religion as it is primarily faith-based? When looking for an answer online, there seems to always be a "work around" as to why the Bible remains true regardless of some circular reasoning arguments.

NOTE: By "circular reasoning" I'm talking about the self-referencing aspect (e.g. It is true because I said it is true). "Discrediting" would be losing its credibility as a source of truth/fact or of a basis upon which certain beliefs are held standard to.

This question is about whether or not circular reasoning would discredit the Bible. It is in no way saying the bible is untrue/true or that is contains circular reasoning.

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    I don't see a whole lot of arguments for positions in the Bible, where an argument is a set of sentences intended to logically entail a certain conclusion. The Bible tends to just declare certain things to be the case. (So does, for instance, the the US Declaration of Independence, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents.) – shane Jan 11 '16 at 17:39
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    For what it's worth, this is a great argument against certain kinds of Christianity. First of all, the Bible nowhere says what you claim (that the Bible in particular is true ... the writers of the Bible didn't know they were writing a single text that would be called "the Bible"). For many Christians (particularly Catholics and Eastern Orthodox), it is understood that Christianity existed for about 400 years before the canon that makes up the Bible was "settled." – James Kingsbery Jan 11 '16 at 20:05
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    Also, the link you included is incredibly ignorant of many arguments offered by Christians over the years... there is not one quote from any Christian philosopher/theologist. There are references to eg CS Lewis but no quotes, and then several hypothetical quotes and one quote from a "random book." One may find arguments made by Christians not persuasive enough, but every sentence I bothered to read of that link has had thorough and thoughtful arguments made against it. – James Kingsbery Jan 11 '16 at 20:10
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    @JamesKingsbery I don't follow you. The title reads, "if the Bible ..., does it discredit it?". Whether or not the Bible uses circular reasoning is outside the scope of this question. – Keelan Jan 11 '16 at 20:39
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    "Why do you reject the Bible?" "Because it uses circular reasoning" "Why do you reject circular reasoning?" "Because it's circular reasoning" – Ben Jan 12 '16 at 4:58
up vote 71 down vote accepted

Circular reasoning doesn't "discredit" any point of view --if anything, it demonstrates internal consistency. However, it also doesn't provide any external support for a point of view. It has no legitimate force against anyone not already convinced of the conclusion. This is a structural issue entirely independent of the question of whether we're considering the Bible or something else.

If all the justifications of something are self-justifications, one might justly become suspicious that the thing is incapable of any external justification. Whether or not the Bible falls in that category is a matter of dispute. A person might say, for example, "I believe in God, and because I believe in God ... I believe in the Bible, and because I believe in the Bible, I believe X, Y and Z are true about God." That is not actually circular, although it might appear to be. The foundational belief in God is taken as axiomatic in this case --perhaps it might derive ultimately from some personal religious experience --but the belief in certain characteristics of God is a few steps removed. It depends on that original belief, but it is not identical to it.

Conversely, consider the following line from a famous song: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. One might retort, how do you know to believe in the Bible? But this is also not circular reasoning, it's just an argument with no provided support for the first premise. It might turn out that belief in the Bible traces back to belief in the testimony of one's parents and teachers, or in one's religion considered as an institution. A critic might find the chain of reasoning underjustified, but it's inaccurate to call it circular.

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    "It depends on that original belief, but it is not identical to it." I would describe this simply as taking a second axiom, namely that the Bible is true. (Alternatively, you could take the Bible as true axiomatically and then declare your belief on God based on it.) – jpmc26 Jan 12 '16 at 12:12
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    @jpmc26 - I elided some steps in what would make this a more legitimate argument. For example "I believe in God because I had a personal religious experience. I had that experience in a church, therefore I believe there must be some validity to my religion. My religion takes the Bible as a foundational document, therefore I believe in the Bible," etc. – Chris Sunami Jan 12 '16 at 14:21
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    Just to provide the counter example, the first person could say something similar, which would be circular: "I believe in God, and because I believe in God ... I believe in the Bible, and because I believe in the Bible, which states that God exists, I believe in God". – JBentley Jan 13 '16 at 16:13

You are right that if argument X uses circular reasoning, it is not a valid argument according to the common interpretation, and surely not very convincing.

Most theologians therefore do not argue the Bible's correctness by the Bible's correctness. As an example, let's take Gerald O'Collins, who makes a case for the resurrection in his Rethinking Fundamental Theology (p. 155)*:

Naturally the opponents of the Christian movement explained away the missing body as a plain case of theft (Mt 28:11-15). What was in dispute was not whether the tomb was empty but why it was empty. We have no early evidence that anyone, either Christian or non-Christian, ever alleged that Jesus' tomb still contained his remains.

Another response is of course to claim that while we can't prove the Bible's correctness, we cannot falsify [some points from] it either, and that therefore we should rely on faith. That some argument claiming P isn't valid, doesn't mean P isn't true.

* Not only do we find this in Matthew, we also find this in the non-canonical gospel of Peter (vv. 37-38, 43, 49):

The stone cast before the entrance rolled away by itself and moved to one side; the tomb was open and both young men [that descended from the skies, v. 36] entered. When the soldiers [that were guarding the tomb, v. 32-33] saw these things, they woke up the centurion and the elders – for they were also there on guard. [...] They decided to go off to disclose what had happened to Pilate. [...] And so [because everyone urged him, v. 47] Pilate ordered the centurion and the soldiers not to say a word.

So also in this writing which is not part of "the Bible" we read that also the opponents agreed that the tomb was empty – just not why.

  • In my opinion only your first sentence answers the OP question. The question was not about whether the tomb was empty or not. – Jo Wehler Jan 11 '16 at 15:14
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    @JoWehler Yes, the first sentence answers the question. The second paragraph, (the third - the quote) and the fourth ("Another response...") are examples of how contemporary theologians may react. In the footnote I flesh out O'Collins' argument to show that it doesn't only rely on the Bible. – Keelan Jan 11 '16 at 15:20

A presence of circular reasoning does not automatically, or necessarily at all, discredit a publication. Circular reasoning may indicate a lack of external support for some argument expressed in a book but not necessarily so. The argument itself can however still be valid, even if the human individual expressing it fails to structure it properly.

As to the case of 2. Timothy 3:16:

When Paul wrote the text in 2. Timothy 3:16, there was of course no "Bible"; there was only what they considered as the holy writings (many of which are in today's Bible).

Firstly it's important to note that Paul did not claim that his own letter to Timothy was part of those writings. What eventually became the "Bible" was decided hundreds of years after Paul's death. From this perspective the penning of his letter to Timothy did not introduce a case of circular reasoning into the holy writings during the first century.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the text in that passage reads more like an encouragement for Timothy to use all parts of those writings for the work that Paul recommended. The passage text itself does not contain any argument(s) supported by circular reasoning.

Now however we may have someone saying that the following is an example of circular argumentation in the Bible:

Question: "How do you know the Bible is true? How do you know it is the word of God?"

Christian Answer: "Because the Bible says it is God's word."

This does not however demonstrate circular argumentation in the Bible.

If anything this is someone's opinion about what a "Christian" bases their faith in, or there could be some Christians who would always only answer the proposed question with a reference to 2. Timothy 3:16.

In either case however this example does not demonstrate the presence of any circular argumentation in the Bible.

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    1. Your first paragraph copies a sentence from Chris Sunami's excellent answer. 2. First formulations of a biblical canon arose around 150 years after Paul's death, not hundreds. 3. It is commonly agreed by scholars that 2 Tim is pseudepigraphic. – Keelan Jan 12 '16 at 6:09
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    @Keelan, 1. there were no copied sentences in my answer. If I so happen to express myself similarly to another person, you can find other answers here doing the same. 2. I agree with you although I was referring to the official "church council" decisions on what was "canon". 3. that's interesting, sort of – SherlockEinstein Jan 12 '16 at 6:26
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    Sorry about point 1., I messed up there. – Keelan Jan 12 '16 at 6:32
  • FWIW, II Tim. 3:16 can also be translated "Every writing that is inspired is profitable..." – WGroleau Jan 13 '16 at 4:27

Just to be clear from the outset, there is no instance of which I know where the Bible employs circular reasoning. There are plenty of examples of Christians misusing the Bible to employ circular reasoning (for instance the common employment of 2 Tim 3 to prove inerrancy), but in these cases it is the Christian misusing the Bible, and not a problem with the Bible itself.

But you ask, if the Bible employed circular reasoning, would that discredit the Bible? Well, it would certainly not discredit the whole Bible. It might discredit the inerrantist view, however. But even this would depend on a particular reading of the reasoning. You would have to, I think, say that if an author employs circular reasoning then that implicitly affirms the view that circular reasoning should sometimes be useful and/or compelling, or something along those lines. And even then, it would have to be the case that it is not useful/compelling/etc. But as there is plenty of grey area in circular reasoning. It can be rhetorically compelling, or useful in illustrating some literary point. And there is nothing necessarily false about a circular argument. (If there were something false, then that would be the thing to cause the chief problem, not the circular reasoning.)

So I think the bottom line is that, while we would have to see a particular example to know for certain, it is not obvious how circular reasoning in the Bible would discredit any part of the Bible, nor any common Christian doctrine.

As a striking example of how circular reasoning within a book does not actually discredit a book:

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is commonly taken to be one of the most influential philosophical books of all time. But there is circular reasoning (petitio principii) going on at the end of the book, in the Canon of Pure Reason: God is used to argue for freedom, which moral faith in God is based on thereafter. A review of the book by Christian Garve made this clear to Kant himself and encouraged him to write further books to mend this (Eckart Förster's The 25 Years of Philosophy depicts this very well).

But this did not in any way discredit the book as a whole, just the part actually containing the circular reasoning. I do not see how this should be any different for the Bible, even more so as it is not conceived as a philosophical text by a decent single philosopher that should have known better.

If I were interested in discrediting the Bible (or any other document), circular logic would be the least/last argument I would use. The reason for this is that circular logic refers mostly to the person using it, not the document. Instead, would look for contradictions, different explanations for the same topic, sequential and/or logic errors, etc.. Since these are all part of the same document, they would be strong arguments against the document, thereby discrediting its validity. If "circular logic" were to be found in the Bible, it would discredit It very little, if at all.

The bible is not a scientific text. It is a religious text. In a scientific text, I would hope that the author doesn't make any stupid mistakes like using circular reasoning. As a scientist, that's the kind of mistake that he shouldn't make. On the other hand, if I knew that the author regularly beats his wife, that would lower my estimate of him as a human being, but doesn't affect my opionion of his text.

The bible is something completely different. I don't expect the various authors to be master logicians. I expect them to be fully convinced that what they are writing is the truth. If one of them writes "everything in the bible is true, because it's the bible, and everything in it is true", I don't take it as a cheap attempt to trick me by using a logical fallacy, but as evidence that the author is fully convinced of the truth. And that he hasn't seriously studied logic, which is not surprising, since it was all written 2,000 years ago.

So does a logical fallacy discredit the bible? Not one bit.

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    This is an interesting point of view, but there is a small (here not so relevant) inaccuracy: at the time of writing of the Bible, the writings weren't yet collected in the Bible. So, nowhere in the Bible will it say "Everything in the Bible is true". See the discussion under Jo Wehler's answer below. – Keelan Jan 12 '16 at 20:22
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    Logic, evidence, proof (from a scientific/mathematical standpoint) etc., are not new inventions - they date back at least to the Greek era BCE. – GalacticCowboy Jan 13 '16 at 20:12

The link you provide contains a nice example of circular reason:

Question: "How do you know the Bible is true? How do you know it is the word of God?"

Christian Answer: "Because the Bible says it is God's word."

The answer is taken e.g., from 2. Timothy 3,16.

Circular argumentation discredits the person who tries to argue in this way. Because circular argumentation pretends to argue but does not give a valid argument.

A statement can be true even if the argumentation for it is invalid. But one gets suspicious why the person in question uses an invalid argument. Does he lacks a valid one?

The link you provide shows many more inconsistencies and errors from the bible.

Added. The text from 2 Timothy pretends to be a letter written by Paul. 2 Timothy 3,15-16 claims that the previous writings of Paul are inspired by God (theopneustos). Hence it is suggested to the receiver that also the actual letter from Paul is theopneustos.

One can discuss whether hiera grammata and pasa graphae refers to the Jewish bible or to the former letters of Paul. The reference eis soterian supports the view that it refers to Paul’s writings. For the issue in question it is irrelevant whether 2 Timothy is a genuine letter of Paul or not.

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    This is not at all what 2 Tim. 3:16 says. At the time that verse was written, there was no such thing as "the Bible". The author talks about the Hebrew Bible and perhaps some early Christian writings, but surely not to "the Bible" or to itself. – Keelan Jan 11 '16 at 14:47
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    Literally, γραφὴ means simply 'writing', but in the NT it usually refers to the Hebrew Bible. Again, the NT didn't exist yet. γράμμα is even broader, it may refer to (OT) Scripture, but also simply to a letter in the alphabet or teaching in general. – Keelan Jan 11 '16 at 15:19
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    I don't see 2 Tim 3:16 as offering anything like an argument for a position. Somebody might quote the text in offering an argument which would commit the fallacy of begging the question, but the text is not itself making an argument for its own canonical status or anything like that. – shane Jan 11 '16 at 17:36
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    I'm not really sure where you're getting your interpretation. Can you source the claim that the author 2 Timothy is trying to make a claim about Paul's writings as being Scripture. That doesn't sound like any interpretation I've ever heard ranging from higher criticism to fundamentalism. – virmaior Jan 12 '16 at 4:40
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    I stand corrected. At least one major German scholar does interpret the passage to be meant to refer to other Pauline writings. That seems a difficult reading to maintain since if the Pseudo-Pauline author is trying to act like Paul, it would make no sense for Paul to write that about himself... but my apologies, Schnelle does indeed seem to be saying that in the quote (with some ambiguity at play in the referent of Die Past) – virmaior Jan 12 '16 at 16:03

protected by Keelan Jan 12 '16 at 15:10

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