The Problem of Competing Circularities
Or The Problem of Competing Claims to Self-Attestation
In our assertion that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant and authoritative Word of God, we say that the Bible is self-authenticating or self-attesting (e.g., Calvin, Inst. Book I, ch. 7). We build our doctrine of Scripture from Scripture, since there is no higher authority
than God Himself. Scripture needs no outside authority to verify its
Yet a problem comes when we think about this apologetically in reference to other religions with “inspired Scripture,” like Mormonism or Islam. How is the self-authenticating nature of Scripture properly only the Christian’s domain? Cannot the Mormon or Muslim make the same argument that we are making? How do we disprove a Muslim’s claim that the Koran is self-authenticating? Can he take the same principle and use it in an unassailable way for his “holy book”?
As we think about this problem, we need to look at circular arguments in general (self-authentication is a circular argument) and the justification of such arguments. Then we can proceed and see if the Koran or the Book of Mormon can make the same claims.
There are different kinds of circular arguments
Most people believe in the fallacy of circular arguments: that they are all fallacious. Their reasoning usually goes like this:
If an argument is circular it is false
Self-authentication is a circular argument
Self-authentication is false
(this is a circular argument by the way)
We could easily point out to the skeptic that:
All circular arguments are false
This is a circular argument
This argument is false
There are small circle and big circle arguments. Small circle arguments are usually less persuasive. Larger circle arguments, which provide more data and qualifications, can be more persuasive (see John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, An Analysis of His Thought, 302-303). But the fact is that circular reasoning can be enlightening. If you travel around something enough times you will surely learn something every revolution!
The universality and justification of circular arguments
What must be acknowledged is that all reasoning is ultimately circular.
The rationalist begins with his assumptions about rationality, the empiricist begins with his presuppositions about empiricism. Even the one who argues for inductive argument only still has an a priori assumption about the validity of inductivism. (See Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 9, 10).
The question about circular reasoning is can it be sustained under the weight of its own assumptions, claims or starting point? If that is the question that should be asked of circular reasoning, then to assume God and the truthfulness of His Word based on His authority is a justifiable starting point. With God and His Word as our starting point, we have set forth the principles of the laws of logic, rational thought, intelligibility, internal coherence, etc. These are biblical standards.
But these standards are also innately verifiable because of the image of God in us. For instance, we know innately that the law of non-contradiction is true. The image of God in us testifies to the
standards and premises of truth as they are presented in the Word of God. Therefore, Scripture is subject to the standards of its own claims, and meets them. Note that Scripture is not subject to human reason, external standards and criteria, but rather Scripture is subject to its own standards. Scripture passes the test with flying colors. The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that this book is God’s Word. This book itself is consistent, it is intelligible, it provides meaning
and meaningful communication, it is rational, not irrational, logical, not illogical.
Claims for self-authentication must meet the standards of divine revelation: intelligibility, internal consistency, coherence, etc.
Both the Koran and the Book of Mormon claim to be divine revelation, but both fail to meet the claims of self-authenticating divine revelation. In other words, the evidence does not stand up to what these books claims for themselves. Both books borrow “Christian capital” and yet are incoherent, inconsistent, and unstable. They invalidate their own claims to self-authentication through contradiction, factual errors, and lack of coherence, necessary to reflect divine, infallible revelation.
Both books resort to a fideism, “This is an inspired book because I believe it is an inspired book.” However, fideism is no substitute for living up to one’s own claims of self-authentication. The Bible alone lives up to its claims. Therefore, the Bible’s own testimony and claim of self-authentication, although circular, passes the test of valid circular reasoning. Its starting point is valid, its conclusions are valid. The circle is sound.