Catholic Faith Defender

JOHN. 8:32 “et cognoscetis veritatem et veritas liberabit vos”

REFUTING PROTESTANTS’ CIRCULAR ARGUMENTS

Posted by catholicfaithdefender on April 3, 2008

REFUTING PROTESTANTS’ CIRCULAR ARGUMENTS

March 6, 2008
I had just become Catholic and was intent on producing the grand television documentary that would reveal once and for all the great misunderstandings that had separated Protestants and Catholics for centuries.
To be fair, I figured we’d let both sides tell their stories, and so I set out to interview, on camera, some of the leading Protestant theologians in the area. One was Rev. P.Z., a theologian and apologist for the Reformed Presbyterian Church. If “Reformed Presbyterian” sounds redundant to you, it wasn’t to them. Indeed, this denomination didn’t believe contemporary Presbyterianism, which they claimed had drifted from the “ideal” of John Calvin’s teachings, was sufficiently Protestant. So they “resurrected” a theology that Reformed the Presbyterians. I had no idea what I was in for.
In my interview, I wanted to allow my guest sufficient time and latitude to explain what I could never figure out — how the authority of the Bible could provide answers about life’s vexing questions, when so many Christian leaders seemed to disagree about what the Bible said. In short, this is how the interview went:
Me: In your denomination, when members have a theological disagreement between them, how do you resolve the difference?
PZ: We go to the Bible. It’s the final authority in everything, about everything, for all time.
Me: So, what do you do when these members are both looking at the same verse in the Bible, and they’re disagreeing about its interpretation?
PZ: Well, like I said they look to the Bible for the answer. The Bible interprets itself.
Me: But, that’s what these two guys just did. They’re looking at verses in the Bible about baptism, and to one guy one passage says you have to do this and the other guy clings to a another passage that says you have to do that. Who decides what is right?
PZ: In that case the church elders get together and decide.
Me: Sorry, I forgot to tell you that these guys that are disagreeing, are the elders.
PZ: Ah. Well, again, we’d look to the Bible, our final authority.
Me: But that’s where we started.
PZ: Actually, our pastor would be over the elders, and he would decide.
Me: So, what if the elders disagree with the pastor and want to start their own church?
PZ: They wouldn’t likely do that.
Me: Yet, there are over 20,000 different denominations that have. Is that what the leaders of all of those have done, all gone to the Bible?
PZ: Well, ah… yes.
Me: ?
Do you see the problem?
After several such interviews I put the project on hold. To put such dialogue on television would have been uncharitable, even though it revealed the problem of circular reasoning in that segment of Protestantism.
Begging the Question Fallacies
This series of articles is about the role of reason in the discovery of truth. We arrive at truth through the application of faith and reason, which are like “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio). Truth does not come to us by faith alone, nor does it come by reason alone. To rely on one, to the exclusion of the other, is to fly with one wing, mostly in circles, as we misapply the ordered rules of one or the other and introduce fallacies into our thinking.
This article briefly examines one of those fallacies called Arguing in Circles, which falls under a broad category called Unacceptable Appeals, and more specifically under a group of fallacies label Begging the Question. Begging the Question fallacies occur when the conclusion of the argument is baked into the assumptions of the question. Put another way, these fallacies assume that some aspect of the matter, about which a question is being raised, has already been settled. A question is begged when a crime investigator interrogates a suspect with, “How did you kill him?” — when there’s no assurance or evidence that the suspect killed anyone. It’s also begging the question when Pam, my wife, asks me, “What did you get me for our anniversary, honey?” and she knows full well, as I sit engrossed in the Super Bowl, that I had totally forgotten that it was our anniversary. Begging the question language is slanted or prejudicial in nature. It is a form of unintended falsehood at best, or lying at worse. Begging the question begs for a response contrary to what the facts may otherwise establish.
In politics, we see begging the question problems all the time. The reporter-with-an-agenda asks the governor, “The administration’s mistake in approving the education plan has caused a budget shortfall in school districts across the state. How are you planning on reimbursing those districts for their extra costs?” If the governor answered the second question, she would be agreeing to the presumption in the first statement, that signing the bill was a mistake — and of course she doesn’t think it was.

Arguing in Circles is a type of Begging the Question fallacy, because imbedded in the question is the conclusion. Oftentimes arguments are long, and may be presented in book or chapter form, thus separating the assumptive premise, by some time and space, from the conclusion. A careful analysis of the argument may be necessary to discover the fallacy, if it exists. Simply put, Arguing in a Circle says: “A is true, because A is true.” Thus, the question asked of the Reformed Presbyterian about how they resolved theological disputes arising when parties interpret the Bible, cannot be answered by referencing back to the Bible without arguing in a circle. Interestingly, the Reformed Presbyterian theologian touched on the solution, which is to look to the authority of individuals in the Church to resolve such difficulties. But when pushed further about when those authorities disagree, his escape was to return to the issue under question as the answer to the issue. It makes me dizzy.

For the Catholic, the answer is indeed in the Bible. But interestingly the Bible points to a hierarchy of authority outside of itself, and in fact the same hierarchy of authority that established the Bible as an authority in the first place — the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Pope and Church as a whole. The Bible passages that do this remarkable thing are clearly stated in every Protestant Bible I’ve ever looked at, and in fact here are the verses from perhaps the most popular American Protestant Bible translation, Zondervan’s New International Version:

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19; Matthew 18:18).

Catholicism holds that:

(a) the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit and we thus trust them;

(b) that fallible men wrote the infallible Scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; and

(c) that fallible men also SELECTED the Scriptures infallibly, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The hierarchy was (1) the Holy Spirit working through, (2) fallible men, who then (3) wrote and selected the Scriptures. Then the Scriptures establish the fourth level, again, through the Holy Spirit, (4) the power to INTERPRET Scriptures and moral law infallibly. Here is the verse. Notice the Holy Spirit’s inspired involvement:

And with that he [Jesus] breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (John 20:22-23).

So, the Bible can be used to end the circular argument, but you have to be articulate about where the buck stops — not with the Bible, but with the Holy Spirit inspired leadership to infallibly interpret.

Related to this, a number of non-Catholics have taken me to task, and have argued against papal authority by saying: “I just don’t believe that.” When pressed they end up saying something like: “I just don’t believe that because, well, that’s not what I believe.” Unfortunately it is times like that when I destroy all opportunities to be reconciled with my brothers and sisters. Why? Because I yell at the top of my lungs: “ARE YOU NUTS?!”

I’m sorry, but I have no other argument.

Reversing the Argument

As much as Catholics may pound Protestants for inconsistent thinking, Catholics are guilty too of this fallacy. Have you heard this critique? “Protestants are not good theologians because they interpret the Bible incorrectly.” That is a classic example of circular reasoning. There is no real evidence presented here. The only thing the statement establishes is the same opinion stated two different ways. The phrase “not good theologians” is the near equivalent of “interpret the Bible incorrectly.”

The problem with the current poor and fallacious condition of social communication is the lack of time to mount and establish good arguments. Broadcast news wants soundbytes. They especially like provocative headlines soaked in opinion and a lack of evidence. Here’s the main headline from CNN.com today: Haagen-Dazs: Vanishing bees could sting business. The article describes how Haagen-Dazs ice cream relies on bees to pollinate fruit to flavor 40% of its brands. The begging the question here is that the headline assumes bees are vanishing. While I’m not an expert on bees, I did spend some time a few months ago talking at length to the owner of a bee-keeping farm about the problem. He said, “There is no problem; the headlines are the fabrication of ignorant reporters who do not understand the natural fluctuation in bee population they read about in trade journals, and are anxious to create ‘news’ to sell papers.” Thus, a natural variability becomes a fallacious headline in the hands of an uneducated corps of reporters.

I recently read a very entertaining novel about nuns and the mafia which I had been requested to carry among our other Catholic products at Nineveh’s Crossing (http://www.ninevehscrossing.com/). The author is a Catholic nun who has a problem with the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Without going into the detail, the argument she posed in the otherwise good and entertaining story was an argument that went something like this:

Premise A: The Church is composed, like the mafia, of cold-hearted patriarchal hierarchies. Premise B: People more easily pour out their hearts to compassionate mother figures than father figures. Conclusion: Women would make better priests because they are not male.

Apologist Dave Armstrong points out that Premise “B” is likely a true premise for most people, which helps the fallacy succeed, because there is some truth in the argument. “The fallacy lies more so in making compassion the sole component for the priesthood.”

Regardless, the essence of the circular argument is summarized in the above conclusion. Elsewhere, the circular reasoning is cloaked under the anecdotal, and unrelated, evidence that the mafia is a male hierarchy over which we have no control, and women are generally more compassionate. That is, as the nun argues, the male patriarchal groups are evil, and women would make better confessors. Never mind that Jesus was male, that the apostles were all male, and that it is Jesus (a MAN) and God the FATHER who Catholicism teaches are more merciful, compassionate, and gracious than imagination can conjure. And while God’s merciful character does not mean that, as a whole, men are as, or more, compassionate than women, it suggests that perhaps, in God’s eyes, too much compassion isn’t good for the confessional. I have seen more than one mother, for instance, sympathize with a disobedient child, and not correct his behavior, allowing the child to sink further into sin and “Gimme! Gimme!”

Nineveh’s Crossing will not be carrying that book.

Lastly, I had a discussion with a friend who was a supporter of a current political candidate. The friend is a Christian, and the candidate advocated abortion on demand. Our discussion went like this (here summarized because it went on over several e-mails):

Me: Why do you believe (your candidate) has the characteristics to be the president? Her: Because (my candidate) is credible. Me: Why is (your candidate) credible? Her: Because the current president lied. Me: How does the current president’s actions relate (your candidate’s) character? Her: Because I trust (my candidate) totally, implicitly.

This last example is perhaps more indicative of the kind of discussion you’re likely to get into. In the actual case, the back and forth was perhaps five times lengthier and the circular reasoning was harder to spot. In the end, the EVIDENCE for the candidate was the same as the CONCLUSION, just sated in different words — “My candidate is credible and would make a good president because I trust him totally.”

The Blockade

The underlying problem was my friend’s inability to address the candidate’s stand on abortion. She knew I was right about the abortion issue and she had no other “evidence” other than her dislike of the current president — and another unmentionable reason, that had she mentioned it, would have unraveled her credibility. She was not willing to bring up the unmentionable trait, and I wasn’t going to bait her, so she was forced to embrace the only thing left: circular reasoning.

I had contacted a well-known Evangelical historian about my documentary project mentioned earlier. After a little dialogue he wrote me, “The reasons I am not Catholic are entirely personal.” Let these examples be a warning to you. Often, you will find yourself in situations like these where your opponent will not be forthcoming about the real, underlying reasons for their position. No amount of logical persuasion will convince them. They are blockaded by a combination of fear of the unknown, family tradition, deep-set prejudices, and pride — all of which conspire to hold them just out of reach of real truth.

All you can do is smile, be gracious, and say a silent prayer for them. You can’t convince them. That will have to be done by the Holy Spirit, and perhaps not until they come within sight of the pearly gates.

Guarding against Circular Reasoning

Here are some tips about how to avoid being swept up in such circular reasoning:

1. Be sensitive to the “evidence” presented in all arguments, and be sure it’s not just the conclusion stated another way. It is easy to hide such circular evidence in arguments that are long and connected by a convoluted series of “logical” connections.

2. When you recognize the circular thinking, try politely to point out to your opponents how their “evidence” is in fact also their “conclusion.” Try not to yell. Don’t be like me. Remind them that it’s not a good idea to use in the definition the very word they’re trying to define.

3. If your opponents seem to be open, but can’t seem to grasp the concept of circular reasoning, offer to work with them and write down on a piece of paper their “evidence” in an agreeable short hand; and then do the same with their “conclusion.” Line up the evidence phrase with the conclusion phrase, one above the other, and try to point out how they are the same, and thus no evidence has been presented.

4. Remind your opponents that a person’s opinion, without outside objective evidence, is hardly convincing evidence that something is true or false. Try to encourage them to find the real evidence for their position, give them time, and see what happens.

5. Finally, be enlightening, try not to force a change in conviction. Your job is not to convince (leave that to the Holy Spirit) but to simply provide good evidence. The change in their minds must come internally, and will take time for their minds to sift through and assimilate what is true and false. When people come to conclusions on their own, the resulting conviction is much stronger.

Yes, we may persuade some people. Indeed, we sometimes do.

Copyright 2007, Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

This article is based on Dr. Williams’ Catholic Home School Conference presentations on Logic, Fallacies, and Good Arguments. Dr. Williams is the Executive Producer of SWC Films (www.swcfilms.com), and Director of Catholic media distributor Nineveh’s Crossing (www.ninevehscrossing.com). He hopes you’ll visit and buy stuff so he can keep writing this series

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