Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Catholic Circular Reasoning

Today’s adventure in biblical interpretation is a bit different. Rather than looking at one passage of the Bible, we’re going to look at biblical interpretation in general as it pertains to biblical canon. In his attempt to refute the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, Catholic Tim Staples writes the following at Catholic Answers:

So weak are the biblical attempts at an answer that often the Protestant response just turns the argument against the Catholic. “How do you know Scripture is inspired? Your reasoning is just as circular. You say the Church is infallible because the inspired Scripture says so, then you say that Scripture is inspired and infallible because the Church says so!”

Even if the argument utterly destroyed the Protestant position, the Catholic would be engaging in a fallacious appeal to consequences if they attempted to avoid addressing the circular reasoning charge.[1] The charge is a valid one and must be considered. So Staples continues the defense:

“Catholics do not claim the Church is infallible because Scripture says so. The Church is infallible because Jesus said so. The Church was established and functioning as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord decades before the New Testament was written.”

Woah! Let’s not be fooled by this sleight-of-hand.

How do we know Jesus said the Church is infallible? Because Jesus said so in scripture.[2] Without scripture, there are no words of Jesus and no claim of Church infallibility. It is therefore circular reasoning.

But what about the oral tradition? The oral tradition, which preceded the written tradition, is a red-herring, for that is not how we know Jesus’ words. Moreover, when the church declares the written word to be authoritative, it is, by extension, necessarily declaring the base spoken testimony to be authoritative. Jesus’ spoken testimony in scripture has weight because it represents God’s words, not because it is written.[3] It is the content of the writing, not the fact of the writing, that is inspired and infallible. The important date is not when the content was written, but rather the date of the content being referenced![4] Whether Jesus’ words were spoken or written, it is still circular reasoning.

But what about the establishment of the church prior to the written scriptural tradition? This is circular reasoning.[5] Staples presumes, quite explicitly, the existence of the Church being “the infallible spokesperson for the Lord” prior to the creation of the New Testament evidence used to support that claim. This is a common circular claim: beginning with the claim to be proved.[6]

He continues:

“It is true that we know Scripture to be inspired and canonical only because the Church has told us so. That is historical fact.”

Staples is not putting forth a defense of the Catholic Church’s view of inspiration, he’s making an assertion: the Church’s canon is inspired and canonical because it “has told us so.” This is an assertion, not a defense. It is cognitive dissonance, which is ironic in light of his comments (emphasis added):

“The issues of the inspiration and canon of Scripture are the Achilles heel of any intellectual defense of sola scriptura.”

By authenticating the canon upon which its authority is based, the Church proves itself from that canon: self-declaration. This completes the circle.

“Catholics reason to inspiration of Scripture through demonstrating first its historical reliability and the truth about Christ and the Church. Then we can reasonably rely upon the testimony of the Church to tell us the text is inspired. This is not circular reasoning.”

Look at what he said previously: scripture is canonical because church has told us so. This is not reasoning. In order to demonstrate the historical reliability of Christ and the Church, one has to first know which pieces of evidence are to be accepted and which are not. This is the purpose of a canon. It is circular reasoning.

Is this point unclear? Let’s follow the logic.

We have a collection of documents pertaining to Christ. Some are valid, some are not. We apply techniques, such as textual criticism, to determine which ones are most reliable. For example, we purge the unreliable, merge the reliable, and cross reference to rule out contradictions. Eventually we select the best and this forms a canon. So far so good, right? No. You can’t jump from reasoning to inspiration. He even states this:

“The New Testament is the most accurate and verifiable historical document in all of ancient history, but one cannot deduce from this that it is inspired.”

and

“The Bible does not and cannot answer questions about its own inspiration or about the canon. Historically, the Church used sacred Tradition outside of Scripture as its criterion for the canon. The early Christians, many of whom disagreed on the issue, needed the Church in council to give an authoritative decree to settle the question. Those are the historical facts.”

This is where the logic fails. How does the formation of canon by selection of the best historical documents pertain to the question of inspiration? It doesn’t. It’s a red-herring intended to make the Catholic position look reasonable. How is the canon really authorized? Council. The council, a ruling subset of the Church, which takes its authority from the inspired canon, determines what the canon is. That’s circular reasoning.

Reexamine the first quote. The Catholic wishes to obfuscate the circularity, while the Protestant states it outright and honestly. For the Protestant, it’s okay if (1) biblical inspiration and infallibility are unproven articles of belief; and (2) there is no centralized human authority. Why? The Holy Spirit can reveal the truth. This is not so for the Catholic. If the inspiration of the Bible is not established by deductively reasoned acceptance (and it can’t be), then the Church’s authority is based on dogma, that is, blind faith and unreasoned acceptance. The Catholic does not accept that the Holy Spirit alone is required: it requires a human ruling body. This is why the circular reasoning charge is so serious.

The historical record also tells us that Jesus Christ established a Church—not a book—to be the foundation of the Christian faith.

This is the crux of the matter and it is true. I’ve written about it before. The Catholic church does not understood what Jesus meant by this, as is clear from the circularity of the Catholic position. The “church” is not an authority structure or a group of leaders, it is the body of all believers. Christianity is not a book and never has been. It is the content of the writing, not the fact that it is written. The book contains the words of God, but it is the believers who spread God’s word. We are first and foremost the God’s messengers (evangelicals) called to make disciples.

[1] This misrepresents the sola scriptura argument. The Protestant position is that God inspires scriptures directly and does not require the assistance of the Church.

[2] For sake of argument. The very premise of papal infallibility is based on flawed reasoning, as is the weak foundation of the papacy and church authority.

[3] One cannot argue that the oral tradition was not equally valid, for it is the oral tradition upon which the written tradition is based. We prefer scripture for its relative permanence, portability, ability to be copied, ability to be analyzed, etc., but it is not the only valid method of transmission. Both traditions have equal authoritative weight.

[4] Since the date it was written is irrelevant, here is the reformulated point: “The Church was established and functioning as the infallible spokesperson for the Lord after Jesus spoke the words to establish it.” This is essentially tautological.

[5] Why would the fact of an “established and functioning” Church prove Jesus’ words? It wouldn’t. If the Church’s existence shows the legitimacy of its foundation, that is circular reasoning.

[6] The thinking goes like this: (1) Jesus is infallible; (2) Jesus authorized Peter and his successors to be the official church; therefore (3) the existence of a church led by Peter’s successors proves that the church infallible. This has the appearance of a simple logical deduction, but the circularity is being hidden: Jesus is infallible because the church says so. The soundness of the argument depends on the Protestant accepting the opening premise without any conditions, such as how we know that Jesus is infallible. Whether the church or scripture tells us so, does not change the circularity.

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