Saturday, March 15, 2008

Christians and circularity

Spread Rationality has a bone to pick:
The most common arguments for the Bible's authenticity commit a fallacy known as begging the question. Begging the question uses the conclusion of an argument as a premises or an intermediate step. For instance:
  • 1. Assume the Bible is true.
  • The Bible says that God exists and inspired the Bible
  • Therefore, the Bible is true
The first step of this argument asks that we assume that the conclusion is true. This means that although the rest of the argument may logically sound, the conclusion has no bearing on reality.
The first thing we must confess is that Spread Rationality’s argument is absolutely correct as presented. However, the problem with the argument is that it is not necessarily complete. Step 1 is a big (and in this case fatal) assumption, but is it possible that there is a way to argue to step 1 using another basis, i.e. that it can be a conclusion rather than an assumption? I think there is. In fact, there are several, but I’ll only take on one here, that is historicity.

Let us, just for a moment, forget that the Acts of the Apostles is in the Bible* and just take it as a letter written ca 62 AD from a country doctor to a friend, explaining what he’d been doing for the last 30 years. The first question we have to ask is whether Acts is “historical,” whether we can believe the things it says happened really happened, more or less** in the way they are written.

Now there are plenty of reasons to believe that Luke is generally accurate in what he writes. His work can be cross-checked through archaeology (and has been), through the writings of others***, and through his explanation of the causes of effects we find later in history. Unless one is going to make the assertion that Acts is completely fictional – a tough sell indeed – then one must conclude that Luke was in position to know the things he wrote in Acts. That said, one can argue about the value of his historical work (and many have), but simply for the sake of establishing an anchor for our logic – remember the problem we are dealing with is one of circularity - we are going to begin with the assertion, “Luke’s Acts are generally a reliable historical document.” That is a verifiable or falsifiable assertion, and we are going to call this number 0.5 in the example above.

Luke’s Gospel is going to be more troublesome because it deals more overtly with religious subjects and less with travels, appointed officials, and geography than do the Acts. Because it is limited to fewer years (with the exception of the first few chapters) and covers less ground, there are fewer ways to cross-check it. However, we are going to transfer Luke’s historicity in the Acts to his Gospel, and we are going to do so by undergirding that transfer with two assertions. The first is that because they are generally one volume (written by the same person, to the same person, probably near the same time, and for the same purpose) therefore the attributes of the second also belong to the first. The second is that carefulness and attention to detail are habits of mind, and therefore it is unthinkable that Luke should be reliably historical in Acts but a victim and then purveyor of myth in its companion volume. Therefore, we are going to assert in number 0.6 that “Luke’s Gospel is a generally reliable historical document.” We have to realize that Luke was not there to see or hear what he recorded, but as we established in Acts that he is around people who DID hear them, we are still on solid ground historically, at least as solid ground as any historian is likely to be. This is also verifiable and/or falsifiable.

Now, within this Gospel we meet a man named Jesus who said a lot of amazing things. In fact, he claimed that he was God, would die for all mankind, and perform an act that showed divine power, rising from the dead, to prove it. Which things, according to Luke, he did. If we accept, based on our acceptance of the historicity of Luke’s letter here – in other words, that Luke is telling Theophilus, in this private letter, the truth - that those things occurred, then we have a 0.7 for above: Jesus is God, and a dependent 0.8: Jesus speaks with authority. Since we have already accepted the accuracy of Luke, we accept that he recorded Jesus accurately, and therefore the words of Jesus recorded in Luke are the authoritative words of God, 0.9.

Now, finally, we get to #1 above, “assume the Bible is true”****, but we see that such assumption – even though many Christians do exactly that – is not necessary. One can argue with the “facts” of any of the steps above, but I do not see that, since they are based on verifiable/falsifiable historical assertions, one can hold to the conclusion that the Christian’s belief in the general "authority" of Scripture necessarily depends upon a priori assumptions and therefore circular argument.

* We can do this because it was originally NOT in the Bible and was not written to be in the Bible. It was written to an individual named Theophilus (the same person to whom his Gospel, a companion edition, was written) to give him some background on the church. Acts has a primary historical purpose above and beyond its religious one.

** I say “more or less” here because it’s a fact of history that no historian can possibly include everything about everything. He must make choices. Therefore it’s out of order to say, “He should have included this,” or “There was more to that than what he says.” Of course there is. You try to reduce the last 30 years of your life to 100 pages and see what you must leave out.

*** Both religious and secular. For example, Seutonius (Twelve Caesars) notes that in 49ad Claudius kicked all the Jews out of Rome. Luke notes it in passing (18:2) as the reason Paul met Priscilla and Aquilla where he did. He also can be tested against Paul, because they both wrote to different audiences and both claimed they were traveling together. They generally agree, though there are differences and even a few problems. That is to be expected unless they are copying one from the other.

**** We could place – and probably need - a few more steps between “Luke accurately records the authoritative words of God” and “the Bible is true,” but it’s late and I’m tired. We're close enough for government work, and the point is made.

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