by Marcus Grodi

circular logic

There is a television commercial, selling a certain satellite service, that uses a tongue-in-cheek form of illogical chain logic. The writers presume we know not to take their logic seriously, but they also presume that the humor of it will leave us with a positive view of their product.

The logic goes something like this:

    1. (Not having their product) might leave one feeling empty.
    2. Feeling empty makes one want to feel full.
    3. Wanting to feel full makes one eat too much.
    4. Eating too much makes one burst out of one’s clothing.
    5. Bursting out of one’s clothing leaves one naked in the street.
    6. Standing naked in the street leads to getting arrested.
    7. Getting arrested for standing naked in the street puts one in jail.
    8. Being put in jail for standing naked in the street gives one a strange reputation with your cellmates.
    9. If you don’t want to have a strange reputation with your cellmates, then you need to buy their product.

It’s easy to follow the humor of this illogical logic, but it’s not always humorous when this kind of logic is used to interpret Scripture. For example, consider the following flow of logic in an article posted online entitled “A Defense of Sola Scriptura” (http://www.equip.org/articles/a-defense-of-sola-scriptura).

The first question the authors address is, “Does the Bible Teach Sola Scriptura?” and here is their logic:

  1. Two points must be made concerning whether the Bible teaches sola Scriptura. First, as Catholic scholars themselves recognize, it is not necessary that the Bible explicitly and formally teach sola Scriptura in order for this doctrine to be true.
  2. Many Christian teachings are a necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity).
  3. Likewise, it is possible that sola Scriptura could be a necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture.
  4. Second, the Bible does teach implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly, that the Bible alone is the only infallible basis for faith and practice. This it does in a number of ways.
  5. One, the fact that Scripture, without tradition, is said to be God-breathed (theopnuestos) and thus by it believers are competent, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added) supports the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
  6. This flies in the face of the Catholic claim that the Bible is formally insufficient without the aid of tradition.
  7. St. Paul declares that the God-breathed writings are sufficient.
  8. And contrary to some Catholic apologists, limiting this to only the Old Testament will not help the Catholic cause for two reasons: first, the New Testament is also called Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7); second, it is inconsistent to argue that God-breathed writings in the Old Testament are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the New Testament are not.

Though their logic sounds like it works, it’s really more like the illogical logic in that commercial. (I can’t point fingers, because this is the exact logic I used when I was a Presbyterian minister to defend sola Scriptura.) Allow me to respond point by point:

1: “Two points must be made concerning whether the Bible teaches sola Scriptura. First, as Catholic scholars themselves recognize, it is not necessary that the Bible explicitly and formally teach sola Scriptura in order for this doctrine to be true.

Since no “Catholic scholar” of repute has ever taught sola Scriptura or said exactly what the authors claim, then they give an assumption that totally sidesteps the very question they are trying to prove. What does sola Scriptura mean except that the Bible alone is the one trustworthy foundation for what is true? If this is true, why shouldn’t it necessarily be found in Scripture? Their argument begins by claiming that some un-named Catholic scholars (who do not believe insola Scriptura) say that sola Scriptura doesn’t have to be in Scripture. How does this prove anything? As in the logic of the commercial, the entire flow of the argument stalls where it starts.

2: Many Christian teachings are a necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught in the Bible (e.g., the Trinity).

The authors believe they are providing evidence for their previous step, but it only shows their dependence upon the very assumption they are trying to prove. Belief in the Trinity is not merely a “necessary logical deduction of what is clearly taught in the Bible”—this, rather, is the presumption of sola Scriptura folk who have no other foundation upon which to base their belief in the Trinity. The foundation for Christian belief in the Trinity has more to do with the authority of Sacred Tradition, as the bishops of the Church gathered at the Council of Nicea to discern what was the true Tradition as passed down from the churches of the Apostles. The Scriptural witness was a portion of that Sacred Tradition, but the very heretics the Council Fathers were fighting against were the sola Sciptura representatives of their day, who were using the logic of self-interpretation from the proof-texting of Scripture to propose a wide variety of heretical understandings of the relationship between God the Father, Jesus our Lord, and the Holy Spirit—precisely because the Trinity is not so “clearly taught in the Bible.” To understand the conclusion of the Trinity as a “necessary logical deduction” betrays a presupposition of sola Scriptura as the grid for interpreting the early church, which is a form of circular logic, rather than examining the actual facts of doctrinal history.

3: “Likewise, it is possible that sola Scriptura could be a necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture.

Since the logic of step 2 was flawed, then the “likewise” of step 3 is unfounded. Interestingly, notice that the authors sheepishly did not claim that sola Scriptura is a “necessary logical deduction from what is taught in Scripture.” Rather, they said it is possible that [it] could be.Why so hesitant to make their case?

4: Second, the Bible does teach implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly, that the Bible alone is the only infallible basis for faith and practice. This it does in a number of ways.

The authors now press forward, presuming they have sufficiently demonstrated that the belief that  “the Bible alone is the only infallible basis for faith and practice” does not have to be “explicitly and formally taught” within this “only infallible” source of truth. Without suggesting an alternate authority for this belief, they quickly move to prove that the Bible does in fact teach this! I learned, from having lived for nearly 40 years in the sola Scriptura camp, how dangerously easy it is to conclude almost anything “implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly” from Scripture. One can put together almost any three verses and make the Bible say whatever you want it to say. Why are there more than 30,000 separate Christian traditions/denominations in America, all teaching different theologies that they each believe are taught “implicitly and logically, if not formally and explicitly” in Scripture? Because the Bible alone, apart from Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church, was never intended to be the one “pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Rather, Scripture says that the Church is that (see 1Tim 3:15).

5: One, the fact that Scripture, without tradition, is said to be God-breathed(theopnuestos) and thus by it believers are competent, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17, emphasis added) supports the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

In essence, the authors are assuming as true the very thing they are trying to prove. Let me begin by actually quoting the Scripture passage: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (NKJV). Note first that the apostle Paul does not say that ONLY Scripture is “God-breathed,” let alone does he clarify what he means by “God-breathed.” Nor does he say that the term “Scripture” that he uses is equivalent to what we mean 2000 years later by the term “Bible,” a collection of books written over a thousand year span by several dozen different authors, and which were not canonically defined until late in the 4th century by a group of Catholic bishops gathered in council. What Paul meant by “Scripture” he explains in the preceding verse, the “sacred writings” with which Timothy had “been acquainted … from childhood … which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). This could only have been what we have come to call the Old Testament, since most, if not all, of the New Testament books had not been written when Timothy was a child, especially given that Paul was in the very process of writing one of them.

6: This flies in the face of the Catholic claim that the Bible is formally insufficient without the aid of tradition.

To say that this argument consequently “flies in the face of the Catholic claim …” is quite a leap, because it is, essentially, an illogical conclusion from a previously insufficiently proven conclusion based upon a series of unproven assumptions. Once again, it rings of the illogical logic of the commercial.

7: St. Paul declares that the God-breathed writings are sufficient.

Here the authors impose their own conclusions upon St. Paul. If St. Paul was implying that the books Timothy had known since childhood (i.e., the OT) were sufficient (i.e., OT only) “for salvation,” then why was the NT needed, or why was the Ethiopian eunuch unable to understand the truth of the Gospel from reading the OT alone (Acts 8:27f)? My argument here is hardly sufficient, of course, to address all the authors’ assumptions, except to say that their proof-texting of inadequately defined terms does not necessarily “support the doctrine of sola Scripturaas they claim in Step 5—unless one first presumes this doctrine and then interprets the Scriptures based upon this presumption.

Interestingly, these authors are of the theology that claims “good works” are no longer necessary, since we have been saved “by grace through faith” alone, yet the very verse they use to defend sola Scriptura states that the reason God inspired “all Scripture” was so that believers are “competent, equipped for every good work.” Ironically, here is another example of how a Protestant “tradition” can trump the clear teaching of Scripture.

8: And contrary to some Catholic apologists, limiting this to only the Old Testament will not help the Catholic cause for two reasons: first, the New Testament is also called Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16; 1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7); second, it is inconsistent to argue that God-breathed writings in the Old Testament are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the New Testament are not.

First, the author’s bold assertion that “the New Testament is also called ‘Scripture’”, backed by their two proof-texts, is about as clearly proven as the last statement in the commercial’s logic: “If you don’t want to have a strange reputation with your cellmates, then you need to buy their product.” The majority of all faithful Protestant and Catholic theologians do not make the reverse extrapolation that what St. Peter said in 2 Peter 3:15-16 and what St. Paul said in 1 Timothy 5:18 proves, therefore, that the entire New Testament is called “Scripture.” It may be that St. Peter was viewing St. Paul’s “letters” as somehow equivalent to “the rest of the Scriptures,” but this involves reading a lot into this nebulous statement. What did St. Peter mean by “the rest of the Scriptures”? Since most Protestant and Catholic scholars agree that the early church writers read and quoted from the Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament, and since this included those “Apocryphal books” which Catholics include in the Bible, but Protestants don’t, does this imply that the authors also include these “Apocryphal books” in “the rest of Scripture”?

Second, why is it “inconsistent to argue that God-breathed writings in the OT are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the NT are not”? That is the point: Who has the authority to determine and declare that the NT writings are inspired, or that the entire Bible collection of books is inspired? I believe they are inspired based upon the authority of the Church who, guided by the Holy Spirit, defined the canon of Scripture to include the NT books. The canon of Scripture was not a part of the books themselves, but essentially a part of Sacred Tradition. The only reason the statement might seem “inconsistent” is because there is no necessary direct connect between the inspiration of the OT and/or the NT. We believe they are “inspired” because of the authority of the Church.

I trust that the authors of this article are good, faithful, Bible-believing, Christian brothers, and for that I rejoice and pray for their continual conversion in union with Christ. Unfortunately, however, their conclusions are based too much upon circular logic, beginning with the very assumption they are trying to prove. Why? Because, like the commercial, dare I say it: they want the people who trust in their authority to buy their product. Such is the danger of illogical logic.

Marcus Grodi is the founder and president of the Coming Home Network International, a lay Catholic apostolate whose mission is helping Protestant clergy and laity come home to the Catholic Church. Marcus is also the host of The Journey Home program on EWTN. 

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  • Eric

    Circular reasoning is a challenge for any of us (protestants and Catholics) who hold to an ultimate source of truth. The problem is that if we say ultimate authoritative truth resides in A, we must ultimately appeal to A to substantiate that claim because A is the only place ultimate truth resides. Any other source used to substantiate our claim does not carry authority. Even Catholics who hold to tradition, the magisterium, and Scripture, must at some point depend on them to substantiate that they are the sole source of authoritative truth. So a Catholic may say that Scripture supports the idea of tradition, but then need to depend that same tradition to substantiate that the meaning of the passages in question are teaching about the traditions they are trying to substantiate.

    Protestants are an easier target because the claim on ultimate source of truth. It is easier to see the circular reasoning. But ultimately my Catholic brothers must appeal the their source of ultimate truth and authority to establish it as the ultimate source of truth and authority.

    We are in the same boat, my brother, in terms of trying to prove that our source of absolute truth is the correct one. I don’t think this means we’re are wrong. I think that it indicates there are other things to consider in how we determine our ultimate source of truth.

    • Eric

      You are correct that both Catholics and Protestants depend on the results of the wrestling of councils for Canon. For Protestants this is a potential issue because they are depending on a council which is not the sole source of authority. Protestants need to wrestle with this.

      The issue for Catholics is that they will often say that the Church was given the infallible authority to decide what was included in the canon. When asked how that can be known they appeal to passages of Scripture that according to the tradition give her that authority. When asked how we can know that such traditions are true they point to Scripture and tradition. This is circular logic. Catholics must wrestle with this.