Around and Around We Go

Scott Oliphint
Since we completed our discussion of the "Ten Tenets" last month, I thought it might be useful to comment on some of the common objections to a Covenantal approach to apologetics.

One of the most common objections against a "Covenantal" (or presuppositional) approach to apologetics is that it reasons in a circle, and thus provides no real argument for its position. Reasoning in a circle is a fallacious endeavor, so the objection goes; it cannot provide reasons for what it claims. Examples of this objection could be almost endlessly multiplied, but we will be content with just a couple. In a recent exchange between Covenantal and Classical apologists, one of the latter complains:
Presuppositionalists claim that the Word of God is self-authenticating. It needs no proof. It is the basis for all other conclusions, but it has no basis beyond itself. But what they fail to see is that while all of this is true of the Word of God, nonetheless, it is not thereby true of the Bible. For there must be some evidence or good reasons for believing that the Bible is the Word of God... [1]
And furthermore,
...Presuppositionalists argue [that] the Word of God stands on its own, with no need of proof beyond it. ...The fact is, that any such truth claim demands evidence and good reason -- the kind provided by Classical Apologetics.[2]
The objection here is somewhat understandable, in that it originates from one who is committed to an Arminian theology. One of the hallmarks of Arminianism is its rationalism such that biblical quandaries like God's sovereignty and man's responsibility are given explanations that nicely comport with our general laws of thinking. Thus, what is reasonable supervenes on biblical truth; reason is the master that biblical truth serves. It is consistent, then, that an Arminian would only accept what reason or evidence can prove. So, the Bible is accepted as the Word of God because there are reasonable, or evidential, grounds for it.

But objections of fallacious circular reasoning do not simply originate from Arminians; some Reformed, as well, remain troubled with what they perceive as the fallacy of circularity. After working through a mock dialogue on circular reasoning between Cornelius Van Til and a "Traditionalist" in apologetics, the authors of Classical Apologetics conclude:
Seriously, Dr. Van Til, you certainly see that you are proving neither the Word of God nor the Spirit of God by such a tactic. You are a reasonable person and you know as well as anyone that making the Bible's inspiration rest on the Spirit and the Spirit's testimony rest on the Bible's inspiration gets you nowhere at all.[3]
There are a number of frustrations associated with these objections to circularity, not the least of which is that the authors are either unaware of, or choose to ignore, the responses that have been given to them. The objections continue to be offered, without any reference to responses given.[4]

Another frustration about this charge of fallacious circularity is that the contention of the Covenantal apologist regarding Scripture as a foundational presupposition is nothing new; it is embedded intractably in the Reformed theological tradition. Though the objections themselves might gain traction simply by mere repetition, scholarship requires both that responses to the objections be answered, and that the Reformed theological tradition be taken into account and acknowledged for what it is. It may just be that the Reformed "traditionalist" is not as traditional as he might think.

When the Reformed theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) argued for Scripture as foundational (principium), he received a response from a Romanist theologian, Martin Becanus, entitled, The Calvinistic Circle.[5] In one of his disputations on the relationship of faith and reason, Voetius considers the fact of Scripture's foundational status in light of the function of reason. He concludes:
No other principle or external means whatsoever that is distinct from Scripture and prior, superior (either in itself or with respect to us), more certain and better known, exists or can be invented that is suitable to certainly and infallibly demonstrate to us the authenticity and trustworthiness of Scripture, or to radiate by a clearer light than Scripture itself radiates.[6]
Voetius goes on to reject the notion that anything else could provide credibility to the Bible as our basic foundation, primarily because anything else would assign ultimate credibility to "the testimony of man." In other words, to ground the credibility of the Bible on evidence or reason, is to assign ultimate credibility to that evidence or rational law.

In light of his assertion of the foundational status of Scripture, Voetius was accused of arguing in a circle. The Romanist objection to Voetius was this:
The circle of Calvinist theology...consists in first proving the Divine authority of the Bible by referring to the subjective testimony given by the Holy Spirit, and then attempting to prove that this inner acknowledgement comes indeed from the Spirit of God by referring to the Bible...[7]
This objection is exactly the same as that offered by the "traditionalist" authors cited above.

But Voetius was convinced his argument was not, strictly speaking, circular. He made a distinction between the objective principium of Scripture and the subjective principium of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Whether or not this renders the argument non-circular can be debated, but what cannot be debated is Voetius' Reformed theological consistency. At no point -- neither in the objective nor in the subjective principia -- was he willing to allow reason or external evidence to have preeminence over the testimony of Scripture itself. Nothing but Scripture can argue Scripture's status. In that way, God's own revelation must be the foundation for anything else that we rightly believe or know.

John Owen (1616-1683) engaged in a similar discussion. In speaking of the reason why men must believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God, Owen refers us to the formal object of Scripture.[8]  For Owen, there is a distinction between the formal object and the material object of our faith. Whereas the formal object of our faith deals with the reason why we believe, the material object deals with what we believe, i.e., the actual things which are revealed to us.

This is a needed and helpful distinction. It is sometimes argued that affirming Scripture as our foundational presupposition must include an affirmation of the Trinity, or of substitutionary atonement, etc.[9] This is to confuse the formal and the material objects of faith.

In dealing, therefore, with the reason for faith, Owen concentrates on the formal object. The sole reason why, the ground whereon we are to believe the things revealed in Scripture (which, remember, is the material object) is by the evidence of Scripture alone. Owen is never afraid to give a reason for this most basic belief. He is quick, contrary to the understanding of the traditionalists above, to show that there is indeed evidence for the authority of Scripture, but such evidence is in the Scripture itself. 

Owen makes a further distinction under the rubric of the formal object of faith.  He does not simply state that Scripture is what it is because of what it is, but he goes on to affirm that Scripture is what it is because of who God is. Here he begins to broaden his circle. Owen says that the reason we must believe the Bible to be the Word of God is because of the authority and veracity of God Himself. 

It would appear then that Owen has at least two formal reasons for believing Scripture to be God's Word. He speaks of the authority and veracity of God as the ultimate reason or the ultimate formal object of our faith, whereas the Scripture itself is the first, immediate formal object of our faith. (Here Owen shows the inextricable link between what is called the principium essendi -- the foundation of existence -- and the principium cognoscendi -- the foundation of knowledge. But a discussion of that must be reserved for another time.)

Owen, too, was charged with circular reasoning. His response to the charge was ingenious:
"We cannot," say the Papists..., "know the Scripture to be the word of God by the testimony of the Spirit. For either it is public testimony, which is that of the church" (and if this be granted they have enough); "or it is private testimony.  But then," they say, "it will follow, 1.that our faith in the Scripture is enthusiasm. 2.That if the private testimony of the Spirit be questioned; it cannot be proved but by the Scripture; and so the Scripture being proved by the Spirit, and the Spirit again by the Scripture, we shall run in a round, which is no lawful way of arguing."[10]
Is it the case that this Reformed view of Scripture consigns one to "run in a round?" Owen had an answer to such a charge. First of all, the Scriptures are testified to publicly and not just internally. Such a public testimony is given, not by the church, however, but by the Holy Spirit. Owen will readily admit that men will only concede the authority of Scripture when the Holy Spirit applies that which is public testimony to the hearts of men. Owen then makes another helpful and biblical distinction:
For if I be asked, how I know the Scripture to be the Word of God; this question may have a double sense: for either it is meant of the power and virtue whereby I believe; and then I answer, By the power and efficiency of the Spirit of God, opening the eyes of my understanding, and enabling me to believe; -- or it is meant of the medium or argument made use of, and by which, as a motive, I am drawn to believe; and then I answer, Those impressions of divinity the Spirit hath left on the word, and by which he witnesseth it to be of God, are the argument or motive persuading me to believe.[11]
Here Owen makes a distinction between that which enables the Christian to believe, and that which is the objective cause or argument causing the Christian to believe. It is the latter, according to Owen, the motive of belief, that cannot be attributed to the internal work of God the Holy Spirit. The motive of our faith must be, not the Spirit's internal testimony as the Romanists assume, but the "evidences of divinity" that we see in Scripture itself, through the Spirit's enlightening us.  

In other words, Owen believes his argument to be more reasonable and "evidential" than the argument of the Romanists (as well as our Classical apologists above). As a matter of fact, Owen goes on to argue that it is the Romanist who reasons in a circle and that the circle is in fact a noose! He argues that Rome is caught between two different motives of faith, neither of which can prove the other without at the same time contradicting itself as the motive of faith:
And, indeed, they do plainly run into a circle, in their proving the Scripture by the authority of the church and the authority of the church again by the Scripture; for with them the authority of the church is the motive or argument, whereby they prove the divine authority of the Scripture, and that again is the motive or argument, by which they prove the authority of the church. And so both the church and the Scripture are more known than each other, and yet less, too: more known, because they prove each other; and less known, because they are proved by each other.[12]
This circular "noose" would hold not simply for Romanists, but for the "traditionalists" above as well; their methods are one and the same. Once one defers foundational principia to something other than Scripture, then the "something else" becomes its own foundation and can only refer to itself as its own authority.

Perfectly consistent with Voetius and Owen, and more forceful by virtue of its status, is the Reformed confessional affirmation of these arguments in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
This section of the Confession affirms Scripture as its own, and our only, principium. As with Voetius and Owen, anything outside of Scripture that purports to lend it credibility is bound to become its own self-authenticating authority.

This does not, however, mean that there are no arguments for Scripture's authority. The authors of Classical Apologetics think that if one says Scripture is foundational because..., the "because" conjunction automatically negates the foundation. Here is the way they put it in their mock dialogue:
...the very word "because" means that you do not accept the Bible as the Word of God merely because it says that it is. Whatever you put after your "because" is some additional reason beside the mere affirmation.[13]
This notion, however, misunderstands what it means for Scripture to be our basic foundation (principium). The next section in the Westminster Confession gets it right:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
Notice -- there are "arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God." Such arguments, as Voetius and Owen made clear, refer back to Scripture itself, but that fact does not render them as something less than arguments.

The notion of circularity, of circular arguments, of circular reasoning, rather than being fallacious, must be seen as entailed in any Reformed understanding of God and His revelation. There is nothing new in the charge that such arguments are fallacious; nor is there anything new in the affirmation of circularity. As it was during the time of the Reformation, so it is now. Either one is theologically committed to some human instrument -- be it reason, or evidence, or church -- as one's basic principium, or one is committed to Scripture as foundational. The Romanists and Arminians are consistent in their commitment to the former; no one whose theology is Reformed can consistently affirm anything but the latter.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] Norman L. Geisler, "Reviews," Christian Apologetics Journal 11, No. 2, (Fall 2013), p. 173.

[2] Ibid., pp. 173-74.

[3] R.C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, 1984 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984), p. 238.

[4] See, for example, Cornelius Van Til, Defense of Faith, ed. K. Scott Oliphint, 4th ed. (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2008), pp. 312-44).

[5] See Aza Goudriaan. Reformed Orthodoxy and Philosophy, 1628-1750: Gisbertus Voetius, Petrus Van Mastricht, and Anthonius Driessen, Brill's Series in Church History, vol 26 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2006), p. 47.

[6] Quoted in ibid., pp. 45-46.

[7] Ibid., p. 46.

[8] This discussion can be found in John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, ed. (T&T Clark: London, 1965-68), IV, pp. 16-20.

[9] This kind of objection is offered in Geisler, "Reviews," pp. 172, 174.

[10] Owen, Works, VIII, p. 524.

[11] Ibid., p. 526.

[12] Ibid., p. 526.

[13] Sproul, Gerstner, Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, p. 237.