Biblical Inspiration....unashamedly circular?

Came across this in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology:

4. The Words of Scripture Are Self-Attesting. Thus, the words of Scripture are “self-attesting.” They cannot be “proved” to be God’s words by appeal to any higher authority. For if an appeal to some higher authority (say, historical accuracy or logical consistency) were used to prove that the Bible is God’s Word, then the Bible itself would not be our highest or absolute authority: it would be subordinate in authority to the thing to which we appealed to prove it to be God’s Word. If we ultimately appeal to human reason, or to logic, or to historical accuracy, or to scientific truth, as the authority by which Scripture is shown to be God’s words, then we have assumed the thing to which we appealed to be a higher authority than God’s words and one that is more true or more reliable.

5. Objection: This Is a Circular Argument.
Someone may object that to say Scripture proves itself to be God’s words is to use a circular argument: we believe that Scripture is God’s Word because it claims to be that. And we believe its claims because Scripture is God’s Word. And we believe that it is God’s Word because it claims to be that, and so forth.

It should be admitted that this is a kind of circular argument. However, that does not make its use invalid, for all arguments for an absolute authority must ultimately appeal to that authority for proof: otherwise the authority would not be an absolute or highest authority. This problem is not unique to the Christian who is arguing for the authority of the Bible. Everyone either implicitly or explicitly uses some kind of circular argument when defending his or her ultimate authority for belief.

Although these circular arguments are not always made explicit and are sometimes hidden beneath lengthy discussions or are simply assumed without proof, arguments for an ultimate authority in their most basic form take on a similar circular appeal to that authority itself, as some of the following examples show:

  • “My reason is my ultimate authority because it seems reasonable to me to make it so.”
  • “Logical consistency is my ultimate authority because it is logical to make it so.”
  • “The findings of human sensory experiences are the ultimate authority for discovering what is real and what is not, because our human senses have never discovered anything else: thus, human sense experience tells me that my principle is true.”
    *“I know there can be no ultimate authority because I do not know of any such ultimate authority.”

In all of these arguments for an ultimate standard of truth, an absolute authority for what to believe, there is an element of circularity involved.

Thoughts on just unashamedly accepting a circular argument?

Why not the Book of Mormon? So Grudem goes on to write:

How then does a Christian, or anyone else, choose among the various claims for absolute authorities? Ultimately the truthfulness of the Bible will commend itself as being far more persuasive than other religious books (such as the Book of Mormon or the Qur’an), or than any other intellectual constructions of the human mind (such as logic, human reason, sense experience, scientific methodology, etc.). It will be more persuasive because in the actual experience of life, all of these other candidates for ultimate authority are seen to be inconsistent or to have shortcomings that disqualify them, while the Bible will be seen to be fully in accord with all that we know about the world around us, about ourselves, and about God.

Does this do what #4 above said we can’t?


Grudem had been quoted as saying:

My only access to anything in this physical world (whether it be scientific facts or authorities or the reading of scriptures) will be through my senses (both physical and mental). So if I use those senses and sensibilities to take in a scientifc claim, is that then giving my sensory perceptions authority over that claim? I just don’t see it. There is no way for that claim to reach my mind except through those senses - so I am absolutely dependent on them to even be aware of the claim to process it in the first place. That gives my senses an immediacy and a priority for me to get personal access to whatever this external authority may be. But I don’t think it follows that then I’ve granted my own faculties authority over the subject matter in question. It still stands with its own external authority such as it has. All my senses can do is either enable or compromise my access to it.

And all those observations can analogously apply to our corporate (cultural) access to truth and reality as well. You won’t get access to any truth at all otherwise. So you’d better use what you’ve got, even knowing how fallible it is. I feel like our Penner “end of apologetics” thread has dealt with this quite a bit in our discussions of postmodernism.


Some of the friction comes from the idea that a strictly objectively based conclusion is superior to faith. We see elements of this when people try to claim that “Darwinism is based on faith” as a way of making it sound less reliable. They are essentially saying that faith is inferior to science. Perhaps it would benefit them to view faith and science as being shoulder to shoulder.

In the same way, I would think Christians could say that they unashamedly accept the authority of scripture based on faith. When Bible says that these scriptures hold authority it is simply stating the faith based belief that people share. To use an analogy, the US Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those are truths that were shared by the people who signed the declaration. It would be circular to say that those rights existed because the declaration said so, and it would also miss the point.

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I.e., the testimony of your senses. We kinda depend on testimony. A lot. Whadaya trust?

Oh, and evidence.

You also have access to information form various scientific instruments, which go way beyond what your senses can pick up. E.g. the visible spectrum is only part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Sometimes animals can outperform us. Bees can see UV light.


Interesting way to put it. Disparaging science as faith is sawing off the brach you are sitting on. Though I suppose their usage of “faith” could take on some nuance. Maybe they mean science is based on “blind faith unlike their own,” or “faith in the abilities of man” vs “faith in God and his word.”

I think that is what Grudem is saying. It depends what we mean by authority and how we take it. But earlier he writes:

Our ultimate conviction that the words of the Bible are God’s words comes only when the Holy Spirit speaks in and through the words of the Bible to our hearts and gives us an inner assurance that these are the words of our Creator speaking to us. Just after Paul has explained that his apostolic speech consists of words taught by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13), he says, “The natural man does not receive the things8 of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Apart from the work of the Spirit of God, a person will not receive spiritual truths and in particular will not receive or accept the truth that the words of Scripture are in fact the words of God.

But for those in whom God’s Spirit is working there is a recognition that the words of the Bible are the words of God. This process is closely analogous to that by which those who believed in Jesus knew that his words were true. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who are Christ’s sheep hear the words of their great Shepherd as they read the words of Scripture, and they are convinced that these words are in fact the words of their Lord.

I do agree believers can simply share a common belief statement they think is self-evident. But the idea that any individual book the Bible ever speaks about itself (“when the Bible says”) in the whole sense is historically questionable. One cannot have a Bible or canonical dimension to begin with without the unity that comes from the assumption of inspiration. When 2 Tim talks about “scripture” it is referring to the Old Testament only, not the entire Bible. We have 66 or 73 (or more) individual books depending on who you ask, that only take on canonical meaning after we think they were inspired y God.

I think instead of it “missing the point” it would be better described as circular. But Grudem is perfectly find with a circular argument. He admits it up front. He claims scripture is self-attesting but will certainly have no issues showing how, in his mind, it is superior to the Book of Mormon.

Yes some animals can run faster or jump higher, fly, swim faster or even see in UV portion of the spectrum. In what sense do they outperform us? Did Bees put the James Webb telescope in space? We built scientific instruments that allow us to see light across the spectrum.

Our senses and brain are necessary to process information and while we do depend on faithful testimony all the time, I would still distinguish between human testimony (anecdotal evidence) and replicable scientific data obtained through a controlled experiment with other variables isolated. As we know, or intuitions and senses can be very very wrong at times–as can human testimony. The self-correcting nature of science is the strongest testimony we have at knowing about the natural world.

I don’t find anything to disagree with but I am not immediately sure if you are disagreeing with what Grudem wrote? I am sure he understands we read and process scripture through our brains and senses and we also interpret the world that way as well.

But for those in whom God’s Spirit is working there is a recognition that the words of the Bible are the words of God. This process is closely analogous to that by which those who believed in Jesus knew that his words were true. He said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who are Christ’s sheep hear the words of their great Shepherd as they read the words of Scripture, and they are convinced that these words are in fact the words of their Lord.

Maybe his argument is that if we are the sheep of Jesus, we would recognize “the words of the Bible are the words of God.” It is self-evident. For me the biggest problem, aside from how patronizing this appears to non-Christians, is he clearly assumes a very specific model of inspiration without justification.

But Raymond Brown, who has a very different understanding of the Bible wrote: “This may disappoint those of you who think proof is needed that the Bible is the word of God-no such proof is possible beyond biblical self-claim and Church doctrine. It is a matter of faith.”

I wonder if there is a degree of circularity to our belief because I share Brown’s sentiments.


As an argument it is indeed circular. I dismiss the argument as pure nonsense.

The plain fact of the matter is that the Bible ONLY has a authority because people believe it. We give authority to the text – plain and simple. This is undeniable.

Telling a non-Christian they should believe something because the Bible says so is the ravings of a lunatic.

And yet people do believe what the Bible says, and I am one of them. Why? Because we have read it. And in that sense the Bible is self-attesting. It is not an argument – IT IS AN EXPERIENCE!

It is not an experience everyone has, however.

SAME. The missionaries know it and will even describe the experience to you. “burning in the bosom” or some such words… LOL …but my skepticism makes me wonder if that isn’t cheating a bit… planting the suggestion like that. Don’t think Christians should go that route.


I think that is a better way to put it. Experiencing God while reading the Gospels the first time is ultimately what made me a Christian. But I know I can’t convince someone else based on my personal experience.

I guess the natural question for a skeptic or even a thoughtful, self reflective Christians is “Why doesn’t everyone experience this?” or “Why do other people experience this in their Holy Books?”

In my experience, the apologists fail miserably in answering this question. Trying to limit God to just one religious belief throws them all away IMHO.



…still counts in courts… and in lives.

I don’t know Grudem well - but the thought I was reacting to - and associating with Grudem was this.

We all see the world through one lens or another - or “in the light of” that which is ostensibly taken then, to be the real authority in play. So, as we’ve heard more than once before in these here parts, are you understanding science through the lens of the Bible? …or are you instead understanding the Bible through the lens of science? - the latter being the accusation aimed at those here that they are venerating science over the Bible in a contest of authority.

If that misrepresents Grudem, then consider my response misdirected. But it was that purported contest of authority that I was critiquing as a failed contest - on both sides.

Seriously, how is saying that animals can outperform us in some ways in any sense controversial?
I’ll give some examples: dogs are much better at sniffing out explosives, produce, drugs, etc. at airports. You don’t see people trying to do it. And dogs can find lost people and track fugitives. So their sniffers outperform our sniffers.

Actually, we’ve been harnessing the abilities of animals for millennia!

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Actually, the Bible never claims to be God’s Word. It sometimes records quotes of God. Sometimes USA Today quotes Donald Trump; that does not make the newspaper the “Word of Trump.”

Also, we should not treat the many documents in the Bible as one thing. The Bible is a compilation of many writings by many authors.

The early church did not come into being because of the Bible. The Bible came into being because of the early church.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was what caused the church to be. And the proof of the resurrection is not the Bible.

The proof of the resurrection is found in John’s testimony, Peter’s testimony, James’ testimony, and the many witnesses interview by Luke.

It was the resurrection that turned a fearful scattered group of disciples into fearless people who changed the world.


Not exactly. The canon maybe (in reaction to such as Marcion), but the church did not write the contents of the Bible. If it did… if there are cases where it did alter or add to the content… then I would not credit them as much and tend to discount those parts.

This is a chicken and the egg sort of question. Or for another analogy, like the relationship between DNA and the cell. It was my objection to Dawkins “The Selfish Genes” which anthropomorphized DNA and made them sound like they are the origin and masters of everything. No… DNA is just an information storage mechanism.

Likewise church and scripture has grown together. We can draw some lines for significant differences. Jesus and eukaryotes, for example… game changers for sure… but the origins go farther back than these.

He is not referring to the 4th century councils. I take “early church” to be 30s, 40, and 50s. The only Bible they had was the OT. They most certainly did not have the New Testament or the Bible from our perspective. Christianity survived and proliferated without a written NT for while but as time passed written material became needed. Even then people did not have “multiple books” or big collections of them early on like we do today. Nor could most of the people read.

Very true. Paul experienced Jesus without a NT. But all of that information you relayed is gleaned by reading the Bible, or individual works of the New Testament, and accepting it/them as an accurate depiction of the events. We have no way around it.

No, the church compiled the already written documents into what we call the Bible.

What? The existence of the church is proof of the resurrection? Is the existence of the LDS church proof of the resurrected Jesus’ visit to the Americas?

Yes they had the OT, so it did not begin there – point made. And do you think they sat down to add a new text to scripture? I don’t think so. That is the difference between Christianity and religions like Islam and the LDS. Nobody set out to create it and write its scriptures. Instead they grew over a long period of time with the contribution of many different people with writings which proved helpful. I think the lack of human intent and design helps us to see the hand of God in it.

As I wrote, the proof of the resurrection are the eyewitness testimonies of John, Peter, James, and others.

Yet an argument could be made that without the resurrection, Jesus would simply be a long forgotten rabbi with little or no record in history. And John and Peter and Andrew and Matthew would be less common names.

No, I do not think they set out to add new scripture intentionally. 2 Peter written in the second century, does equate some of Paul’s writings with Scripture however. I think many early Christians thought the end would already be here, not that we would have a new Bible 2000 years later based off their writings.

Though I suppose if you think Peter wrote 2 Peter and already thinks of Paul’s writings as scripture as case could be made some NT authors thought they were writing scripture. I do not.

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