Van Til’s Circular Meanderings

I hold that belief in God is not merely as reasonable as other belief, or even a little or infinitely more probably true than other belief; I hold rather that unless you believe in God you can logically believe in nothing else. But since I believe in such a God, a God who has conditioned you as well as me, I know that you can to your own satisfaction, by the help of the biologists, the psychologists, the logicians, and the Bible critics reduce everything I have said … to the circular meanderings of a hopeless authoritarian. Well, my meanderings have, to be sure, been circular; they have made everything turn on God. So now I shall leave you with Him, and with His mercy.

Van Til, Why I Believe In God. Quoted in Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (1998), p143.

Everyone has an ultimate authority. To be consistent, reasoning will necessarily circle around that authority. The only difference between us is the particular authority we have chosen to circle around.

So, is circular reasoning the only thing Presuppositionalism has to offer? No. Van Til in the above quotation points to a transcendental argument, not a circular argument, as the best apologetic for the Christian God.

Five Views on Circularity

I recently read Five Views on Apologetics, edited by Stephen B. Cowan, and found it a stimulating read. In a volume of this nature the articles inevitably lack the depth that those well-versed in apologetic methodology would appreciate. But, it is the interaction between the different contributors that provides the greatest interest.

One of the main points of contention is the accusation of circularity against presuppositional methodology, represented by John Frame. What follows is a brief summary of the debate over this specific issue in the book.

John Frame

Because God’s standards apply to all of life, His standards must also govern the activity of reason. Since His standards are made known to us in Scriptural revelation, faith in God and his revelation is required in order for our reason to function in accord with those standards. The content of faith is Scripture. In short, faith governs reason.

But, where does faith come from? Frame distinguishes two ways of speaking about the “cause” of faith. Firstly, God is the cause of faith, since it is the gift of God. Secondly, the rational basis of faith is reality since, through the work of the Holy Spirit of truth, God causes us to believe what is true. Frame says, “the faith he gives us agrees with God’s own perfect rationality” and so we can say that our faith is based on rationality.  When we think biblically we think  the way we were designed to think. As our own reason reflects God’s reason, our faith is strengthened as we see the basis of our faith by means of that faith.

(Since creation is an outworking of that rationality our faith will be in perfect agreement with every fact of the universe. Our faith is logically based upon evidence, but is not caused by it.)

Frame admits that to say “faith governs reason” and “faith is based on rationality” involves circularity, but claims it is not viciously circular. Rather, it reflects a more linear relation:

God’s rationality -> Human faith -> Human rationality


God’s truth -> Gift of faith -> Reflection of God’s truth in human reason

Frame states that if we presuppose the truth of Christianity, then an argument (i.e. reason) cannot establish the truth of Christianity since reason would be acting as a more ultimate standard of truth.

Frame claims that circular arguments are unavoidable when dealing with any ultimate authority. Indeed, the use of circular arguments are justified when providing the ultimate criterion of a philosophical system. If reason is the ultimate standard of truth, then the only way to support such a claim is to use the ultimate standard of truth, which is reason. If Allah is the ultimate standard of truth, then you need to appeal to Allah to support such a claim. There can be no higher standard than the ultimate standard.

Frame also distinguishes between a “narrow” circular argument and a “broad” circular argument. A narrow argument would be of the form:

P1: Everything the Bible says is true
P2: The Bible says it is the Word of God
C: The Bible is the Word of God

A broad version employs evidences to bolster the argument, but is still circular since it deals with an ultimate standard.

William Lane Craig

Craig barely moves beyond accusing Frame of a “logical howler”, namely petitio principii (more commonly known as “begging the question”).

Gary R. Habermas

Habermas also accuses Frame of the informal fallacy of circularity. But, he also accuses Frame of the fallacy of false analogy. Frame argues that everyone has a starting point: rationalists have reason; empiricists have sense experience; the believer has Scripture. However, Habermas contends that reason, sense experience and Scripture are not “analogous bases”:

While the rationalist uses reason and the empiricist uses sense experience as tools from which to construct their system, Frame assumes both the tool of special revelation and the system of Scripture, from which he develops his Christian theism.

Since Frame favours the “broad argument” (when the “narrow argument” fails), which uses evidences, Habermans asks why not go to evidences directly? After all, if each side in an apologetic encounter is justifying their ultimate standard circularly, no meaningful apologetics is being done.

Paul D. Feinberg

Feinberg claims that sometimes God uses evidences to cause faith, not merely to confirm it. Likewise, the rational basis of faith may be evidences, such as the resurrection. Both would break the circularity of Frame’s argument.

Feinberg also proposes a way to solve Frame’s “problem” of circularity. He claims both believers and unbelievers share the rules of reason in common, such as the law of non-contradiction, even if we disagree on matters of experience. Rather than simply presupposing Christianity, any debate over the meaning and significance of evidence can be conducted using the shared tools of logical reasoning

Kelly James Clark

Clark does not believe reason functions as a standard of truth, merely as a tool to discover or figure out the truth. Reason is also “sterile without the evidential input of all of our cognitive faculties.” Clark also argues that it is we who must determine whether the Bible is Scripture or not, so there necessarily must be an element of autonomous reason  in every apologetic encounter. Clark questions whether automous reasons is a bad thing. “If it’s a bad thing, it is all the worse for us, because it is all we have”, he claims.