October 22, 2009

The Question-Begging Fallacy, God's Word, and Apologetics

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, October 22, 2009

The Question-Begging Fallacy, God’s Word, and Apologetics

A fallacy is a mistake in reasoning or argument. Some fallacies are so common that they have been given their own names. The fallacy of question-begging occurs when an argument assumes as proven that which is at issue. In other words, the conclusion, which is the claim in dispute, is used as a premise, which is provided as support for the claim in dispute—and the result is that the disputed claim is provided as support for itself. Appropriately, the fallacy of question-begging is also known as circular reasoning.

Sometimes the question-begging fallacy is easy to spot. Consider the following lone argument presented by a lawyer whose job is to establish the defendant’s guilt in a murder trial: “Joe is the murderer, therefore he should be found guilty of murder.” Clearly, if the issue is whether Joe actually did the crime, then merely asserting that Joe is the murderer is to assume as proven that which is at issue, which is to beg the question.

In other words, the argument is circular: Joe is guilty (conclusion), because Joe is guilty (premise). [The disputed claim is offered as support for the disputed claim, i.e., the conclusion is offered as the premise.] What is needed is evidence of Joe’s actual doing of the crime, that is, what is needed are grounds which establish Joes’ guilt. Such evidence could consist of an accumulation of the following: Joe’s footprints at the scene of the crime, Joe’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, gun powder residue on Joe’s hand, the victim’s blood on Joe’s jacket, credible testimony from a witness who saw Joe commit the killing, etc. (For more about this sort of evidence, see TV shows such as CSI New York, CSI Miami, CSI Las Vegas, CSI Ad Infinitum, CSI Ad Nauseum.)

Sometimes the question-begging fallacy is not quite as easy to spot, especially when it comes to religious or worldview matters. Consider the argument set out in the following discussion:

  • Believer: “The Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) is the Word of God.”
  • Skeptic: “Why should I think that?”
  • Believer: “The Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) says it’s the Word of God, and we should believe whatever the Bible (Qur’an, etc.) says, because it’s the Word of God.”
  • Skeptic: “Umm, there’s something wrong here.”

It seems to me that the skeptic is correct here. If the issue (point of dispute) is whether the Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) is the Word of God, then simply restating the issue (point of dispute) as a premise—i.e., that the Bible (etc.) is the Word of God—in support of the conclusion—i.e., that the Bible (etc.) is the Word of God—is to commit the question-begging fallacy. It’s to assume as established that which is at issue. It’s to argue in a circle.

In such a dispute, what is needed is some way to break out of the circle. That is, what is needed is some evidence or grounds for thinking that the Bible (or Qur’an, etc.) is true or at least contains important truths—in the mundane, everyday, lower-case “t” sense of “truth”. Such evidence or grounds could consist of an accumulation of the following: the book’s historical accuracy (especially concerning its central figure), its fit with what we know of the cosmos (especially the findings of the sciences as well as the very possibility of doing science in the first place), its accuracy in understanding the human condition (including our apparent brokenness or penchant to fail at love), plus its moral fruit (that is, its overall impact on the world in spite of the obvious failures of those who don’t practice its core doctrines).

In a world in which various worldviews (whether religious or secular) compete for our deepest allegiances, but are in their core tenets mutually contradictory (e.g., the Bible teaches that Jesus is God in the flesh and that Jesus was killed and subsequently resurrected; the Qur’an denies both of these teachings), to commit the question-begging fallacy in defence of one’s worldview is not at all helpful for those who desire to know or reasonably believe which worldview (if any) is really the way, the truth, and the life.

Hence, there is a need for truth-seeking apologetics, done by Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and whomever—and, of course, done with gentleness and respect.

P.S. On a more personal note, in my journey through life I have come to believe that the New Testament documents of the Bible provide us with good publicly-accessible historical reasons for thinking that the man Jesus, who identifies himself as the biblical God, actually lived and died and resurrected bodily from death. This, it seems to me, is good grounds for taking Jesus’ teachings to heart and worshipping Him as Lord.

Hendrik van der Breggen, Ph.D., is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.


Mitchell Shepherd said...

Chew in this:

the Bible is the final authority. if it needed an higher authority to prove it, it wouldn't be the highest authority.



Dr. V said...

Hi Mitchell,

Thanks for your comment. Now, I must ask you some questions.

In view of what you’ve written, how would you (for the sake of an honest truth seeker) arbitrate between competing claims concerning final authority? What criteria would you use? Just because Mitchell says so, or just because Mitchell’s favourite book says so? But what about this: Muslims claim that the Qur’an is the final authority; Mormons claim that the Book of Mormon is the final authority; Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the New World Translation of the Bible is the final authority? And then there are the sacred writings of Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, etc. In other words, aren’t you back to question-begging (see my column)?

Also, if one of these books, say, the Bible, can be shown to be quite accurate in its contents whereas the others aren’t so accurate, shouldn’t that count for something? Especially in your case, if you take the Bible as the highest authority, shouldn’t you expect that at least some of its contents are true with respect to the world? Why not share those truths with others so they might take a look at the Bible and consider its claims?

And what if a book passes the tests of reason and evidence? That is, what if good reasoning and evidence point us in the direction of believing that the book in question is in fact the highest authority? Wouldn’t the careful use of reason in such an investigation simply confirm the book’s highest authority rather than usurp it? And couldn’t such an investigation be understood as an attempt to love God with all of one’s mind?

If I were working with Einstein, the careful use of my reason would tell me that I should respect him as a higher authority concerning physics. This isn’t a case of me making my reason the highest authority; rather, this is a case of me using reason wisely and humbly to help me acknowledge a higher authority when there really is one and to submit to it because it is in fact a higher authority. In the case of Jesus, my reason tells me that He claims to be God and that He actually died and resurrected, so my reason also tells me to submit to Him as a higher authority: hence, Jesus is my Lord, and I place my faith in Him.

(Not so incidentally, it turns out that, as I read and study the Bible, I have a sense that God encourages me to use reason, humbly and carefully, to discern good reasons, i.e., publicly accessible truths, concerning the reality of God and His revelation in Christ—and to do this in a non-question-begging sort of way.)

To be continued...

Dr. V said...

Reply to Mitchell continued:

Here are a couple of quotes for you to chew on (from a textbook that I use in my Philosophy of Religion course):

(1) "To the charge that testing one's faith by logic is placing logic above God, the retort might be that a really strong and sound faith involves the confidence that one's beliefs can pass any properly conducted test on the basis of logic and evidence." (If it passes, then logic and evidence are not above God; rather, logic and evidence would be servants of God. And God, a.k.a. the Logos, would be the ground of all good reasoning.)

(2) "Can't we, in fact, go even further than this, and say that in order to be taken seriously by a reasonable person a religious belief-system must be subjected to the tests of logical consistency and factual correctness?" (If not, then why bother with any particular religious belief-system?)

(The above quotes are from Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach & David Basinger, Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 4th edition [New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 60.)

One last point, which is a bit more personal and a bit of a rebuke. I encourage you not to use “duh” as you did. It’s quite insulting. You are in effect saying the following to me: “Are you so stupid that you don’t understand the point I’ve just made?” Besides being disrespectful, such comments do not encourage respectful dialog. In your future communications (with me or anyone else) please remember this: Christians are asked to give the reason for their hope and to do this with gentleness and respect. This is from 1 Peter 3:15—i.e., a passage from the book you acknowledge as the final authority.

With best regards only,


Mitchell Shepherd said...

i never said to chuck your brain when reading the Bible.

i believe the Bible in scientifically, historically, and prophetically accurate in every respect.

"contradictions" are merely a lack of understanding on our part and can be easily cleared up with deeper study.

and, yes the Bible does say "prove all things, keep that which is good" (prove means- test/prove)

no, i do not believe faith is illogical.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Heb 11:11

Rom 10:13,14

13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?

faith, from my understanding of these passages is believing someone's account of things you didn't personally see, based on the reasonableness, evidence and logical conclusion of all those things you heard.


all i meant was this-

if indeed the Bible is the highest authority, then it needs no outside source to prove it.
that is a logical statement.


as for the other books which you put on the same level as the Bible... NO WAY.

you can't compare them

photosynthesis said...

He, he, this is fun,

if indeed the Bible is the highest authority, then it needs no outside source to prove it.

I think this makes sense. Just reading the book(s) should make it clear that it is the highest authority.

Since that does not happen at all, well, make your own conclusions.


Dr. V said...


Thanks for the clarification. I think that we are (for the most part) on the same page. When you say that “the Bible is scientifically, historically, and prophetically accurate in every respect,” I’m adding that to arbitrate between competing alleged revelations (competing books that claim to be “God’s Word”), these truths should be set out.

For the sake of the record, I didn’t put the other books on the same level as the Bible in the sense of being true or actually being God’s Word; rather, I said (or intended to say, if I didn’t say it clearly) that they’re all on the same level in the sense that they all claim to be the highest authority and so, I went on to argue, all should be investigated for truth in order to arbitrate between them.

Re: your claim (slightly reword by me for clarity’s sake) “If the Bible is the highest authority, then the Bible is the highest authority.” This claim is in fact true, and it’s necessarily true. It is a logical statement. If A, then A. No problem. I agree 100%. Moreover, when the previous statement is translated into an argument—such as “The Bible is the highest authority, therefore the Bible is the highest authority”—it is a deductively valid argument. A therefore A. No problem. I agree 100%. (To say that an argument is deductively valid is to say that whenever the premise/s are true the conclusion must be true too, i.e., if the premise/s are true then their truth guarantees the truth of the conclusion). So far, so good. The problem, however, is that even though this is a deductively valid argument, it may not be a sound argument. (A sound argument is an argument that’s deductively valid plus has true premises.) So now the question is: Is the premise true? Sure, if it is, then it is. But is it? Why believe it’s true? I think this is where we should appeal to the scientific and historical and prophetic stuff that you mention, to help people who struggle with knowing which “God’s Word” is really God’s Word.

Thanks again for your comments.

Best regards,

Dr. V said...


Re: your claims “Just reading the book(s) should make it clear that it is the highest authority” and “that does not happen at all.” It very much seems that the latter claim is false. It does happen, for a lot of people. About a third of the world’s population is Christian. Many if not most Christians take the Bible as the highest authority, and many do so and get clear on this by “just reading the book”.

Re: the claim (from Mitchell) “if indeed the Bible is the highest authority, then it needs no outside source to prove it.” It seems to me that if the issue is whether the Bible is the highest authority, then, for those who disagree that it’s the highest authority, some reasons should be provided for thinking that it is the highest authority. (This, it seems to me, fits with 1 Peter 3:15, where Christians are asked for a reason for their hope.) If, in actuality, it is the highest authority, then looking for and finding such reasons doesn’t impinge on its authority, just as my finding some good reasons to take Einstein as an authority in physics doesn’t impinge on his actual authority in physics.

Re: your claim “He, he, this is fun.” Shouldn’t this be spelled “Hee, hee, this is fun”? (My attempt at majoring in the minors… :-)

Best regards,

photosynthesis said...


Re: your claims “Just reading the book(s) should make it clear that it is the highest authority” and “that does not happen at all.” It very much seems that the latter claim is false. It does happen, for a lot of people. About a third of the world’s population is Christian. Many if not most Christians take the Bible as the highest authority, and many do so and get clear on this by “just reading the book”.

This is simply not true. People first accepted the idea of such an authority and then read it into the book(s).

I know I cannot prove it. But it is quite obvious since I have witnessed innumerable times. One of those was myself a long time ago. I know my sole experience and witnessing those around me is nothing compared to a third of the world. But you cannot prove that this authority was not read into the Bible rather than the other way around. Also, I have read the Bible again since I started blogging, and I see no authority emanating from it. For the Bible to truly be the highest authority it should be much more obvious than just convince a third, or even 99% of the world. It should be plainly undeniable, and it is not. This is one where an absolute agreement is necessary to prove the claim. (We are talking about truly highest authority, right?)

I hope I was clear because I was thinking too fast and not paying enough attention to the order of ideas and such.

Have a great weekend!


Mitchell Shepherd said...


the main difference between the Bible and religious books is that the Bible is "lifting man up to himself" and the others are "man lifting himself to God"

photosynthesis said...

Oh, yes, it should have been "Hee, hee, this is fun" Thanks! I have been feeling awkward every time I wrote that.


Dr. V said...


Thanks for your comment. You wrote that you were "thinking too fast and not paying enough attention to the order of ideas and such." This is not intended as a negative comment in any way (if it is negative, it applies to me too): We should slow down in our thinking and pay attention to the order/logical connections of ideas and such. Also, when it comes to the Bible, I encourage slow reading plus the sincere prayer "Lord, if you're really there, please help me to know You."

Best regards,

Dr. V said...


Thanks for your comment. I'm glad that we're in agreement on some important stuff.

However, I'm not clear exactly on what you mean when you wrote: "the main difference between the Bible and religious books is that the Bible is 'lifting man up to himself' and the others are 'man lifting himself to God.'" I'm probably missing something obvious....

Best regards,

kakistokrat said...

Hi Dr. van der Breggen,

I hope all is well.

This is not really relevant to your post, but I think touches on a few issues raised in the comment section.

In your "ps" you note that you

-have come to believe that the New Testament documents of the Bible provide us with good publicly-accessible historical reasons for thinking that the man Jesus, who identifies himself as the biblical God, actually lived and died and resurrected bodily from death.

And that because of these beliefs you have

-good grounds for taking Jesus’ teachings to heart and worshipping Him as Lord.

I agree, but I am curious about something: How long do you suppose before evangelicals in general can move beyond looking at the Bible as the Word of God and instead come to see Jesus as the Word of God, before evangelicals in general can come to see what Christ reveals about the Father as Revelation, and not the particular book that testifies to this Revelation, as Revelation?

(To clarify, I am not really asking you for some sort of prophetic prediction. I am more just curious as to whether you have come across these thoughts in Christian apologetics. It took Catholics a long time to figure this one out, and were still sort of in that process of discerning precisely what this means...)

Christianity is about a divine encounter, and it is a Person that we encounter and not a Book.

Pope Benedict wrote the following in his first encyclical: "Being Christian is not a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives lofe a new horizon and a decisive direction."

A realization of who actually the Word of God is, and what might testify to this Word, would also get us beyond those distracting conversations that popular apologists seem so concerned about, concerns Mitchell Shepherd has when he speaks of the Bible's scientific and historical credibility. There are also concerns about particular moral teachings as well. Let's not limit our concerns to science and history. As for his claims about contradictions merely being a lack of understanding on our part which can be easily cleared up with deeper study, I am pretty sure this was Augustine's thought as well. However, while Mitchell might be in good company, it is company that most biblical scholars have moved beyond as they no longer share the sort of hermeneutic that demands a text be free of error...


Dr. V said...

Hi Kelly,

It’s good to hear from you! I appreciate your thoughtful comment. I’m not really sure what the answer is to your question about the distinctions between the encounter with Christ as an event, a Person, the Word revealing the Father, and the distinctions between all of the aforementioned, the Bible as the Word of God, and the Bible as a book that testifies to the Revelation. Nevertheless, as a thoughtful non-theologian who happens to be a philosopher, I will say that I tend to think that they’re all connected. I have come to know Christ as an event, a Person, the Word revealing the Father, and I think that the Bible as the Word of God can function as a mere book that testifies to the Revelation. I agree that we shouldn’t limit our concerns to the Bible’s scientific and historical and moral credibility; nevertheless, I think that these are legitimate concerns and they should be addressed, especially if they can help people appreciate the truth of the Gospel. In addition, I don’t think that a hermeneutic which demands a text to be free of error is required for us to gain accessibility to knowledge of the truth of the core Christian doctrines. But this shouldn’t stop scholars from trying to discern whether the alleged errors are actual errors.

Having said all of the above, I think that in order to commend the truth of the Gospel, i.e., in order to give some reasons for the hope we have, it’s important to testify to God’s general revelation in the world plus His specific revelation in Jesus’ teachings, life, death, and resurrection. Somehow in doing this, God’s Word—as Person, as Revelation, as Encounter, and even as mere literal language expressing truths about Him—will go out and bring forth people to Him. I heard a theologian describe God’s Word as “richly propositional.” I think there’s something to that.

Again, Kelly, it’s good to hear from. It’s late and I need to get to sleep.

Wishing you all the best,

Mitchell Shepherd said...

that sounds very spiritual indeed.
and Jesus Christ is the Word of God. but if you "go beyond" scripture, you're on shaky ground because Jesus is no longer with us in body, on earth. therefore a teaching that someone claims is God's word must still be compared to the Scripture, which is the the standard until we meet Jesus Christ in person.

and as for a text needing to be accurate... definitely, it does.

what part of it can you trust if any one part is proven false?

Hedrik, you are a theologian. I'm a theologian and i'm under 20 years of age. You don't need a degree to be a theologian. As a philosopher, you should know that it simply means "one who studies God or God's character".

kakistokrat said...

Hi Mitchell,

You see me as being on shaky ground. I appreciate your concern, but don't feel too bad if I have to reciprocate. I don't know you, but in these comments you have said a couple of things (you're under 20, think you're a theologian, don't believe there is internal difficulties in the Bible...), that certainly would put yourself in agreement with a lot of people I have known. And of those people I have known, many, once they have received a little education and encountered scientific, historical, or moral difficulties in the Bible, because they have presupposed something very mistaken about the Bible, have their faith crushed because its foundation is gone. This is an unfortunate thing, and I hope does not happen to you.

You have to come to terms with the fact that you are called to reciprocate God's love, and not explain why each Gospel writer disagrees on the details of a particular event. You are called to do this, not because a Book says so, but because a person reveals to you something more of God than history had previously been familiar with.

The Revelation of God is Jesus. It's not the Bible. God send a Person, and not a Book. We are not Muslims. While the Bible is important, you have to approach is reasonably. You have to realize that what the Bible testifies to, that God became incarnate, is far more important than anything else.

As for Jesus no longer being with us on in body, or on earth, that may be true in a sense, but we do have the Holy Spirit, and with a little help we can come to see Jesus in a number of ways. Yes we see him in the Bible, and that is hugely important and instructional (but the encounter with Jesus is our goal, and that's why a practice like the lectio devina is so important...), but we also can learn to see him in those we encounter, and as a Catholic, I believe we can also see him in the Eucharist. There are other ways too.

Good luck.

Dr. v,

I also think it's all (Jesus, Bible...) connected for us. In the beginning though it must not have been. As people were experiencing the teachings or actions of Jesus himself, and then reflecting on them later through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, this would have been sufficient. No Bible would have been necessary, because God was revealing himself in a Person.

For us though, the Bible must have a special place. When we read Jesus say something to the effect of "You have heard it said, but I say to you..." and witness that subordination of Moses to himself, or when we read of his relationship with his Father that is articulated in terms of "Abba," we come to realize that Jesus was stretching the people's understanding of God (something new is being revealed in Jesus). We see that because we have a Bible, and because those moments strike us as genuine. But that Bible points beyond to the actual preson of Jesus.

(And I agree that scholars should discern whether errors are actual errors, but we might have to also modify what we think an error is. For example each Gospel writer has a sort of annointing scene with Jesus. In each, however, where it occurs, who does it, in whose home does it take place, the response onlookers give, radicallly varies. Our hermeneutic might cause us to ask 'they radically differ, how can we reconcile them?' Another person might say 'why would I try to reconcile them? these are the points of contact between the stories, and the rest of the details don't seem to matter to the original hearers so why would they to me?' I would agree with the latter response).

All the best,

Dr. V said...

Kelly and Mitchell,

Thanks for your insights. I have another comment, which I hope is insightful too.

It seems to me that we should look to the Bible to ensure that the Christ whom I believe I encounter personally (subjectively) is essentially the same Jesus to whom the early witnesses testify. Thus, it seems to me, it's helpful and important to know that the New Testament documents, especially insofar as they testify to Jesus in historical terms, are historically accurate/ reliable.

All the best to both of you,

Mitchell Shepherd said...

can you gimme the references to the alleged conflicts?

i think its about time i studied them all.

i agree the evangelists had different perspectives, but i believe actual contradictions of people and places are only percieved, and like i said before, due to our lack of understanding.

The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. (Psalms 12:6-7)

Dr. V said...

Hi Mitchell,

I believe that you are addressing your comment to Kelly, so I'll leave it to Kelly to answer if he wishes. (And perhaps you guys should do do this privately, via personal email, since I'm sure that much will need to be said.)

Nevertheless, I will say this (for anyone who is interested): The philosopher William Lane Craig has written an excellent (and reasonably short) article on inerrancy which can be found in the Q&A section at his website Reasonable Faith. Also, the philosopher Paul D. Feinberg has a helpful (and short) article "Does the Bible Contain Errors?" on pages 1412-1413 of The Apologetics Study Bible (Holman 2007).

With best regards,

childofgod_19 said...

Although I love reading these arguments. The problem with all of them is that they all, so-far, are based on a pre-supposition that is false. That is that everyone believes the Bible to be true. To someone who believes the Bible is false all of these arguments are not 'proof' because they are based on a 'false claim' or pre supposition.

Now I am not saying that I don't agree with these comments but I am saying that before making these arguments one must prove that the Bible is true so that the reader can have the same starting point, christian or non christian. Most people would agree with the Bible if they thought the Bible was true. But no one in thei right mind will believe the bible is true because the book says it's true.

I only say this because these comments seem to be meant for people who already 'believe' the bible is true but this site seems designed to attract people who don't 'believe' the bible is true.

And mitchell, if you really believe that the bible doesn't 'need' an outside source to prove itself, 1 I would like to see your proof from the bible that proves that it is true 2 please explain why the apostles had to write such long letters explaining why the things they were saying were true? why didn't they just say it was true? why did they refer to the past to prove the present?

The Whyman said...

Understandable assumption but flawed nonetheless.

It is ironic to note that those that decry belief that the Bible is the Word of God as being ‘circular reasoning’ are guilty of the same.

That is, attempting to employ logic to prove logic. The very same principle is used when Christians prove a theological point by quoting scripture.

So in short, if someone states that you can’t use the Bible, to prove that the Bible is true, then to be consistent no one can use reason to prove that reason is true and valid either.

Some things are simply axiomatic, that is, self-proving. For example, the thousands of prophecies in scripture, including the 300+ concerning the coming of Christ fulfilled to minute detail is proof in itself.

All humans, being finite have an axiomatic starting point for their worldviews. For the ‘atheist’ it is unbelief, for the Christian, it is belief. The real question is: where do the facts lead?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

This is a good question: Where do the facts lead? I think that they point to God revealed in Jesus Christ. As a defence of my view, I've set out some arguments here and elsewhere.

P.S. My comment sections are officially closed after a few weeks, but sometimes I happen to see a comment in my spam box and say, "Sure, why not." No guarantees.