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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

Circularity in Biblical Interpretation - A Response to Luigi

A new Eastern apologist who goes by Luigi posted a one-tweet argument a little while ago {I} which he claims refutes "Protestantism" in itself. It is linked in the endnotes, but for convenience here it is in full:

Protestantism refuted in one post:

II Peter 3:16 says uneducated people misinterpret Scripture to their own destruction. 

1. How do you know you’re not the one misinterpreting Scripture?

2. “Well because this verse says…” Nope. That’s circular. Appealing to the thing in question. 

3. “Well I have the Holy Spirit inside me…” 

4. How do you know that? 

5. “Well this verse says….” See point 2. 

6. “Well I can still reference church fathers”

7. How do you know when church fathers are wrong and when they’re right? 

8. “Well because it aligns with Scripture and what the Holy Spirit is telling me” See point 2 and 4. 

9. “Well also the Holy Spirit produces fruit in my life” a Oneness or Mormon could make the same claim. 

10. “Err uhh ICONS ARE IDOLATRY!!”

I engaged in a back and forth in the replies in order to demonstrate how his argument likewise destroys his own epistemological foundations {II}, as the same standards and claims of circularity can be applied to one in his own communion in their search for what the Church teaches or how they know what the true Church is. He got the last word, though I believe I demonstrated the clear inconsistency well enough that even his latest reply does not affect it, so I will let the reader check that out under the main tweet if one so desires.

One thing he did claim in the replies is that I was making a Tu Quoque fallacy, because I could not refute the argument in itself. As I said back to him, I openly acknowledged that my tweet reply was not against the argument in itself, but specifically to expose his inconsistency, and thus hopefully have him reconsider the line of reasoning (since I genuinely hate to see men govern their reason by fatally flawed principles). I also said that I was writing an actual reply, and this post is that reply (albeit far later than I had hoped, due to many factors in my life). It will be demonstrated both that Luigi is wrong in my inability to reply to his argument, and, principally, that his argument really is in itself wrong.

I - Statement of the Question

We will first analyse Luigi's argument to determine what it is asserting with precision, allowing for an accurate and efficient critique. Fundamentally, it is an attempt to undermine “Protestantism” by refuting one of its foundational premises. So, in order to refute this defeater, we must either show that Luigi’s premises are flawed or that his conclusions do not follow from those premises, or both. The argument is likewise in the form of a pseudo-Socratic dialogue, which helps us discern his premises and presuppositions in more detail through interaction with counter-responses.

As to the content of this argument, it asserts that Protestants cannot have certainty that they are not misinterpreting Scripture, because 2nd Peter 3:16 speaks of “uneducated people misinterpret[ing] Scripture to their own destruction,” and to appeal back to Scripture in order to show that one is not misinterpreting it would be a circular argument. Likewise, extra-scriptural appeals like the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, the fruits thereof, and the testimony of the fathers just move the problem of grounding further back; i.e., how does one know that it is the Spirit testifying in their heart and not a false spirit, and how does one know when the fathers are right or wrong in their interpretation. Thus, with the Bible alone as their only infallible authority, Protestants have no means of discerning whether an individual is misinterpreting a passage or not, because that individual’s interpretation is the final stopgap in the system.

With this laid out, we will now interact with the heart of Luigi’s argument.

II – Critique

Luigi: II Peter 3:16 says uneducated people misinterpret Scripture to their own destruction. 

Response: An immediate irony I wish to draw from Luigi’s reliance on this passage is how it proves a critical lack of self-reflection right out of the gate on his part. His post intends to show that biblical perspicuity is an incoherent concept that relies on circular appeals to the very thing in dispute (Scripture). And yet, his immediate, unqualified appeal to this passage (read: his interpretation thereof, as his own side often stresses) presupposes its immediate intelligibility in accordance with ordinary rules of language and interpretation, such that one can be certain as to its meaning through those means, without the need for a direct interpretive decree by an organ of the Church. To avoid this inconsistency, Luigi would have to ground his interpretation on an authoritative interpretation from his Eastern communion, and so I call upon him to provide that interpretation which he - being (presumably) attentive to consistency - grounds his interpretation upon. If he cannot ground his interpretation of the passage in a decree of his Church, then his question can be thrown back on him; how does he know that he isn’t the one misinterpreting Scripture? How does he know 2nd Peter 3:16 says what he claims it says?

This is essentially the same critique I gave under the Tweet itself, one of inconsistency. Of course, that does not show Luigi’s point to be wrong, just that he fails his own standards. So we will move on to the main argument.

Luigi: 1. How do you know you’re not the one misinterpreting Scripture? “Well because this verse says…” Nope. That’s circular. Appealing to the thing in question.

This is the most fundamental point in his argument, the pillar by which it stands or falls. If it is shown false, his other points on appeals to the Holy Spirit and to the fathers will be rendered irrelevant, since this first response being proven false ipso facto means one can appeal to Scripture in a non-circular manner to establish one’s interpretations of it with certainty. So, this critique will focus entirely on that claim.

The fatal flaw in this response is the complete lack of any distinctions between different kinds of appeals to Scripture. That is, Luigi insinuates that any appeal to Scripture in order to bolster one’s interpretation thereof is circular. This, it will be shown, is silly, and if applied consistently would render all interpretation of and debating over texts impossible.

We will show this in a small scenario. Say that a regular Christian was arguing with some friends over whether Scripture explicitly condemns homosexual behaviour. This Christian argues that it does, and he appeals to Romans 1:26 as proof of such. But a liberal friend - let’s call him Waluigi - objects to the Christian guy’s appeal to this passage, and retorts with “How do you know you're not the one misinterpreting Scripture?” The the Christian then responds, “Following Paul’s logic, he speaks of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as such - no qualification - exchanging ‘natural relations’ with one another for those that are ‘contrary to nature,’ that is, men committing ‘shameless acts with men,’ and the same with women for each other. This denotes the very definition of homosexual activity; that’s how I know I am not misinterpreting the passage.”

Just like that, we can see a perfectly valid, non-circular appeal back to Scripture in order to demonstrate one’s interpretation thereof. Waluigi may object to the Christian’s understanding and use of the elements within the passage, thus taking the argument deeper; but he cannot make the accusation that it’s circular, since disagreeing with someone’s premises does not automatically render them guilty of circular reasoning. A circular argument would be something like “Romans 1:26 condemns homosexuality, and I know this because 1st Corinthians 6 condemns homosexuality, and I know this because Romans 1:26 condemns it...” Here, however, when the Christian is challenged on his interpretation, he does not merely reassert the passage in a circle, but breaks it down into its constituent parts and demonstrates how his interpretation follows, and thus how he knows he is not misinterpreting it. Indeed, this is the most standard, basic procedure of textual interpretation in every single field that deals with texts as such; theology, history, philosophy, poetry, and the countless sub-disciplines therein. Read any academic paper, ancient treatise, or patristic text that deals with a dispute of textual interpretation; in almost every single case, these authors argue for their interpretation of a text by returning to that same text and showing how its constituent parts lead to their interpretation, or by using other ordinary rules of interpretation, such as appealing to a particular word’s use in other texts, or to the interpretation of those who were proximate to the text itself (such as the intended audience); all of which are normal rules of interpretation in classical Reformation/Anglican thought, not to mention human literature at large. As just one example of this in action, we will look at the great Irenaeus of Lyons - disciple of Polycarp, who was the disciple of John, and the earliest Christian author to write at length on theological authority and demonstration - in his classic Against Heresies. He refutes a Gnostic interpretation of a statement from the Apostle Paul in 2nd Corinthians by referring back to that same passage and its internal structure:

As to their affirming that Paul said plainly in the Second [Epistle] to the Corinthians, "In whom the god of this world has blinded the minds of them that believe not," and maintaining that there is indeed one god of this world, but another who is beyond all principality, and beginning, and power, we are not to blame if they, who give out that they do themselves know mysteries beyond God, know not how to read Paul. For if any one read the passage thus — according to Paul's custom, as I show elsewhere, and by many examples, that he uses transposition of words — "In whom God," then pointing it off, and making a slight interval, and at the same time read also the rest [of the sentence] in one [clause], "has blinded the minds of them of this world that believe not," he shall find out the true [sense]; that it is contained in the expression, "God has blinded the minds of the unbelievers of this world." And this is shown by means of the little interval [between the clause]. For Paul does not say, "the God of this world," as if recognising any other beyond Him; but he confessed God as indeed God. And he says, "the unbelievers of this world," because they shall not inherit the future age of incorruption. I shall show from Paul himself, how it is that God has blinded the minds of them that believe not, in the course of this work, that we may not just at present distract our mind from the matter in hand, [by wandering] at large. {III}

Just like that, the whole thrust of Luigi’s tweet - and not merely his tweet, but a whole range of circularity allegations against “Protestantism” - is completely levelled by simply pointing to reality. It is not circular in itself to interpret a passage and defend that interpretation by referring back to the passage and its parts; in fact, this is just how all debates over texts function. Likewise, it is not circular to refer to other passages of Scripture to defend the interpretation of another. In both cases, one is not simply referring back to the same proposition in a circle, but is providing distinct, deeper reasons in support of the initial assertion. It is therefore not circular to support the claim “I am not misinterpreting Bible passage X” with “Bible passage X says Y which entails Z.”

Now, I also mention “refer[ring] to other passages of Scripture to defend the interpretation of another” because this is essentially what Luigi is attacking in his Tweet, as do other Ecclesialist apologists. It refers to the hermeneutical standard of interpreting Scripture with Scripture; more precisely, a certain passage of Scripture with other passages, known historically as the Analogia Fidei (the Analogy of Faith). Perhaps its most famous and commonly adopted articulation is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. {IV}

I specifically note the Analogia Fidei as the object of attack here, because it is demonstrably used by the ancient fathers whom Luigi claims heritage from and submits to as an Easterner {V}. In claiming to defend the faith of the fathers, he directly trashes a core method by which they operated, indirectly impugning their wisdom and intelligence as a result. For just one example, we once again refer to the great Irenaeus, who says this:

If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] which belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should for ever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God? As the apostle has said on this point, that, when other things have been done away, then these three, “faith, hope, and charity, shall endure.” For faith, which has respect to our Master, endures unchangeably, assuring us that there is but one true God, and that we should truly love Him for ever, seeing that He alone is our Father; while we hope ever to be receiving more and more from God, and to learn from Him, because He is good, and possesses boundless riches, a kingdom without end, and instruction that can never be exhausted. If, therefore, according to the rule which I have stated, we leave some questions in the hands of God, we shall both preserve our faith uninjured, and shall continue without danger; and all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things. If, for instance, any one asks, “What was God doing before He made the world?” we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things. {VI}

To conclude, I want this to be instructive to all other believers, but especially my Ecclesialist friends. Do not get caught in the cage stage of conversion and immediately come out swinging against an opposing view. Instead, cultivate a desire for intellectual humility and patience, taking your time to research the other side before you level criticism at them, especially if it is polemically loaded (which I am not against in principle). Your criticisms will be sharper, more substantive, and conducive to meaningful dialogue that makes the truth more manifest.


III - Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 3.7.1 (Schaff, ANF-01, p.420).

IV - The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.9.

V - A short and by no means comprehensive list: Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 2.28.3), Tertullian (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 21), Hilary (On the Trinity, 1.18), Chrysostom (Homily 13 on Genesis, §13), Augustine (On Christian Doctrine, 3.26–28)

VI - Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 2.28.3 (Schaff, ANF-01, pp.399–400).

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