Thursday, March 09, 2006

Sudduth on scripturalism


Last year in a not so memorable blog, Vincent Cheung wrote:
"One argument alleges that Scripturalism is incoherent because the
proposition, "All knowledge comes from biblical propositions and
their necessary implications" is not itself a biblical proposition,
and that it cannot be deduced from biblical propositions; therefore,
if one accepts Scripturalism, one should reject Scripturalism."
However, this argument begs the question. In effect, it is just
saying that Scripturalism is false because it is not true, but it
says this without showing that it is not true."

The argument begs the question only if it is directed to the
scripturalist in the effort to persuade him to relinquish his
scripturalism. But why suppose that this is the dialectical context
of the argument? Surely many of us direct the argument toward
individuals *considering* scripturalism and who are not unable to see
the force of the argument by virtue of already being wrapped up in

We can grant, of course, that given the Scripturalist's cognitively
inflexible commitment to "scripturalism can be deduced from Scripture,"
the self-referential argument will be ineffective in persuading him
to relinquish his scripturalism. The alethic scripturalist can say
the same thing and thereby claim that the argument for the
self-referential incoherence of alethic scripturalism in particular
begs the question. After all he also is unlikely to accept the
crucial premise that *limits* the scope of what can be deduced from
Scripture so that it excludes the Scripturalist's principle itself.
It hardly follows that Scripturalism is not incoherent. That follows
solely from the *truth* of the premises, not their rational
acceptability to the Scripturalist. All that follows is that this
conclusion cannot be shown *to* certain people. Surely this is
neither surprising nor effective as a counter-argument to the critic
of Scripturalism.

Of course, the critic of Scripturalism need not claim that
scripturalism *cannot* be deduced from Scripture. He only needs to
argue that we have no good reason to think it can. He need only
undercut the Scripturalist position, not rebut it. This is properly a
response to the fairly impoverished sorts of arguments that
Scripturalists present in favor of the deduction of their
scripturalist principle. They propose the argument and we point out
how the argument is logically challenged in some way or another. But
this is no silver bullet either. Once it is noted by the critic that
the validity of the inference depends on certain unstated
assumptions, the scripturalist will insert them into the argument.
His claim to have borrowed such assumptions from Scripture only
reinvents the dialectical wheel.

In the face of these moves, many will be satisfied that the
Scripturalist augmented argument is largely the product of a series
of ad hoc and question begging adjustments to counter the non
Scripturalist's criticisms. We might rightly conclude in this
situation that, as with the attempts to persuade some people that
their heads are not made of blown glass, that they were not born five
seconds in the past, that there is an external world, and so on, even
the most cogent arguments will lack persuasive power. Perhaps
medication, not argument, is the only solution.

"But the principle can be deduced from Scripture. The Bible teaches
that God is infallible, that the Bible is his infallible revelation,
that God controls all things, that man is fallible, that man's
sensations and intuitions are fallible, etc., etc. — put them
together, and BAM, you have Scripturalism."

True, but - as several of the critics of Scripturalism have argued -
only if one assumes a number of other claims more controversial than
the premises of the original argument (e.g., the link between
knowledge, infallibilism, internalism). The scripturalist must of
course maintain that these assumptions are also derived from
Scripture. Some of us are not holding our breath for the




  1. On a related note, Francis J. Beckwith, commenting on Robert P. George’s book "The Clash of Orthodoxies", writes that "bible only" types (my term) use reasoning that is sometimes self-refuting:

    "George’s book is an important antidote for some of the popular, and sometimes academic, rejection of natural law theory within the Evangelical community. Recently, for example, I heard a popular Calvinist theologian speak ill of the natural law tradition, [saying] it was unbiblical and that the Scriptural passage most often cited in defense of that tradition (Romans 2: 15) does not teach what natural law thinkers think it teaches, namely, that there are moral truths accessible to those with no direct contact with special revelation. Although this is not the place to assess this theologian’s exegesis, it seems to me that his critique is not based on a careful reading or understanding of natural law. For if the critic had truly grasped the tradition he critiques he would understand that his own point of view—the alleged biblical rejection of natural law theory—is itself dependent on moral notions not derived from special revelation. That is, the critic is affirming and defending a self-refuting position. By claiming that natural law thinkers have incorrectly interpreted the book of Romans, this theologian is presupposing a moral notion that is logically prior to his exegesis of Scripture: Texts should be interpreted accurately. This, of course, is grounded in more primitive moral notions: to accurately interpret at text, one should do so fairly and honestly, and one should pursue the truth while interpreting texts. Both these moral commands are logically prior to, and thus not derived from, Scripture itself, for in order to extract truth from Scripture, obedience to these moral commands is a necessary condition. This means that the anti-natural law Calvinist, ironically, must rely on natural law in exegeting a book which he claims does not affirm the existence of natural law."

  2. But Scott, there is a difference between Natural Law that Beckwith and others promote and Natural theology.

    You might want to take a look at John Frame's critique of Natural law here (Word doc).


  3. Sorry, that should have "there is a difference between Natural Theology and Natural Revelation."

    I think it is those like Beckwith, who misunderstand the text in Roman 1 and I believe Frame does an adequate job in taking apart natural law.

    Jeff Downs