The Spiral Argument Argument

In 1988, Karl Keating, founder of Catholic Answers, published his most famous book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, the Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians”. The book, and the organization Keating founded, Catholic Answers, were the results of Keatings’ efforts to counter anti-Catholic flyers that had been placed on the windshields of the cars in the church parking lot while the Catholics were inside attending mass. The book contains solid Catholic refutations of the myths, misconceptions and misguided thinking about Catholic doctrine that often permeates fundamentalist Christian circles.

In the book, Keating argues for the inspiration of the Bible by using what has become known as "the Spiral Argument” (TSA). Keating may have been drawing on the 1938 publication, Radio Replies Vol. 1, which contains a very similar argument for establishing how we may know that the Bible is inspired. The argument is a syllogism that begins by viewing the Bible in the same critical manner used to approach any other ancient text that purports to contain history and concludes with the Bible declared to be the inspired Word of God by the infallible Catholic Church. Needless to say, there is much ground to cover in between!

Over the years, many people have argued that the Spiral Argument is flawed and that it fails to prove what it sets out to prove. Very recently, in fact, this author was personally attacked for quoting TSA by Dr. Edwin W. Tait, a member of the Catholic Answers forum known as “Contarini”, in a thread found here.

Dr. Tait is an adjunct professor of New Testament history at Huntington College in Indiana, a member of the Episcopal Church, and, he describes his religious affiliation here at CAF as “Christian (currently seeking admission to the Catholic Church)".

After discovering that I had quoted TSA in response to another forum member’s question, Dr. Tait wrote:

Oh, no. Not this again. You have never been able to defend this. It’s a bogus, dishonest approach. Stop using it, for the love of God.

and

You are discrediting the Church every time you repeat it. I implore you to stop doing so. You will convince only the credulous, and you will persuade anyone with an ounce of critical faculties that the Church is a sham.

and

The argument is a joke to anyone who has any training as a historian. It is dishonest. I am going to keep saying this until you deal with my arguments or stop using it, or I finally give up on this forum.

Well, Dr. Tait, here’s your answer.

Approach

For the benefit of those who will join this discussion as well as those who just follow along, I will begin by posting the argument from Catholic Answers in full as well as Dr. Tait’s initial response to me when I posted it in the Sacred Scripture sub-forum. I will then begin to work my way through TSA line by line defending each as I go. Dr. Tait has expressed considerable doubt or disagreement with the historical evidence for Christianity, and his doctorate in history clearly gives him both credibility and the right to be heard on the subject at hand. In contrast, I am just a munchkin, an amateur Catholic apologist with no formal training or expertise at all. Dr. Tait is the professional and has all the credentials. But is he right? We shall see.

As seen in his quote above, I cannot be sure that Dr. Tait will engage in this discussion as he expresses some frustrations that have him on the verge of leaving the forum altogether. Further, I am not challenging him to a debate by starting this thread. I expect to hear from him, and I hope that he will allow us to benefit from his education. However, debating Dr. Tait is NOT my primary purpose. My real goals are to answer once and for all whether TSA is a valid means of determining the inspiration of scripture and to advance my own understanding of the historical evidence for our faith. This thread will be a work in progress as I strive to put the logical pieces in place.

A final word before we begin. I may lose this argument. Dr. Tait is a professional New Testament historian with more training and more resources at his disposal than I have. Or TSA may simply be flawed and indefensible. However, my faith as a Catholic in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture does not rest upon the syllogism. My faith is in Jesus Christ and in the Catholic Church which He promised to build upon Peter the rock. That Church speaks infallibly and with God-given authority concerning the Scriptures, and those facts, coupled with the unmerited grace of God, are sufficient for me to believe that the Bible is inspired. TSA is just a tool, an attempt to explain how we can know that the Bible is the Word of God, used by Catholic apologists when speaking with non-Catholic Christians and non-believers as we endeavor to help them understand our Catholic faith. If TSA is demonstrated to be fatally flawed or if I simply fail to defend it adequately, no one’s faith should be shaken nor should anyone presume that the Bible is not inspired. The Catholic Church declares the scriptures to be inspired, and that alone is sufficient.

(cont.)

The Spiral Argument

Here is the full text of the Spiral Argument as contained in an article entitled “Proving Inspiration” on Catholic Answers’ website here:

The Catholic method of proving the Bible to be inspired is this: The Bible is initially approached as any other ancient work. It is not, at first, presumed to be inspired. From textual criticism we are able to conclude that we have a text the accuracy of which is more certain than the accuracy of any other ancient work.

An Accurate Text

Sir Frederic Kenyon, in The Story of the Bible, notes that “For all the works of classical antiquity we have to depend on manuscripts written long after their original composition. The author who is the best case in this respect is Virgil, yet the earliest manuscript of Virgil that we now possess was written some 350 years after his death. For all other classical writers, the interval between the date of the author and the earliest extant manuscript of his works is much greater. For Livy it is about 500 years, for Horace 900, for most of Plato 1,300, for Euripides 1,600.” Yet no one seriously disputes that we have accurate copies of the works of these writers. However, in the case of the New Testament we have parts of manuscripts dating from the first and early second centuries, only a few decades after the works were penned.

Not only are the biblical manuscripts that we have older than those for classical authors, we have in sheer numbers far more manuscripts from which to work. Some are whole books of the Bible, others fragments of just a few words, but there are literally thousands of manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and other languages. This means that we can be sure we have an authentic text, and we can work from it with confidence.

The Bible as Historical Truth

Next we take a look at what the Bible, considered merely as a history, tells us, focusing particularly on the New Testament, and more specifically the Gospels. We examine the account contained therein of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Using what is in the Gospels themselves and what we find in extra-biblical writings from the early centuries, together with what we know of human nature (and what we can otherwise, from natural reason alone, know of divine nature), we conclude that either Jesus was just what he claimed to be—God—or he was crazy. (The one thing we know he could not have been was merely a good man who was not God, since no merely good man would make the claims he made.)

We are able to eliminate the possibility of his being a madman not just from what he said but from what his followers did after his death. Many critics of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection claim that Christ did not truly rise, that his followers took his body from the tomb and then proclaimed him risen from the dead. According to these critics, the resurrection was nothing more than a hoax. Devising a hoax to glorify a friend and mentor is one thing, but you do not find people dying for a hoax, at least not one from which they derive no benefit. Certainly if Christ had not risen his disciples would not have died horrible deaths affirming the reality and truth of the resurrection. The result of this line of reasoning is that we must conclude that Jesus indeed rose from the dead. Consequently, his claims concerning himself—including his claim to be God—have credibility. He meant what he said and did what he said he would do.

Further, Christ said he would found a Church. Both the Bible (still taken as merely a historical book, not yet as an inspired one) and other ancient works attest to the fact that Christ established a Church with the rudiments of what we see in the Catholic Church today—papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, and teaching authority.

We have thus taken the material and purely historically concluded that Jesus founded the Catholic Church. Because of his Resurrection we have reason to take seriously his claims concerning the Church, including its authority to teach in his name.

This Catholic Church tells us the Bible is inspired, and we can take the Church’s word for it precisely because the Church is infallible. Only after having been told by a properly constituted authority—that is, one established by God to assure us of the truth concerning matters of faith—that the Bible is inspired can we reasonably begin to use it as an inspired book.

A Spiral Argument

Note that this is not a circular argument. We are not basing the inspiration of the Bible on the Church’s infallibility and the Church’s infallibility on the word of an inspired Bible. That indeed would be a circular argument! What we have is really a spiral argument. On the first level we argue to the reliability of the Bible insofar as it is history. From that we conclude that an infallible Church was founded. And then we take the word of that infallible Church that the Bible is inspired. This is not a circular argument because the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired) is not simply a restatement of its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable), and its initial finding (the Bible is historically reliable) is in no way based on the final conclusion (the Bible is inspired). What we have demonstrated is that without the existence of the Church, we could never know whether the Bible is inspired.

Next, I will post Dr. Tait’s initial response to my posting of this argument.

(cont.)

[quote]originally posted by randy carson
proving inspiration
catholic.com/tracts/proving-inspiration

the catholic method of proving the bible to be inspired is this:

originally posted by Contarini
oh no, not this again.

You have never been able to defend this. It’s a bogus, dishonest approach. Stop using it, for the love of god.

It’s not “the catholic method.” it’s a method unfortunately endorsed by some apologists.
[/quote]

[quote]The bible is initially approached as any other ancient work.

bunk. You don’t approach the bible that way, do you? So don’t pretend you do. No one actually follows this method. It’s pretense.
[/quote]

[quote]

It is not, at first, presumed to be inspired. From textual criticism we are able to conclude that we have a text the accuracy of which is more certain than the accuracy of any other ancient work.

textual criticism can’t conclude anything about the accuracy of the events described in the text, only about the accuracy of the copies we have compared with the probable original. We have a very high degree of certainty that the texts we have are essentially what the “original authors” wrote. That tells us nothing about whether what they wrote was true or not.

this is a glaring logical fallacy. You know this, because i’ve pointed it out many times before. So what is your excuse for continuing to use it?
[/quote]

[quote]
Using what is in the Gospels themselves and what we find in extra-biblical writings from the early centuries, together with what we know of human nature (and what we can otherwise, from natural reason alone, know of divine nature), we conclude that either Jesus was just what he claimed to be—God—or he was crazy. (The one thing we know he could not have been was merely a good man who was not God, since no merely good man would make the claims he made.)

plenty of people who approach the bible merely as history do not conclude that the historical jesus claimed to be god. Even n. T. Wright, who clearly approaches the bible from a standpoint of faith but with integrity as a historian, concludes that jesus claimed to be god only in a rather qualified and indirect sense. So the argument fails here too.
[/quote]

[quote]
Further, Christ said he would found a Church. Both the Bible (still taken as merely a historical book, not yet as an inspired one) and other ancient works attest to the fact that Christ established a Church with the rudiments of what we see in the Catholic Church today—papacy, hierarchy, priesthood, sacraments, and teaching authority.

the only one of the gospels that speaks of christ founding a church is matthew, and the passage which does so is highly dubious regarded purely as a historical text. The dishonesty of the method is shown here in a particularly glaring way. No one using purely historical methods would conclude that jesus actually said, “you are peter, and on this rock i will build my church.” jesus may in fact have said these words. But the only reason i would conclude this would be out of faith and acceptance of the church’s authority.
[/quote]

[quote]
We have thus taken the material and purely historically concluded that Jesus founded the Catholic Church.

nonsense. From the nt taken purely as a work of history, we can conclude very little with any certainty about jesus’ intentions for how his ministry was to be carried on. I think wright’s arguments are sound, but they are challenged by many other historians with excellent credentials, and wright does not get us to the proposition “jesus founded the catholic church.” wright is by far the most hopeful nt scholar for your purposes, and he won’t give you what you need.

No one who is actually acquainted with real nt scholarship and approaches that subject with any degree of fairness would endorse this miserable excuse for an argument.

You are discrediting the church every time you repeat it. I implore you to stop doing so. You will convince only the credulous, and you will persuade anyone with an ounce of critical faculties that the church is a sham.

Edwin
[/quote]

Well, there you have it…the opening salvo of what became a much bigger discussion…a debate which I clearly lost after running out of ammunition.

I’ll do my best in this thread to make that doesn’t happen again. :wink:

This is a weak start to the argument. First, it applies only to the New Testament, not to the Old Testament. Hence your spiral does not encompass the entire Bible, since it starts by only including the New Testament.

Second, it applies only to “parts of manuscripts”. It is not clear that the comparison to the ancient authors is to “parts of manuscripts” or to relatively complete manuscripts. At the very least, the argument needs to be tidied up here to clarify exactly what is being compared.

rossum

The argument rests on the section alleging that the Bible is historically true (– presumably completely so). But the historical truth of the Bible is nowhere proved in the argument. All that is asserted is that there is an original text available (which is itself, in fact, not universally accepted).

The argument then proceeds through false dilemmas. It is not the case that Jesus must have been either God or mad. It is not the case that the Resurrection must have been either true or hoax.

As an attempt at logical argument, the article fails as horribly as Contarini says.

This is what caught my attention.
“A Spiral Argument
Note that this is not a circular argument.”

I always wonder what happens when the two ends of a circular argument are independently true.

I think the point in that part was that works by Virgil and others are not questioned even though they were published years before the New Testament. We have fragments, yes, but we also have many other manuscripts which show by comparison that, in essence, when all compared have the very same information. The scribes who did this work were particularly careful to not make any errors.

blessings!

Rita

To the contrary, there is much debate about Virgil’s life, and some of the works attributed to him are considered by others to be falsely attributed. Nor is the Aeneid taken to be historically accurate.

This seems to me to be the way to go with regard to historical arguments:

ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Jesus_Resurrection.htm

Yes indeed: scholarship.

Regarding this comment in post 3: The only one of the gospels that speaks of Christ founding a church is Matthew.

In my humble opinion, the founding of the Catholic Church is the passage in which Jesus aptly describes His furture Church right down to the nitty gritty of ecumenical councils. John 14: 15-27. It is the form of the Catholic Church, along with its visible protocol, which demonstrates that Jesus is its founder. Personally, I cherish John 14: 18 which is the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.

From a histrorical position, one may consider the “imitation” and “repetition.” There is a variety of documents listed in the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, “Index of Citations” page 689.

But the scribes did make errors – the original ending of Mark is missing, and has different replacements in different manuscripts. The presence of any error shows that this book is not under any special protection from God.

Even the original authors made errors: Quirinius (Luke) and Herod (Matthew) were separated by ten years, yet both are associated with the birth of Jesus.

Merely because a book is old, and is a reasonably accurate copy of the original, does not make it true. Think of all the gods in Homer or Virgil.

rossum

Okay, I’ll go ahead anyway:

TSA’s flaws have been pointed out many times already.

However, my faith as a Catholic in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture does not rest upon the syllogism.

So why should anyone else’s?

TSA is just a tool, an attempt to explain how we can know that the Bible is the Word of God,

But it doesn’t explain that. You yourself above admit that it is not via the TSA that you believe what you believe.

used by Catholic apologists when speaking with non-Catholic Christians and non-believers as we endeavor to help them understand our Catholic faith. If TSA is demonstrated to be fatally flawed or if I simply fail to defend it adequately, no one’s faith should be shaken nor should anyone presume that the Bible is not inspired.

It’s the act of using the TSA in evangelizing that is fatally flawed.

For one, you yourself admit that it was not the TSA that lead you to certainty about the Catholic Church.
But others should be convinced by the TSA?

For two, Christians and non-Christians alike have pointed out TSA’s flaws as they see them. Do you care about that?

In the Meditations, Descrates puts forward philosophical arguments that are supposed to convince the infidels. But he himself has not arrived at his faith by following those arguments.
Apparently, there is a pattern of Catholic apologists doing this.

The Catholic Church declares the scriptures to be inspired, and that alone is sufficient.

In which case, why use the TSA to begin with?

You want that non-Christians be convinced of Christianity/Catholicism
on the grounds of arguments
that Christians themselves do not base their faith on??

Why??

This is a very strange thread to me, especially for this forum. What is the point you’re trying to prove? By your own admission you were already in this same debate and lost. If it is indeed your intention to prove this now, it smacks of proselytizing. Maybe I’m not reading the intention in the spirit it’s meant, but the non-catholic section doesn’t seem the correct place for this very oddly personal type of challenge.

As an older than dirt cranky (feminine of snarky) granny, my opinion is that the Spiral Argument argument is appropriate here because any method of proof is non-demoninational.

Most likely Randy will correct my second opinion. It seems to me that the discussion is focusing on shoring up the method rather than emphasizing the content.

We shall see…

In that case, anything goes.

Most likely Randy will correct my second opinion. It seems to me that the discussion is focusing on shoring up the method rather than emphasizing the content.

And the method is what? Using arguments that no Christian ever used for himself to come to faith,
for the sake of convincing non-Christians that Christianity is true?

Good observation.
However, there are people on this thread who can point out both negatives and positives. That is valuable when one is considering any method.

And the method is what? Using arguments that no Christian ever used for himself to come to faith,
for the sake of convincing non-Christians that Christianity is true?

To answer the question “And the method is what?”

It appears that the method is deductive reasoning.

I’m not an adjunct any more (thank God), but a stay-at-home parent, homesteader, and freelance writer. And I’m not an NT specialist but a church historian focusing in the Reformation era.

And it’s obvious that your faith doesn’t rest on this argument. It would be very, very bad if it did. That’s one of the reasons why the argument is a joke. It’s obviously an ex post facto argument constructed to justify beliefs that people already hold.

Thanks by the way for the courteous tone. I’m sorry for the strong language I used before. A lot of it was due to my own personal struggles and pressures. I scapegoated you for my own ambivalent feelings about Catholicism.

Edwin

Not questioned in what way? No one claims that Virgil is an accurate work of history.

Scholars generally agree that our modern “critical editions” of the NT (such as the Nestle-Aland) give us a pretty accurate reading of what the “original” authors wrote in the late first and possibly early second centuries.

The tract’s focus on this non-controversial point is suspicious, because it looks like playing to the gallery. People without academic training who are skeptical typically focus on the possibility of textual corruption as the source of their skepticism. Certainly that point needs to be dealt with, but for the purposes of the argument it’s essentially irrelevant.

But this is really a side issue and not the heart of my problem with the argument.

Edwin

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