God’s Authority is Self-Attesting

(A) 1.) A very simple and practical question to keep in mind that you can ask whenever you’re debating someone about worldviews is…

“By what authority do  you say this?”
“By what authority do you assert that?”
“By what authority should I believe what you’re telling me?”

2.) Let’s say an unbeliever claims that he believes it’s alright for him to engage in premarital sexual intercouse. I’m going to want to find from him how he made that ethical judgment, how he came to that conclusion. So I ask him “By what authority do you say that?”, and I tell him that the Bible condemns it in “this passage” and “that passage” and so on. One way or another I think this will lead him to say either (1) that there is no God, or (2) the Bible is not the Word of God. In defense of his ethical point of view, the unbeliever is going to have to say something about the nature of reality and the nature of how he knows things.

3.) Let’s say he says…

Unbeliever: “Well, everything we know, we know through our senses. You either see it or hear it or touch it or what have you.”

So the authority on which he says “There is no God” is that he has not seen God, heard God, touched God, because all knowledge is limited to what we know through our senses.

4.) But then I have to ask a further question…

Christian: “By what authority do you say that we only know things through our senses? That everything that man knows must be verified through one of the five senses?”So we keep pushing the question back, “By what authority?”, “By what authority…?”, By what authority…?”

(B) 1.) We also need to realize that we’re in the same situation.
2.) Let’s say I’m talking to an unbeliever and using his sexual immorality as a basis for calling him to repentance, and I say…

Christian: “Your sexual immorality is under the wrath and curse of God”, and he says…

Unbeliever: “By what authority do you say that?”

I respond…

Christian: “The Bible says that”,

and then I point out the passages. And he replies…

Unbeliever: “Well, why do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? By what authority do you say that?”

3.) He has pushed things back to what is really the ultimate apologetical question “By what authority do you believe this is the Word of God, and by what authority should I believe that?”

4.) Our dispute, then, is going to be pushed back, pushed back, on the basis of this authority, this authority, that authority…where does that chain end?

5.) When we get down to our final authority, what then authorizes our final authority? My final authority is God. If my final authority is God Himself, speaking from Scripture, and the unbeliever says…

Unbeliever: “Well, by what authority do you believe what God says?”
I’m going to think “there is no authority more ultimate than God”. So I’m going to say…

Christian: “God is my final authority, so if you ask the question now about why I believe what God says, then you’re not asking a question that can be given an answer, because God is the final authority.”

6.) Here’s where, I think, a crucial mistake is made by many evangelicals in apologetics. When they realize that fact, they’re embarrassed and say “Well, we’re reasoning in a circle”.

7.) What we need to recognize is that the unbeliever has an ultimate authority as well. Because the unbeliever can appeal to many other unbelievers, he tends to think that he doesn’t have an ultimate authority, but rather an authority that everyone else believes in. Let’s say his ultimate authority is “We can only know what we experience through our senses”, and we press him…

Christian: “What authorizes that claim?” What authorizes this next claim?” etc… and he says…

Unbeliever: “Well, everybody knows that”,

then what has he made his ultimate authority? What everybody says. But since not everybody really believes what he believes, he’s really trying to appeal to majority opinion. You might reply…

Christian: “You don’t know everybody. How could you possibly know what everybody believes?”, or “How do you know that?”,

Suppose he says…

Unbeliever: “Well, I checked, I did a big survey”,
so now he’s back to trusting his senses, isn’t he? You might say…

Christian: “Well, why do you trust your senses?”,
he replies…

Unbeliever: “Because everybody does”,
you reply…

Christian: “How do you know that?”,
he replies…

Unbeliever: “Well, I used my senses to find out”.

There’s a little circle here too, though it’s a destructive one. His ultimate authority is being verified by his ultimate authority.

8.) Let’s switch it around though, and the unbeliever were questioning me…

Unbeliever: “Why do you believe the Bible is the Word of God?”

Christian: “Because God said so”.

Unbeliever: “Where did God say so?”

Christian: “In the Bible”.

Unbeliever: “Well, you’re making the Bible this ultimate authority, and I’m asking you why should you believe the claims of the Bible as the Word of God.”

Should I say “Well I guess you’ve got a point there. I wouldn’t want to reason in a circle. I guess I believe in the Bible because I’ve done a lot of scholarly study. And what I learned from the experts in those fields is that this book is worthy of our respect”?

That’s how most apologetics are done these days. What would become my ultimate authority in that case? Expert opinion in history, philosophy, and science. If I, as a believer, say that I’ve done reasearch and consulted the experts, and because of them I think this book is trustworthy, then I don’t think this book is the ultimate authority, because this book would have to bow at the feet of the experts, and is trusted only at their say-so. If I give up God’s Word as the basis for belief in God’s Word then I’ve lost the argument.

9.) Consider the unbeliever. What if he’s an empiricist who believes that all knowledge is based on observation or sensation, and I ask “How do you know that?”

And he thinks “Well, I’m either gonna trust my senses and use them to prove my point, or I’m gonna go to something that’s an authority apart from my senses. If I say to the Christian that I believe sensation is an authority because I found out on the basis of sensation, then I’ll be reasoning in a circle. But if I appeal to some philosophical consideration other than sensation, I’ll be saying something more ultimate than sensation, I’ll be giving up my ultimate authority”. The self-conscious unbeliever will have to admit that he reasons in a circle at the ultimate foundations of his thought too, because all ultimate authority, in the end, can only be authorized by itself.

So, when people ask the question “By what authority…?” we can to keep pressing that and not let people slide around and start changing their ultimate authority. Stick to it with the chain of command, all the way down the line, and when you get to the final authority that they’re willing to appeal to, you have to point out that ultimately, that ultimate authority must be self-attesting. Which is a way of saying that the ultimate authority attests to itself.

It’s not a great analogy, but think of parents dealing with their children. The child keeps asking “Why?, Why? Why?, and finally the parents say “Because I said so”. And now it’s become a test of parent’s authority. The child asks “Well, why do you have authority?”, and the parent replies “My authority is my authority, and I don’t have to justify it to you.” If a parent doesn’t have to justify him/herself to their child, does God? If He did, who would He appeal to to authorize His authority? Would he look beyond Himself? If He did, would He still be God? You have to point out to the unbeliever that, if he understands the Christian concept of God, of course God doesn’t appeal to any other considerations to verify His authority. If He did so he’d be abdicating his crowing right. He is the Father, the ultimate authority. So, the unbeliever has an ultimate authority that claims to be self-attesting, and the Christian has an ultimate authority which actually is self-attesting. And in the end, people are going to have to decide which is the most credible claim to being self-attesting: The Word of God in Scripture, or the unbeliever saying sensaation, observation, experience etc.”

Are observation or sensation self-attesting? By the very nature of the case they cannot be. The claim goes: “All knowledge is justified by observation.” If that is meant to be a self-attesting position that does not authorize itself and is not arbitrary, then we have to take a look at the word “all”, and ask if the person who holds the position has looked at everything that is known so that he can verify, through observation, that all knowledge is justified by observation. One what basis does he make this claim? It couldn’t be observation. Observation couldn’t possibly justify that statement. So when the unbeliever claims to have a self-attesting authority, one of the things we can to do is show him that his authority doesn’t attest to itself, but actually undermines itself. If observation is the only way to justify true statements, then the above statement isn’t justified. Thus, he has refuted himself.

11.) And just so you don’t let the unbeliever slip out the back exit philosophically…what the unbeliever will ordinarily attempt to do is say “Well, this is something I take for granted, this is my starting point. After this all knowledge starts.” In other words, he wants to a freebee. He wants one exception to be made. That’s OK in situations like a copy giving a guy a warning when he could have given him a traffic ticket, but in philosophy there are no exceptions. We cannot allow arbitrariness or inconsistencies at any point.

Some people (like Gordon Clark) argue that there are axioms in philosophy and there are some things that people just choose. I, as a philosopher, would disagree with that. I think that undermines our whole certainty of knowledge. I would say that there are some things which are presuppositional, which are not proven directly, but only indirectly. The way we justify a presuppositional is from the impossibility of the contrary. Rather than getting direct evidence for a presupposition, you have to give eidence of the sory that, if you deny it, it would be impossible for you to prove anything, or to hold rational thought, or moral absolutes etc. This becomes a necessary assumption for all rational thought, or all ethical behavior, etc…”

(Bahnsen, Biblical Introduction to Presuppositional Apologetics)


7 thoughts on “God’s Authority is Self-Attesting

  1. Pingback: Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links: Third Week of December 2015 | The Domain for Truth

  2. Reblogged this on ApoloJedi and commented:
    God is the ultimate authority. When people want justification for their actions or beliefs, they will have to appeal to some kind of authority. For non-Christians, they will try to appeal to their senses, but then they use their senses to validate their senses…a vicious circle.

    For Christians, we appeal to the Creator as our authority. Romans 1 tells us that the God of Creation has revealed himself so that none are without excuse.

    The author of this blog uses a pretty good analogy…even though he says, it’s not a very good analogy.

    “It’s not a great analogy, but think of parents dealing with their children. The child keeps asking “Why?, Why? Why?, and finally the parents say “Because I said so”. And now it’s become a test of parent’s authority. The child asks “Well, why do you have authority?”, and the parent replies “My authority is my authority, and I don’t have to justify it to you.” If a parent doesn’t have to justify him/herself to their child, does God? If He did, who would He appeal to to authorize His authority? Would he look beyond Himself? If He did, would He still be God?”


  3. Pingback: God’s Authority is Self-Attesting | ApoloJedi

  4. @joesw0rld

    I guess I’m not following what you mean by “authority” in this repeated question. In whatever sense you’re using it it seems a wrong (and futile) question to ask. What authority is sought to give an opinion or a belief? None that I can see, so what does this question really mean?


    1. pat

      If you ask someone to justify their knowledge claims, and justify their justifications, eventually they will appeal to an ultimate standard by which they acquire knowledge.


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