Answering Critics of the Inner Witness of the Spirit

Answering Critics of the Inner Witness of the Spirit

An atheist philosopher criticizes the validity of the witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart of believers


Transcript Answering Critics of the Inner Witness of the Spirit

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, let's dive once again into the podcast waters, the podcast well, and talk about the inner testimony . . .

Dr. Craig: Wait a minute! Wait. I like diving into the waters better than diving into the well! Right? You don't dive into a well!

Kevin Harris: Hopefully not. We've done podcasts on this subject, and I think it is because you get so many responses to your work on Reformed epistemology – the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. We are going to look at one today from Dr. Keith Parsons[1] whom you've debated. He has an article here on the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. Let me read a little bit of what he says, Bill. He says,

Having had on two occasions the privilege of debating Prof. William Lane Craig, I found the experiences both exhilarating and frustrating. One point of frustration was that Prof. Craig often appeals to the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit as trumping any evidence or argument that could be adduced. Naturally, this made me wonder about the point of our whole exercise. Why argue if “inner testimony” trumps everything? Anyway, here are a few remarks about such an appeal:

Let's stop there and talk about his opening paragraph.

Dr. Craig: All right. I really appreciated this article by Keith Parsons. I remember our debates as well. They were some of the most robust . . .

[Prof Parsons speaking] I cannot believe in such a monster! I cannot believe . . .

. . . and exhilarating debates that I've ever been in. I want to say how much I appreciate the irenic and even sweet spirit in which this is written. There is no angry denunciations here and no condescending insults. This is really the way dialogue and inquiry should be conducted. So it will be fun to interact with what Keith has to say.

In terms of why engage in these sorts of argument and evidence if there is such a thing as an inner witness of the Holy Spirit that is indefeasible, think about it from my point of view as a Christian. The average non-believer thinks that Christianity is intellectually deficient. He's never heard an intellectual defense of the Christian faith. So if I can present arguments and evidence for the truth of the Christian faith that hold up even in the face of an intelligent and articulate atheist like Prof. Parsons, that is going to open up the unbeliever's mind to the Holy Spirit in a way that he may not have been open before. Very often these sorts of arguments can open him to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in his life speaking to him so that he will then begin to pursue the truth. So the Holy Spirit can work through argument and evidence to draw people to him. So in these debates I want to share both good arguments for the truth of Christian theism, but then also to let people know that this isn't the only source of warrant for Christian belief. There is another independent source of warrant which comes through the personal experience of God himself via the testimony of the Holy Spirit. In that way I am not asking people to base their faith and confidence in my arguments – who am I, after all, to say that my words are infallible – but rather consider the arguments and then also to begin to seek God on a spiritual level and to see if there isn't in fact this personal knowledge of God by acquaintance that is available quite independent of the arguments and evidence.

Kevin Harris: You call this double-warrant.

Dr. Craig: Yes. It is a dual- or double-warrant for Christian theism. There is the warrant for Christianity's truth that is provided by argument and evidence, and then there is the non-inferential warrant which is provided for Christian theism through the immediate witness of the Holy Spirit – this knowledge by acquaintance so to speak where you come into a personal relationship with God himself.

Kevin Harris: Let's continue then. He says,

I think that Craig needs to be asked something like this: What is the precise nature of the experience that you call the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit?” Can you articulate in somewhat greater detail what this is like and why you find it so compelling? Is it an elevating feeling of “blessed assurance” when you contemplate particularly moving passages of scripture or hear a particularly uplifting sermon? Is it a “still, small voice” that comes in meditative moments? Is it a sense of forgiveness and acceptance that you get when your soul is troubled and you go [to] the Lord in prayer? Is it a feeling, like the one related by John Wesley, that your heart is “strangely warmed” while participating in worship or prayer? If these are your experiences, or something like them, then it is understandable that you, or anyone, who has such experiences will find them particularly significant.

Dr. Craig: OK.[2] Well, I think these are wonderful questions and questions that I have posed to myself about these things. The best way I can describe this would be to say that it is indeed a kind of elevating feeling of blessed assurance, but not only when you contemplate particularly moving passages of Scripture or hear an uplifting sermon. Rather, it is a deep seated kind of assurance of salvation that one carries with one that one is rightly related to God, that one is saved. The New Testament says that when we cry out to God “Father!” that God's spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are indeed children of God and thereby reconciled to him. In popular Christian piety, this goes under the name assurance of salvation. There is just this deep-seated assurance that one is saved. That is the best I can do to try to describe what this testimony of the Holy Spirit is like.

Kevin Harris: I am just going to throw it out there, Bill, because I thought about this for so long. There is a danger in trying to describe, as Keith would have you do, the feeling and what it felt like and the sensation or whatever, because people could say, “I haven't had it just like that. Maybe I don't.” Who is to say it has the same features for everyone?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that is a very good question, Kevin. I think in Alvin Plantinga's work, he would not necessarily identify the witness of the Holy Spirit with a sort of experience in the way that I would. The way he describes it is more of a deep seated conviction that Christianity is true and may not be experiential at all. But, at least in my case, I think it is experiential, and I think in the New Testament as I read the New Testament that it is an experiential thing. The indwelling power of the Holy Spirit within the regenerate believer is an experiential datum that you've come to know God in a special way, and that this issues in a kind of deep assurance of salvation and reconciliation to God. But it is not, for me at least, a “still, small voice” as he says here. I've never heard God speak in that sort of way. It is more of this settled assurance, at least for me.

Plantinga sees this as an insight of the Reformers and particularly of Calvin. I think that is a misunderstanding of Calvin as I've explained in my published work on this. When Calvin talks about a sensus divinitatis he doesn't mean a sense in the way that we speak of our sense of sight or our sense of smell or our sense of hearing – the five senses. Calvin doesn't mean we have a divine sense like that. Rather, the sensus divinitatis in Calvin means we have a sense of the divine in the sense that I would say “I have a sense of fear” or “I have a sense that I am being watched” or “I have a sense of anxiety that has gripped me.” It is not a faculty like hearing or smelling. It is an experience. Calvin says that each person has this deep sense of God's existence written on his soul. So I think it is a misinterpretation of Calvin by Plantinga where he takes Calvin to mean that we have this additional cognitive faculty in addition to the five senses, we have this sort of divine sense whereby we apprehend God. He does connect it with Reformed theology but in his later work he also was informed by his Thomistic friends that Thomas Aquinas taught very much the same thing, so he came to extend his model to call it the Extended AC Model – the Aquinas-Calvin model. Indeed, this doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit is not something that is unique to Calvin or Aquinas. I think this is part and parcel of New Testament teaching on the Holy Spirit and something that Pietists and Charismatics and Methodists have also affirmed.

Kevin Harris: Did he take some of foundationalism – some of the things that we always held that is a foundation for knowledge – and Plantinga has reworked some of that.[3]

Dr. Craig: Yes. He has written a trilogy on the subject of warrant. The first one is called Warrant: The Current Debate, in which he surveys the major theories offered by epistemologists (or philosophers dealing in the theory of knowledge) today as to what makes a true belief knowledge. What is that quality that is added to a true belief that turns it into knowledge? He calls this “warrant.” He examines all of these different theories of warrant. Then in his second volume, Warrant and Proper Function, he argues for a theory of warrant that is based upon the proper functioning of our cognitive faculties – a belief which is produced by cognitive faculties which are functioning properly in a suitable environment will produce warranted true beliefs. None of this has anything to do with theology up to this point. But then in the third volume, Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga applies his theory of warrant to how we know Christian truths – like the existence of God and the great truths of the Gospel. Here he appeals to this cognitive faculty (this sensus divinitatis) and to the testimonium spiritu sancti internum (the inner witness of the Holy Spirit) which vouchsafes to us the truth of the great truths of the Gospel – the central Christian truths.

Kevin Harris: Parsons continues,

It is even understandable that those who have had such experiences may become psychologically insulated, so that no atheological arguments or evidence can sway them. Still, skeptics have the right to question the epistemological value of such experiences. Should they trump all contrary evidence?

Consider an example from Alvin Plantinga: Six eyewitnesses pick me out of a lineup and say that I was the one who committed the crime. Yet I have a clear memory of being at home reading a particular book the night of the crime. Will I still maintain my own innocence? Yes, I will. But, still there might be so much evidence—fingerprints, a surveillance video, DNA evidence, etc. that I would have to say that, somehow, it was my memory that was wrong. So, strong enough evidence can and should make me doubt even my own apparently clear memories. So, to say that the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit trumps ALL evidence is not justifiable.

Dr. Craig: Here what Plantinga is talking about is what he calls an intrinsic defeater-defeater. What does he mean by that? When you have a properly basic belief (like a memory belief) defeaters can be brought against it. Normally you would need then some defeater of the defeater in order to remain rational and continue to hold your belief. So, for example, suppose I have the belief that I am currently in Marietta, but then I am informed by someone that, no, this is not Marietta, you've actually crossed the city limits and you are in Vinings, a different town. Now I have a defeater of that belief that I am in Marietta. In order to continue to hold that belief rationally I would need a defeater of the defeater. We would perhaps find an authoritative guide book that would show that in fact this person was wrong about where the city limits were of Marietta and that I am still in the city limits. That would be an example of how, to remain rational in holding one's properly basic beliefs, you would need to defeat the defeaters that are brought against it.

But Plantinga gives this very interesting analogy where he says sometimes a belief that you have can be so powerfully warranted for you that it becomes an intrinsic defeater-defeater. For example, a belief where I am accused of a crime, all the evidence is against me such that a jury of my peers ought to find me guilty if they simply go on the basis of the evidence. But am I therefore obligated to believe that I am guilty? No! I know I didn't commit the crime. I remember that I wasn't there. I was at home, as he says, reading a book or something of that sort. This would be an example of a belief that is so powerfully warranted for me that it simply intrinsically defeats the defeaters brought against it.[4]

What I want to suggest is that the witness of the Holy Spirit can become an intrinsic defeater-defeater. That is to say, it can be so powerfully warranted in our lives that it will intrinsically defeat the extrinsic defeaters that the atheists and skeptics bring against it. This is not refuted by showing that in some other illustration where the evidence is so incredibly powerful that I would have to say that I am mentally ill, that I really was there, I really did commit the crime, and therefore I don't have an intrinsic defeater-defeater. That doesn't defeat in any way the argument that there can be a defeater-defeater that is so intrinsically and powerfully warranted that it intrinsically defeats the defeaters brought against it. So it simply doesn't follow when Keith says, “So, to say that the 'inner testimony' of the Holy Spirit trumps ALL evidence is not justifiable.” That doesn't follow at all from his illustration. Not all properly basic beliefs are equally warranted. In some cases they will be defeasible, and in other cases they may not be defeasible. What I am suggesting is that the witness of the Holy Spirit can become so powerfully warranted that it becomes an intrinsic defeater-defeater.

Now, Keith asks why I would say that? He says that skeptics have the right to question this. Here is my basic reason for this. As I think about God and his desire for us to come to know him and his salvation and his providential direction over the world, it seems simply inconceivable to me that it could ever be God's will and desire that a regenerate Christian should apostatize and reject Christ out of his life. It would be unconscionable to think that a believer in any circumstances that he would find himself that the right thing for him to do is to reject Jesus Christ and apostatize. That is an unpardonable sin. So either God will provide him in those circumstances the extrinsic defeaters that he needs to defeat the defeaters brought against them, or else God will so powerfully warrant to him the truth of his Christian beliefs by the witness of the Holy Spirit that it becomes an intrinsic defeater-defeater. In many cases, I think we do find the answers to the objections that are brought against us. But in my experience, especially traveling behind the Iron Curtain, I would sometimes meet Christian believers raised in a Marxist society who had no resources, no recourse to answer the atheist propaganda that was drilled into them from the youngest ages at school. I remember talking to one man in the Soviet Union where I said, “Do you have no resources? Nothing to help you in your Christian life?” He said, “Well, there is an Encyclopedia of Atheism published by the state, and by reading that you can learn some things about Christianity by what it attacks but that is about all there is.” And I thought to myself, “Oh, God! This brother in Christ maintaining his faith stalwartly in the midst of so hostile and poisonous an environment, how does he do it?” I think he does it through the powerful inner witness of the Holy Spirit which gives him an assurance of Christianity's truth that simply defeats the argument and evidence brought against it. I don't think the skeptic has any grounds whatsoever for saying that God doesn't do that or can't do that. Can't an omnipotent God so powerfully witness the truth of the great truths of the Gospel to the believer, to his child, his beloved son or daughter, that that person will not be defeated by the extrinsic defeaters brought against him? Of course God can, and, I think, would do that. So that is why I am persuaded that the witness of the Holy Spirit is ultimately indefeasible. But I recognize that that is my view. You don't have to hold to that view if you are a Reformed epistemologist. You could say the witness of the Holy Spirit is defeasible. But I myself would have great, great theological problems with such a view as I've just explained.[5]

Kevin Harris: Especially based on some of the passages of Scripture that you read – in 1 John and so on – that you've mentioned many times in reference to this, for New Testament support for this. His Spirit bears witness with our spirit.

Bill, any last remnant of doubt about this inner witness of the Holy Spirit fluttered away like so much shredded confetti when you pointed out that God does not leave the person who has no resources, no library to go to, at the mercy of his circumstances of birth and country and era in which he was born and can therefore not come to Christ because he doesn't have an apologetics book to read.

Dr. Craig: Does anyone think that God will abandon his children whom he loves in that way? It is inconceivable to me.

Kevin Harris: Most people in the history of the world come to the Lord in this way. They may find the dual warrant later.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, that's right. What this bears out, I think, is the truth of Plantinga's claim in Warranted Christian Belief that there is what he calls no de jure objection to Christian theism. That is to say, there is no way to show that Christian belief is unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted apart from a de facto objection to Christianity's truth. That is to say, you need to show that Christianity is false as a matter of fact in order to show that it is unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted. Because if Christianity is true then I think it is obvious that God both can, and I would even say, would provide an indefeasible source of warrant for his children when they find themselves in these circumstances in which they have no extrinsic defeaters of the defeaters brought against them.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Parsons continues. He says,

Perhaps Craig would say that the “inner testimony” is defeasible but that it gives him a great deal of assurance, and places a heavy burden of proof on skeptics to dissuade him. Fair enough, but wouldn’t he have to say the same thing for the personal experiences of, say, the Muslim or the atheist?

Dr. Craig: Here, again, I would say that Muslims are perfectly within their right to, on the basis of their religious experience, hold to their beliefs in a properly basic way. But, you see, I think there are defeaters of Muslim theism. I think there are great problems with the Muslim concept of God as well as the distorted view of the historical Jesus that the Qur'an presents. So the Muslim faces, I think, tremendous defeaters of those beliefs. Now, since he does not, in fact, have an authentic witness of the Holy Spirit, as the Christian has, what this means is that under the pressure of those extrinsic defeaters his confidence may be shaken and may ultimately crack and therefore lead him to abandon Islam and to embrace the truth of Christian theism. Indeed, on the Christian view, the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to the heart of that Muslim that his conviction that Islam is true is false and that Christianity is true and is attempting to draw that Muslim believer to himself. So, again, apart from the assumption that Christianity is false, it seems to me there is no way to sustain this sort of relativistic objection.

Kevin Harris: He says,

What about the experiences of atheists? Sometimes I am tempted to “backslide” from atheism and I recall the inspiration and comfort I used to get from religion. But then, when I really think about it, I have an overwhelming and undeniable sense of disgust and revulsion when I think about being a Christian again. Reading some C.S. Lewis helps; whatever I believe, I can’t believe that. Christian dogmas just seem to be fantasies, no matter how many apologies for them I hear. At rock bottom, it just does not ring even remotely true. Instead of having my heart strangely warmed, I have my stomach strangely turned.

Dr. Craig: [laughter] That is a great slogan! Here I think that Keith is confusing emotional feelings with proper basicality. I have no doubt that he has these deep feelings of revulsion at the prospect of becoming a Christian. But it is hard for me to see how the atheist could have a properly basic belief that would warrant the idea that atheism is true because, you see, there is no such that as, for example, an atheistic Holy Spirit to bear witness with his spirit that God does not exist.[6] What would be the source of the warrant on atheism for the truth of atheism? I can't think of anything that would make atheism properly basic for someone, especially in such a way that would warrant it to be true. So it seems to me that while the Muslim can justifiably claim that he has a witness of Allah or the Mormon can justifiably claim that he has a burning in the bosom that warrants to them the truth of Islam or Mormonism, I can't see how the atheist can say such a thing because there just isn't any source or mechanism for such a belief on atheism. I would say, again just to repeat lest I be misunderstood, in the case of the Mormon or the Muslim, because they don't really have an authentic inner witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth of Islam or Mormonism but in fact they are kicking against the Holy Spirit and his witness to the truth of Christian theism, when we present to them the truth and arguments for Christian theism and against Mormonism and Islam we may crack that facade of confidence that they have because it is not in fact based upon an objective and authentic witness of the Holy Spirit.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, Bill, is this what you are saying? What Parsons is describing here is a subjective feeling of revulsion for a certain view but you are presenting what you are saying is an objective witness of the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Craig: That is very important to understand, Kevin. We are talking here about an objective reality independent of me which bears witness to my spirit that I am saved and reconciled to God. It is not “I feel attracted to Christianity” or “I feel good when I think of Christianity.” That would be the parallel to Keith's feelings of revulsion and disgust. We are not talking about that. So I would issue this challenge to any of our listeners who have been skeptical about this. I would encourage them to conduct a spiritual experiment. Begin to pray and to seek God and to ask God if he is there to begin to bring them to this knowledge of himself, to this knowledge of personal acquaintance. Seek him in humility and contrition, and see if God is not as good as his word.[7]



[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularoutpost/2011/03/16/the-inner-testimony-of-the-holy-spirit/ (accessed August 21, 2014).

[2] 5:22

[3] 10:14

[4] 15:06

[5] 19:58

[6] 24:55

[7] Total Running Time: 27:33 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)