November 12, 2007
Counterfeit Claims of the Spirit’s Witness
I wanted to start by thanking you for your ministry. It has been such a help to me in my walk with Christ. Well, I’ve always been bothered by the topic of the relationship between reason and faith. I was reading your Q&A article entitled “Dealing with Doubt” this week and you state:
I remember well one of my theology professors commenting that if he were persuaded that Christianity were unreasonable, then he would renounce Christianity. Now that frightened and troubled me. For me, Christ was so real and had invested my life with such significance that I could not make the confession of my professor. If somehow through my studies my reason were to turn against my faith, then so much the worse for my reason! It would only mean that I had made some mistake in my reasoning... If my reason turned against Christ, I’d still believe. My faith is too real.
In view of this, what then would it take for you to disbelieve in Christianity? Is it unfalsifiable in your opinion? Is there anything that would convince you? Does this not throw us into subjectivism? Isn’t this kind of religious epistemology the same as that of most Mormons who claim to be convinced of their religious because of an “inner witness.”-and that this inner witness takes priority over any other kind of knowledge (reason, evidence, history, etc)? It seems as though the paragraph above could be thrown right back at us by an LDS who doesn’t have answers to say a book like “The New Mormon Challenge.”
Then we are left with two people of opposing viewpoints both claiming that their view is true and that they know it by the witness of the Holy Spirit. When then does argument, evidence, reason and the like come into play then, if the subjective holds the trump card? In section 18.104.22.168 of Seminar of Philosophy of Religion, you are noted as saying that “Plantinga wants to show that the only way a Christian belief can be unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted is to show that Christianity is false. De jure objections depend on de facto objections.” Does Plantinga admit the possibility that de facto objections could show Christianity to be false? Wouldn’t these de facto objections include such things as reason, evidence, argument, etc...? Does you agree with Plantinga that de facto objections could show Christianity to be false? If so, how? Sorry for so many questions. I would appreciate any light you can shed on the subject for me though.
Thank you so much.
You said the Holy Spirit confirms to us that Christianity is true. What would you say to a Mormon who says, he went into his room, and asked God if Mormonism is true, and he felt the spirit confirm to him, that Mormonism is true. He felt the burning in his bosom. Is the argument “the Holy Spirit confirms to us that Christianity is true”, a subjective argument? Even the Bible talks about “a different spirit”. How do we know that the spirit confirming to us is the Holy Spirit and not a different spirit? And how do we tell the Mormons, you are listening to the wrong spirit?
Thanks for any help,
In answering both your questions, I want to draw us back to the fundamental distinction I drew between knowing our faith to be true and showing our faith to be true. As I explain in the opening chapter of Reasonable Faith (Crossway, 1994), fundamentally, the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit. By that I mean: (i) that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for the person who has it; (ii) that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; (iii) that such experience does not function in this case as a premiss in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God Himself; (iv) that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian faith, such as “God exists,” “I am condemned by God,” “I am reconciled to God,” “Christ lives in me,” and so forth; (v) that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and (vi) that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for the person who attends fully to it. All this seems to me implicit in the teaching of the New Testament.
Now in this light, your first question, Seth, is seen to be misplaced. What would it take for me to disbelieve in Christianity? I don’t know—maybe persecution, or deep depression, or seeing my children pointlessly suffer, or any number of things. I’ve been reading Lactantius’ Divine Institutes lately, and as I read about the courage and fortitude of early Christian martyrs under the duress of the most horrible tortures, I can’t help but wonder, “Would I have that kind of courage? I’m so weak and wimpy. Would I have given in at the first infliction of pain?” (Fortunately, Jesus tells us not to worry about such things precisely because the Holy Spirit will give us power during such trials.) But I think you can see that the issue isn’t what it would take to get me to abandon my faith, but are there circumstances under which I would be rationally obliged to abandon my faith? And the answer to that latter question seems to me to be, No. The witness of the Holy Spirit is what Alvin Plantinga calls an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters brought against Christian belief. The warrant it brings to Christian faith will always exceed the warrant brought against Christian faith by various objections. So Christian faith is unfalsifiable for the person who attends to the witness of the Holy Spirit, not in the sense that are no conditions we can imagine under which Christianity would be false but in the sense that such a person will always have sufficient warrant to continue in Christian faith, even in the face of objections he can’t answer.
In answer to your question, David, about testing the spirits, someone might point to 1 John 4:1-3 to prove that the testimony of the Holy Spirit is not self-authenticating, but needs to be tested:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist . . .
But such an understanding would be a misinterpretation of the passage. John is not talking about testing the witness of the Spirit in our own hearts; rather he’s talking about testing people who come to you claiming to be speaking by the Holy Spirit. He referred to the same people earlier: “Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us . . .” (1 John 2:18-19). John never encourages the believer to doubt the witness of the Spirit in his own heart; rather he says that if someone else comes claiming to speak by the Holy Spirit, then, since the situation is external to oneself and involves additional truth claims not immediately apprehended, we must test that person in order to determine if his claim is true. But in our own lives, the inner witness of God’s Spirit is sufficient to assure us of the truths to which He testifies (1 John 5:6-10).
Doesn’t this land us in subjectivism? As Plantinga would say, it’s difficult to see how. How is the fact that other persons, like Muslims or Mormons, falsely claim to experience a self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit relevant to my knowing the truth of Christianity via the Spirit’s witness? The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims of the Spirit’s witness to the truth of a non-Christian religion do anything logically to undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit? Why should I be robbed of my joy and assurance of salvation simply because someone else falsely pretends, sincerely or insincerely, to the Spirit’s witness? If a Mormon or Muslim falsely claims to experience the witness of God’s Spirit in his heart, that does nothing to undermine the veridicality of my experience.
You might insist, “But how do you know that your experience isn’t also spurious?” I’ve already answered that question: the experience of the Spirit’s witness is self-authenticating for the person who really has it. The Spirit-filled Christian can know immediately that his claim to the Spirit’s witness is true despite the false claims made by persons adhering to other religions. That’s why Plantinga says that the only way Christian belief can shown to be unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted is to show that Christianity is false. For if it is true, then it is likely to be warranted.
Does Plantinga admit the possibility that de facto objections could show Christianity to be false? For readers who aren’t familiar with the lingo, a de facto objection is an objection to the factual truth of some claim. A de jure objection is an objection to the rationality of believing in that claim, even if the claim is true. De facto objections would certainly include argument and evidence, for example, the problem of suffering or sceptical biblical criticism. I’m sure that Plantinga would say that for persons in certain historical circumstances the evidence was against Christianity (think of Russian students educated in the Soviet era universities), such that absent the Spirit’s witness they would rationally judge Christianity to be false. But a person in such circumstances who has and attends to the witness of the Spirit has an intrinsic defeater of the objections he confronts. So in that sense Christianity could not be shown to him to be false.
Isn’t this the same religious epistemology as that of the Mormon or Muslim? Yes! As Plantinga emphasizes, any of the religions which have a God-figure can also justifiably claim that there is no de jure objection to their faith either, independent of de facto objections. That seems to me quite right. I wouldn’t ever object to Islam or even Mormonism on de jure grounds but on de facto grounds. You might think that this admission trivializes Plantinga’s accomplishment. Not so! For Christianity differs in the respect from its greatest competitor in the Western world, namely, naturalism. Since naturalism has no God-figure, it is not likely to be warranted, even if it is true. In fact, Plantinga has argued forcefully that naturalism, if true, cannot be rationally believed and is, in that sense, self-defeating! See his Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: 2003).
So that brings us to the scenario that you both envision: you’re confronted with a Mormon friend who claims to know that Mormonism is true because he experiences a “burning in the bosom” when he reads the Book of Mormon. Now we’re no longer talking about knowing Christianity to be true; we’re talking about showing Christianity to be true. The difference is crucial. William Alston points out that this situation taken in isolation results in a standoff. For neither person knows how to convince the other that he alone has a veridical, rather than delusory, experience. This standoff doesn’t undermine the rationality of the Christian’s own belief, for even if the process of forming his belief is as reliable as can be, there’s no way he can give a noncircular proof of this fact. Thus his inability to provide such a proof doesn’t nullify the rationality of his belief. But although he is rational in retaining his Christian belief, the Christian in such circumstances is at a complete loss as to how to show his Mormon friend that he is correct and that his friend is wrong in his respective beliefs.
How can we break this deadlock? Alston answers that the Christian should do whatever he can to search for common ground on which to adjudicate the crucial differences between their competing views, seeking to show in a noncircular way which of them is correct. If, by proceeding on the basis of considerations that are common to both parties, such as sense perception, rational self-evidence, and common modes of reasoning, the Christian can show that his own beliefs are true and those of his Mormon friend false, then he will have succeeded in showing that he, the Christian, is in the better position for discerning the truth about these matters. Once apologetics is allowed to enter the picture, the objective difference between their situations becomes crucial, for since the Mormon only thinks he has a self-authenticating experience of God, when in fact he does not, the power of the evidence and argument may, by God’s grace, crack his false assurance of the truth of his faith and persuade him to place his faith in Christ.
This view of the matter enables us to hold to a reasonable faith which is supported by argument and evidence without our making that argument and evidence the foundation of our faith. We can show an unbeliever that our faith is true without being dependent upon the vagaries of argument and evidence for the assurance that our faith is true; at the same time we know confidently and without embarrassment that our faith is true without our falling into relativistic subjectivism.