Critique of Holy Spirit Epistemology

Critique of Holy Spirit Epistemology

Dr. Craig examines recent critiques of his view on the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. Is this nothing more than feelings and emotions?


Transcript Critique of Holy Spirit Epistemology

Kevin Harris: Back in the studio with Dr. William Lane Craig on Reasonable Faith. Dr. Craig, we have been looking at what some of the more popular secular, or naturalistic, websites are saying about your work, and here is an article critiquing what is known as Holy Spirit Epistemology, which you have written on and we have done several podcasts on. It deals with the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. Now, let’s summarize what you mean there.

Dr. Craig: The idea basically is that there are beliefs that we hold, which I think we are rational in holding, and indeed which we know to be true and which are warranted for us, which are not grounded in inference from other beliefs, from arguments, and evidence. Examples of such properly basic beliefs, as they are called, would be belief in the reality of the past, belief in the external world around us, memory beliefs, beliefs that spring from testimony of others to us. These are not inferences that we make, these are properly basic beliefs that are grounded in certain experiences. Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief in God is similarly a properly basic belief, which he would say is grounded in certain experiences of the world like feelings that I am a sinner before God, or all of this was designed by God, or in the case of Christian beliefs, that when we read in Scripture that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, the Holy Spirit produces in us a conviction of the truth of that scriptural proposition. So, these beliefs are warranted for us, not by way of inference or argument, but in a properly basic way.

Kevin Harris: This writer says that there are some differences between your warrant basic belief model and Plantinga's. What difference is he pointing out here?

Dr. Craig: Well, I was glad to see that he was familiar with Plantinga's reformed epistemology and correctly interprets my view as a species of that. Where we would differ is that Plantinga thinks of the Holy Spirit as akin to a cognitive faculty, whereas I think that the Holy Spirit’s witness to us is more akin to testimony; beliefs based on testimony. For example, if I meet you and you say to me “my name is Kevin,” I believe that in a properly basic way based upon your testimony. And I think that the witness of the Holy Spirit is more like that than like an inter-cognitive faculty that I have. So, this would be a minor difference between us, but nevertheless, a difference.

Kevin Harris: The writer goes on to say, “Furthermore, Craig is a bit more explicit than Plantinga with respect to whether he thinks such Holy Spirit generated belief can function as an intrinsic defeater-defeater for objections to Christianity.” I want to back up on defeater-defeater, we have talked about defeaters.

Dr. Craig: Right, a defeater would be a proposition that you encounter which is incompatible with a belief that you hold. So, if you are going to continue to rationally hold to your belief in the face of this defeater, you need to have a defeater of the defeater. Something that would defeat that defeater, and so, you are going to look for a defeater-defeater to nullify it. The question here is, could the witness of the Holy Spirit be, what Plantinga calls, an intrinsic defeater of any defeaters brought against it. An example might be my belief in the external world; the reality of the external world. Even if I had some sort of evidence that I was a brain in a vat being stimulated by electrodes or something of that sort, the belief in the reality of the external world that I perceive might be so powerful that it would be an intrinsic defeater of these defeaters brought against it. I would always be more rational to believe that there is an external world of objects that I perceive, than to believe that I am just a brain in a vat being stimulated with electrodes by a mad scientist, to think that there is the world of physical objects around me. The question here is: could the witness of the Holy Spirit serve as an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters that Christian’s encounter on occasion?

Kevin Harris: [1]You are not sure whether Plantinga has committed himself to that.

Dr. Craig: No, it’s not entirely clear whether that is his view. He talks about it.

Kevin Harris: But it is your view.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it is the view that I am inclined to hold. This is not an inherent part of reformed epistemology, this is an issue on which reformed epistemologists differ, and so if I am mistaken about this, well and good, that would merely mean that the model would have to be adjusted so that the witness of the Holy Spirit would not be an intrinsic defeater-defeater, but one would need, say, rational apologetics to defeat the alleged defeaters of Christian belief.

Kevin Harris: Quoting you, he says, “But I have argued the witness of the Holy Spirit is indeed an intrinsic defeater of any defeaters brought against it. For it seems to me inconceivable that God would allow any believer to be in a position where he would be rationally obliged to commit apostasy and renounce Christ. It seems to me rather, that in such a situation a loving God would intensify the Spirit’s witness in such a way that it would become an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters such a person faces.” Bill, I agree with that so much from my own life.

Dr. Craig: Good, this was especially brought home to me when I was living in Europe and visiting the Soviet Union prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. I met Christians in Moscow, clearly dear believers in Christ, and I remember speaking with one man and asking, “What resources do you have for your Christian life?” He said to me, “Well, there is an encyclopedia of Atheism that the state publishes, and sometimes by reading that you can gain insights by looking at the views they attack.” My heart just sank for this man. Here, he had nothing but the attacks upon theism as a resource to learn about his own Christian belief, and yet, there he was surviving in that hostile environment with a vibrant and real Christian faith. It seems to me that in a situation like that, where he has nothing but defeaters of his Christian faith offered to him, that God in his love and providence would so intensify the witness of the Spirit in that man’s life that he would be able to resist the force of those defeaters; he would know they were wrong, he would know they are mistaken through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit alone. So, he might experience a more intense witness of the Holy Spirit than I, living in the Western World with ample library resources and apologetic materials available to me to defeat those defeaters would have.

Kevin Harris: It is worth repeating that if something like this isn’t true it commits the majority of Christians to irrationality, because the majority of people that have come to Christ have done so on the basis of the work of the Holy Spirit and are not privy to the resources that we perhaps have in the West, or even in more elite places in the United States of America. Well, what about those people? Or they find out later how much evidence there is for it.

Dr. Craig: This is my complaint with evidentialism. The evidentialist has to say that in certain situations what God wants these people to do is to commit apostasy and to reject Christ, because that would be what reason would compel them to do in such a case. It seems to me that is unconscionable when you look at the warnings in the book of Hebrews against apostasy, against falling away and rejecting Christ. How could anybody be obligated to apostatize and reject Christ out of his life? It would seem to me, that God, through the Holy Spirit, would provide a non-inferential warrant for a person in that situation that would enable him to rationally resist the force of the defeaters that he confronts for which he has no good answer.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I want to chase this down. This is very important to me, and see if you can help me articulate it, but it’s something along this. After Jesus said some hard things and many disciples abandoned him, he turned to his group of disciples there: Peter, James, and I’m sure John was there, and said, “Are you going to leave, too?” Peter said, “Where are we going to go? You alone, Lord, have the words of eternal life,” and I often feel that way. Throughout my life and career I will run into hard core objections and the best objections offered and proffered against the Christian faith. While it may rattle me for a little bit, number one, the answer always seems to come, sometimes out of nowhere or out of left field. I will find that not only in areas of my intellectual life but in God’s grace of provision in other areas of my life, his grace showing up.[2] I will look at some of these objections that I cannot exhaustively answer, and I’m still thinking that still does nothing to overturn the sheer weight of Christ, of his person, and his words, and his life, and his resurrection. So, I’m going , you know, that may rattle you a little bit and maybe it’s something to work on, but it’s not something that is going to knock me out of the saddle.

Dr. Craig: There you go, that’s right. Yes, it may rattle you, it may shake you, it may make you reflect but it doesn’t have to knock you out of the saddle, as you put it.

Kevin Harris: But I’m dealing with a guy right now who one argument knocked him out of the saddle, and now he even says bad things about Jesus. You know, he used to be an apologist. He studied apologetics and so on. I’m going - there is something going on here, because for the life of me I don’t see how this one argument, of which there are plenty of good answers, has been enough to knock him out to where he has joined the other side and now takes on Christians.

Dr. Craig: If I am correct in this, what I am saying, what a case like that would identify would be a deep spiritual problem. It’s not, in this case, just an intellectual problem. There was a spiritual deficit there that somehow suppressed or grieved the witness of the Holy Spirit so that this person could apostatize freely, and as the book of Hebrews puts it, trample under foot the Son of God, and profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outrage the Holy Spirit by casting Christ out. So this points to a deep spiritual problem that this person was experiencing, I think, even prior to encountering this unanswerable objection.

Kevin Harris: Well, thanks for letting me chase that a little bit, and it does have a lot to do with what you have written and the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit. This writer disagrees with philosopher Michael Martin, but he says, “Two common complaints about your Holy Spirit epistemology are, one, it is a form of fideism or blind faith; and two, it is an unacceptable form of dogmatism.” What would you say to those things?

Dr. Craig: Well, it’s not fideistic because as Plantinga points out, it is not a blind leap in the dark. Properly basic beliefs are appropriately grounded. I don’t just willy-nilly form the belief that I see a tree. I am appeared to in a tree like way (treely), and therefore, form the belief that I see a tree in a properly basic way. Similarly, belief in God is properly basic, being grounded in the witness of the Holy Spirit. So, it’s not fideism. It’s just saying that there are sources of warrant that are other than inference and argument, and we recognize these all the time in our lives.

Kevin Harris: “It’s an unacceptable form of dogmatism?” That is, I guess, according to Craig. Craig is asserting that one can know that Christianity is true without evidence or at least without sufficient evidence.

Dr. Craig: Well, that’s not dogmatism. That is to say that there are other sources of warrant than argument and inference, and as I say, we all accept that otherwise we would be incapable of living. We would be skeptics. We wouldn’t believe in the reality of the past, we wouldn’t believe in other minds, we wouldn’t accept memory beliefs, or beliefs based in testimony.

Kevin Harris: So, we are getting into an unwarranted skepticism.

Dr. Craig: Oh, it would be an impossible skepticism. I remember George Mavrodes, Philosopher at the University of Michigan, once remarking that when one first hears of Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology what one imagines is a foundation of knowledge upon which there is built this great skyscraper of belief. But he says, in fact, on Plantinga’s view, our knowledge structure is more like a big empty lot with rambling foundations all around the lot, and here and there in a few places there will be a few bricks that are on top of the foundation, but for the most part, most of our beliefs are really properly basic beliefs that are not based on argument and evidence and inference. I think that is an apt analogy that the evidentialist, in this case, fails to appreciate.

Kevin Harris: Arguments and evidence come in as support, they come in as further...

Dr. Craig: Sometimes they do, but sometimes these beliefs are incapable of being inferentially argued. Take the belief in the reality of the past. How could you refute someone who says the world was created five minutes ago with built-in appearances of age? There is no way to disprove that because any evidence that you give would assume the reality of the age of things as they appear to us.[3] So, this is a properly basic belief that is rooted in our experience of the world, it is not something that you arrive at by argument and evidence. Now, of course if the non-theist says, well, but I am construing evidence here in a very broad way to mean that you have the experience of things in the past. Well, in that broad sense of evidence, then Christian belief is not without evidence. It has the evidence of the Holy Spirit, but when Plantinga talks about evidence, he is using the word in a very narrow sense to mean beliefs that are formed by inference from more basic beliefs, but Plantinga himself, would say that, of course, these beliefs have evidence in this very broad sense of the word evidence, namely in this case, the evidence of the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Kevin Harris: Bill, when you and I looked at this article earlier you said really this writer’s criticism can be summarized in one sentence.

Dr. Craig: Well, no. It is one sentence. It can’t be summarized in one sentence, it is one sentence. Most of the article is a defense of, so-called, Holy Spirit epistemology against these misconceived criticisms, and his own criticism is not until we arrive at a single sentence in the final paragraph of the article.

Kevin Harris: Go ahead, what does it say?

Dr. Craig: Well, here’s his criticism, “At least for the majority of Christians, the Holy Spirit (if such there be) fails to present the truth of Christianity in such a way that it is anywhere near being on a par with ordinary, Moorean facts.” That is to say, facts like the belief in the external world, the belief in the reality of the past, the belief in other minds, and so it doesn't have the force and the vivacity of those sorts of beliefs for most Christians, and therefore, this Holy Spirit Epistemology fails.

Kevin Harris: What’s your reply to that?

Dr. Craig: Well, the argument assumes that if this epistemology is correct that the majority of Christians should experience the truth of Christianity in a way that is on a par with the experience of these other facts, and that is simply false. For one thing, remember the example I gave of the person where he would be rationally obliged to commit apostasy unless God were to so intensify the Holy Spirit’s witness that he would be able to resist the force of those defeaters rationally. As I said, this person might have an experience of the Holy Spirit that is far deeper and more intense than mine or Christians in general who have access to these other resources. So, it’s not true that for the majority of Christians, if the Holy Spirit epistemology is correct, that they should all experience the truth of these Christian beliefs on a par with these other intensely verified facts.

The second problem is that not only might this vary from Christian to Christian based upon their situation and God’s providence, but also, Kevin, it is no part of either Plantinga’s epistemology or my epistemology that all properly basic beliefs are on a par with each other in terms of their force and vivacity. Certainly some of these properly basic beliefs are warranted to us in a powerful way, like the belief in the reality of the external world, but take my properly basic belief that I left my car keys in my dresser drawer. That has no where near the force and vivacity of my belief in the external world, and yet, as a memory belief, it is a properly basic belief, and it might be quite easily defeated. Or beliefs based on testimony. For example, I believe the testimony that your name is Kevin. That doesn’t have anywhere near the force and vivacity of my belief in the reality of the past, and yet, it is a properly basic belief. So, it is no part of the epistemology that beliefs warranted to us by the Holy Spirit have to have the force and vivacity of such beliefs as belief in the external world or the reality of the past.

Kevin Harris: Bill, do I hear you say that there is room for some level of doubt in Holy Spirit epistemology?

Dr. Craig: Yes, certainly, and I make this clear in Reasonable Faith. I say that to say that the witness of the Spirit is self-authenticating does not mean that it is indubitable. One should not equate this with certainty or being indubitable.[4] It’s just that, in the end, one will be sufficiently warranted by the witness of the Holy Spirit to turn back rationally the force of any defeaters that one encounters.

Kevin Harris: In your own walk with Christ do you become more convinced of this?

Dr. Craig: What do you mean?

Kevin Harris: Do you find, perhaps, what I shared earlier, there are just times when during periods of trial or periods of pain, that the Holy Spirit bears witness to you or perhaps intensifies.

Dr. Craig: You know, I haven't experienced that, Kevin, and maybe that’s because I haven't been in those sorts of situations, frankly, but I do find at times in my personal walk that the witness of the Holy Spirit might be eclipsed because of say of business or inattentiveness or other emotional factors that could be an impediment to one’s walk with God.

Kevin Harris: You point that out in Reasonable Faith, that sometimes sin in a person’s life can eclipse the work of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the Holy Spirit’s fellowship.

Dr. Craig: Right, and so this is a reminder to keep short accounts with God. To confess our sins daily and to make sure that we are walking in the right path, because for the carnal Christian who is not filled with the Holy Spirit but is quenching the Spirit in his life or his disobedience, he may well lack the assurance that the Holy Spirit wants him to have.

Kevin Harris: Another article on this website, Bill, concerning Holy Spirit epistemology, that we will mention briefly, this writer says, “Holy Spirit epistemology is possibly nothing more than the affect heuristic. The affect heuristic is the notion that people will often make decisions based on their feelings or emotions about the topic at hand. It is an example of substitution in which the answer to an easy question, how do I feel about it, serves as an answer to a much harder question, what do I think about it.” So, experiments have been done that people will often make decisions, knowledge claims, based on feelings or emotions and so on, and trying to compare Holy Spirit epistemology to affect heuristic.

Dr. Craig: The example he gives would be studies in which people are shared the benefits of engaging in some technology, but then also the risks of the technology. What the studies show is that if the people think that the benefits of this are really, really great then they discount the risks, even though they have no basis for doing this. It’s just that they like it so much, that the benefits are so great, that they ignore the risks.

Now, how would this affect Holy Spirit epistemology? It is not clear to me exactly how this is suppose to be an affect heuristic. Here would be, I guess, what I think the author would be saying is; that if because of the witness of the Holy Spirit one feels very positively about the Christian faith, that then it would make it more difficult for that person to assess objectively the arguments for and against the Christian faith because he wants the Christian faith to be true, and therefore, the arguments that he gives, he will be more ready to accept them and embrace them. Now, even if that were true, Kevin, notice that that does nothing to invalidate Holy Spirit epistemology. It does nothing to say that the Holy Spirit doesn’t warrant to us the truth of Christian beliefs in a properly basic way. It would just make the point that someone who experiences the witness of the Holy Spirit would be more apt to believe in arguments for the truth of the Christian faith than somebody who doesn’t, and that is not an implausible claim.

Kevin Harris: An emotional investment in something may cause you to behave in a certain way towards what you hold is true.

Dr. Craig: Right, and by the same token one would say with regard to Atheism, someone who wants Atheism to be true, who sees the great benefits of Atheism, would also find it difficult to assess objectively these same arguments for Christian Theism, and I have noticed in my own personal interactions with some people that Atheism and a commitment to it can make people positively irrational so that they are prepared to believe the most absurd conclusions in order to avoid these theistic arguments. For example, they are prepared to believe that the universe popped into being, uncaused, out of absolutely nothing. Something that they would never believe in ordinary life with respect to the objects they see around them, but they are so emotionally invested in Atheism that they, I think, are incapable of assessing objectively these arguments.[5]

Well, what do you do in a case like that, where you are invested emotionally in a particular conclusion and you have arguments? Well, you just do your best to look at the arguments and the evidence for the premises for and against and make up your mind, and enter into debate and dialogue in an open minded way with those who disagree. In one sense, Kevin, I think ironically, embracing Holy Spirit epistemology can actually make you more objective about these arguments because, as somebody pointed out to me, your faith isn’t based on these arguments, you can give up the arguments willingly if they are refuted, and yet, your faith still remains secure because it’s rooted in the witness of the Holy Spirit. So, in one sense, I can be far more objective about the soundness of these arguments, than someone who is an evidentialist whose faith stands or falls on these arguments. Similarly, I can be far more objective about them than the atheist, who if he admits the soundness of these arguments, is going to have to change his worldview and become a theist. So, ironically, I think that holding to Holy Spirit epistemology can actually make a person far more objective in assessing the cogency of proper arguments in support of Christian Theism because he is less invested in them.

Kevin Harris: In the many ways that you are not an evidentialist, Bill, would you say that evidential arguments, and so on, are kind of like the icing on the cake?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that’s right. They are great if you have them, but the vast majority of Christians in the world and down through history have not had them. I think that there are good arguments for Theism and for Christian faith, but I could be wrong about that, and I would be willing to abandon the arguments if I were shown that one of the premises is more plausibly false than true. I would drop it in a moment. In fact, over the years I have revised these arguments. These arguments have been honed and revised over the years in light of the evidence and the counter arguments by non-theists, and so, I feel that I can be perfectly objective about these.

Kevin Harris: Perhaps that will strengthen the premises when you encounter various objections.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it can help you to formulate them more precisely. My formulation and defense of the moral argument, for example, has greatly changed over the years as a result of this sort of interaction.

Kevin Harris: This writer’s complaint is, he says, “Craig isn’t saying I want Christianity to be true, so I will believe despite the historical contingency of available evidence. Instead, Craig is arguing that the self-authenticating witness, his feelings about whether or not God exists, of the Holy Spirit is prior to the available evidence.”

Dr. Craig: Now that is a mistake. I do not associate the witness of the Holy Spirit with my feelings. My feelings are subjective, emotional states in myself. The witness of the Holy Spirit is an objective external reality that God bears to me. It is testimony to me, just as much as your testimony is testimony to me. He may equate it with feelings because he is a naturalist, but I would not make that equation at all.

Kevin Harris: There may be some associated feelings.

Dr. Craig: Yes, just as there are associated feelings about my belief that there is an external world, or that other people exist.

Kevin Harris: Well, in that case, the rest of this guy’s criticism is moot because he has interpreted feelings with the witness of the Holy Spirit, and so on. So, his final argument against it is, “If the witness of the Holy Spirit imparts a feeling of confidence about the proposition then couldn’t a period of doubt be a sufficient reason for abandoning belief?” In other words, there is no room for doubt in Holy Spirit epistemology.

Dr. Craig: Well, this gets back into the question about whether or not the witness of the Holy Spirit is an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters brought against it. Some reformed epistemologist would say no it’s not, and therefore, if you are confronted with defeaters which you can not answer, either you get some rational answer to those defeaters or you should give up Christian belief. What I want to say is that periods of doubt can be sustained because the witness of the Holy Spirit gives you warrant for those beliefs that intrinsically defeats the defeaters brought against it.[6]



[1] 5:00

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:03

[4] 19:57

[5] 25:03

[6] Total Running Time: 30:15 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)