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Lessings Broad Ugly Ditch

October 01, 2008     Time: 00:17:56
Lessings Broad Ugly Ditch


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript Lessings Broad Ugly Ditch


Kevin Harris: Lessing’s ugly, broad ditch. Sounds like the pothole down the street from my house actually. Dr. Craig, we have had some interaction on that in the question and answer section of Reasonable Faith. [1] Who was Lessing? What is Lessing’s ugly, broad ditch? Let’s start there and then let’s talk about it.

Dr. Craig: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was an 18th century German thinker who was the librarian at a town called Wolfenbüttel in Germany. He was involved in the free thought movement and Enlightenment rationalism in Germany and published works aimed at undermining the orthodox Christian faith.

Kevin Harris: He had what he proposed was something that is very difficult to leap, and that is, I guess, between reason and faith. How do you jump across? How do you take a leap of faith?

Dr. Craig: The way he put it was that the truths of religion he thought are necessary truths whereas the truths of history are contingent truths and not necessary in their nature. He wanted to know how can the necessary truths of religion be grounded in the contingent truths of history as Christianity believes because Christianity is a historical religion. We don’t believe in simply a code of ethics or in some sort of philosophical theology. We believe that God has revealed himself in history – in the history of Israel and then in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. So Lessing said how can the necessary truths of religion be grounded in the contingent truths of history? His concern, I think, was that he felt that the truths of religion had to be known with absolute certainty but the truths of history can only be known with varying degrees of probability based upon the evidence. Therefore, there is this gap as it were between what the evidence justifies and the sort of certainty that is required for the necessary truths of religion to be rationally embraced.

Kevin Harris: In other words, he is saying it is difficult to connect all the dots and have just a perfect sequence leading all the way to the truths of Christianity or the historical truths of the Christian faith.

Dr. Craig: Well, to the truth of the Christian faith and its claim upon my life today. It can’t make a claim upon my life today because its truths cannot be established with absolute certainty based upon the shifting sands of historical evidence.

Kevin Harris: In other words, we don’t know that at 3:07 in the afternoon that Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, and just the kind of chronology that we have today often documenting modern things. Those aren’t available.

Dr. Craig: Right, and he would probably have been even more radical in his skepticism. You have got to remember this was the late 18th century, it was the age of deism, biblical criticism was just in its infancy, and there was a great deal of skepticism about the Old and New Testament documents. Some people denied that Jesus of Nazareth ever even existed much less that he rose from the dead or made these radical personal claims. So biblical studies have come a long, long way since the late 18th century, and happily today in the 21st century I think we have a good deal more confidence and a good more historical evidence for the reliability of the Gospels than they did in the late 18th and 19th centuries. [2] He would say you don’t even have any grounds for believing that Jesus rose from the dead. That would be an essential Christian truth. I think Lessing erred however in thinking first that the truths of religion are necessary truths. That, I think, is clearly false. They are not necessary truths. There is a possible world in which God never created anything. God didn’t have to create the world. Adam certainly didn’t have to fall into sin. So Christ didn’t have to become incarnate or rise from the dead.

Kevin Harris: So if something is necessary it would have to be necessary in all possible worlds?

Dr. Craig: Yes, it would have to be true in all possible worlds.

Kevin Harris: And if there is a possibility that it wouldn’t be true in a world then it is not a necessary truth?

Dr. Craig: Right, it is merely a contingent truth. It is true in actual world that Christ came, was incarnate, rose from the dead, and so forth. But those aren’t necessary truths. So Lessing had this peculiar view that truths of religion had to be necessary truths. Again, I think it is a reflection of the Enlightenment age in which he lived and really is quite contrary to the Christian faith which says that the Christian faith includes lots of contingent truths like that God parted the Red Sea, that he led the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus, that Christ was incarnate through the virgin birth, and all these historical truths which are contingent in their nature.

Moreover, not only are truths of religion not necessarily true, but I would say that they don’t need to be known with certainty. Why Lessing thinks that in order to believe something and to know it you have to know it with certainty is beyond me. This is, again, a modernist notion that I think few philosophers would accept today. You can know something and believe something rationally without having absolute certainty of it. In fact, there are very few things that we know with absolute certainty. So even if it were true that the truths of religion are based upon the contingent truths of history and the evidence for those truths, there is no reason that you can’t believe in them on the weight of probability. To say “Christianity is probably true and therefore I believe it. I don’t know it with certainty but I think that the evidence indicates that it is more probably true than not and so therefore I am going to be a Christian.” I don’t see anything the matter with that sort of reasoning.

Kevin Harris: How would you, Bill – and a questioner asks on our Q&A forum –, how do you leap that ditch?

Dr. Craig: I think in two ways. One would be what I just said, is that you get rid of this false assumption that truths of religion must be known with certainty. You recognize that you can believe truths of religion on the basis of probabilities. I think that the evidence indicates that Christianity is more probably true than not on the basis of the evidence. However, I don’t think that is the full answer, Kevin, because not everybody in history has this evidence available to them. People often seem to fail to realize that the evidence is relative to a time and place in history. We have tremendous evidence today for the historicity of the Gospels, but somebody living in Kyrgyzstan in the Middle Ages had virtually no evidence for the historicity of the Gospel. Even today, the poor woman living in Darfur in a refugee camp trying to keep two starving children alive who is illiterate has no access to evidence for the historicity of the Gospels.

Kevin Harris: She is probably not in the house reading The Case for Christ right now.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. Or think of the Laotian peasant laboring in some rice field for ten hours a day who has little education and no access to materials or some person in the Philippines on a remote island. I think that people who think that you base religious beliefs on the evidence simply fail to realize that those of us here in the West who have the education and the leisure time and the library and internet access to these materials are the precious few in the world who have these luxuries. The vast majority of the human race down through history simply haven’t had access to the evidence.

Therefore, if their religious beliefs are to be rational, there must be some other basis for them than the evidence. And I think that there is. [3] The New Testament teaches that we can have an immediate knowledge of the existence of God and the great truths of the Gospel through the witness of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament teaches, I think, clearly that God has not left it up to us to work out by our own ingenuity and cleverness whether or not he exists. Rather, he makes these truths evident to us through the inner testimony of his Holy Spirit. Drawing people to himself, convicting them that the Gospel is true, and that for Christians Christ lives within them and they are children of God. So a loving God isn’t going to simply abandon us to the vicissitudes of history, to the accidents of geography and time, to decide whether or not Christianity is true. Rather, he is going to bear witness himself to the truth of the Christian Gospel through his Holy Spirit. I think that makes, as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said in response to Lessing, every generation contemporaneous with the first generation of the eyewitnesses. The witness of the Holy Spirit makes us all contemporaries of Jesus because we have this knowledge immediately available to us through his indwelling Holy Spirit.

Kevin Harris: Do I hear you say that God’s grace extends to us in this way? Via the witness of the Holy Spirit? That’s a very gracious thing.

Dr. Craig: Yes. He takes the initiative. It is God’s gracious initiative that first of all draws people to himself in the case of the unbeliever and then in the case of the believer fills that believer and gives him the assurance of salvation. So as Paul says in Romans 7, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” [4]

Kevin Harris: Let’s examine then a follow up question to this. That is: would you please specify the propositional content of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Plantinga calls the content “the great things of the Gospel” and includes the idea that God exists, God has forgiven and accepted me, God is the author of the Bible. You claim this content, Dr. Craig, assures Christians that they are children of God but such a notion echoes the poet whom Paul quoted who said “we are his offspring” (that’s in Acts 17). You are surely arguing that the inner witness of the third person of the Trinity contains more propositional content than that.

Dr. Craig: Yes. More than that. I think that when we look at what the New Testament has to say about the witness of the Holy Spirit, its primary function is what in popular Christian piety is called “assurance of salvation.” I quoted the verse from Romans 8 by which Paul says we know that we are children of God. Now that entails several truths – that God exists, that God has forgiven my sin, that I am redeemed through Christ, that I am in proper relationship with him. It seems to me that those would be some of the propositions that we would know to be true through this inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Plantinga wants to extend that even farther by saying that when we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit also stirs up in us the conviction that what we read there is true with respect to the sort of broad themes of the Gospel. These would presumably be things like Christ’s atoning death for my sin, the deity of Christ, the love of God, and so forth. I am quite open to that as well. I don’t know exactly where the limits are to this propositional knowledge that is conveyed by the witness of the Holy Spirit. I, and Plantinga too, are content to simply leave that vague; to leave those boundaries ambiguous. It is not clear. But I think most fundamentally it is this assurance of salvation which will entail certain fundamental truths like the existence of God, my redemption through Christ, and so forth.

Kevin Harris: I spent a lot of time, Bill, with a Muslim from Indonesia who, at 15 years old, cried out to God and said, “I want to know you.” And God answered him in a really supernatural way and it is an amazing testimony. He clearly heard, “Get a Bible. Get a Bible and embrace my Son, Jesus.” And things like that. Now, he says that he was a Christian at that point when he responded to God’s calling and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. [5] He said it was four years before he got a Bible. Some unusual circumstances happened that allowed him to come to America where he learned all of this historical evidence and all this stuff. Actually he went to seminary and the whole bit. So perhaps even if the propositional content of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit doesn’t contain all this data that the skeptic wants it to contain, it starts the sanctification process.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Regeneration could begin there and then following regeneration, maturation.

Kevin Harris: That makes more sense.

Dr. Craig: Where you come to learn more about the truth of this worldview and about this person that has invaded your life in this way. You are a baby Christian at first and you need to grow and to learn.

Kevin Harris: This skeptic wants us to have more content.

Dr. Craig: That’s odd, Kevin. Why should he be setting the standard for God as to what content God wants to provide?

Kevin Harris: It says, for instance, to say God exists – one of the great truths of the Gospel from Plantinga – does not say anything about the attributes of this God. It might be consistent with panentheism. But, again, I think that gets back to the maturation process. Many people when they first come to Christ don’t understand the doctrine of the Trinity or the hypostatic union. So that is through the sanctification process?

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: But that doesn’t mean they are not saved.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. And it doesn’t mean they don’t have assurance of salvation. Sadly, Kevin, you and I know that many of the people filling our pews in church don’t have a very profound understanding of who God is and what his attributes and nature are like.

Kevin Harris: That is why Paul said get off the milk and get into the meat.

Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly. But as you say that doesn’t mean that they don’t have this fundamental assurance of the truth of the faith, of their redemption, of their being rightly related to God, and so forth, which is given by the Holy Spirit. And that is enough to bridge Lessing’s broad, ugly ditch. [6]