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Rationalism and Evidentialism

September 08, 2008     Time: 00:16:44
Rationalism and Evidentialism


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript Rationalism and Evidentialism


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, congratulations on the release of a third edition of Reasonable Faith. It seems that you are still stirring up controversy from some people. Any reactions so far to the release of the third edition?

Dr. Craig: Well, from Christians it has been just overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been really gratified by the very kind things that folks have said in response to the book and how it has helped them and others who are looking forward to reading it. On the other hand, as you might predict, from the secular side there has been a less than enthusiastic response.

Kevin Harris: One of the things that seem to catch in people’s craw (that is a Southern expression) is that it is possible to believe without evidence. It is possible to have a kind of a direct knowledge. We’ve discussed Alvin Plantinga. I don’t think we’ve discussed Henry Dodwell and his view who is mentioned in your book. He has kind of a precursor to Plantinga?

Dr. Craig: Right. He was one of the oddballs so to speak of the 18th century in that he departed from the prevailing religious epistemology of that time which was a kind of evidentialism. The overwhelming majority of Christian thinkers at that time had a kind of theological rationalism as I call it. They thought that belief in God had to be justified on the basis of evidence and argument. Apart from evidence and argument for religious beliefs, religious beliefs is what they called enthusiasm, and enthusiasm was the thing to be avoided at all costs. Dodwell disagreed with that. He felt that evidence and argument could not be the way in which God intended us to know him because these are so uncertain and they vary from time to time and place to place. So he held that it is through an immediate communication from God and the Spirit that God gives us a knowledge of the truth of Christianity. As I say, he was a real maverick in his time but very much in line today, I think, with what is called Reformed epistemology which also says that we can know that Christianity is true wholly apart from argument and evidence on the basis of a kind of immediate knowledge imparted by God himself.

Kevin Harris: This isn’t anti-reason what we are talking about here. We need to get to that, but this religious enthusiasm that the theologians at the time seemed to shun – they weren’t very emotional about their relationship with God it seems. It was strictly a rational, rather dry experience perhaps.

Dr. Craig: Well, you hate to judge them but it does seem that it seemed to be more in the head than in the heart. One of the things that the great revivalists like John Wesley brought to the church was a renewal of the Holy Spirit and a rediscovery of this experiential dimension to faith. I think both of these are important. We don’t want to be just all right brain or left brain. We want to have both a cognitive intellectual knowledge of God but then, as Plantinga actually emphasizes in his book Warranted Christian Belief, we also want to have our religious affections repaired and restored by the work of the Holy Spirit. So not only our cognitive faculties but our religious affections also need to be freed from sin and pried from self-centeredness so as to be focused correctly on God. [1]

Kevin Harris: Dodwell seems to say something that makes sense to me in a sense and that is if it is just pure reason or pure evidentialism (you have to have evidence in order to rationalize the belief or support the belief) then you get into almost an infinite regress because you can weigh and re-weigh it, and look for more data, and hold a belief into suspension forever. We’ve talked about this before – keeping God on the blackboard so to speak.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that is a very convenient way to keep God at arm’s distance isn’t it? To just say, “Well, I’m still evaluating. All the evidence isn’t in.” So one avoids the real confrontation with God and with one’s own sin, frankly. I think that the New Testament teaches through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit that he brings each one of us face to face with God in a way that is clear and unmistakable for the one who attends to what the Holy Spirit is doing in his life.

Kevin Harris: I talked to an atheist young man one time who said that he was going to get his PhD in philosophy and was on this quest to disprove God or to prove God or whatever. He claimed to be an atheist. And I said, “Well, are you getting your PhD in philosophy so you can be more skilled at proving God or disproving God” and he goes, “No, I’m getting it so I can debate William Lane Craig!” [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Oh, brother! [laughter]

Kevin Harris: While I admire that enthusiasm, at the same time I think the motivation might be a little off.

Dr. Craig: Oh, absolutely wrong – that is so perverse. Yeah, that is right. The quest is not for truth, it is for some sort of victory in a contest.

Kevin Harris: That’s right. It is a grudge match in a sense. Well, you open Reasonable Faith with these issues. You talk about reason and faith and how they work together. Plantinga – how does he view reason then?

Dr. Craig: He thinks that God has designed us with certain cognitive faculties and that when these are functioning properly they will lead us in a very natural way to believe in the existence of God and even to know that God exists. Moreover, when we are confronted with the Holy Scriptures, God’s Word, that the Holy Spirit will communicate to us what he calls the great truths of the Gospel. He will give us a conviction that what we read there is true. Plantinga emphasizes that this is not fideism – it is not saying you take a leap of faith in the dark. Rather, these are the deliverances of reason. This is reason at work in the way that God designed it to function. These are the way our cognitive faculties should function when they are functioning properly. So on Plantinga’s view, unbelief is really a cognitive dysfunction. People who fail to believe in God or who fail to believe in the great truths of the Gospel when they hear them and read the Scriptures are cognitively dysfunctional people. In that sense they are literally irrational. Ultimately he would trace this cognitive dysfunction, I think, to sin and the affects of sin upon the human will and cognitive faculties.

Kevin Harris: Bill, this can be just a real tough nut to crack sometime when we are dealing with people in this culture, especially in this culture, when there is a kind of village atheism or a New Atheism on the rise, a more vocal atheism. You just get into discussions with people and can actually give them better evidence for your view than they can give for you but they will still say, “Well, OK, thanks but at the end of the day I still need to read up on it some more” or “I’m still not going to believe yet.” I can see how that might be the case if we were searching for some monolith in outer space that is in another galaxy. But when you are dealing with what is purported to be a person, well then shouldn’t we respond on a personal level? You wouldn’t hold the girl that you are going to marry in suspension forever until you get your PhD in marital counseling to make sure you are a good husband. You know?

Dr. Craig: When you are talking about a person who created you and who loves you and who calls for a response of that sort then I think you are quite right. It is inappropriate to treat this as though it is just a purely academic matter. Rather, there needs to be coupled with the academic or intellectual search a search of the heart and of the soul as well. So I think it is important to emphasize to non-believers who are true seekers – who really are looking for the truth – I encourage them to read the New Testament and to pray to God if he’s there. Pray to the God in whom they do not yet believe. [2]  Say “God, if you are out there, show yourself to me. Speak to me through these words.” Conduct a sort of spiritual experiment, if you will, of really beginning to search for God. We have the promise in the Scripture that he who seeks finds. “You will seek me and you will find me if you seek for me with all your heart” in the words of the prophet Jeremiah. [3] So we must not give unbelievers the quite false impression that this is just a kind of academic matter that can be pursued disinterestedly. Rather, this is something they need to be vitally interested in and existentially engaged as a person in a spiritual quest.

Kevin Harris: It has often been said that the great moral reformers have never really offered anything new as far as morality but they always call people back to what they already know. They call them back to morality. It occurs to me that perhaps apologetics is sometimes to call people back or to what they already know – what they know intuitively. I find that sometimes to be the case. Do you agree or disagree?

Dr. Craig: I could see why you would say that. Romans 1 says that through the creation alone all persons everywhere at all times in the world know that there is a creator of the universe. But they suppress this knowledge in unrighteousness and create false gods after their own image. So there is, according to Romans 1, a kind of primordial primitive knowledge of God that all people have but that is simply suppressed by sin. So in that sense you are calling them back to this intuitive knowledge of God that they’ve had. Then Jesus – I’m very struck by a statement in John 7 where Jesus said that “If any man’s will is to do God’s will then he will know whether my teaching is from God or whether I am just speaking on my own authority.” [4] There Jesus says if your heart is oriented toward the will of God, if it is your genuine desire to do the will of God, then you will recognize whether Jesus’ teaching is from God or whether he is just blowing off steam as a human prophet. So with respect to the great truths of the Gospel as well there is a sense in which the person whose heart is in line with God’s will is going to know these things.

Kevin Harris: OK, I am an atheist or an agnostic or a non-Christian and I’ve decided that I want to make a commitment to Christ. But hanging before me are two options – orthodox, historic Christianity and Mormonism. Both tell me to rely on the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and then I will find that their particular worldview is true. Is this where apologetics comes in perhaps? To show, well, you’ve got too many defeaters of Mormonism to believe it but Christianity is far better evidential and reasonable.

Dr. Craig: I would regard the Mormon claim in this case to be a counterfeit claim; that the Christian is making a true claim to the witness of the Holy Spirit and that the Mormon claim is a false claim – it is a counterfeit. Now the existence of counterfeits does nothing to undermine the truthfulness and authenticity of the real thing. Just because there is counterfeit money doesn’t make my dollar any less valuable. Now the question, I think, here is: how do you discriminate between the true thing and the counterfeit thing? Well, again, if what we just said is right, all persons have a kind of primitive and intuitive knowledge of the truth that is given to them by the Holy Spirit when their cognitive faculties are functioning properly. So if they really are disposed toward seeking God they will recognize the truth and reject the counterfeit. Now, to help them do that, I think you are quite right. We can give them some arguments against Mormonism and show that there are defeaters of it. When they hear these, this may crack their false sense of confidence that Mormonism is true because we know that is just a purely psychological or emotional thing. It is not real – it is counterfeit. So it may crack or collapse under the force of these defeaters. And by showing them again careful Christian doctrine in the New Testament that teach the deity of Christ and so forth, I think we can help them to see that what we are saying is in line with what the Bible actually says whereas this other group is cultic and has distorted the truth. [5] So I see it as a kind of marriage of the witness of the Holy Spirit and then also apologetic arguments and evidence.

Kevin Harris: Once again, Dr. Craig, first couple of chapters of your book deal with this very important topic. I want to encourage people to go to the third edition of Reasonable Faith and spend some time in those chapters there. Again, you trace the history of thought on the juncture of faith and reason.

Dr. Craig: Right, we go back to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and then on up through the Enlightenment and then look at some of the modern figures in the 20th century and then on into our century as well. Then I give an adjudication of this in which I defend a particular relationship between faith and reason that I think is biblical and true. [6]