Existence of God (part 28)

April 24, 2011     Time: 00:32:49


Belief in God as Properly Basic.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VI. Properly Basic Belief In God
Lecture 3

We have been talking about whether or not belief in God, and in the God of the Bible in particular, is properly basic. That is to say, is it rational to believe in the God of the Bible even if you do not have any evidence or arguments in favor of his existence? Indeed, can you know that the God of the Bible exists, even if you are wholly bereft of any arguments or evidence for the existence of God? The argument that I have been presenting is that, yes, it is perfectly rational and, indeed, you can know that God exists wholly apart from arguments simply on the basis of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, which is a self-authenticating witness that grounds belief in God as a properly basic belief. The belief that God exists is not inferred from other beliefs. Rather it is a properly basic belief akin to belief in the reality of the external world or the reality of the past or the presence of other minds, and it is not arbitrary because it is grounded in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

Last time we saw that this is the teaching of the New Testament with regard to the witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian believer. Every believer is indwelt by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God bears witness with his spirit that he is a child of God. And that entails the truth of certain things like “God exists,” “I am redeemed through Christ,” “God forgives my sin,” and so forth.

Role of the Holy Spirit in the Life of the Unbeliever

That leads to the question, “What about the unbeliever?” Since the unbeliever is unregenerate, and since he is not indwelt with the Holy Spirit, surely he needs to rely upon evidence and argument in order to know that the Gospel is true when he hears it because he has no experience of the Holy Spirit! I beg to differ. It seems to me that according to the Scriptures, God has a special ministry of the Holy Spirit which is particularly geared to the needs of the unbeliever. Jesus describes this ministry in John 16:7-11. Here Jesus says,

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

Notice here Jesus is describing a ministry of the Holy Spirit which is not to the believer. This is a ministry of the Holy Spirit to the world, and he says specifically, “they do not believe in me.” This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit toward the unbeliever. It is three-fold in nature. The Holy Spirit convicts the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. That is to say, he convicts the unbeliever of his own sin, he convicts him of God’s righteousness, and then of his consequent condemnation before this righteous God. An unbeliever who is so convicted by the Holy Spirit can know such truths as “God exists,” “I am guilty before God,” “I need God’s forgiveness,” and so on and so forth.

It seems to me that, in fact, this is the way it had to be. If it weren’t for the work of the Holy Spirit, no one would ever become a Christian. Look at what Paul says in Romans 3:9b-11, “I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.’” According to Paul, natural man left to himself does not seek God.1 Instead, he is lost in sin. Indeed, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 that the natural man isn’t even able to understand spiritual things: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” So the natural man, apart from the Spirit of God, thinks that spiritual things are foolish, and he can’t understand them because it requires spiritual discernment.

Paul says that the natural man, left to himself, is hostile to God. Romans 8:7: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” So the natural man is at war with God apart from the Spirit of God. He cannot receive spiritual things. So, as Jesus said, men love darkness rather than light. Left to himself, natural man, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, would never come to a knowledge of God. The fact that you will find people, non-Christians, out there who are seeking God and who are ready to believe in Christ when you share the Gospel with them is evidence that the Spirit of God has already been at work in their hearts convicting them and drawing them to himself, so their hearts are prepared for the Gospel message. Jesus says in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” God, by his Holy Spirit, is drawing people to himself.

It seems to me that the implication of this is that when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of a lack of evidence or for want of good arguments or because of intellectual difficulties. At root, a person refuses to come to Christ because he ignores and deliberately rejects the drawing of God’s Holy Spirit upon his heart. So, in the final analysis, I do not think anyone fails to become a Christian because of a lack of evidence. Ultimately, the reason why a person fails to become a Christian is because he loves darkness rather than light and he wants nothing to do with God. But if a person will respond to the drawing of God’s Spirit and his convicting power with an open mind and an open heart, then that person can know with assurance that the Gospel message is true because God’s Holy Spirit will convict him that it is true. Look at John 7:16-17:

So Jesus answered them, ‘My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me; if any man's will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.’

This strikes me as a very, very important passage from Jesus’ own lips. “If any man’s will is to do God’s will, then he will know whether my teaching is really from God or whether I am just speaking on my own authority.” Jesus is affirming here that if anyone is truly seeking God, then he will know that Jesus’ teaching is truly from God.

So for the unbeliever, as well as for the believer, the ultimate basis for his knowledge of the truth of Christianity is the witness of the Holy Spirit. The unbeliever who is truly open to God will be convinced of the truth of the Christian message because the Holy Spirit will convict him that it is true. Therefore, it seems that whether we are talking about believers or unbelievers, it is ultimately, in the final analysis, the self-authenticating work of the Holy Spirit that gives one the assurance of Christianity’s truth.2

So I would say the truth of the existence of the biblical God is a properly basic belief which is grounded in the inner witness and conviction of the Holy Spirit. Because this belief is formed in response to the witness of God himself, it doesn’t require any sort of external authentication. It is self-authenticating. It isn’t merely rational, but it actually provides knowledge that God exists. This is a way of knowing that the God of the Bible exists.


Question: About the inner witness of the Holy Spirit – some Christians believe it is irresistible, but what you are saying is that the Holy Spirit is an influence that we can choose to listen to or ignore.

Answer: That is correct. Here my Arminian slip is showing! I do not think that the witness of the Holy Spirit is irresistible. It seems to me that God allows freedom of unbelief. That is why some people go to hell. I think that the reason that some people go to hell is because they willingly separate themselves from God forever. I do not think they go to hell because God does not give them an irresistible witness of the Spirit, but he does give that just to the elect. It seems to me that this is in accord with biblical teaching. I will not defend that now, but when we get to the Doctrine of Salvation, we will talk more about this – the doctrine of election and so forth. You are quite right – that is what I have said. I am presupposing that the witness of the Spirit is not irresistible.

But having said that, let me back off of that a little bit and say the defense of the view that belief in God is properly basic doesn’t depend on that. A Calvinist could offer this same religious epistemology, and, indeed, many do. So while I would disagree with the Calvinist as to whether this is irresistible or not, I think we would both agree that this is the source, ultimately, of our knowledge of Christianity’s truth, and it is a properly basic belief grounded in the witness of the Spirit. If you disagree with me about its being irresistible, that is fine; it doesn’t need to affect what the discussion here is about.

Question: Predestination is throughout the Bible – he chooses and chooses. How does that associate with this, where you are saying you are choosing?

Answer: We will talk about this later when we get to that section of the class. But let me just give a little thumbnail sketch of what I would say. Certainly the Bible does teach predestination and election. The question is – whom is it that God has predestined and chosen to be his people? It seems to me, when you read Romans 9 and 10, the answer to that is: those who have faith in Christ Jesus! Those are the ones who are predestined to justification, glorification, and the rest. If we think of predestination as primarily a corporate notion – God has elected anyone who puts his faith in Christ Jesus – , then anyone who places his faith in Christ Jesus is part of the elect. So it is up to you whether or not you want to be part of the elect. Then, in a secondary sense, you can say, “Yes, I am predestined by God to be saved because I am part of this corporate group.”

Question: [asks how this relates to Muslims and the Islamic religion]

Answer: I am not sure I understand the question. What I have argued so far in the class has just been for the existence of God in a kind of generic monotheistic sense. There is a Creator and Designer of the universe, a ground of being of the universe, and a source of moral values.3 Muslims would resonate with all of those arguments that I have given. Here I am claiming that it is the God of the Bible who bears witness to our Spirit that he exists. So this is more specific. I think the Muslim would probably say something very similar to this about Islam. They would say Allah has a self-authenticating witness of his spirit that bears testimony to the truth of Islam. We have a sort of standoff here between the Christian and the Muslim in making these competing claims. I will say something more about that in a minute because that is an objection that someone might raise to this view – what about the Muslim, or the Mormon who says he knows the book of Mormon is true because when he reads it he has a “burning in the bosom?” Doesn’t that show that this is all just subjective? I will say something about that in a minute. But the arguments that I gave are consistent with a sort of generic monotheism. Here I am arguing that through the witness of the Holy Spirit we can know specifically that the God of the Bible exists and that, therefore, the God of the Qur’an does not.

Question: Could you speak to the Demas version of believers where, at one time, they accepted these evidences but later rejected them?

Answer: All of these theological questions are very important and controversial. This question would be: what about a person who claims to have been a Christian – claims that he has tasted the Holy Spirit and known God – and then walks away from it and apostatizes and throws Christ out of his life? There are really two views about this. The one view is that he wasn’t really regenerate in the first place. He wasn’t really born again – he just had an emotional experience or went forward at an altar call, but he never really had that inner witness of the Holy Spirit. The other view would be that that person really was a regenerate Christian, he knew the Holy Spirit, but because of sin in his life he hardened his heart against the Holy Spirit and finally cast Jesus Christ out of his life and committed apostasy. This is what the author of the book of Hebrews warns about in chapters 6 and 10 – about those who have tasted the goodness of the Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit and the age to come, and then they commit apostasy. On that view they have lost their salvation. They have thrown Christ out of their life.

If you were to ask me what do I think – I tend to believe the latter. I think that if you take these warnings in Hebrews seriously, it suggests that a person, a born-again Christian, can commit apostasy and throw Christ out of his life and lose salvation. That is why I said earlier that the witness of the Holy Spirit isn’t indubitable, it is not irresistible, we can grieve the Holy Spirit through sin, we can quench the Holy Spirit by refusing to submit our lives to him, and, I think, ultimately, the Scripture teaches that you can cast the Holy Spirit out of your life by committing apostasy and renouncing Jesus Christ. The Scripture has very stern warnings about that. But again, I want to repeat, one’s views on the question of “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints” doesn’t affect whether or not [belief in] the God of the Bible is properly basic. Whichever view you take, you can still maintain on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit that someone who has the witness of the Holy Spirit and attends to it can know with confidence that Christianity is true because the Holy Spirit gives him assurance that it is true.

Question: Would Romans 1:18-20 fit into this or would that just be saying God is providing external evidence?

Answer: That is a good question. How do we interpret Romans 1:18-20? This is where Paul talks about how, ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived through the things that have been made, so that people are without excuse. The question here is – and this is subtle – is Paul endorsing natural theology in Romans 1? Is he endorsing a kind of cosmological argument or a design argument, saying that when people look at the world around them, they can see there had to be a cause of all this, that there is obviously a designer of this? That would be one way to interpret it.4 Or is he saying that the circumstances of being in the creation are the circumstances that ground a properly basic belief in God, so that they aren’t inferring, “There must be a designer of this” or “There must be an adequate cause of this,” but rather that just being in the circumstances of the created order, one forms in a properly basic way the belief in God. That is the exegetical, or interpretive, question here.

 My own point of view is that I think that Paul probably is talking about arguments of natural theology here, frankly. In Acts, when Barnabas and Paul are preaching in Lystra and the people say, “The gods have come down from heaven!” and are going to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, they restrain them in saying that the God who made the Earth and the heavens has not left himself without a witness. The word there suggests “evidence” – he hasn’t left himself without evidence. He has given you seasons and fruitful times of the year, and so forth. Paul seems to be saying on which basis that you can infer that God exists. When you look at extra-biblical literature like the Book of Wisdom, which is an apocryphal Old Testament book, it has passages in it that sound almost like Romans 1 and make it very clear that the author there is talking about making an inference from the creation to the existence of a Designer and Creator. It may well have been the case that Paul even knew this Old Testament work and had it in mind when he wrote Romans 1. So while this isn’t a slam dunk, it is not an open and shut case, I do incline toward the view that what Paul is talking about in Romans 1 is the validity of natural theology.

We went through several arguments prior to this, arguing that there are sound reasons to believe that God exists. But at the same time, I think that the Scripture also teaches that you do not need those arguments. You can know that God exists, and particularly you can know that the biblical God exists on the basis of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.

Question: Are you saying the only way you can lose your salvation is through blaspheming the Holy Spirit? It is not like other sins in your life – if you sin too much, you may lose your salvation. Are you saying the only way you can lose your salvation is only if you turn around and say, “I don’t believe anymore?”

Answer: That is correct. I am not talking about backsliding here. What I am talking about is a person who deliberately commits what the Bible calls apostasy, someone who says, “I reject Jesus Christ. I refuse him. I cast him out of my life!” If you do not think there are people like that, then read the epistles of Paul. He gives examples, people like, I think it was, Demas and others that he says “are in love with the world and have left me.”5 There are serious warnings in Scripture about apostasy, and I take them at face value.

But, we do not want to linger on that point because that is tangential to the central point here! And that is: through the witness of the Holy Spirit we can know with confidence that the God of the Bible exists.

Warrant and Christian Belief

If that is true, then what is the role of argument and evidence in knowing that Christianity is true? I have already said that the fundamental way in which we know that Christianity is true is through the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the only role left for reason and argument to play is the role of a servant, a secondary role. Here I think the Protestant reformer Martin Luther correctly distinguished between what he called the magisterial and the ministerial uses of reason. The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the Gospel message like a magistrate and judges whether or not the Gospel is true. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the Gospel message.6 And what Luther maintained is that only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. In light of the Holy Spirit’s witness, it is only the ministerial use of reason which is valid. Another way of putting it is that philosophy is the handmaid of theology. God has given us reason as a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith. Ours is a faith that seeks understanding, as St. Anselm put it. A person who knows that Christianity is true on the basis of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit can also have a sound apologetic which gives him evidence and arguments for the truth of Christianity.

But while that backs up the witness of the Holy Spirit and confirms it, it doesn’t supplant it or serve as a basis of his belief. If the arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences are good, then that person has kind of a second source of warrant for his Christian beliefs. He has first and foremost the witness of the Holy Spirit, but then he also has the warrant that accrues from the arguments and evidence for Christianity. So this person has, in a sense, a double warrant for his belief in the truth of the Gospel. You can imagine all sorts of benefits that would accrue to such a person for having a double warrant for his belief. For example, this greater warrant could give him more confidence that the Gospel message is true. In the case of the unbeliever, that greater confidence might lead him to come to Christ more readily. In the case of a believer, it might lead him to share his faith with more confidence and to be ready to bear witness to Christ. The ability to have this double warrant could also predispose the unbeliever to be open to hearing the Gospel message in a way that perhaps he wouldn’t have been. And it could provide the believer with assurance in times of doubt or struggle when the witness of the Holy Spirit is eclipsed in his life and he is going through a dark valley of spiritual dryness. I am sure you can think of many other ways in which having these dual sources of warrant for Christianity’s truth would be very beneficial.

But should there ever arise a conflict between the evidence and arguments and what they lead to and what the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is telling you, it is the witness of the Holy Spirit which should be given precedence, not the arguments and evidence. For example, say you were a university student studying at Moscow University during the time of the Soviet Union and you were a Christian believer and sensed the witness of the Spirit in your heart. But you had no way of refuting your Marxist professors and the atheist propaganda they were giving you. You had no library resources, there was no internet, and nothing was available. I am arguing that you are perfectly rational in that case to attend to the witness of the Holy Spirit, even though you don’t know how to answer the arguments and the evidence that your professors give. The witness of the Holy Spirit, while it is confirmed by evidence and argument, cannot be disconfirmed by them for a person who properly attends to it. That would be how I would understand the relationship between evidence and argument and the witness of the Holy Spirit.


Question: This is sort of having the right tool for the job in your spiritual toolbox. If you are witnessing to a university professor, appealing to the Holy Spirit may not be the right tool to convince him. Whereas if you are witnessing to an elderly woman, she may not be interested in hearing the material evidence but would be moved in hearing about the Holy Spirit. It is useful for Christians to have a wide variety of resources that they can appeal to to most effectively witness.

Answer: I couldn’t agree more! I think that is absolutely right. These things are audience- relative so to speak. What may be appropriate for one person isn’t for the other.

Question: I watched a program about the Shroud of Turin.7 They are positive in their conclusion that it cannot be proven not to be authentic. They are still struggling with it, but to watch this program is very supporting for someone who is trying to find evidence for Jesus Christ.

Answer: Yes, the Shroud is an incredibly intriguing artifact. I think I may have said it in this class before, but I think what really needs to be done is for these carbon dating tests to be rerun because those who dispute them claim that they were done on a patch that was later added to the cloth and therefore isn’t part of the original. So they really need to be redone in order to authenticate or disconfirm the age of the Shroud. I heard, too, that the Shroud is going to be on display now. The Church of St. John the Baptist in Torino is putting it out again in the next couple of weeks. If anyone wants to see it, now is your chance to go to Italy!

[Q&A: another comment about the television program on the Shroud of Turin]

Next time what we are going to look at is the subject of how, then, do you deal with defeaters of your Christian belief? Suppose you have a confidence that Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit but you encounter arguments and objections to Christianity that you can’t answer. What are you rationally obligated to do in a situation like that? That will be the question of how you deal with so-called defeaters of this properly basic belief that the biblical God exists. That will be the subject we deal with next time. 8


1 5:11

2 10:07

3 14:57

4 19:59

5 cf. 2 Timothy 4:10

6 24:56

7 30:00

8 Total Running Time: 32:48