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#68 The Witness of the Holy Spirit

August 04, 2008

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am a member of an apologetics discussion board and a topic was posted about your opinion on facts and evidence.

It was in reference to an interview that you participated in here:

(or see "Dealing with Doubt" in Audio/Visuals on this site - ed.)

The title of the skeptics thread was "WL Craig says evidence is unimportant when compared with faith".

Now I watched the interview and I did not take it that way at all. My understanding is that you were promoting the idea that not all questions about our faith can be answered and we should not lose heart at every objection. I did not think it was not a call to deny strong evidence that our faith was false in favor of the Holy Spirit.

The skeptics have not been accepting my interpretation of your interview so I said that I would ask you to set the record straight either way.

Dr. Craig, do you think strong evidence should be ignored if it shows that our faith is probably false? (I think I know the answer but I'll let you clarify).



This is a question about Reformed epistemology. I am almost finished Plantinga's "Warranted Christian Belief," and I think Plantinga's model, or something very close to it, is the most biblically faithful and accurate epistemology.

Yet one question still looms in the background: For Plantinga, is there absolutely no circumstance, hypothetical or actual, in which a believer would be irrational in holding Christian belief? Could the evidence not pile up such that belief in God becomes irrational to hold, similarly to how I may have to give up a memory belief if enough evidence can be show that it was probably faulty?

Is it not the case that an initial basic belief in God or the Christian gospel must be at least sustained by evidence or arguments, since in the face of a potential defeater, one's focus goes away from the basic belief and towards the potential defeater - which could then become actual?

Or would Plantinga argue that the witness of the Spirit is an intrinsic defeater against basically any objection? And if he would argue this, then is it not the case that a successful defeater is, in principle, impossible?

Thank you,


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Dr. craig’s response


I'm bewildered by the amount of misunderstanding that exists with respect to so-called Reformed Epistemology. I've explained my own views at some length in both Reasonable Faith(2008) and Five Views on Apologetics (2000). I suspect that many unbelievers who are unsympathetic to religious belief just don't take the time, as you did, Kyle, to read the works of Reformed epistemologists and really grapple with the issues involved. Instead they content themselves with grabbing a couple of sound bites and denouncing these as self-evidently absurd.

By way of background, Plantinga has issued a trenchant critique of what he calls classical foundationalism, the doctrine that one is rationally justified in believing a proposition to be true only if that proposition is either part of the self-evident and incorrigible foundations to knowledge or is established by evidence that is ultimately based on such a foundation. According to the so-called evidentialist objection to religious belief, since a proposition like "God exists" is not self-evident or incorrigible, it would be irrational to believe this proposition apart from evidence for its truth.

What Plantinga shows, first, is that adopting this sort of epistemology would reduce all of us to irrationality, since most of our beliefs cannot be evidentially justified. Take, for example, the belief that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in memory traces, food in our stomachs from meals we never really ate, and other appearances of age. Or the belief that the external world around us is real rather than a computer-generated virtual reality. Anyone who has seen a film like The Matrix realizes that the person living in such a virtual reality has no evidence that he is not in such an illusory world. But surely we're rational in believing that the world around us is real and has existed longer than five minutes, even though we have no evidence for this.

Second, Plantinga shows that classical foundationalism is self-refuting. The evidentialist claims that only propositions which are self-evident or incorrigible are properly basic, that is, part of the foundations of knowledge. But Plantinga asks, is the proposition "Only propositions that are self-evident or incorrigible are properly basic" itself properly basic? Apparently not, for it's certainly not self-evident or incorrigible. Therefore, if we are rationally to believe this proposition, we must have evidence that it is true. But there isn't any such evidence. The proposition appears to be just an arbitrary definition—and not a very plausible one at that!

Classical foundationalism is thus fatally flawed. Many of our beliefs which we rationally embrace and even know to be true are not based on evidence but are properly basic for us, even though they are neither self-evident nor incorrigible. In fact, the philosopher George Mavrodes once remarked to me that we're apt to think of our system of beliefs as like a skyscraper, with a huge number of beliefs erected upon the foundations, whereas on Plantinga's view our system of beliefs is more like a large, empty lot with rambling foundations running all across it with a few bricks built here and there upon the foundations. The illustration is apt. For as Plantinga shows, not only our perceptual beliefs, but also memory beliefs and testimonial beliefs, among others, are all properly basic.

Plantinga emphasizes that his epistemology is not fideistic. Properly basic beliefs are part of the deliverances of reason, not faith. Moreover, his model doesn't imply that just any old belief can be properly basic. In order to be properly basic, a belief must be grounded in certain circumstances. For example, in the circumstances of having visual and auditory experiences of other people about me, I form the belief that there are other persons besides myself. Apart from such grounding circumstances, this belief would be arbitrary and irrational for me. My belief in the reality of other persons cannot be inferred from the evidence, but it can be properly basic for me in such circumstances.

Now, Plantinga asks, why can't religious beliefs be properly basic? Good question! Plantinga has developed a model according to which Christian belief is properly basic, with respect to both rationality and warrant. Plantinga argues that the model provides a perfectly viable account of how Christian beliefs can be both rational and warranted in a basic way, that is to say, there is no good objection to his account apart from an attack on the truth of Christianity itself. Indeed, he thinks that if Christianity is true, then something like his model is very likely to be correct. It follows that if the non-Christian wants to impugn the rationality of Christian belief, he must call into question the truth of Christianity itself.

Plantinga's model involves crucially what is usually called the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. In his model the Holy Spirit functions on the analogy of a cognitive faculty, producing beliefs in us. I myself prefer to think of the Spirit's witness either as a form of literal testimony or else as part of the experiential circumstances which serve to ground belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel. In either case His deliverances are properly basic.

I have characterized the witness of God's Holy Spirit as self-authenticating. As I explain in Reasonable Faith,

By that I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; 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; 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; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as "God exists," "I am condemned by God," "I am reconciled to God," "Christ lives in me," and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity's truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it.

Now I take it as almost obvious that if God exists, then, of course, He is able to bear such a witness to human persons. Are we to think that an omnipotent being who made man and all his faculties, Who designed man to know Him, is incapable of speaking to human beings in such a clear and unmistakable way? I therefore think that Plantinga is entirely correct in claiming that there is no sound objection to such an epistemology apart from a critique of the truth of Christian theism itself. If the unbeliever thinks otherwise, I invite him to share his argument. It's not enough just to feign indignation and rant against the view.

A person who knows that Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Spirit may also have a sound apologetic which reinforces or confirms for him the Spirit's witness, but it does not serve as the fundamental way in which he knows Christianity to be true. If the arguments of natural theology and Christian evidences are successful, as I claim they are, then Christian belief is also warranted by such arguments and evidences for the person who grasps them, even if that person would still be warranted in their absence. Such a person is doubly warranted in his Christian belief, in the sense that he enjoys two sources of warrant. So evidential arguments on behalf of Christianity are, in my view, sufficient for knowledge of Christianity's truth but they are not necessary for knowledge of Christianity's truth.

Now the question both of you pose concerns the role of defeaters of Christian belief. Properly basic beliefs can be defeasible; that is to say, they can be defeated by other incompatible beliefs which one might come to accept. In such a case, the individual in question must either come up with a defeater for the defeater or else give up some of his beliefs if he is to remain rational. Thus, for example, a Christian who encounters the problem of evil is faced with a potential defeater of his belief in God. Christian apologetics can help to formulate answers, such as the Free Will Defense in response to the problem of evil, in order to defeat the putative defeaters.

But Plantinga also argues that in some cases, the original belief itself may so exceed its alleged defeater in warrant that it becomes an intrinsic defeater of its putative defeater. He gives the example of someone accused of a crime and against whom all the evidence stands, even though that person knows he is innocent. In such a case, that person is not rationally obligated to abandon belief in his own innocence and to accept instead the evidence that he is guilty. The belief that he did not commit the crime intrinsically defeats the defeaters brought against it by the evidence. Plantinga makes the theological application by suggesting that belief in God may similarly intrinsically defeat all the defeaters that might be brought against it.

Plantinga does not to my knowledge clearly commit himself to the view that the witness of the Holy Spirit is an intrinsic defeater-defeater. Such a thesis is independent of the model as presented. But I have argued that the witness of the 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 becomes an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters such a person faces.

Now it might be said, that God would, indeed, not permit a person to fall into circumstances where the rational thing for him to do is to apostatize and turn his back on God, but what God would do is provide sufficient evidence to such an individual so that he is able to defeat through argument and evidence the alleged defeater. I grant that such a view is possible (how could anyone who believes in middle knowledge think differently?). But as I look at the world in which we actually live, such a view strikes me as naïve.

The vast majority of people in the world have neither the time, training, nor resources to develop a full-blown Christian apologetic as the basis of their faith or to defeat the sundry defeaters which they encounter. I have been deeply moved by the plight of Christians as I have traveled abroad and seen the sometimes desperate circumstances in which they find themselves. In Europe, for example, the university culture is overwhelmingly secular and even atheistic. I met many theological students when we lived in Germany whose professors had exposed them to nothing but radical biblical criticism and anti-Christian scholarship. These students held on to Christian faith in spite of the evidence. It was far, far worse in Eastern Europe and Russia. I wish I could convey to you the spiritual darkness and oppression that existed behind the Iron Curtain during the days of the Soviet Union. I remember asking one Russian believer, "Have you no resources to help you in your Christian life?" He replied, "Well, there is an encyclopedia of atheism published by the state, and by reading what is attacked there, you can learn something. But that's about all." These bothers and sisters endured horrible oppression and atheistic indoctrination by the Marxist regime and yet did not abandon Christ. As I emphasized in my answer to Question #13, evidence varies from generation to generation and from place to place and is accessible only to those privileged few who have the education, leisure time, and resources to explore it. God has provided a more secure basis for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument, namely, the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Moreover, this conclusion seems in line with New Testament teaching on the witness of the Holy Spirit. While non-believers reject New Testament teaching, Christians should take it seriously. Ponder, then, John's words:

And the Spirit is the witness, because the Spirit is the truth. . . . If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has borne witness to his Son. He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne to his Son (1 John 5:6-10).

As Christian believers we have the testimony of God living within us, the Holy Spirit, whose testimony exceeds in force all human testimony.

So in answer to your question, Kyle, I think that in fact God will not allow someone to be in a position in which the rational thing for him to do is to reject God and Christ and separate himself from God. Given that God is essentially all-loving, I'm inclined to say that such a thing will not only never happen, but that it is, indeed, impossible. It follows that Christians who have apostatized have done so in defiance of the Holy Spirit's work by quenching or grieving the Spirit, so that what they did was in the end irrational.

Does that imply, Adam, as your sceptic says, that I think "evidence is unimportant when compared with faith?" No, because he's drawing a false contrast, comparing apples with oranges. Faith is not the issue here, but the ground for faith. Must the ground for faith be evidence? That is the question. We've already seen that evidentialism is bankrupt. Many of the things we know are not based on evidence. So why must belief in God be so based? Belief in God and the great truths of the Gospel is not a blind exercise of faith, a groundless leap in the dark. Rather, as Plantinga emphasizes, Christian belief is part of the deliverances of reason, grounded in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, which is an objective reality mediated to me from God.

What is true is that evidence, as it is defined in these discussions, plays a secondary role compared to the role God Himself plays in warranting Christian belief. Should we, then, ignore strong evidence if it shows that our faith is probably false? Of course not! My work as a philosopher exemplifies the effort to confront objections to Christian belief squarely and to answer them. But most Christians in the world don't have that luxury. For them they may have to hold to their Christian belief even though they lack an answer to the alleged defeater. What I insist on is that, given the witness of the Holy Spirit within them, they are entirely rational in so doing.

- William Lane Craig