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#237 Is Appeal to the Witness of the Holy Spirit Question-Begging?

October 31, 2011

Dear Dr.Craig,

I've found that the relationship between reason and faith is one of the less understood aspects of Christianity, specially the aspect related to know do we know that Christianity is true.

In the question 30 (Counterfeit Claims of the Spirit's Witness) you have answered these questions, but I suspect that your answers are not very convincing for many people (and even for myself, to be honest).

When pressed to explain how do you know that your experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and not false (like the experience of Mormons or Muslim), you reply: "the experience of the Spirit's witness is self-authenticating for the person who really has it. The Spirit-filled Christian can know immediately that his claim to the Spirit's witness is true despite the false claims made by persons adhering to other religions."

It seems to me that your reply begs the question in favor of Christianity (or more specifically, in favor of Christians' claims of having veridical experiences of the Holy Spirit) and against other religious people's claims of having similar non-Christian experiences of God's Spirit.

In other words, your reply assumes:

1-That Christianity is true (hence, the Holy Spirit actually exists as experienced by Christians)

2-That Christians have access to that truth and therefore that other non-Christian claims about God's Spirit (or the claims of other religious people) are false.

But precisely what is at stake is whether Christianity is true or not (this is what we want to know) and, if it is the case, how could we KNOW it objectively (not purely through a subjective experience which, by itself, is equivalent to other subjective experiences of other non-Christian religious believers).

I've read and re-read your explanations about this topic, both in your book and in your website, and I feel something is wrong with your argument.

The question begging nature of your explanation becomes more clear when you rhetoreically ask: "How is the fact that other persons, like Muslims or Mormons, falsely claim to experience a self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit relevant to my knowing the truth of Christianity via the Spirit's witness?"

True, if Christianity is true and the Holy Spirit exists, then the fact that other people falsely claims to experience God's Spirit is irrelevant to my knowing of the truth of Christianity.

But the problem is that we don't know in advance if Christianity is true or not (this is what we are trying to know!), so I cannot assume that MY experience of the Holy Spirit is the veridical one, and the experience of other people is the false one.

Can you expand in more detail on these questions please?

Best regards,


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Dr. craig’s response


Mary, this is an objection that, though understandable, is based on a failure to grasp correctly Alvin Plantinga’s project in religious epistemology. Plantinga distinguishes between what he calls de facto and de jure objections to Christian belief. A de facto objection is one aimed at the truth of the Christian faith; it attempts to show that Christian truth claims are false. By contrast a de jure objection attempts to undermine Christian belief even if Christianity is, in fact, true. Plantinga identifies three versions of the de jure objection: that Christian belief is unjustified, that it is irrational, and that it is unwarranted. Plantinga’s aim is to show that all such de jure objections to Christian belief are unsuccessful, or, in other words, that Christian belief can be shown to be unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted only if it is shown that Christian beliefs are false. There is thus no de jure objection to Christian belief independent of a de facto objection.

To show this Plantinga develops a model or theory of warranted Christian belief, that is to say, an account of how it is that we know the truth of various Christian truth claims. On behalf of his model Plantinga claims, not that it is true, but that

(i) it is epistemically possible, that is to say, for all we know, it may be true;
(ii) if Christianity is true, there are no philosophical objections to the model;
(iii) if Christianity is true, then something like the model is very likely to be true.

According to Plantinga’s model, God warrants to us the great truths of the Gospel by means of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Such beliefs are for us properly basic beliefs grounded in (but not inferred from) the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Now the point is, such a model may, for all we know be true. Moreover, if Christianity is true, then, as you note, there is no problem with the model. Finally, I think that Plantinga is right that if Christianity is true, then something like his model is very likely to be true. So there is no de jure objection to Christian belief. The unbeliever who wants to argue that Christian belief is unjustified, irrational, or unwarranted has to present objections to the truth of the Christian faith. For if he doesn’t, then for all he knows, Christianity may well be true, in which case there just is no problem with Christian belief.

None of this begs the question, I hope you can see. For the key claims are conditional. Neither of them assumes that Christianity actually is true.

Now, of course, a Muslim could make exactly similar claims about Islam, as Plantinga acknowledges. There is therefore no de jure objection to Muslim belief either.

So we’ll naturally want to know, “Well, then, is Christianity true?” The Christian will say, “Yes.” That raises a further question: “How do you know?” The Christian may answer, “Because I do experience the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.” There’s nothing circular here, anymore than in someone’s reporting that he does experience the reality of the external world or the presence of other minds. If some solipsist said to me that he doesn’t believe in the reality of the external world or other minds, that wouldn’t do anything to defeat my beliefs. Even if he claimed that God was warranting to him his solipsistic beliefs in a properly basic way, that wouldn’t do a thing to call my beliefs into question. He can claim what he wants; I know better.

Of course, the Muslim can say the same thing, and so we have a standoff. But here my distinction between knowing our faith to be true and showing it to be true becomes relevant. In order to show our Muslim friend that his beliefs are not properly basic, we can present de facto objections to the truth of Islam. Since he does not in fact have a genuine witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth of Islam, we can hope that his confidence will crack under the force of the evidence and that he will come to see that his experience was either non-veridical or misinterpreted.

Again, the Muslim can say the same thing and so engage in Muslim apologetics aimed at providing de facto objections to Christianity. Great! Bring on the debate!

- William Lane Craig