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Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology (1998)

Michael Martin

 

In Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig makes a sharp distinction between knowing that God exists and being able to show this. He maintains that one knows that Christianity is true "by the self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit."[1] One can show that God exists, that Jesus is his Son, and that other alleged Christian theological doctrines are true only by argument. In this paper I will be not be concerned whether this distinction is a viable one or whether Craig has shown that Christian theological doctrines are true by argument.[2] Rather I will concentrate on the epistemological problems connected with Craig's claim that one can know that Christianity is true by the self-authenticating witness of God's Holy Spirit.

I will argue that Craig fails to make clear what an experience of the Holy Spirit is and does not justify his thesis that this experience is universal, veridical, and unmistakable. I will further maintain that, even if one grants his position, his claim that nonbelievers are without excuse for nonbelieving must be rejected unless one assumes that all beliefs are actions, and that he gives no reason to accept this assumption.

A. Craig's Theory Explained

Craig's appeal to a direct knowledge of the Holy Spirit by all human beings plays an important role in his defense of Christianity. Combined with his assumption that belief is an action under voluntary control, it enables him to blame atheists for not believing in God even when they are faced by unsound theistic arguments and are in possession of persuasive arguments for the nonexistence of God. If a skeptic objects to theistic arguments, Craig can always claim that she is just being obstinate and that she knows in her heart that God exists. The assumption of human perversity also enables Craig to defend against objections to his own arguments. It allows him to claim without argument that humans know in their hearts that God exists, but stubbornly refuse to admit it. In addition, it permits Craig to claim that human perversity induces them to reject his arguments for the existence of God. Obviously, Craig's strategy can have great rhetorical force. The question is whether it has any logical or philosophical merit.

By a self-authenticating experience of the Holy Spirit, Craig means an experience that is veridical and unmistakable for "him who has it" (p. 32) although it is "not necessarily irresistible or indubitable (pp. 31-32)." Such an experience does not function, he says, as a premise in an argument from religious experience to the existence of God. Although arguments and evidence may be used to support a believer's faith, they are never the basis of that faith. Rather, the basis is the immediate experience of God himself. Craig maintains, however, that "in certain contexts" this experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of basic truths of the Christian religion such as "Christ lives in me" and "I am condemned by God."

Although Craig does not say so explicitly, he assumes that the experience of the Holy Spirit is universal. This assumption becomes clear in his view that although unbelievers have experienced the Holy Spirit, they have rejected it. According to Craig, the Holy Spirit "convicts the unbeliever of his own sin, of God's righteousness, and of his own condemnation before God. The unbeliever so convicted can therefore be said to know such truths, as 'God exists,' 'I am guilty before God,' and so forth (p. 35)." Craig believes that natural man left to himself would not come to God, for although God draws human beings to him, some people ignore and reject him. However, nonbelievers who are given bad arguments for the existence of God and reject God because of these arguments have no excuse for not believing:

Suppose someone had been told to believe in God because of an invalid argument. Could he stand before God on judgment day and say," God, those Christians only gave me lousy arguments for believing in you. That is why I didn't believe"? Of course not! The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God's Holy Spirit (p. 37).

Craig maintains that although nonbelievers have rejected the Holy Spirit, Christians should use evidence and argument to convince them and holds that sometimes they can be converted. However, he adds, "we can never argue anyone into the kingdom of God. Conversion is exclusively the role of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit may use our arguments to draw people to himself (p. 47)." If an apologist is unsuccessful in converting people by argument, this is not God's fault. It means that the apologist is a bad apologist or that the nonbeliever perversely refuses to accept a premise of the apologist's argument. Indeed, nonbelievers may adopt some "outlandish hypothesis," for example, that the Universe came into being uncaused out of nothing rather than accept an argument that proves that God exists (p. 45).

B. Craig's Theory Evaluated

In what follows I will show that Craig fails to make clear what an experience of the Holy Spirit is and does not justify his thesis that this experience is universal, veridical, and unmistakable. In addition, in order to make his case he must assume that all beliefs are actions. However, Craig gives us no reason to suppose that all beliefs are actions. Moreover, the supposition that nonbelievers' beliefs are under their control generates deep mysteries that indicate its implausibility: the action of nonbelievers is inexplicably irrational and the reasons for the geographical and temporal distribution of Christian belief is an enigma.

1. The Unspecified Nature of the Experience

In order to evaluate Craig's view it is important to know precisely what he means by "the experience of the Holy Spirit." Unfortunately, however, he offers no clear explanation of this phrase. Is it a mystical experience in which ordinary consciousness is replaced by special consciousness of oneness with God? Is it rather a vision perhaps similar to that of angels or Jesus, that could be described as perceptual? Is it merely the feeling of being in the presence of a particular holy being? Could it be one or the other of these experiences depending on the circumstances? Craig does not answer these questions. Since, however, having an experience of the Holy Spirit would presumably differ in content from the religious experiences of nontheists such as Buddhists and even from those of non-Christian theists such as Jews and Moslems, not just any religious experience would be considered an experience of the Holy Spirit.

2. The Alleged Universal Nature of The Experience

Whatever its exact nature, Craig assumes that all human beings have the experience of the Holy Spirit. This sweeping assumption presumably includes all nontheists down through the ages. Whether it is also meant to include infants who die shortly after birth and severely retarded people who cannot think or reason is not clear. But even if Craig's thesis does not include such people, it is dubious.

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to suppose that everyone exclusive of infants and mentally retarded people have had an experience of the Holy Spirit. Granted people in various religious traditions have reported having had religious experiences. Whether or not any of these experiences are veridical is itself a difficult question.[3] But, whether veridical or not, there is no reason to think that even all professed Christians have experienced the Holy Spirit, let alone that all non-Christians have done so.

To accept Craig's thesis one must believe an outrageous and outlandish hypothesis: namely, that billions of people now and in the past were not telling the truth when they claimed that they never had such an experience. Craig complains that atheists are reduced to assuming the outlandish hypothesis that the Universe came into being uncaused out of nothing in order to avoid the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument. However, atheists can at least use various cosmological theories and arguments to support their controversial theory.[4] Craig can point to nothing except some questionable passages in Scripture to support his thesis that all human beings have experienced the Holy Spirit.[5]

3. The Alleged Veridical and Unmistakable Nature of the Experience

Craig gives us no reasons for supposing that people's experiences of the Holy Spirit are veridical.[6] To be sure, they may seem veridical to those who have them. However, seeming veridical says nothing about the actual veridical nature of the experience. Indeed, to say that such experiences are self-authenticating simply begs the question. Since people have all sorts of experiences that seem true to them and are not, it behooves Craig to explain why the experience of the Holy Spirit is any different. He fails to do this.

The same can be said about the allegedly unmistakable nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. Craig provides no reasons why one cannot be mistaken. After all, one can be mistaken about ordinary experiences. Why should this one be any different? If one can misdescribe the experience of something red and mistakenly call it blue, why could one not misdescribe the experience of the Holy Spirit? Imagine an African woman living in the 10th century who has no knowledge of Christianity but actually has had an experience of the Holy Spirit. Given her conceptual and linguistic repertoires it would be impossible for her to describe her experience in Christian terms and concepts. She would naturally describe her experience in terms familiar to her and, by hypothesis, she would be wrong.

Moreover, because of inattention or lack of focus or the complexity of the experience, one can have a mistaken belief about what one is experiencing. Thus, for example, a person who has an experience of a 31 sided figure may wrongly believe that she is experiencing a 32 sided figure. In a similar way a Buddhist monk possessing the linguistic and conceptual apparatus to give a correct description may mistake his experience of the Holy Spirit for the experience of the Nirvana if these two experiences were very similar in content.

Now Craig that says the experience of the Holy Spirit is not necessarily indubitable but he does not explain the difference between being "unmistakable" and being "indubitable." Since in one obvious sense they mean the same thing, without further clarification Craig's thesis is prima facie incoherent. Prima facie he cannot claim that the experience of the Holy Spirit is unmistakable and yet not indubitable.

4. The Unsupported Assumption of Strong Doxastic Voluntarism

Let us now assume for the sake of argument that the experience of the Holy Spirit is in fact universal and veridical and unmistakable. Craig's major thesis, namely, that nonbelievers have no excuse for their nonbelieving, is not thereby justified. After all, some people, for example, because of a psychological block, are able to believe that something is true even if confronted with unmistakable evidence. Perhaps, however, Craig assumes that what a person believes is a matter of choice; in other words, that belief is an action rather than something beyond one's control. Thus, he may suppose that when confronted with the experience of the Holy Spirit, those who do not believe it, have chosen not to. This supposition would allow him to argue that no one has an excuse for not believing in that they could believe if they decided to.

I will call the position that belief is always a matter of choice strong doxastic voluntarism.[7] Now there is no reason to suppose that strong doxastic voluntarism is true, but it is not necessary to go to the opposite extreme and adopt strong doxastic involuntarism -- the position that belief is never a matter of choice. A more moderate position is possible, namely, that whether belief is a matter of choice or not is relative to the belief and the person.[8] Indeed, there seems to be good evidence based on self-reports that many people are incapable of believing something by an act of will. Craig has to reject this evidence and base his thesis on dogma.

5. The Inexplicable Irrational Nature and Distribution of Belief

When strong doxastic voluntarism is combined with Craig's thesis that everyone has had an experience of the Holy Spirit, two mysteries are generated. The first is that billions of human beings have been and continue to be inexplicably irrational. For Craig assumes that non-Christians perversely reject, not only what is manifest and obvious, but what is to their eternal advantage to accept. In other words, he assumes not only that disbelief in Christianity is an action rather than something beyond our control, but that it involves the actor knowingly and irrationally rejecting what will bring about his or her ultimate salvation.[9] It is conceivable that a few human beings would be so irrational, but Craig must assume much more. Since he assumes that everyone has an experience of the Holy Spirit, he must assume that there have been and continue to be billions of human beings who knowingly bring about their eternal damnation. If such mass irrationalism really existed, the reason for its existence would be a deep mystery which Craig makes no attempt to explain.

The second mystery is the temporal and geographical distribution of Christian belief. Before the rise of Christianity no person accepted the Christian God, although, according to Craig, everyone had an experience of the Holy Spirit. But then, one has to assume that before the rise of Christianity everyone was inexplicably irrational in that they had an experience of the Christian God but irrationally decided not to believe. Moreover, since the rise of Christianity, Christianity has been concentrated in certain geographical regions. Yet if Craig is correct, everyone has had an experience of the Holy Spirit. One has to assume, then, that people in certain geographical regions are more irrational than people in other regions. However, it is difficult to understand why this should be the case and Craig does not even attempt to explain why this should be.

Conclusion

In presenting an epistemology based on the Holy Spirit Craig makes no effort to answer the most elementary criticisms of his position. Although he assumes that every human being has had an experience of the Holy Spirit that is veridical and unmistakable, he provides neither a clarification of the content of this experience nor any reason to suppose that his claims are true. Furthermore, even if these claims were true, his view that nonbelievers have no excuse for not believing is unsupported without the assumption of strong doxastic voluntarism. But Craig gives no reason to accept this assumption and he leaves unexplained why billions of nonbelievers could be so irrational as to reject God.

Notes

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1994), pp. 31. Subsequent references to this book will be placed in the body of the text.

[2] Serious questions can be raised about whether Craig's views are coherent. For example, as Jeffery Jay Lowder has pointed out in correspondence, Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology seems inconsistent with his evidentialism. Although Craig, as an evidential apologist, must disagree fundamentally with presuppositionalism, his position seems closer to that of the presuppositionalist. Consider Craig's position on the role of argument and evidence:

The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of argument and evidence. The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. Only the ministerial use of reason can be allowed. ... Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa." (p. 36)

Craig concludes that "the Holy Spirit teaches us directly which teaching is really from God" (p. 37). In this sense, Craig sounds like a presuppositionalist, for as R.C. Sproul, et al, explain, "The testimony of the Holy Spirit is the heart of the heart of presuppositionalism. The Holy Spirit is the one who convinces inwardly of the truth of the self-attesting God." See R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics (Gand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 296.

The upshot is that many of the same criticisms which evidential apologists level against presuppositionalists on their doctrine on the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit can be leveled against Craig's Holy Spirit Epistemology. For example, Craig asserts that "the Holy Spirit teaches us directly which teaching [e.g., the Bible, the Koran, or the Baghavad-Gita] is really from God" (p. 37). What prevents a non-Christian from saying, "I understand. My holy book is correct because God has told me so?" If Craig replies that the non-Christian is mistaken and that God has really revealed that the Bible is His word, how can Craig reply to the non-Christian who says that it is Craig who is mistaken and that God has revealed some other book as the Word of God? If Craig then gives arguments and evidence in favor of his position, how can Craig reply to the non-Christian who says that, "Should a conflict arise between the witness of my god to the fundamental truth of my religion, and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa"?

[3] Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990), Chapter 6.

[4] See William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

[5] At times even Craig does not seem to believe in the universal nature of the experience of the Holy Spirit. For example, on p. 32 he says an experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable for "him who has it." This seems to suggest that some people have such experiences and some people do not.

[6] The completely subjective nature of Craig's claim is discussed by Robert M. Price in "By This Time He Stinketh" (<URL:/library/modern/robert_price/stinketh.html>, 1997).

[7] In what follows I am indebted to the discussion of Ted Drange in Nonbelief and Evil: Two Atheological Arguments (Unpublished, 1996), Appendix C.

[8] This is the position taken by Drange.

[9] As Mark Vuletic has pointed out in correspondence, there may be another mystery connected with Craig's theory. Although Craig does not say so explicitly, the experience of the Holy Spirit presumably allows one to directly comprehend that God is perfectly and absolutely good, thus providing the moral standard for all human conduct. Since, according to Craig, everyone has had such an experience, all unbelievers must knowingly and willingly reject this standard, which they know to be the absolute good. However, unbelievers are as obsessed as anyone else with doing what they believe to be good. How could they want to do what is good yet reject what they know to be the standard of good?

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