Gadget by The Blog Doctor.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Witness of the Holy Spirit


In this post I will argue that the fundamental issue maintaining religious belief is an indwelling sense of God in a person's life. The converse is true: non-belief is founded on a loss of such a sense or an inability to find it in the first place

I remember my Salvation Army grandmother criticizing another officer with the claim that he was too interested in "head knowledge" and not enough interested in "heart knowledge". I was young and did not ask her what she meant. I think she was making the distinction between book learning and a direct, emotional and personal response a sense of God in her life.

My father would often say, "he that believeth hath the witness in himself", which is a quote from John's first epistle : 1 John 5:10 . He shortened the full text, presumably to make it more pithy.

The full text is:
"He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not, God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son."
- King James Bible "Authorized Version", Cambridge Edition

Do trained philosopher / theologians accept this point of view? The answer seems to be yes, as I will show with reference to William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga.

William Lane Craig

This perspective is articulated cogently in the video below, by William Lane Craig, who is a theologian, philosopher and prolific writer and debater. (Type "William Lane Craig" into the You Tube search bar and you will receive many pages of links.)

Within the first minute of the interview Craig says, "The way that I know that Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the holy spirit in my heart. And that this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence". He doesn't describe what this sense of the "witness of the holy spirit" is, but Craig does describe methods of cultivating and fostering it. Between 3:40 and 4:15 in the video he states: " ...cultivating your spiritual life, engaging in spiritual disciplines like prayer, meaningful worship Christian music sharing your faith with other people, being involved with Christian service so that you will foster the witness of the holy spirit in your life (and) be filled with the holy spirit ..."

And there is the rub. As I noted in the previous post, I treated Christian claims very seriously in my childhood and teenage years. I "gave my heart to Jesus" on more than one occasion, desperately seeking that sense of God in-dwelling, or as Craig puts it the witness of the holy spirit. I tried the methods of fostering that spiritual sense that Craig recommends and in the end it did not work for me. I sometimes felt an emotional reaction to verbal appeals, Christian music and the combination of the two, songs and choruses. This emotional response quickly dissipated when the stimulus was removed and I noted that I felt similar heightened emotion with secular music and writing. Increasingly as I desperately searched for this sense that many others claimed they possessed, I began to feel that there was nothing there as I prayed, in fact, it felt like I was praying into a great void. I wondered what was wrong with me that I could not engender the sense of God in my life, but after a while I decided that just maybe there was nothing wrong with me. Maybe there was nothing real to find.

Who am I to say that Craig and other Christians are wrong in claiming this sense of God in their lives. I can't and I won't make that claim. I have no access into the interior lives of other people all I can do is make judgements from my personal introspection. The problem is that as Craig has stated this inner sense is first and foremost the evidence for the Christian God and experience. If inspection of his inner experience is unavailable to other people it is ultimately a flimsy basis for a claim as vast as the Christian one.

In the end, from my personal experience I agree with the converse of Craig's claim - a loss of this inner certainty of God's in-dwelling or never being able to even achieve such a sense, is important to the choice of non-belief.

The video is short, lasting only 5 minutes 38 seconds and is well worth listening to.

I have already described one of my problems with Craig's claim of the Witness of the Holy Spirit - my failure as a young Christian to find this experience, this was largely an emotional or psychological one.

There are rational problems with Craig's claim. (Craig did not invent this argument - it can be found in the New Testament, as I have already pointed out.) The view that the internal feeling of God's presence is a "self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence", is very problematic. Craig is explicitly stating that irrespective of evidence that might be presented refuting belief in God he will accept the claims of Christianity because of his internal feelings. This has the normal method of gaining understanding back to front:
Craig's Method
  1. Believe first that Jesus Christ is our saviour
  2. Encounter evidence and find a way to make it conform (drive it into the ground)
Evidentialist (Scientific) Approach
  1. Conduct a broad, unbiased search for evidence
  2. Draw the conclusion that is best supported by the evidence without prior favour for a particular outcome
Craig's method has the belief driving the investigation, whereas in the evidentialist method there is no prior belief, evidence is collected and a conclusion that fits the evidence is determined. It seems clear to me that the evidentialist approach is the method most likely to produce reliable information.

Craig also makes the claim that people's understanding of the Witness of the Holy Spirit is invariant over time while evidence is changeable, when he discusses the "shifting sands of evidence and argument which change from person to person, place to place, generation to generation. Whereas the Holy Spirit and his testimony gives every generation and every person immediate access to a knowledge of God, and the truth of Christianity that's independent of the shifting sands of time and place and person and historical contingency". Although our understanding of the universe around us is changing all the time, this does not mean that our current ideas will necessarily be invalidated with future developments - our understanding is cumulative. For an interesting discussion of this process see this article. The claim that the "Witness of the Holy Spirit" as understood by people is invariant between time, place and person is crazy. Has Craig made any study of Church History? The Thirty Year's War was one of the most destructive conflicts in European History, and differing understanding of the "Witness of the Holy Spirit" was an important element in starting and sustaining the war. Has he not heard of Roman Catholicism, the various strains of Orthodoxy, Arianism, Gnosticism and the widely divergent Protestant sects. Many Christians, now and from generation to generation, would take serious objection to many elements of Craig's, protestant evangelical, version of the "Witness of the Holy Spirit".

Suppose I were to make the following claim:
I have a self-authenticating feeling in my mind that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the one true supernatural creator of the universe. And I will subordinate all other considerations to my faith. I will find a way to make evidence conform because I cannot be wrong about this. fsm
Most people would laugh out loud at such a claim, and think I was crazy to make it - but it is the same claim made by Craig (and the writer of 1 John) regarding a different supernatural entity.

This leads to another problem that I was grappling with in my late teens and early twenties. I called it the Geographical problem. I was agonising over the claim that "Jesus is Lord", but if I had been born in India I would be struggling with the claim that Khrisna is an incarnation of Vishnu. Specifically that: Krishna is the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The name Krishna appears as the 57th and 550th name of Lord Vishnu in Vishnu Sahasranama of the Mahabharata, and is also listed in the 24 Keshava Namas of Lord Vishnu which are recited and praised at the beginning of all Vedic pujas.

If I had been born in an Islamic country I would be listening to sermons like the one below.

Note at the 3:50 mark of the video the speaker talks about "the faith established in their hearts" being prior to believing the major claims of Islam. This is not as clear as Craig's argument, but it seems to be making the same general point.

Interestingly, although Craig makes very strong claims about the priority of internal conviction, he still argues enthusiastically for the logical arguments for the existence of God, particularly the Cosmological argument, which will be the topic of the next post.

Alvin Plantinga

Plantinga provides a more sophisticated and detailed argument, but it seems to me to be vulnerable to the same criticisms as that of Craig.

Here are some video discussions of Plantinga's arguments from Matt McCormick

The first two videos introduce Plantinga's views:

The third video deals with objections to Plantinga's arguments. These criticisms (many of which are similar to criticisms of Craig's views) are compelling to me.

So much for philosophers and theologians. Is there any other perspective on these issues?


Artists often catch the thrust of culture early in its development. One example is Matthew Arnold who wrote the magnificent poem Dover Beach in 1859. The penultimate stanza addresses the issues of this post.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There was a time when faith enfolded and comforted people, but now that is not possible. Faith is actively retreating from us, described in the powerful line - "But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar".

The final lines of the stanza leave a bleak image of the emotional landscape resulting in the retreat of faith. Arnold provides a resolution in the final stanza that I will discuss in a later post.


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