Friday, June 1, 2018

Warranted Christian Belief and the Internal Witness of the Holy Spirit

Image result for evidenceAmong many apologists, I often hear a distinction offered between "knowing" and "showing" that the Christian faith is true. On such a view, it is supposed that one can have a warranted knowledge in the truth of Christianity wholly apart from public evidence. Such an approach has long troubled me for a number of reasons, the foremost being that I have no internal witness to the truth of Christianity -- at least not of the kind that, in my judgment, would warrant belief. It would thus be rather dishonest for me to assert such an internal witness when I have no such subjective experience to speak of.

Now, I think in principle this could be a valid approach. For instance, suppose that whenever someone became a believer, there was a voice from heaven, only heard by the new believer, that said "Welcome to the family." That, I think, would be rational warrant for affirming Christianity to be true -- even though you would need to appeal to public evidence in order to demonstrate to others that Christianity is true.

I am not prepared to lie about my own experience when talking to non-believers, or for that matter other believers. I have not had some sort of tangible subjective experience that I would consider to impart to me rational warrant for my beliefs. Yes, I believe myself to have a relationship with God (which is absolutely necessary for any believer to have) -- but when I pray, I have confidence that God hears and answers my prayer because of the public evidence I have studied. By that, I do not mean to rule out the possibility that other believers have had such an experience that would rationally warrant belief.

Answered prayer is another piece of subjective evidence often asserted to warrant belief, and again, I think this could be a valid approach in principle. However, to use it as belief-warranting evidence, one would have to demonstrate a statistical significance to answered prayer, in order to distinguish it from mere coincidence. All Christians who pray can speak of times where they have requested something in prayer where they have not received what they asked for. There are a number of explanations given for this in Scripture. For example, prayer can be hindered by sin (Proverbs 28:9, 1 Peter 3:7) or by selfish-intent (James 4:3), and sometimes God knows that what we ask for is not good for us, and often his will and purpose is different from ours. All these potential variables make it difficult to use answered or unanswered prayer as evidence for or against the Christian faith. If fulfilled prayer is to be used as evidence for the truth of Christianity, one must be able to specify a hypothetical outcome which in principle could be dis-confirmatory evidence. This makes arguing from fulfilled prayer complicated.

If one were to ask me why I myself am a follower of Jesus, I would have to say "My faith rests entirely on the public evidence." The cumulative force of the evidence for Christianity gives me a robust basis for believing Christianity to be true -- and the extent of the evidence in which my faith is grounded means that my faith is not immediately perturbed by encountering fresh counter-evidence or arguments that I have not previously been exposed to (in much the same way that a well supported scientific theory is seldom overturned by a single anomalous observation) -- or, indeed, if some of the evidence on which my faith rests turns out, in the course of time, to be less strong than I presently believe (in much the same way that the discovery that some of the evidence for the earth's vast age was weaker than I previously thought would not seriously cause me to doubt the conclusion, which would still be supported by significant other public evidence).

For these reasons, even though I ground my personal faith in the public evidence (and not in subjective internal experience) my confidence in my faith is not tossed to and fro by the shifting sands of evidence.

An objection that I frequently encounter in this regard is that basing one's Christian convictions on the public evidence diminishes the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. But this isn't so. Rather, it is my position that the Holy Spirit uses arguments and evidence to draw men into the kingdom of God.

If the appeal to subjective personal experience does not warrant the Mormons in their belief, why should it warrant the Christian? The way I know Christianity to be true is exactly the same as how I show Christianity to be true -- by means of appeal to the public evidence.


James Anderson said...

If this is supposed to be (as it appears to be) a response to Plantinga's WCB, I'm afraid it misses the target badly. Plantinga doesn't argue that Christian beliefs are warranted on the basis of "subjective personal experience." Have you actually read WCB?

Jonathan McLatchie said...

No, I haven't read Plantinga's book, and the article wasn't intended to be a response to that book.

Tyson James said...

Dr. Craig addresses some of your questions in Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition. First, our having a veridical experience is not undermined by Mormons or adherents of other religions making false claims about their experiences, most of which are in any case descriptively of different quality. It's not the "appeal to subjective experience" that warrants belief, but having the veridical experience itself.

Second, their experience may be like that of unevangelized peoples who come to know in a properly basic way that God exists, even if their knowledge of him is limited to just that and perhaps attended by other local religious concepts. So, their experience in some cases may be veridical, but not of the type that yields belief in Christianity.

Unknown said...

You write:

[If one were to ask me why I myself am a follower of Jesus, I would have to say "My faith rests *entirely* on the public evidence."] (*emphasis* mine)

This might be a plausible claim (not necessarily true, but at least plausible) if you had been raised in a predominantly non-Christian environment, but as I recall, you accepted Christ when you were relatively young, right? As such-- and being careful not to equivocate --is it accurate to say that your decision to accept Christ as a child was based on the same evidence that you appeal to now, as an adult? If not, must you not acknowledge that your faith as an adult, at least to some extent, also rests on your experience as a child? Or do you place no credence at all in the Jesuit maxim, "give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man"?

If not--if your confidence in the historicity of the Christian gospel (over and above its symbolic, spiritual truth) really does rest solely on public evidence, why do you suppose that your experience of this evidence relatively unique? Looking around us, it seems that Christians tend to become Christians and Muslims tend to become Muslims, do they not? Only after the fact (by and large) do they seek reasons for their faith.

Why are those born and raised outside of Christendom not more convertible? (anecdotal evidence notwithstanding) We have no trouble persuading people around the globe that 2 + 2 = 4 or that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but to persuade someone that Jesus was God-- born of a virgin, died for them, rose the third day, and ascended to heaven --requires a whole host of extra considerations not least of which are threats of hell and hopes of paradise (usually in conjunction with a keen awareness of their personal vulnerability and ultimate mortality). In other words, it is almost never merely a matter of publicly available evidence, alone, but always also a matter of a whole host of emotional, psychological, and material conditions, as well. Honestly, now--is that not the case?

A much more coherent reason to follow Jesus is because we sense him "knocking on our hearts door" and because, as we open our hearts to him, we also experience the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. To be sure, it has been the story of Jesus that, for the last two thousand years, has provided the context for this experience in the West, but it is the experience itself that is vital, not the historicity of the story. And just a little open minded research would reveal that this experience is universal (across creeds and cultures). Nevertheless, Christian beliefs, whether or not they are (in this or that detail) "historical", continue to function as "training wheels"-- a scaffolding of sort --through which we may come to know God. But what a shame to misrepresent the nature of the evidence for these beliefs and the real locus of the truth that they reveal.

Unknown said...

^^^ "children of Christians tend to become Christians...", etc. (I meant to type) :)

Truth Matters said...

I have been blessed by many of the articles by Jonathan in this site. Thank you.
The uniqueness of the Christian faith is that you can also have a personal experience that would add to the undeniable public evidence for Christianity. This personal experience is not a subjective evidence so to say but an 'objective' one since this was taught in the Bible and was experienced by the apostles and the early followers of Christ and many others throughout the centuries until now. All the followers of Christ in the first century had this personal experience - the experience of the gift of the Holy Spirit in a tangible way. Even though the public evidence of the resurrection of Jesus was there, it was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost experienced by individual disciples and the followers of Christ that transformed their lives and get them going in their faith under persecution. I believe that every believer needs to have this internal evidence and this is offered to anyone as seen in Acts 2:38-39. I can personally testify that it was the filling of the Holy Spirit that transformed my life (got an internal experience noticed by the outside world) even though I believed in Jesus Christ and got baptized many years before.

Keith said...
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