I forget whether I have posted this before. If so, pardon the redundancy.
The “Inner Testimony” of the Holy Spirit
March 16, 2011 by 21 Comments
Having had on two occasions the privilege of debating Prof. William Lane Craig, I found the experiences both exhilarating and frustrating. One point of frustration was that Prof. Craig often appeals to the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit as trumping any evidence or argument that could be adduced. Naturally, this made me wonder about the point of our whole exercise. Why argue if “inner testimony” trumps everything? Anyway, here are a few remarks about such an appeal:
I think that Craig needs to be asked something like this: What is the precise nature of the experience that you call the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit?” Can you articulate in somewhat greater detail what this is like and why you find it so compelling? Is it an elevating feeling of “blessed assurance” when you contemplate particularly moving passages of scripture or hear a particularly uplifting sermon? Is it a “still, small voice” that comes in meditative moments? Is it a sense of forgiveness and acceptance that you get when your soul is troubled and you go the Lord in prayer? Is it a feeling, like the one related by John Wesley, that your heart is “strangely warmed” while participating in worship or prayer? If these are your experiences, or something like them, then it is understandable that you, or anyone, who has such experiences will find them particularly significant. It is even understandable that those who have had such experiences may become psychologically insulated, so that no atheological arguments or evidence can sway them. Still, skeptics have the right to question the epistemological value of such experiences. Should they trump all contrary evidence?
Consider an example from Alvin Plantinga: Six eyewitnesses pick me out of a lineup and say that I was the one who committed the crime. Yet I have a clear memory of being at home reading a particular book the night of the crime. Will I still maintain my own innocence? Yes, I will. But, still there might be so much evidence—fingerprints, a surveillance video, DNA evidence, etc. that I would have to say that, somehow, it was my memory that was wrong. So, strong enough evidence can and should make me doubt even my own apparently clear memories. So, to say that the “inner testimony” of the Holy Spirit trumps ALL evidence is not justifiable.
Perhaps Craig would say that the “inner testimony” is defeasible but that it gives him a great deal of assurance, and places a heavy burden of proof on skeptics to dissuade him. Fair enough, but wouldn’t he have to say the same thing for the personal experiences of, say, the Muslim or the atheist? Surely, Muslims often, upon hearing passages from the Qur’an, are transported by feelings of absolute assurance and conviction and a sublime and compelling sense of rightness—apparently self-authenticating experiences like those experienced by Craig or other Christians. Craig could only say (a) that Muslims do not have such elevated, apparently self-authenticating experiences, or (b) that in their case these experiences are delusional. Both answers seem to be simply arbitrary.
What about the experiences of atheists? Sometimes I am tempted to “backslide” from atheism and I recall the inspiration and comfort I used to get from religion. But then, when I really think about it, I have an overwhelming and undeniable sense of disgust and revulsion when I think about being a Christian again. Reading some C.S. Lewis helps; whatever I believe, I can’t believe that. Christian dogmas just seem to be fantasies, no matter how many apologies for them I hear. At rock bottom, it just does not ring even remotely true. Instead of having my heart strangely warmed, I have my stomach strangely turned. The arguments of theistic philosophers and Christian apologists, even when I do not know at first just how to refute them, sound glib and hollow. Leading Christian philosophers all too often sound to me as though they use all of their formidable intelligence and erudition—and the big guns of philosophy—to defend an idée fixe at all costs. This is how I feel about it undeniably and deep down. Why aren’t my feelings as legitimate as Craig’s? Would he be willing to concede that my feelings and the Muslim’s are as valid as his? I don’t think so.