William Lane Craig Is Not Self-Authenticating

In the Q&A feature on ReasonableFaith.org, William Lane Craig’s online ministry, Craig recently addressed the classic conundrum of two religious persons, a Mormon and a Fundamentalist Christian, as the case may be, each communicating a claim to an authentic experience with the Holy Spirit; the Christian must conclude, reasons the questioner, that the Mormon is “lying or mistaken,” but the argument is “reversible.” I would like to point out that I see no reason why both Mormon and Christians cannot each have an experience with the Holy Spirit; many religious traditions, in fact the majority of Christians, acknowledge that salvation is open to non-Christians, that a glimmer of grace can persist in non-Christian religious traditions, and that God can work in the hearts of all men, without compromising the essential value of the “correct” religion. But, that aside, I recognize the tension between the two seemingly incompatible claims of authentic experiences with the Holy Spirit and I recognize that for many, this tension matters; one of my subscribers, for example, recently PMed me a hypothetical dialog between a hypothetical Christian and William Lane Craig, a dialectic, capturing much of the original question from ReasonableFaith.org. The hypothetical Christian says: “My Mormon friend claims to experience the Holy Spirit, and that through this experience he knows his beliefs are true.”

In Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig’s textbook on apologetics, Craig writes: “The way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit” (43); it would seem to me that the hypothetical Christian’s dilemma is that the Mormon can say: “The way we know Mormonism to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit” — it is reversible. Part of the problem with any dialectic is that there are actually three people involved (the two speakers and one listener, the reader) and we are inclined, as that third person, to point out that neither the hypothetical Mormon nor the hypothetical Christian (nor Dr. Craig, for that matter) have successfully built a case from their experience to me, and nothing in these testimonies justifies my acceptance or dismissal of anything. Of course, that doesn’t stop this sort of testimony and Craig concludes most his debates exactly in this manner; it is actually a feature of the religious tradition from which Craig heralds and length literary forensics have been applied to these narratives, revealing tropes and predictable conventions, which, for me, undermine the authenticity of what ought to be remarkably individual moments. But, Craig himself is not above observing that this point of self-authentication is not argument in the traditional sense and this is referred to typically as Craig’s Fifth Argument.

Finally, number five, the immediate experience of God. This isn’t really an argument for God’s existence rather it’s the claim that you can know that God exists wholly apart from argument, simply by immediately experiencing Him.

But this is, I think, frustrating for many observers and, nevertheless, for Craig, there is a significant distinction to be made between showing and knowing; he writes: “It’s important to distinguish between knowing Christianity is true and showing Christianity is true.” Returning to the PM from my subscriber: “I think the problem should be apparent at this point. There is an “epistemic standoff” between the two theists. I don’t see how it is possible for people to communicate meaningfully when the opposing parties both hold that (1) they alone have the absolute truth on their side and (2) that this truth allows them to circumvent any and all opposing evidence.” Thus, despite Craig’s desire to draw a distinction between “knowing” and “showing,” testimony, when it is offered, is not about knowing, but about showing. And more to the point, evidence and argument was about a knowing that comes from showing and yet, Craig also simultaneously asserts a knowing that does not come from showing, a knowing that cannot be shown to not know. This, then, for me, is one of the few places where I can align myself with Craig because what Craig is describing here is essentially or effectively what I would describe as faith: knowledge, and “knowledge” may be the wrong word, that is outside the ordinary rules of truth-finding, the rules of understanding experience, and even the rules of argumentation and evidence.

Craig makes this clear:

First of all I think that I would tell them that they need to understand the proper relationship between faith and reason and my view here is that the way I know that Christianity is true is first and foremost on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit on my heart and that this gives me a self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, whole apart from the evidence. And, therefore, if in some historically contingent circumstance, the evidence that I have available to me should turn against Christianity, I don’t think that that controverts the witness of the Holy Spirit. In such a situation, I should regard that as simple a result of the contingent circumstances that I’m in and that if I were to pursue this with due diligence and time, I would discover that in fact the evidence, if I could get the correct picture, would support exactly what the witness of the Holy Spirit tells me.

“A self-authenticating means of knowing that Christianity is true, wholly apart from the evidence;” it is Craig at his highest but also at his lowest because it precisely disables the value of reason to the apologist who preaches a reason-justified Christianity, which is precisely the guiding assumption of apologetics. C.S.Lewis, the usurped grandfather of fundamentalist apologetics, famously said: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it” (Mere Christianity 123) — and here, in stark opposition, is Craig saying that even if his best reasoning told him that the weight of the evidence was against Christianity, he would still be a Christian.

Christopher Hitchens observed something of this as well:

Maybe we better have some evidence to go along with our faith. But look at what Dr. Craig says in his book. He says and I’ll quote directly: ‘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’s the form that must take place precedence over the latter.’ […] I’ll say it again: ‘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’s the form that must take place precedence over the latter.’ That’s not evidentialism. It’s just faith.

To be clear, I can’t blame the Christian, even the Christian Fundamentalist, and even the Christian Fundamentalist apologist, who tells me that he has faith, for that smuggles nothing; but I do blame that same person who then tells me that to be otherwise is unscientific and unreasonable, for that smuggles everything.

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