Evangelical Approach to the Philosophical Issues of Spiritual Experiences: William Lane Craig

In my last post I highlighted a couple comments by Evangelical philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig about the validity of personal spiritual experiences as a means for establishing truth. I wanted to see if Craig had more to say on this subject, and after doing a bit of digging around, I struck gold. Don’t be discouraged by the length of this post, I believe the excerpts at the end will be well worth the read.

Craig authored a book called Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics (3rd edition, Crossway Books, June 2008).  In the first chapter of this work Craig addresses some of the philosophical questions about the validity of personal spiritual experiences. He gives, in my estimation, a good defense for why the believer can rationally depend on spiritual experiences as a basis for faith and religious commitment. In Mormon/Evangelical dialogue we often butt heads over this issue, and Craig offers some arguments that I think both Mormons and Evangelicals could learn from.

Ultimately, Craig fails to resolve the issue of a spiritual “deadlock” between two individuals of competing faiths both claiming to have self-authenticating, and mutually exclusive, experiences of God. But, Craig does offer some good suggestions for why such an issue does not need to be resolved.

My only major criticism of Craig’s comments  is that after emphasizing the fact that spiritual experiences always take precedence over reason and evidence, Craig later goes on to suggest that the non-LDS Christian has the power to persuade the Mormon that his beliefs are false through reason and evidence. Well, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Latter-day Saints are as justified in relying on spiritual experiences in the face of seemingly powerful counter arguments as non-LDS Christians are.

That being said, Craig’s overall thesis is well argued, and he does it in a fashion that is accessible to the layman. I should make special mention of Craig’s use of New Testament scripture to argue for the primacy of the Holy Spirit in arriving at truth. In my experience, Evangelicals are loathe to recognize such teachings in the Bible. Craig’s recognition and subsequent embracing of the doctrine is refreshing. His overall thesis is not disimilar to Blake Ostler’s approach  in his 2007 FAIR Conference presentation.

I believe that LDS theological and historical claims are at least as likely to be true as non-LDS theological and historical claims based on reason and evidence (in fact, I think LDS claims are more likely to be true). We are in an excellent position in that regard; our apologetic is strong.

Below are excerpts from Craig’s chapter. I typed them up myself while reading the chapter in Google Books. Any spelling or punctuation errors are likely mine. As before, don’t be discouraged by the length of these excerpts, for they succinctly make very useful arguments. Feel free to copy and paste them for your use at will. Also, be sure to read the whole chapter by visiting the link provided above.

How do I know that Christianity is true? In answering this question, I have found it helpful to distinguish between knowing Christianity to be true and showing Christianity to be true. (pg. 43 )


I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such an experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as “God exists,” “I am condemned by God,” “I am reconciled to God,” “Christ lives in me,” and so forth; that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him who attends fully to it.

It seems to me that the New Testament teaches such a view with respect to both the believer and the unbeliever alike. (pg. 43-44)


Thus, although arguments and evidence may be used to support the believer’s faith, they are never properly the basis of that faith. For the believer, God is not the conclusion of a syllogism; he is the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelling within us. How then does the believer know that Christianity is true? He knows because of the self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit who lives within him. (pg. 46)


Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ, it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties; at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart. (pg. 47)


So then for the believer and unbeliever alike it is the self authenticating work of the Holy Spirit that supplies knowledge of Christianity’s truth. (pg. 47)


The only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role. I think Martin Luther correctly distinguished between what he called the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. The magisterial use of 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. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology. (pg. 47-48 )


A person who knows that Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Spirit may also have a sound apologetic which reinforces or confirms for him the Spirit’s witness, but it does not serve as the basis of his belief. (pg. 48 )


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. (pg. 48 )


Some people disagree with what I’ve said about the role of argument and evidence. They would say that reason can be used in a magisterial role, at least by the unbeliever. They ask how else we could determine which is true, the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon, unless we use argument and evidence to judge them. The Muslim or the Mormon also claim to have a witness of God’s Spirit or a “burning in the bosom” which authenticates to him the truth of his scriptures. Christian claims to a subjective experience seem to be on a par with similar non-Christian claims.

But how is the fact that the other persons claim to experience a self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit relevant to my knowing the truth of Christianity via the Spirit’s witness? The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of the false claims to such a witness. How, then, does the existence of false claims of the Spirits witness to the truth of a non-Christian religion to anything logically to undermine the fact that the Christian believer does possess the genuine witness of the Spirit? (pg. 48-49)


First, the Christian needn’t say that non-Christian religious experience is simply spurious. It may well be the case that adherents of other religions do enjoy a veridical experience of God as the Ground of Being on whom we creatures are dependant or as the Moral Absolute from whom values derive or even as the loving Father of mankind. (pg. 49)


I see no reason to think that non-veridical religious experiences are indistinguishable from the witness of the Holy Spirit. One way to get some empirical evidence for this would be simply to ask ex-Mormons and Muslims who have become Christians if their experience of God in Christianity is identical to what they had before their conversion. (pg. 49-50)


Moreover, let me suggest two theological reasons why I think those Christians who support the magisterial role of reason are mistaken. First, such a role would consign most Christians to irrationality. The vast majority of the human race have neither the time, training, nor resources to develop a full-blown Christian apologetic as the basis of their faith. Even the proponents of the magisterial use of reason at one time in the course of their education presumably lacked such an apologetic. According to the magisterial role of reason, these persons should not have believed in Christ until they finished their apologetic. Otherwise, they would be believing for insufficient reasons……The fact is that we can know the truth whether we have rational arguments or not.

Second, if the magisterial role of reason were legitimate, then a person who had been given poor arguments for Christianity would have a just excuse before God for not believing in him. Suppose someone has been told to believe in God on the basis of an invalid argument. Could he stand before God on the judgment day and say, “God, those Christians only gave me a lousy argument for believing in you. That’s 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. (pg. 50)


Therefore, the role of rational argumentation in knowing Christianity to be true is the role of a servant. A person knows Christianity is true because the Holy Spirit tells him it is true, and while argument and evidence can be used to support this conclusion, they cannot legitimately overrule it. (pg. 51)


Consider again the case of the Christian confronted with an adherent of some other world religion who also claims to have a self-authenticating experience of God. William Alston points out that this situation taken in isolation results in an epistemic standoff. For neither person knows how to convince the other that he alone has a veridical, rather than a delusory, experience. This standoff does not undermine the rationality of the Christian’s belief, for even if his process of forming his belief is a reliable as can be, there’s no way he can give a noncircular proof of this fact. Thus his inability to provide such a proof does not nullify the rationality of his belief. But although he is rational in retaining his Christian belief, the Christian in such a circumstance is at a complete loss as to how to show his non-Christian friend that he is correct and that his friend is wrong in his respective beliefs.

How is one to break this deadlock? Alston answers that the Christian should do whatever he can to search for common ground on which to adjudicate the crucial differences between their competing views, seeking to show in a noncircular way which of them is correct. If, by proceeding on the basis of considerations that are common to both parties, such as sense perception, rational self-evidence, and common modes of reasoning, the Christian can show that his own beliefs are true and those of his non-Christian friend false, then he will have succeeded in showing that the Christian is in the better epistemic position for discerning the truth about these matters. Once apologetics is allowed to enter the picture, the objective difference between their epistemic situation becomes crucial, for since the non-Christian only thinks he has a self-authenticating experience of God, when in fact he does not, the power of the evidence and argument may, by God’s grace, crack his false assurance of the truth of his faith and persuade him to place his faith in Christ. (pg. 51-52)

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4 comments on “Evangelical Approach to the Philosophical Issues of Spiritual Experiences: William Lane Craig

  1. cynthia says:

    You have some great arguments against the use of reason alone here. However, your statement “we can know the truth whether we have rational arguments or not” would be suspect to many. On what other basis other than reason could believers confirm to others their beliefs and convictions to be true? Divine intervention?

  2. James says:

    When it comes to showing the truth to others, there is no other way but through reason and evidence. Reason and evidence are legitimate avenues to discovering truth.

    I think the key to understanding Craig in this instance is the very first excerpt I quoted:

    “How do I know that Christianity is true? In answering this question, I have found it helpful to distinguish between knowing Christianity to be true and showing Christianity to be true.” (pg. 43)

    We can personally come to KNOW that something is true by either avenue (spiritual or reason), but we can only SHOW that something is true by one avenue (reason).

  3. I am an evangelical Christian Apologist who loves to read non evangelical works.

    Your analysis of Craig is very objective and stimulating.

    Dr. Johnson C. Philip

  4. I enjoy William Lane Craig’s debates. His work on the historical Jesus is excellent and his debating skills are fantastic. I actually wrote a recent post on my blog about Personal Testimony. It is dedicated to my agnostic friend. Come check it out if you like.

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