The Testimony of the Spirit
[The] Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (1 John 5:6-11, ESV)
The self-authenticating nature of the Spirit is probably one of the greatest objections to the Christian faith because we are often appealing to something that we cannot directly point to. We can look into the Scriptures and show the evidence that we use to confirm what we believe as far as where it is derived. However, what we often fail to see is that our foundational starting point is not as evident. This is often referred to as “the internal witness of the Spirit”. Christians know—our belief is justified—by the work and witness of the Spirit of God working in our life. This fact, of course, raises all kinds of objections and can instill confusion.
How can something be confirmed through self-attestation? This goes right to the core of what it means to “believe” when Christians speak of believing because of the Spirit, we are testifying of a work that does not occur in nature, that is the physical world, but in the spiritual. Those who have presuppositionally excluded the non-physical or supernatural will call this “ridiculous” all the while depending upon non-physical realities (ie words) to make their case.
Indeed, the passage that begins this post uses the word “believe” a number of times, both positively and negatively, and we think we know what that word means, ranging from “acceptance as true” to something that is a mere opinion. The biblical definition, while it can have those meanings, when used in reference to God almost always refers to loyalty. It is not a mere opinion, or a simple acceptance, rather it is an active loyalty caused by the working of the Spirit in such a case that makes it possible to accept and act. Jesus even goes so far to explain why people do or do not believe,
[You] do not believe because you are not among my sheep. (John 10:26, ESV)
Human beings, in our pride and arrogance, like to argue that we have some power, in and of ourselves, to be convinced of or by certain facts, when the truth is we do not have that ability in and of ourselves. It is truly a miracle of God that people believe—not merely some mental assent to facts—but act in accordance with the truth.
We see such objections from unbelievers, such as our old friend Bob Seidensticker. Bob means well, but he lets his presuppositions get the better of him. Going after William Lane Craig, Bob says,
Given his two doctorates and his frequent debates, you’d think that he’d be the champion of reason.
He denies this, then goes on to quote a brief passage from Craig’s book, where Craig writes,
It is the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that gives us the fundamental knowledge of Christianity’s truth. Therefore, the only role left for argument and evidence to play is a subsidiary role. (Reasonable Faith, Third Edition, 47)
Now, I don’t always agree with Dr. Craig, but this is spot on biblical truth. Notice that Craig is simply stating a fact that the “fundamental” knowledge of Christianity’s truth is given, not exhaustive knowledge. This is fully in line with Jesus’ own statement as well as the apostle’s own argument: belief is first and foremost an act of the Spirit of God in the life of the believer. No one would believe apart from it. Craig is also correct in stating that “argument and evidence play [a] subsidiary role,” because these are merely the particular means that the Spirit uses to draw some people. Some may argue that this as some type of post hoc reasoning , but it’s not.
Bob seems to think that there is something wrong with this and asserts,
He ignores the problem, assumes that he is right, and then shapes the facts to fit.
Some other guy says that his beliefs are actually correct? No problem—just assume the guy is mistaken and, like magic, Craig’s presupposition of correctness is validated.
Well, let’s examine this.
Is Craig saying that his particular beliefs about Christianity are true or is he saying that he knows that Christianity is true? Christians can work this matter out by going to what they hold to be both true and authoritative, that being the Scriptures. So, it’s one thing to say that a belief is true, it’s a whole other thing to prove that it’s true with a consistent exegesis of the Scripture. But let’s keep Bob’s position in mind: he believes that he is correct. Both Dr. Craig and I have a related objective standard to which to appeal for truth, what does Bob have to appeal to?
But this does raise the question, and it does seem to be a fairly obvious one to ask,
If the Christian is justified in dismissing evidence and argument and instead says the witness of the Holy Spirit is sufficient—indeed, superior—justification for their belief, why can’t the guy from the other religion do the same?
Let’s be clear, there’s nothing “dismissive” in what the Christian says here about the revelatory work of the Spirit. More than that, it is not the “justification” for the beliefs of the Christian. Rather, it is what enables every believer to make a positive confession of what is true: the Lordship of Christ.
In fact Craig answers this himself writing,
The existence of an authentic and unique witness of the Spirit does not exclude the existence of false claims to such a witness. (p.49)
Bob either doesn’t understand the Christian assertion that all truth is from God, or he simply outright rejects it saying,
Given that the other guy is wrong, Craig asks why the Christian couldn’t also be wrong.
The question that seems to not be asked is, wrong about what?
If we look at two opposing worldviews and the claims that they make, the Christian who operates under a worldview based upon revelation has greater reason to be confident in what he believes to be true and his ability to confirm it than any other worldview. Why? Because he is directed to,
…not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God…(1 John 4:1, ESV)
And the means by which they are “tested” is by the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Bob seems to be missing that point because he writes,
If human thinking is fallible, as we’ve seen in the Mormon or Muslim who are wrong in thinking that they have an authentic spiritual experience, maybe Christians should also hesitate to trust their own thinking when it declares that their experience is authentic.
I noticed that you excluded atheists from that, Bob. But let’s keep it to the ones that he mentions: Christians recognize that there is more than one spiritual entity that can effect human beings. More than that, human beings, who are already suppressing the truth about God, are open to their influence. The Mormon who appeals to his “burning bosom” for truth has no meaningful response to the thoughtful Christian who counters with his own experience, so they are forced to engage with the arguments and evidence that they must use to justify their beliefs. The Mormon is at a loss because of the evidence of his history. But what about the Muslim?
Again, the Muslim can make a spiritual claim, but when he appeals to the justification of his beliefs, the Quran, he has to deal with the fact that the Quran directs its readers to the Torah and the Gospel for confirmation of its claims. The Torah and the Gospel contradict many of the claims of the Quran, which means if the Quran is true, then it’s false and should not be believed.
What the Christian can never do is deny that there has been an experience, because the experience is not what is being questioned, rather it is the source of the experience that is under examination. Was it from God or from another source?
Bob summarizes Craig’s argument,
[…We] start with the correctness of the Bible; so when it says that there is no excuse, it must be correct; so there is no justification for nonbelief, including insufficient reasons; so reasons must not be mandatory.
Bob calls this “drunken reasoning”, but Bible is clear, there is no excuse for unbelief. Unbelief is merely one manifestation of man’s rebellion against his Creator. The logic is clear: if God has said it, then you should believe it. This is merely a restatement of the original argument against belief, “Hath God said…?”
In the final analysis, Bob is dependent upon a misunderstanding of Craig’s statement about the role of the Spirit in bringing a believer to faith in Christ. Bob tries to establish that his understanding is true by quoting from a paper by Jesus mythicist Robert Price where Price offers a very bad paraphrase of a paper by CS Lewis,
If Christianity doesn’t seem true to you, [C.S. Lewis] says, then by all means reject it! But once you are in, you are no longer responsible to weigh all things. Indeed, you are responsible not to!
One, as demonstrated above in the quotation from 1 John 4, this assertion is false (something a self-proclaimed “Bible geek” should know) and two, any fair reading of Lewis’ paper would see this as a straw man because, to quote Lewis directly,
I need do here is to point out that, at the very worst, [one kind of] evidence cannot be so weak as to warrant the view that all whom it convinces are indifferent to evidence [to the contrary].
In other words: it’s not about the evidence, it’s about what people want to believe. The question is, what causes a person to believe certain things? Craig’s answer, the Christian answer, the biblical answer, when it comes to the specific matter that is definitional of Christianity is that it’s the Spirit of God.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes (Ezekiel 36:25-27, ESV)