William Lane Craig on faith and reason

June 28, 2007 at 12:51 pm 3 comments

Reasonable FaithYesterday I surveyed various ways in which the relationship between faith and reason has been treated throughout history; today I’ll discuss William Lane Craig’s approach to this issue.

In his assessment of the problem of faith and reason, Craig argues that we ultimately know Christianity to be true based on the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. He claims:

The experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; … 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.

What, then, is the place of evidence and rational argument? In Craig’s view, these are purely secondary and subsidiary to the work of the Spirit. A sound apologetic might reinforce or confirm the Spirit’s testimony, but it is not the basis of belief.

Drawing on Luther’s distinction between the magisterial use of reason (in which reason stands over faith and judges it based on argument and evidence) and the ministerial use of reason (in which reason submits to the gospel), Craig says that the proper use of reason is solely ministerial:

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.

Close, but…

I have two major problems with Craig’s argument:

First, he suggests that the Holy Spirit’s presence is self-authenticating. This might be true in some sense, but surely the presence of the true Spirit ought to be accompanied by evidence.

After all, there are many people who are persuaded that they are filled with the spirit of God, but I’m pretty sure they’re not all filled with the right one. How should we distinguish, except by evidence?

Second, Craig implies that faith is in some sense superior to reason, and reason is only a “minister” (or a servant) to faith.

But if God is rational and reasonable (which I assume all Christians must believe), then surely it can’t be that faith is “superior” to reason. After all, it does not make sense that God could give an unreasonable revelation of Himself.

In that case, our experience of the Holy Spirit must accord with reason—and give evidence of its reasonableness. Were there a conflict between faith and reason, this fact should fundamentally call into question the legitimacy of faith.

Abandon the idea of “superiority”

What I regret is that Craig continues to fall back on language that appears to reinforce the supposed split between faith and reason and that makes reason submissive to faith. The idea that one of these two can and should be “higher” than the other forces Christians to choose between a potentially irrational faith on one hand or a faithlessly rationalistic belief system on the other.

I would much rather see a philosophy of knowledge that treats faith and reason as mutually dependent, with reason opening to the mind the possibility of faith and faith opening to the mind the capacity for reason. If either of the two is “higher” than the other, seems to me that Christianity has a severe problem.


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Faith and reason: Some history Childlike faith

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Charles Churchill  |  June 28, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I share some of your concerns about how the relationship between faith and reason is defined.

    Help me think through this:
    I think of faith as being required to accept any premise. In the case of a child at his earliest point of consciousness (as close to a tabula rasa state as possible) does the child have to have faith to begin reasoning, and if so, in that sense, is all reason dependent upon faith? I can’t think of a way in which reason could precede faith. Unless the functions and methods of reason are axiomatic and are built into the mind.

    Let me know if that makes sense.

  • 2. Jamie  |  June 29, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Charles: Interesting observation. I really don’t know whether or not the methods of reason are axiomatic and built into the mind, although I’ve wondered about that question before. I suspect there is some sense in which they are learned, but also some sense in which they are axiomatic. (I mean, there are certain axioms in math that I didn’t automatically know; they might be axiomatic, but I still had to learn them.)

    Re the idea of faith being required to accept any premise: I suppose this is probably true in some sense, but I don’t think this means one has to make a blind leap in order to accept the premise. We accept premises that are consistent with our experiences, so the acceptance is not blind. If there is “faith” involved, I suppose it’s a basic trust that our experience is true to reality.

  • 3. Stephen  |  July 2, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    I would spin Charles’s question a little differently. He seems to be saying that faith precedes reason, not the reverse. And that makes a lot of sense to me.

    The fact is, there is no such thing as a neutral, objective, starting point in one’s evaluation of the cosmos. This is the great lie of modernity (beginning with Descartes): that science and philosophy have a neutral starting point and therefore their conclusions are objective and absolutely trustworthy.

    Theists, on the other hand, are regarded as biased, relying on a set of presuppositions that are unproven.

    I understand the core insight of postmodernism to be, There is no neutral, objective starting point. Everyone begins from somewhere, and wherever they begin from, colours the conclusions they reach later. That’s why postmodernism is open to a plurality of voices, each regarded as equally likely to be valid.

    Charles seems to be encouraging us to begin from faith and reason within that paradigm. That strikes me as good counsel. Of course, the positivists will never concede that they are just as biased as believers are. And that’s the worst species of bias: to be unaware that one has a bias.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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