Tom Gilson

Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics

reasonablefaith.jpgBook Review
Readers of this blog may be familiar with Dr. William Lane Craig’s work; we’ve discussed him more than once. A prolific author, Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and a frequent debater on the truth of Christianity. His recent revision of Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Third Edition) represents a state-of-the-art presentation of evidences and arguments in support of Christian belief.

It includes some potential surprises for some readers. Did you know…

  • That “all of the various traditional arguments for God’s existence find prominent, intelligent proponents, who defend these arguments in books published by the finest academic presses, in articles in professional journals, and in papers presented at meetings of professional philosophical societies;” in contrast to, say, the mid-1960s when TIME magazine asked, “Is God Dead?”
  • That science and philosophy both strongly indicate that the universe had a beginning—for which science can provide no explanation?
  • That the progress of skeptical thought has a history of its own—it has been contingent on various currents of thought, and is not (as some have supposed) the necessary result of scientific thinking?
  • That apologetical thinking and research has a history, too—it didn’t time-warp from Thomas Aquinas to Josh McDowell?
  • That Jesus Christ understood himself to be Messiah and to be Divine—and that this can be demonstrated from even that tiny portion of the New Testament that skeptical scholars acknowledge as genuine?
  • That the tide of New Testament scholarship has turned in the past few decades, and now the majority of scholars, believers and skeptics alike, acknowledge that the New Testament can be trusted in its accounts of several basic facts regarding Christ’s life, death, and even his post-death (resurrection) appearances?
  • That (related to that) a strong case for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ can be made just on the basis of information that even skeptical scholars consider to be trustworthy?
  • That Christians may reasonably and rationally be assured that the faith is true, even apart from extra-biblical apologetical evidences?

For some readers these things may be a surprise, and for others they may be provocative. I can’t (and won’t try to) explain and defend them all here. Craig covers them carefully over the course of 400+ pages of material. Before considering evidences for the Resurrection, for example, he devotes entire chapters to philosophical questions surrounding miracles and historical knowledge. (Are miracles possible? Could reports of miracles ever be credible? Can we genuinely know any of what really happened in history?). The book is intended for seminary-level study, and includes extensive documentation through footnotes (not endnotes, thankfully) and chapter-by-chapter bibliographies.

I owe it to you to develop at least one point further here: that Christians may reasonably and rationally be assured the faith is true, apart from extra-biblical evidences. Craig makes the important distinction between knowing it is true, and showing it is true. Following Alvin Plantinga in Warranted Christian Belief, Craig says that the proposition “God exists,” can be properly basic. A belief B is properly basic if some person S can reasonably and with good assurance take B to be true, apart from an evidential foundation of other assured beliefs that imply B.

Properly basic beliefs include those that are

self evident or incorrigible…. For example, the proposition, “The sum of the squares of the two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse” is self-evidently true [well, to some people]. Similarly, the proposition “I feel pain” is incorrigibly true, since even if I am only imagining my injury, it is still true that I feel pain.

Craig suggests (following Plantinga still) that belief in God may be properly basic:

Man has an innate, natural capacity to apprehend God’s existence even as he has a natural capacity to accept truths of perception (like “I see a tree”). Given the appropriate circumstances—such as moments of guilt, gratitude, or a sense of God’s handiwork in nature—man naturally apprehends God’s existence…. Neither the tree’s existence nor God’s existence is inferred from one’s experience of the circumstances. But being in the appropriate circumstances is what renders one’s belief properly basic; the belief would be irrational were it to be held under inappropriate circumstances. Thus, the basic belief that God exists is not arbitrary, since it is properly held only by a person placed in appropriate circumstances.

He goes on to speak of two ways of knowing Christianity to be true: through the work of the Holy Spirit, and through argument and evidence. Concerning the first:

I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable … 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 provides one not only with a subjective assurance of Christianity’s truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth….

This may appear to run the risks of being circular or a potential source of self-deception on the part of the believer. Understood properly, it is most assuredly not circular. It is not, after all, an argument; it is much more akin to a perception. Can my perception that there is pain in my toe be circular? Hardly. Could I be deceived about that pain? I could be fooled, yes, regarding the source of the pain. Amputees can feel pain in limbs they no longer even have; it’s called phantom pain, and it’s quite common. If, however, I have an unmistakable personal experience of God, and if (a) my interpretation of that experience is not defeated by other knowledge and (b) other knowledge such as may be available to me supports that conclusion, then I am rational to take it to be an unmistakable experience of God. (A defeater is some argument or information that, if true, tends to refute a belief or to reduce confidence in it.) The amputee’s knowledge that he has no right foot is a defeater for the belief that his right big toe is actually hurting.

Craig acknowledges there are potential defeaters for the conclusion that an experience of God actually comes from God. Someday, he says, he may write a book to show that they do not in fact successfully undermine the Christian faith. This is not that book; rather it is his extensive compilation of positive information (evidence and argument) that supports the conclusion that God exists, that Jesus Christ claimed to be his Son, and that he validated that claim by his resurrection from death.

The point of all this is to put apologetics, belief, and rationality in proper perspective. Millions throughout history have believed in Christ without studying apologetics, and they have not made irrational decisions. God does not necessarily work through evidence and argument, although in the right context, evidence and argument may rationally and profitably be employed. One or their purposes is to address possible defeaters to the conclusion that one is experiencing God. Another purpose is on the second side of the know/show coin. I do not expect my experience of the Holy Spirit to persuade you, the unbeliever, that God exists and that Jesus Christ is his Son (Craig does not expect that either). I cannot show you, in a way that you will be able to take in as your own knowledge, how it is that I know God through my experience. I can, however, use evidence and arguments to show you that the existence of God is plausible, even more plausible than his non-existence.

That last clause counts for a great deal, by the way. Even as committed a Christian apologist as Craig will not claim he has a proof for God’s existence. He presents multiple overlapping and complementary lines of argument for God’s existence and for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Each of them individually makes Christianity more plausible (in my opinion) than competing worldviews. They do not constitute proof, though taken together, they make a very strong case for Christ indeed.

I must leave my other provocative bullet points hanging without further discussion, at least on this post. I expect I will come back to some of them in a future post, or that commenters will lead us to pick up one or more of them here. I strongly encourage you to read Reasonable Faith. Christians, you will gain considerably in your knowledge of God and his work in the world. Your faith will increase as you see more clearly how well founded it is. Questioners or skeptics, you will be able to interact with Craig’s arguments, and see for yourself whether, in light of the most current scholarship, Christianity is indeed a Reasonable Faith.

Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008. 415 pages including index.Amazon Price US $17.16.

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3 thoughts on “Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics

  1. When you say it’s not argument, I think that’s wrong. It’s not an argument for God’s existence, and it’s not an argument that the Holy Spirit does work the way Craig is suggesting. It is an argument against a particular skeptical argument, though. The claim Craig (and originally Plantinga) is responding to is the claim that knowledge of God is impossible without the kind of evidence that we use in science. The use of the role of the Holy Spirit provides exactly the kind of explanation that would undermine the skeptical argument. Unless the skeptic can rule out such explanations, the skeptic has no right to claim that the Christian doesn’t know. That’s indeed an argument, and it’s a pretty good one.

  2. That makes sense, Jeremy.

    What I was saying was simply this:

    Christian: “I know God exists because of my direct experience of God.”
    Skeptic: “That’s circular reasoning.”
    Christian: “No, that’s not an argument at all. There is no first or second premise, there is no conclusion drawn from a premise, so there could be no premise illegitimately borrowed from a conclusion. There is just knowledge by experience, akin to everyday sense perception.”

    But you’re right, there’s more:

    Christian: “It is possible to know God exists just through direct experience of Him, and it is rational to hold that this is a possibility.”

    That is a point that would need to be argued, and it leads to where you were headed, I think, or somewhere near there at any rate. There is indeed a good argument to be made there.

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