More on Hearing Voices in His Head
Before doing so, it may not be necessary to point this out, but I will in case it slips anyone’s mind, namely that appeals to “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” as Christianity informs this notion logically assume the existence of the Christian god. So if this assumption is disputed, then appeals to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” are premature at best. At any rate, it is viciously circular to appeal to “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” in an attempt to validate the claim that a god exists in the first place, for such an appeal assumes what’s needed to be validated in the first place. And as I have pointed out numerous times in the past, we have no alternative but to imagine any god one claims to believe in.
Even when it comes to apologetic arguments, we have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence those arguments are intended to prove when we come to their conclusions.
For example, consider the following argument:
Premise 1: If the universe was created, then God must exist in order to have created it. Premise 2: The universe was created. Conclusion: Therefore, God must exist in order to have created it.
So if apologists cannot overcome weaknesses such as this, then I submit that there’s no hope for any defensive artifice they may attempt to erect on behalf of their religious beliefs. This does not bode well for Anderson’s defense of the notion of enjoying “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” for while I can in fact imagine that Anderson’s god exists and that he has in fact received revelatory transmissions from that god, I am nevertheless acutely aware of the facts that I am merely imagining these things and that I have no alternative to doing so if I am to contemplate his god-belief claims.
The first concern is that ITHS would be intrinsically subjective, which in turn implies a subjectivist view of knowledge. Admittedly there is a subjective aspect to ITHS, since the Holy Spirit operates on the subject of knowledge internally and does so on an individual (and selective) basis. In reality, however, there is a subjective aspect to every type of knowledge. Consider my knowledge that I had cereal for breakfast. That’s subjective in the sense that it’s my memory that supplies this knowledge, and I’m the only person who has direct access to memories of my past experiences. Does that imply subjectivism about knowledge? Not in any objectionable sense.
To lessen the damage of his admission that “there is a subjective aspect to every type of knowledge,” Anderson cites the phenomenon of memory. To make this comparison successful, Anderson must treat memory as a primary source of knowledge when in fact it is a means of storing and retaining knowledge that one has acquired prior to having something to store in the first place. In the case of Anderson’s own example, I did not learn what I had for breakfast by consulting my memory, but by being present at the time I had the breakfast in question and identifying the contents of my breakfast at the time I was having it. This knowledge was then stored in my memory so that I could retain it for future reference. The original content, therefore, was objectively acquired. One would be right to argue that my methodology was subjective if I claimed that I had bacon and eggs for breakfast because I wished that’s what I had eaten (when in fact I had a bowl of dry cereal), or because I imagined it, or because I’m trying to impress someone, etc. But my use of my memory in retaining knowledge I had acquired and validated objectively does not imply “a subjective aspect” to that knowledge; indeed, my knowledge of what I had for breakfast was acquired and validated independently of my memory of my breakfast!
So Anderson’s citation of memory as having some analogous relevance to “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” ignores the question of what supplies our memories with content in the first place. Memory is not an epistemological primary, but is instead informed by objective inputs from real experience. Moreover, memory is not infallible: it is susceptible to gaps and distortions, so it is not always reliable.
Also, Anderson’s approach here is sufficient to grant license to faking one’s knowledge by shielding its source with an inherent, internal privacy. For example, on the assumption that memory is a primary source of knowledge (as opposed to a derivative faculty informed by firsthand experience of objective inputs), one could very easily claim to know that X is the case because he “remembers” it to be so. Like a form of anemnesis.
Similarly, the claim to have knowledge on the basis of “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” invites the essentially the same problem: suppose a believer claims to have learned via “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” that I should quit my job, leave my family, join his church and go off to central Africa on a proselytizing mission for five years. On what basis could I dispute such a claim? The believer might as well tell me that his imaginary friend told him so. After all, the imaginary and the invisible behave very much the same.
One of the many advantages that reason has over pretended alternatives is its fidelity to independently verifiable facts. If two claims are in conflict with each other, for example, reason teaches that we can discern which if either is correct by going to facts which are what they are independently of our wishes, preferences, imagination and prayers. Reason thus provides an objective basis by which to measure the truth or untruth of claims.
But what does “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” offer for measuring truth? If whatever is said to have been learned by reference to “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” can be discovered and verified by reference to facts that exist independently of conscious activity (and thus independently of internal psychological states), then what need would we have for this “internal testimony” in the first place? But if the content of this alleged “internal testimony” is not something that can be secured by reference to facts that we find in the world independent of our conscious activity (e.g., the claim that I should quit my job, leave my family and go on a proselytizing mission in a foreign continent), what standard does an appeal to “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” offer for measuring such claims?
But the problems don’t end there. Suppose two believers, Smith and Jones, both claim to have knowledge by way of “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit,” and yet their claims are in conflict with one another. Would “the Holy Spirit” disseminate contradictory information to different believers, or even to the same believer? Believers are fond of repeating the claim that their god does not lie. This itself raises numerous questions and can easily lead to a number of philosophical quandaries (e.g., is it the case that their god does not lie because it lacks the ability to do so, in which case truth-telling is not a virtuous act, but a robotic performance? Or, is it the case that their god does not lie because it always chooses to tell the truth and is thus not a robot but in fact a free spirit, in which case why could it not have created human beings as free spirits which always choose to tell the truth? If the deity in question has a grand purpose whose ends justify deceiving human beings, is it really lying, or is it lying by another name? Etc.), but such claims only serve to underscore the severity of the need for answers rather than serving as an answer.
Even more to the point, how does the believer objectively distinguish between his own emotions, biases, preferences, superstitions and imagination from what he calls “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”? One explores his own psychology by looking inward, and since “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” by its very name is “internal” rather than external, it too would have to be explored by looking inward. So one would think (expect?) that if the creator of the universe and everything in it chose to communicate to select individuals by means of some internal delivery system, it would provide guidelines intended to ensure that those select individuals not confuse or contaminate their own psychology with what apologists style as noetic deliverances from a supernatural source. Put another way: why would the creator of the universe choose to communicate to an individual in a manner that may so closely resemble the individual’s own internal psychological states that distinguishing the one from the other could be nigh impossible? Why would the creator of the universe choose to communicate to an individual in a manner that so readily invites an individual to mistake his own psychological states as deliverances from a supernatural authority?
These are crucial epistemological concerns, but they never seem to show up on the apologist’s radar. It’s as if the question of how to distinguish between the believer’s own psychology and what he calls “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” never comes to mind.
In the seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul gives several proclamations about marriage and what he learned from “the Lord” as to what is to be desired conduct on the part of believers. At one point (v. 12ff) he states that he, “not the Lord,” would have believers have an unbelieving spouse and they are both happy to live together, that they certainly may. But how did apostle Paul make this distinction? How did he know that some edicts regarding marriage came from “the Lord” while others he came up on his own? Unfortunately, from what I can find, Paul left no guidance on such matters.
But the crucial point here is that, if the believer does not use care and guide his explorations with unflinching honesty, he may very well confuse his own preferences and imaginings with some mystical power communicating to him from a supernatural realm. Presumably, since “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” is internal to the believer, it too would only be accessible by looking inward. So how does the believer distinguish “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” from his own psychological states?
Furthermore, how can we test knowledge claims that are said to have been received via “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”? If Joe tells me that he has learned via “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” that he should marry Jane, how can anyone confirm this? How can Joe or anyone else reliably distinguish what he calls “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” from his own wishes, preferences, imagination, fantasies, etc.? And what happens if Jane refuses? If Joe’s really got it from “the Holy Spirit” that he should marry Jane and Jane wants nothing to do with Joe, shouldn’t Jane’s preferences be subjugated to directives coming from “the Holy Spirit”? It may be that Christians will argue that “the Holy Spirit” would not give Joe this instruction without giving Jane the same. But how can anyone know what “the Holy Spirit” would or would not do? Perhaps “the Holy Spirit” has good reasons for telling this only to Joe while withholding it from Jane, reasons which are “inscrutable” to us puny humans. (Sort of like “God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” – Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready, p. 172.) Doesn’t the New Testament teach that the woman is to learn in subjection to the man? Indeed, how can we tell if it’s not the case that “the Holy Spirit” has in fact told Jane the same, and yet Jane has “suppressed this knowledge in unrighteousness”?
Unfortunately, there is much here that Anderson does not address, and his treatment of this objection that appeals to “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” is sadly inadequate. In fact, I don’t see how any defense of ITHS could outrun the charge of subjectivism. At any rate, what Anderson offers here makes no progress.
In fact, the subjectivism inherent in the notion of “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” does not at all seem unique, thus intensifying the doubts that what we have here is simply a form of religious mysticism being dressed up to appear as something more dignified. Suppose for example my wife claims to know some general truth (as opposed to some item of anecdotal nature) that I cannot by any means independently verifying, and in her defense of her claim she appeals to “women’s way of knowing.” Along with this appeal she stipulates that I cannot verify this claim by myself because I’m not a woman and thus lack “women’s way of knowing,” and therefore must take her at her word. Should I accept this? After all, if I were to accept the notion of “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” and thus must accept a believer’s claims on his say-so, why would I suddenly adopt a skeptical attitude about “women’s way of knowing”? Indeed, with all these competing forms of knowledge which dispense with reason, how could I ever determine that such claims are bunk?
Anderson takes bat against another potential objection:
Another concern is that ITHS is no more respectable than the Mormon doctrine of the “burning bosom,” and thus anyone who holds the Reformed view must forfeit the right to criticize the Mormon view. According to the Mormon teaching, if you want to know whether the Book of Mormon is true, you should pray to God about it, and if it is indeed true, God will “cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” This experience is taken to confirm the divine origins of the book.
For example, Anderson warns:
ITHS doesn’t involve any inference from a subjective feeling. The Christian’s knowledge that the Bible is God’s Word may be accompanied by a kind of cognitive experience, but it isn’t based on a deduction from any such experience. “I feel that the Bible is true, therefore it is true,” would be a gross distortion of the Reformed view.
However, on a deeper level, there are a number of concerns here. For one, it does not bode well for the credibility of the notion of “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” if the root of the matter boils down to “the Reformed view.” Rather, what are the facts of the matter? What actually is taking place when someone claims to have “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit”? How is it objectively distinguishable from a “burning bosom”? And if one experiences a “burning bosom,” how can one objectively determine that this sensation (if in fact it is a sensation) is not accompanying some deeper subliminal communication? Anderson tells us what “ITHS doesn’t involve,” but the burning question is what it does involve. Pointing out negatives does not illuminate what is positive.
ITHS doesn’t operate independently of objective evidences for the divine authorship of the Bible. Rather, it involves a Spirit-enabled apprehension of those evidences.
In the case of “objective evidences for the divine authorship of the Bible,” what specifically are those evidences? What do they look like? By what means do we have awareness of them? Since Anderson puts this in the plural, I’m assuming there’s more than one “objective evidence” which supports the claim that the bible was divinely authored. But without knowing what specifically he has in mind, it seems wildly premature to designate them as “objective,” especially when all along the discussion has been about something that is “internal” to the believer and accessed by looking inward. If they are indeed “objective” in nature, why aren’t they available to man by means of his rational faculties? Why would he need some supernatural crutch to have awareness of them? Or, if they are available to man by means of his rational faculties, why isn’t “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” utterly redundant and unnecessary, especially given the problems such a notion invites?
Regarding the notion of “Spirit-enabled apprehension,” what specifically is that? Who or what is doing the apprehending? By what means does the apprehension in question happen? What is the process that takes place in this act of apprehension? How does one reliably distinguish this “Spirit-enabled apprehension” from what may merely be imaginary? Anderson insists that it is not a feeling, but even if that is accepted (indeed, many Christians have claimed to have been “moved by the Holy Spirit,” an expression which does little to rule out emotional mechanisms), there are other types of psychological experience which would have to be accounted for in securing the case that this “Spirit-enabled apprehension” is not really just a subjective phenomenon.
We must remind ourselves that Christians, especially those of the Reformed camp, are fond of accusing human beings generally of “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” per Romans 1. And for this to have the bite they intend it to have, it would only undermine the apologetic use of this charge if they were to excuse believers themselves from its blast. So how can we confidently rule out the possibility, strong as it indeed seems to this onlooker, that believers are in fact projecting here while suppressing the fact that they’re actually imagining that they’re receiving communications from a supernatural source, that the content of those imagined communications is either generated by their own volition or simply misidentified as being sourced in a supernatural agency, while they pretend that it originates in an infallible supernatural source?
In fact, I would go even further than this and suggest that it would be dishonest for the believer to insist that none of this could be the case, for he has already condemned the whole of humanity as a pack of incorrigible liars. This is something his worldview explicitly teaches, so he needs to live with it.
The final potential objection Anderson addresses is the following:
A third concern is that ITHS would make apologetics redundant. If someone can know that the Bible is God’s Word without relying on arguments and evidences, doesn’t that put Christian apologists out of a job? Not at all. In the first place, we should distinguish between knowing and showing. I can know that the Bible is God’s Word without arguments and evidences, but if unbelievers ask me why they should believe that, it won’t do to reply simply, “The Holy Spirit bears witness in my heart!” In order to show others that it’s true, I need to provide them with reasons to believe it. I need to engage in apologetics, which the Holy Spirit may be pleased to use to bring those unbelievers to Christian faith.
Also, if the believer truly believes that he has acquired the knowledge that “the Bible is God’s Word” from a supernatural source through some delivery system that pipes directly into his psychology, why not try to show that this is true first, before worrying about reasons to support the view that “the Bible is God’s Word”? After all, debates over whether or not “the Bible is God’s Word” have raged for centuries, and non-believers typically do not find the “reasons” which apologists put forward in support of this thesis very if at all convincing.
Then again, consider the questions that would arise in response to the claim that one has learned that “the Bible is God’s Word” directly from a supernatural source. For example, how does the believer know that he learned this from a supernatural source? How does he distinguish this alleged supernatural source from his own internal psychological workings, whether they are biases reinforced since childhood, imaginings encouraged by a peer group (such as one finds in a congregation of fellow believers), predilections fueled by the desire to confirm their worldview commitments, etc.? And if one has in fact convinced himself that he has learned items of knowledge from supernatural suggestion, how did he come to identify that supernatural source as the creator of the universe as opposed to some nefarious spiritual being posing as something it is not? For indeed, is it not the case that the evil spirits we read about in the Christian storybook are masters of deception if nothing else? How does one successfully resist deceptive spiritual forces? If an “unclean spirit” can influence human minds, as Christianity clearly holds, how can Anderson be certain that what he takes to be “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” is not actually an evil being which has camouflaged itself in holy garb? What tests can he perform to verify his identification of the spirit? And what tests can be effectual in outsmarting a spirit whose very nature is designed to deceive human beings?
More broadly, drawing attention to the distinction between knowing and showing seems to be a fruitless distraction. Showing comes into play when passing information from one person to another (I’m speaking of real persons here, human beings, flesh and blood organisms which do not acquire knowledge by means of magic). If I already know something, I don’t need someone to come along and show it to me.
Anderson’s response does assume that while some people need evidence and arguments to securely accept a set of claims as knowledge, there are some who do not. This essentially means that some people are exempt from the need to validate their knowledge by means of reason (which limits knowledge by tying it to the realm of facts) and consequently claim for themselves the license to assert their feelings, imaginings, wishes, dreams and visions as “knowledge.”
The selectivity implied by appeals to “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” also indicts the Christian god of overt favoritism. Some individuals are privileged with supernaturally powered knowledge while others are denied this privilege, and purely on the whim of the creator of the universe.
Lastly, the very notion of a supernatural being invading one’s mind and filling it with content that it chooses to pour into that mind represents a tacit affirmation of the initiation of the use of force, a species of violence, albeit non-physical, against an individual. This entails a supernatural being, whose power is wholly irresistible, coming along and cramming a sum of knowledge into one’s mind, knowledge which of course would not have been gathered and validated by a sifting and vetting process performed volitionally by the knower (even in the case of secondhand reports, people don’t just accept everything they’re told; rather, they evaluate it to some degree before filing it either in the true folder or the trash bin).
We can expect apologists to downplay the implications this has for their worldview by citing the alleged benefits that one could presumably enjoy as a result of having a noetic pipeline to an all-knowing supernatural source. But the initiation of the use of force is present in such notions nonetheless, and such efforts to excuse the initiation of the use of force tell us more than enough about the underlying moral implications of such a view.
Moreover, while apologetics may not be necessary for an initial knowledge of the divine authorship of Scripture, it may be necessary to nourish and protect that knowledge. Christians today increasingly are confronted with intellectual attacks on the Bible, which give rise to doubts. Christian apologetics is one of the God-given means of resolving those doubts.
For sake of analogy and comparison, consider a real-world case. For example, I know that I am married and that I have a daughter. Now of course, I did not learn this through supernatural revelation; rather, I learned this through my consistent use of reason. Now suppose a group of people confront me and launch a series of “intellectual attacks” challenging this knowledge. What would it take for them to cause me to doubt any of this? I have solid objective evidence to counter their challenges, and yet they keep trying to batter away at my confidence. Would such an effort be successful? I trow not! But let them try – it is their own breath that they’d be wasting.
How much more so should a believer remain firmly welded to his conviction that “the Bible is God’s Word” if in fact he learned this directly from the creator of the universe in spite of attempts to undermine that confidence with “intellectual attacks”? How can any human being’s “intellectual attacks” be any match against supernatural revelation?
If, however, there is no such thing as “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” or even a “Holy Spirit” in the first place, and instead of receiving supernatural revelations the believer were actually deceiving himself or at best mistaking his own psychological expressions for supernatural transmissions, it should not surprise us to find believers wallowing in painful, even debilitating doubts when confronted with intellectual challenges to their worldview. (I’m reminded of the cases of high-profile apologist Gary Habermas, who confessed to suffering from deep worldview doubts for a decade [see here], and of presuppositional apologist Dustin Segers, whose chronic doubts sent him into a notorious bout of depression [see here].)
So there’s no necessary conflict between ITHS and Christian apologetics. ITHS ensures that every Christian can know the truth about the Bible, while apologetics equips Christians to defend and demonstrate that truth.
By way of a final world, I want to remind readers of something very important here. Myths have a way of persisting in a culture. Consider the myth that FDR got the United States out of the Great Depression (in fact, his policies painfully prolonged the Depression), or the myth that the soldiers who “gave their lives” in WWII did so in order to protect our freedoms (in fact, we are far less free today than our forebears were before the world wars). These and many other myths have persisted with uncanny tenacity throughout western culture, no thanks to the fact that they have been promoted by the state (and at the expense of those forced to support it), and the mythology found in religion enjoys direct parallels to those found in secular culture.
by Dawson Bethrick