What We Believe
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Knowledge and Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015, xii + 129 pages, $16.00, paper.

The recent rise in the perceived respectability of Christianity in American philosophical circles is astounding. Not sixty years ago, the title “Christian philosopher” seemed like an oxymoron. Back then, organizations now thriving, like the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society, never would have gotten off the ground. We have many great Christian philosophers to thank for this contemporary tolerance of Christian belief, not the least of which is Alvin Plantinga.

Knowledge and Christian Belief is a synopsis of Plantinga’s magnum opus, Warranted Christian Belief[1] and is 387 pages shorter. Consequently, Knowledge and Christian Belief reads like an entirely new book, and will undoubtedly appeal to a new, more popular audience.

In Knowledge and Christian Belief, Plantinga’s chief topic is the “question of the rationality, or sensibleness, or justification, of Christian belief” (vii). Plantinga wants to investigate the claim made by the New Atheists (e.g., Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens) that Christian belief is irrational, insensible, or unjustified, whether or not it is true. In short, Plantinga argues that this claim is simply mistaken.

In chapter 1 Plantinga clears the way for the rest of the book by showing that the Kantian objection that we cannot speak or think about God because he is a member of the unapproachable noumenal realm is self-defeating. In chapter 2 he seeks to tease out what else might be wrong with Christian belief. Plantinga notes that a belief can be false (de facto) or it can be otherwise inappropriate (de jure). Plantinga then attempts to find a de jure objection against Christian belief “that really does apply to Christian belief, and isn’t trivially easy to answer” and “is independent of the de facto objection—that is, is such that one can sensibly offer the objection without presupposing or assuming that Christian belief is false” (9). Plantinga concludes that the best candidate to meet these criteria is the objection that Christian belief is irrational or unwarranted—more precisely, that Christian belief is not formed by properly functioning mental faculties.

In chapter 3 Plantinga proposes what he calls the A/C model. This model is centered on the idea (present, in one form of another, in the writtings of Aquinas and Calvin) that all human beings have a natural capacity to form properly basic beliefs about God—that is, beliefs that are rationally formed in us without any evidential basis. Plantinga further contends that if Christianity is true, then the A/C model is highly probable.

In chapters 4 through 6 Plantinga extends the A/C model to include Christian belief. He contends that if Christianity is true, then it is highly likely that God instituted a “three-tiered cognitive process” (53) for informing us about his great plan of redemption: Scripture, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, and faith. Brought together, these three elements constitute the way we form properly basic beliefs about the gospel.

If Christianity is true, therefore, the objection that Christian belief is irrational or unwarranted falls flat. The only cogent way to sustain this objection is to take for granted that Christian belief is false. In other words, one cannot criticize Christian belief for being irrational or unwarranted without first showing it to be false. As Plantinga puts the issue, “What you take to be rational or warranted depends upon what sort of metaphysical and religious stance you adopt” (40).

In chapter 7 Plantinga skillfully responds to some possible objections to his formulation of the extended A/C model. The remainder of the book is an engagement of three types of defeaters for Christian belief. According to Plantinga, defeaters are “reasons for giving up a belief” (90). In chapter 8 Plantinga examines whether historical biblical criticism is a viable defeater, in chapter 9 he examines pluralism, and in chapter 10 he examines the Achilles Heel of Christian belief: the problem of evil. With erudite precision, Plantinga shows that each of these alleged defeaters fail to rebut or undercut Christian belief.

Knowledge and Christian Belief is an excellent book. Plantinga masterfully sets forth his A/C model and its extensions with clarity and philosophical rigor. Pastors needing an aid responding to the kind of objections to Christian belief permeating the modern-day intelligentsia would do well to turn to this resource. It would be helpful in this respect to most philosophically minded Christians as well. However, Knowledge and Christina Belief does have some concerning elements along with some serious methodological flaws.

Overall, the kind of Christian belief Plantinga defends is Christian belief taken broadly, not the rich Christian belief taught in the Reformed confessions. Moreover, Plantinga’s construal of the sensus divinitatis in the A/C model is as a capacity for the knowledge of God, not as actual knowledge of God like what Paul argues for in Romans 1. One might also question whether Plantinga’s modal logic is consistent with traditional Christian theism.[2]

The most disappointing feature of Knowledge and Christian Belief is its lack of a positive philosophical case for Christianity. Says Plantinga in the book’s closing paragraph:

But is [Christian belief] true? This is the really important question. And here we pass beyond the competence of philosophy.... Speaking for myself and not in the name of philosophy, I can say only that it does, indeed, seem to me to be true, and to be the maximally important truth. (126)

Notice, it is Plantinga’s conception of the bounds and limits of the discipline of philosophy that explains his pseudo-fideism. We as Reformed Christians should whole-heartedly disagree with Plantinga at this point. If we let the New Testament shape our understanding, as we always should, we will view the nature of philosophy and philosophical proof in quite a different manner.[3]

It is clear from the writings and ministry of Paul that the greatest philosophical proof available is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected (Acts 17:22–31; 1 Cor. 2; 2 Cor. 4:5–6; Eph. 3:8–10; Col. 2:2–4, 8). Preaching the gospel of Christ imparts eschatological light, knowledge, assurance, wisdom, and truth. What more could the Christian philosopher desire? Surely, when God speaks to us, whether in nature or in the good news of his Son’s death and resurrection, that divine speech is more than enough philosophical proof.

Plantinga has made many wonderful contributions to Christian philosophy, and he has fought many battles under its banner. We as Calvinists, however, should not shy away from setting Calvin’s model in stark contradistinction to the model of philosophy assumed and implemented by Plantinga. As Cornelius Van Til points out, “Calvin’s theological effort was to set the biblical view of man and God squarely over against every form of man-centered philosophy.”[4] Plantinga has unsuccessfully distinguished between God-centered philosophy and man-centered philosophy. He has decidedly failed to follow Calvin in setting forth a philosophy that is “a conceptual expression of what Christ, in Scripture, has told him about the past, the present, and the future”[5] because he has let what “everyone or nearly everyone” agrees upon define what philosophy can and cannot prove (126).

We should not settle for a philosophical method that seeks to accommodate the blind opinions of natural man. Indeed, we should accept our brothers espousing philosophies similar to Plantinga’s with appropriate Christian warmth and fellowship. But, we should oppose their philosophy, despite whatever respectability it may gain us in the academy; for, to use the words of Paul, it is according to human tradition and not according to Christ (Col. 2:8).

In Knowledge and Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga offers much to the Reformed Christian by way of philosophically astute responses to the modern-day challenges to Christianity. Plantinga is a man with stout Christian convictions, and he should be respected as such. Nevertheless, his philosophical method falls short of the biblical imperative. His new book will subsequently leave the Reformed Christian longing for a more robust case for the full-orbed truth of Christianity. For such a robust case, I would gladly point the Reformed Christian to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s most esteemed apologist, Cornelius Van Til. In the writings of Van Til, the Reformed Christian will find the happy marriage between defense and offense—between philosophical critique and gospel proclamation—that is painfully lacking in many of Plantinga’s writings.

Endnotes

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[2] See James Douglas Baird, “God, Propositions, and Necessary Existence,” Reformed Forum (April 13, 2015), http://reformedforum.org/god-propositions-necessary-existence/.

[3] See Geerhardus Vos, “The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 1980), 20: “Above all, [the Bible] contains, if I may so call it, a divine philosophy of the history of redemption and of revelation in general outlines. And whosoever is convinced in his heart of the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and reads his Bible as the Word of God, cannot, as a student of Biblical Theology, allow himself to reject this divine philosophy and substitute for it another of his own making.”

[4] Cornelius Van Til, “Calvin as a Controversialist,” in Soli Deo Gloria: Essays in Reformed Theology: Festschrift for John H. Gerstner, ed. R. C. Sproul (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1976), 6. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), 1.5.12.

[5] Van Til, “Calvin,” 6.

James D. Baird is a member of Grace Presbyterian Church of Lookout Mountain (PCA) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, October 2015.

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Ordained Servant: October 2015

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