Alvin Plantinga. Warranted Christian Belief. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Alvin Plantinga is a renowned Christian philosopher. I first heard
of him when I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. I was taking
William Abraham’s class on “Crossing the Threshold of Divine
Revelation,” and Professor Abraham may have mentioned to us that
Plantinga was speaking at Boston College. And so some friends and I
went to Boston College to hear Alvin Plantinga. To be honest, I did not
quite know what to make of Plantinga’s lecture. Plantinga seemed to me
to be assuming the truth of Christianity, without attempting to provide
it with any foundation of evidence. My friends and I wondered if there
was more to Plantinga’s ideas that we were not getting.
The next morning, I asked Professor Abraham what he thought of
Plantinga’s lecture, and Professor Abraham responded that he was up late
at night, taking notes, trying to unpack what Plantinga had said.
Later on in the class, Abraham gave a lecture that summarized
Plantinga’s thought. From what I remember of that lecture, Plantinga
believed that Christianity was a coherent belief system, and that humans
had something within them that allowed them to sense the divine. I was
later talking with a fellow student about presuppositional
apologetics. The concept did not make much sense to me, to tell you the
truth: what, you just presuppose that Christianity is true?
The student replied to me that there’s more to it than that, that some
of the issue relates to Christianity being a coherent belief system.
That reminded me of what Professor Abraham had said about Plantinga, and
I began to suspect that Plantinga might not be the sort of apologist
who seeks to rest Christianity on the foundation of evidence; rather, he
might be a presuppositional apologist.
I would hear Plantinga speak again, this time at Harvard Divinity
School. To be honest, I did not understand his lecture because it was
loaded with logical equations. Years later, after I checked out Warranted Christian Belief from the library, I decided to listen to the episode of the radio program Unbelievable on which Plantinga was a guest (see here
to access the link to that). Plantinga seemed to be arguing that
naturalism (a belief that excludes the supernatural) and evolution are
mutually contradictory. If there is no God, Plantinga appeared to be
arguing, how can we trust our minds, which lead us to the conclusion
that evolution is true? Plantinga doubted that naturalism was
sufficient to explain how we arrived at the ability to make
determinations about what is true and what is false. My impression, from reading wikipedia’s article on Plantinga’s argument and also Plantinga’s discussion of this topic in Warranted Christian Belief, is
that Plantinga does not believe that fully knowing what is true is
always necessary for human survival, and so he doubts that natural
selection by itself can account for how we got that skill. (My question
is “Why not?” The skill helps us to survive, even if there are things
that we know that are unrelated to our survival.)
All of that said, what are some of my thoughts about Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief?
Well, as with that second lecture of Plantinga’s that I heard, there
were parts of the book that I did not understand, on account of the
logical equations. Moreover, I was not always paying close, intense
attention to Plantinga’s analogies. But there were many parts of the
book that I did understand, and so I will comment on those. I apologize for any misunderstandings on my part.
One topic that stood out to me in reading Plantinga’s book was
foundationalism: Is there a foundation for truth-claims, particularly a
foundation of evidence or logical argument? When it comes to
Christianity, does a person have warrant to accept it, or should
Christianity be rejected because it appears to lack the support of logic
and evidence? Plantinga’s response seems to be that one can have warrant to accept Christianity.
According to Plantinga, Christianity, when understood properly, is a
coherent and internally consistent belief system. We have within us the
ability to sense the divine, since there are times when we feel guilty
or when we marvel at the majesty of God’s handiwork, and yet that
ability has been clouded by our sinfulness and selfishness. But
God confirms to certain people’s hearts that Christianity is true,
allowing them to see the beauty of God’s character. This work of the
Holy Spirit in people’s hearts, Plantinga argues, is what makes their
belief in Christianity warranted.
But isn’t this rather subjective? Couldn’t there be some
objective evidence out there that Christianity is true, evidence that
can is available to everyone, not just those God privileges to receive
the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit? Well, Plantinga
does not appear to accept a lot of classical apologetic arguments, such
as the one that says that we know Christianity is true because of the
alleged evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. Plantinga does not
believe that argument is iron-clad. And, against the charge
that believing in God is simply accepting something that has no logical
or evidentiary foundation, Plantinga appeals to philosophical
skepticism. How do we know anything is true? Is there any
solid evidence that our memories are reliable, or that the world outside
of us is real? I’m somewhat doubtful that Plantinga takes this
skepticism overly seriously: after all, he says that skepticism
about the reality of the outside world will not help us after we leave
our study. I’m not sure if he has some way to get us back to believing
that there is a world out there that we can rationally and reliably
discern: he mentions Descartes’ view that God’s existence is what
assures us of this, but I could not tell if Plantinga was agreeing with
Descartes here. I should also note that Plantinga more than
once challenges other views because he says that they lack evidence or
logical support: he asks, for example, what the evidence is that
Christians believe in God due to wish-fulfillment or insecurity. Does Plantinga require other views to have evidence, while exempting Christianity from that requirement?
Plantinga’s belief in the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit
proves to be significant in some of his other arguments. The existence
of different religious beliefs undercuts the truth of Christianity?
Hey, just because not everyone accepts Christianity, that doesn’t mean
it isn’t true, Plantinga responds (albeit with sophistication).
Suffering and evil call into question the existence of a loving God?
Hey, why should a Christian disregard the illumination he or she has
personally received on account of the existence of suffering and evil,
as if it’s obvious that God has no reason for God’s ways of running the
world? Plantinga’s arguments here are not bad, I guess, but
they strike me as rather diversionary. For example, on pluralism, I
wouldn’t say that the existence of different religions means that it’s
arrogant to accept one of those religions, or by itself entails that
Christianity is false. I would, however, ask whether a loving God would
judge people with eternal damnation in hell for not accepting
Christianity, when it’s not obvious to them that Christianity is true,
with all of the religions out there for them to choose from.
One chapter in Plantinga’s book that I found rather disappointing was
the one about the historical-critical method of interpreting the
Bible. Plantinga was attempting to show that it is not strong enough to
undermine the truth of Christianity. The chapter was all right
in that it discussed the different schools of historical-criticism, but
it did not seem to address one of historical-criticism’s most
significant challenges: that it highlights the theological diversity of
the biblical writings. That has the potential to undermine the idea
that Christianity or the Bible represent a coherent,
internally-consistent belief system. I wonder how Plantinga
would address that. Would he try to harmonize and flatten out the
biblical contradictions? Would he say that God has a purpose behind
them? Or would he say that they’re not important, since they don’t
detract from the big picture, which is God’s act of salvation in Jesus
There were some cases in which the footnotes provided the most
interesting discussions in the book. For example, one question that I
have when people say that God reveals his truth to people’s hearts is
why there are so many Christians out there with incomplete
understanding, if God is revealing the truth to them. Why do Christians
disagree with each other over doctrine, if God is revealing the truth
to all of their hearts? In one footnote, Plantinga says that we
don’t entirely know what numbers are, yet we can still know that
mathematics works. For Plantinga, God is somehow at work in the hearts
of Christians, revealing to them the truth, even if their understanding
is incomplete and they disagree with one another.
Probably the biggest reason that I found this book valuable was its
interaction with theological and philosophical thought: Kant, John Hick,
Gordon Kaufman, David Hume, and the list goes on. I learned that there
are different ways that Kant has been interpreted, and that some argue
that David Hume was a theist. There were many times when I agreed with
Plantinga’s evaluation of certain thinkers’ thought: for example, I have
long been confused by the concept of negative theology, the notion that
we can only know what God is not, not what God is.
As Plantinga notes, we cannot really escape making positive statements
about God. I also appreciated Plantinga’s argument that God can have
emotions: that this does not mean that God is a passive recipient of
emotional stimuli, but rather that God acts in a way that demonstrates
God’s love. I have long questioned whether theists should be so
committed to a Greek philosophical conception of the divine.
But I wonder: Is Plantinga’s interaction with philosophical
thought even necessary, if what is truly important is the inward
illumination of the Holy Spirit? Plantinga interacts with Kant, Hick,
and Kaufman because he is trying to dispute any notion that they have
shown successfully that humans cannot know anything about God. But why
care about what they think? If a person knows God after being
illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is it really important what Kant, Hick,
and Kaufman say? The person knows God, and no one can take that away
from her. Or is Plantinga interacting with these philosophers because,
notwithstanding his rejection of foundationalism, he still wants to show
that Christianity is a coherent belief system—-that, even if it has no
evidence backing it up, it is still consistent with reason?
I’ll close this already long post by speaking briefly about the
inward illumination of the Holy Spirit. I recently listened to a sermon
in which a pastor was incredulous that there were Christians who were
becoming atheists. He was skeptical that they truly knew God over the
many years that they were in church, if they could simply wake up one
day and conclude that God did not exist. The thing is, there
are many people who have said the sinner’s prayer, who go to church, and
who try to believe in the Bible, and yet they do not know that
Christianity is true. And there are some who think that they know, but
that’s only because they’ve never been exposed to sources that question
it. My hunch is that these are the sorts of Christians who become
atheists. And is that their fault? They did what Christianity presents
as the right things: accepting Jesus, going to church, reading the
Bible. If God does not come through and reveal himself to their hearts,
which Plantinga says God does for certain people, is it their fault
that they left Christianity and became atheists?
And does God revealing himself to people’s hearts enable them to know
that God exists? Plantinga’s argument appears to be that it does, and
yet in one place he refers to John Calvin’s statement that a Christian
may find himself doubting God’s love. Doesn’t that call into question
the idea that God truly reveals himself to people’s hearts? Or maybe
God does so, and yet that does not presto-chango make us perfect?
In any case, this is a good book. It’s actually the third volume of a
series that Plantinga did on warrant, so, in a sense, I jumped in at
the third act of the play! But Plantinga did mention some resources
that I may want to check out, such as William Alson’s Perceiving God.