Faith Without Reasons?

A Review of Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga

James N. Anderson

Note: This essay was originally presented to a reading group of postgraduate systematic theology students at New College, University of Edinburgh. It is pitched at an introductory level, specifically for readers who have may some familiarity with Plantinga’s work but not with his recent writings in epistemology, and does not pretend to any originality (except, perhaps, for the closing comments on theological paradox).

Introduction

“I do think the Roman Catholic religion is a disease of the mind which has a particular epidemiology similar to that of a virus.” The sentiments of Richard Dawkins, here expressed in an interview by Skeptic magazine,[1] may seem a mite strong for many non-believers; but even so, a widespread contention persists that there is something mentally out-of-sorts, or epistemically sub-par, or simply irrational about belief in God (particularly when that deity is conceived in ways historically associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition). Does this charge have some weight? Moreover, what exactly is the charge here? Just what are the noetic qualities or virtues that religious believers are said to lack?

It is to answering such pressing questions that Alvin Plantinga sets his hand in Warranted Christian Belief,[2] the third volume in his critically acclaimed Warrant trilogy and widely regarded as one of the most important contributions to the philosophy of religion in recent years. In this work Plantinga not only sets forth a detailed exposition of the epistemology of religious belief (specifically, Christian theistic belief), but also takes on (and arguably decimates) some of the most serious contemporary objections to the rationality of such belief. The thesis of the book has wide-ranging implications for work in natural theology and Christian apologetics. It deserves to become a classic.

Having made clear my enthusiasm for WCB from the outset, I will begin by explaining some of the background to the book and the author’s purposes in writing it, before moving on to review its structure and main arguments. I will conclude by commenting on Plantinga’s success in achieving his purposes, as well as mentioning what I consider to be some productive avenues of further research based on his thesis.

Background: The Basicality Thesis

WCB represents the culmination and maturation of Plantinga’s thinking on epistemology over the course of his academic career. In God and Other Minds,[3] Plantinga examined the traditional arguments both for and against God’s existence, concluding that all fall well below the standard of compelling proof. Intriguingly, however, he proceeded to argue that the rational respectability of theistic belief need not be thought any the worse in the face of such a verdict. In fact, belief in God appears to be on a par (epistemically speaking) with belief in other minds. While there are no successful arguments for the latter (Plantinga purports to show), it is nonetheless considered a rational belief to hold (given that there are no successful arguments against it); this being so, we should not think that belief in God suffers under any lesser epistemic credentials simply for lacking successful arguments in its favour.[4]

In his later essay ‘Reason and Belief in God’,[5] Plantinga further developed his notion of the ‘basicality’ of belief in God, i.e. the legitimacy of holding theist beliefs without those beliefs being evidentially ‘based’ on other (non-theistic) beliefs. Arguing against both ‘evidentialism’ (the view that it is wrong to hold any belief without sufficient evidence) and ‘classical foundationalism’ (the view that beliefs are only rational if self-evident, incorrigible, evident to the senses, or held on the basis of other rational beliefs), Plantinga defended the ‘Reformed’ view that belief in God can be ‘properly basic’ — that is, like memory beliefs and perceptual beliefs, it can be perfectly rational without being held on the basis of other beliefs.

Ten years later, Plantinga turned his analytical skills to an analysis of knowledge in general in the first two volumes of his Warrant trilogy.[6] Defining ‘warrant’ as that which (in sufficient measure) distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief, he argued that none of the extant contemporary theories of knowledge — varieties of classical deontologism, internalism, coherentism, and reliabilism — offered a satisfactory analysis of warrant. On the basis of various imaginative counterexamples,[7] Plantinga maintained that in each case the conception of ‘justification’ or ‘warrant’ propounded was either not necessary for knowledge, or not sufficient for knowledge, or both. Plantinga proceeded to argue that these counterexamples (as well as the classic ‘Gettier’ cases) teach us that what is lacking in current analyses of knowledge is the notion of proper function, i.e. of beliefs being formed by noetic processes functioning in the manner in which they were ‘designed’ (whether by God or by evolution) to function. In Warrant and Proper Function, Plantinga fleshed out in more detail his basic contention that “a belief has warrant if and only if it is produced by cognitive faculties functionally properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true belief”[8] by addressing various objections, making some important refinements, and suggesting how his analysis of warrant might cash out in terms of the various types of knowledge we possess (a priori, perceptual, inductive, etc.).[9]

Warrant and Christian Belief

Warranted Christian Belief first and foremost represents Plantinga’s application of the conclusions of his previous Warrant volumes in a more rigorous defence of the claim in ‘Reason and Belief in God’ that theistic belief can be not only rational, but rational even in the absence of supporting beliefs or arguments. In essence, WCB is Plantinga’s thorough answer to the question, “Is Christian belief intellectually acceptable?” — but in sharp contrast to the received view in secular philosophical circles, Plantinga’s answer is a resounding affirmative (albeit with one crucial qualification, discussed shortly). Plantinga thus characterises his book as a response to the de jure objection to Christian belief (i.e. “Christian belief is unjustified, or irrational, or unwarranted, or otherwise epistemically under par, regardless of whether it turns out to be true or false”) rather than the related but logically distinct de facto objection (i.e. “Christian belief is false or probably false”).

The book is divided into four parts. In the first, Plantinga considers the bold claim that it is not possible even in principle to have knowledge of God, because human beings do not (and could not) have cognitive access to such a being. The importance of Plantinga’s addressing this contention should be obvious, since if true it would render the de jure objection to Christian belief irrelevant (or worse, incoherent); if beliefs about God are impossible per se then it naturally follows that rational beliefs about Him are ruled out.

Plantinga begins by assessing the classic argument of Kant (or at least, commonly attributed to him): God inhabits the noumenal realm; our mental concepts only apply to phenomena and not to noumena; ergo, our concepts do not apply to God (and thus we cannot think about God ‘as He really is’). Plantinga considers the two most popular interpretations of Kant’s position regarding the relationship between noumena and phenomena (the traditional ‘two worlds’ view and the more recent ‘one world’ view) and shows convincingly that both positions suffer from either incoherence or debilitating implausibility. He then turns his sights on two contemporary philosophers of religion, Gordon Kaufmann and John Hick, who also express a Kantian skepticism about theological predication; but concludes that, even on the most charitable readings, their arguments suffer the same problems as those of their 18th-century predecessor.

Having dispatched the most prominent objections to the idea that we can even pose the de jure question, Plantinga turns in the second part of WCB to the ‘metaquestion’, namely: Just what is the relevant question? What is it, in epistemic terms, that Christian belief is accused of lacking? Plantinga begins by considering the idea of justification, construed (following Locke and various more recent luminaries) in a deontological manner, according to which a belief is justified for a person provided they have flouted no ‘epistemic duties’ by holding it. He argues persuasively that a believer in God can clearly be justified in this sense — and that the de jure question posed thus is of negligible interest, given that the answer is so obvious. He then considers various concepts of rationality, showing in each case that either the concept in question is irrelevant or it can apply to theistic belief (and trivially so).

Finally, Plantinga turns to the idea of warrant, as explicated in his previous writings in terms of proper function. He considers two classic examples of thinkers who argued (or rather asserted) that religious belief lacks such warrant: Sigmund Freud, who considered such belief to be the product of wish fulfilment (which, although often serving a useful function, is certainly not aimed at the production of true beliefs); and Karl Marx, who contended that such belief is the result of some form of cognitive dysfunction. Plantinga concludes that this objection to theistic belief — that it lacks warrant — is indeed the most relevant, and most serious, form of the de jure objection.

The scene is thus set for part three of WCB, in which Plantinga confronts the claim that theistic belief (Christian or otherwise) lacks warrant (and thus cannot constitute knowledge even if true). He begins by setting forth a model, inspired by the writings of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin (in turn inspired by biblical passages such as Romans 1:18-20), according to which human beings are endowed with a special cognitive faculty known as the sensus divinitatis (lit. ‘the sense of divinity’). The idea here is that the sensus divinitatis functions, under the appropriate circumstances (when for example, like Kant, we consider “the starry heavens above and the moral law within”), to automatically produce in a person the belief that God, a being possessing maximal power, knowledge and goodness, exists. This ‘Aquinas/Calvin model’ finds excellent support from both Scripture and the Christian tradition; thus, if Christianity is true, the model (or something close) is also likely to be true. Furthermore, argues Plantinga, the beliefs produced by the sensus divinitatis would be attributable to a cognitive faculty functionally properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true belief — in short, such beliefs would be warranted.

Turning again to the complaints of Freud and Marx, Plantinga notes that both men (and those who follow in their footsteps) quite evidently base their theories of religious belief on the assumption that theism is false. In fact, they do not even argue for that assumption; they merely assert it or take it as a given. Plantinga happily notes in agreement that if Christian theism is false, then Christian belief is most probably unwarranted. But on the basis of the A/C model, he further notes that if Christian theism is true, then Christian belief is most probably warranted. Plantinga takes it that the failure of the Freudian and Marxian objections are merely illustrations of a more general principle, one of the most significant theses of WCB: that the de jure question regarding Christian belief cannot be answered independently of the de facto question. In other words, stances such as the following are no longer tenable:

“Well, I certainly don’t know whether theistic belief is true — who could know a thing like that? — but I do know this: it is irrational, or unjustified, or not rationally justified, or contrary to reason or intellectually irresponsible or …” (WCB, p. 191)

Having set out this basic model for theistic belief, Plantinga proceeds to discuss the question of the noetic effects of sin: although possessing the sensus divinitatis, human beings have become corrupted by sin, affecting both the will and the intellect, and resulting in the distortion and dysfunction of that cognitive faculty (such as absent or false beliefs about God). In the closing sections of this chapter, he considers the provocative question of whether cognitive dysfunction in our religious beliefs can have an adverse effect on our other beliefs, epistemically speaking. In answering affirmatively, Plantinga rounds off with a highly provocative argument originally suggested in the final chapter of Warrant and Proper Function to the effect that an epistemologically self-conscious naturalist will find all of his knowledge under threat: for such a person should recognise that the probability of his cognitive faculties being reliable, given a naturalistic account of their origins, is either low or inscrutable, thus furnishing him with a defeater for all of his beliefs.

In the following two chapters, Plantinga explains how not only belief in God (i.e. generic theism) but also belief in the “great things of the gospel” (i.e. full-blown Christian belief) can be warranted. In the latter case, the “internal instigation of the Holy Spirit” is operative: a person reads or hears the divine testimony recorded in Scripture, and the Holy Spirit works supernaturally to impress it on that person’s mind and heart in such a way that the person comes to embrace those truths. And in this case, just as that of the sensus divinitatis, Plantinga explains, it is not difficult to see how the conditions for warrant may be met. Nevertheless, a natural question at this point is why such an elaborate scheme should be required at all. Why should God resort to supernatural intervention in order to secure warranted belief in the Christian story, rather than the ordinary processes of knowledge acquisition (observation, inference, etc.). Plantinga’s response is that in practice it would prove extremely difficult to secure warranted Christian beliefs in this manner. In short, chains of evidential inference (such as those favoured by Richard Swinburne, among others) aimed at showing the essential claims of the Christian faith to be sufficiently probable to merit belief fall foul of ‘the principle of dwindling probabilities’: although each subconclusion of the historical case may be shown probable with respect to its immediate premises, the cumulative effect is such that the final conclusions are rendered rather less than probable with respect to the original premises.[10]

Part three of WCB closes with a consideration of various objections to the ‘extended A/C model’, including Richard Gale’s argument for the impossibility of cognitive religious experiences, and Michael Martin’s argument to the effect that if Christian theistic belief can be granted ‘properly basic’ status then such a privilege cannot fairly be denied to any number of crazy beliefs (such as voodooism, flat earthism, and faith in the Great Pumpkin). Space forbids a summary of Plantinga’s rebuttals; suffice it to say, each objection is deemed to be based on a misunderstanding of the claims of the A/C model, or flawed argument, or both.

Suppose then that Plantinga is correct thus far: that if Christian belief is true then it may also be warranted by virtue of arising from properly functioning cognitive faculties aimed at true belief production. Is that the end of the story regarding the epistemic credentials of Christian believers? Not quite. Plantinga recognises that a critic might well grant that Christian belief (if true) can be properly basic and prima facie warranted, but still maintain that certain circumstances, evidence or arguments can serve as defeaters for such belief — perhaps going so far as to suggest that the acquisition of such defeaters is inevitable for any educated and reflective person. In the final part of WCB, Plantinga therefore discusses the nature of defeaters and considers four main contenders for the role of Christian belief defeaters: (1) projective theories of religious belief; (2) so-called ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible; (3) the spectres of postmodernism and pluralism; and (4) suffering and evil. After setting out what he takes to be the most plausible forms of each candidate, Plantinga argues persuasively that each fails: either by begging the de facto question or by falling foul of unwarranted inferences.

Regarding (2), for example, Plantinga asks whether the common conclusions of ‘historical biblical criticism’ (HBC), which in many cases conflict with traditional Christian beliefs about the identity of Jesus, the occurrence of miracles, and so forth, should be thought of as defeaters for those traditional beliefs. The problem here, Plantinga avers, is that HBC favours a methodology which purports to ‘bracket out’ theological assumptions (about God’s action in the world, the authorship of Scripture, etc.) in order to qualify as a truly ‘scientific’ discipline. Now, practitioners of HBC are presumably within their rights to define and conduct their trade as they see fit; but why should anyone think that Christians in general are obliged to share their pared-down methodology when reflecting on their own religious beliefs? After all, if those beliefs (or something in the vicinity) are true then it is quite likely that (by virtue of the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit) they are also warranted — indeed, warranted to a degree sufficient to give them good reason to reject the skeptical results of HBC. The point here, as elsewhere in WCB, is that critics of traditional Christian beliefs have erroneously bypassed the de facto question (“Is it true?”) in their eagerness to pronounce on the de jure question (“Is it rational, warranted, etc.?”). To put things another way: in the absence of any good reasons to think the belief unwarranted, why should Christians not bring their belief that the Bible is divinely inspired to bear (as with any other presumed-as-warranted beliefs) on their interpretation of the New Testament documents?[11]

Assessment: Are Plantinga’s Conclusions Warranted?

Does WCB succeed in showing that Christian belief is intellectually acceptable? In my view, it certainly succeeds in showing that if Christianity is true, then Christian belief is warranted (at least in normal circumstances). Plantinga does not tackle — and indeed, does not purport to tackle — the question of whether the antecedent is true. This may strike some readers as an anticlimax and even as a glaring omission. Nonetheless, Plantinga’s exposition is highly significant insofar as (a) it provides a persuasive model for the rationality of Christian belief and (b) it turns back the de jure objector to the de facto question. No one can charge Christians with intellectual dereliction or dysfunction without taking on the more demanding task of showing their beliefs to be outright false.[12]

Plantinga’s book covers a great deal of philosophical ground, doing so with analytical rigour and thoroughness, yet in a congenial, witty, and readable manner. WCB is sufficiently detailed and dense as to satisfy the argumentative demands of the academic philosopher, but will also be of benefit to the well-informed theologian, pastor or Christian layman. Despite its weight, however, it inevitably raises a whole host of subsequent questions and research issues that remain unaddressed — as Plantinga himself acknowledges. In the remainder of this review, I will take the opportunity to highlight what I consider to be some of the most interesting such questions.

First of all, an exegetical concern. Plantinga maintains that his inspiration for his A/C model for warranted theistic belief comes primarily from the writings of Aquinas and Calvin regarding the sensus divinitatis. While both theologians surely had much of relevance to say on this matter, it is not so clear that they conceived of the s.d. along similar lines to Plantinga; that is, as a cognitive faculty or process which, under the appropriate circumstances, produces knowledge about, or awareness of, God. Rather, they appear to identify the s.d. with the knowledge or awareness itself.[13] This latter view seems to align better with what Paul actually states in Romans 1, namely, that humans possess knowledge of God (not merely a knowledge-producing faculty). If this interpretation of the Christian tradition is correct, then a rethinking of the A/C model is in order to accommodate this emphasis.[14]

A second question concerns the implications of Plantinga’s thesis for apologetics: Does the proper basicality of Christian belief render natural theology and classical evidentialist argumentation redundant, or does a worthwhile role remain for such endeavours? If Plantinga is correct, will the future study of the classical theistic arguments be anything more than that of a historical curiosity? It seems that natural theologians need not fret too much about their livelihoods. Even if the average Christian holds his or her beliefs basically (and with warrant), there are still some Christians who testify to having adopted their beliefs (at least initially) on the basis of persuasive argumentation.[15] Moreover, a good case can be made that natural theology and historical apologetics are still useful (a) as defeater-defeaters for those whose beliefs face being undermined by critical objections and (b) as evidential support for important second-level epistemic beliefs (“Do I know that I know that Christ rose from the dead?”). Significant work has already begun in developing this realignment of traditional theistic arguments and Christian evidentialism.[16]

One further issue — and one to which WCB doesn’t speak at all, on my reading — surrounds the question of theological paradox. If, as many critics of Christian theism (not to mention a significant number of its advocates) have held,[17] the conjunction of certain Christian doctrines leads to apparent contradictions, does this fact constitute a defeater for Christian belief? This pressing question needs to be addressed in our time as much as in any. Plantinga’s own response, I surmise, would be that such difficulties only arise from misunderstandings or misstatements of Christian doctrines: in every case, the doctrines in question can be formulated in such a way as to avoid any appearance of contradiction. Although the point cannot be argued here, I suspect that rather more needs to be said and that mere reformulation of Christian doctrines will not suffice, if orthodoxy is to be preserved. Nevertheless, I believe that Plantinga’s arguments in WCB provide at least the groundwork for a comprehensive response to the charge of epistemic defeat in the face of theological paradox, although to date the project of developing this thesis remains to be undertaken in earnest.[18]

New College, University of Edinburgh, April 2002


[1] Skeptic, 3:4 (1995).

[2] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000); hereafter, WCB.

[3] Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Cornell University Press, 1967).

[4] More recently, Plantinga has conceded that the standard he applied for judging the ‘success’ of a theistic argument was unreasonably stringent. As he noted in the preface to the 1990 edition of God and Other Minds, “no philosophical arguments of any consequence meet that standard, and the fact that theistic arguments do not is not as significant as I thought.”

[5] In: Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstoff (eds.), Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God (University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).

[6] Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate (Oxford University Press, 1993); Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford University Press, 1993).

[7] Two of the most memorable being ‘The Case of the Epistemically Inflexible Climber’ and ‘The Case of the Epistemically Serendipitous Lesion’.

[8] WCB, p. 498.

[9] Further critical discussion of Plantinga’s epistemology can be found in Jonathan Kvanvig (ed.), Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga’s Theory of Knowledge (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996).

[10] Not surprisingly, Swinburne has taken exception to this assessment of his apologetic project; an exchange between the two philosophers has been published in Religious Studies 37:2 (2001), pp. 203-14.

[11] As Plantinga comments in another context regarding the arbitrary ‘bracketing out’ of a subset of one’s beliefs: “I could probably get home this evening by hopping on one leg; and conceivably I could climb Devil’s Tower with my feet tied together. But why would I want to?” (‘Advice to Christian Philosophers’, Faith and Philosophy 1 (1984), pp. 253-71.)

[12] Should any reader doubt that the de jure question is the primary focus of prominent critics of theism or Christianity, consider Michael Martin’s statement of purpose in writing his atheological tour de force: “My object is to show that atheism is a rational position and that belief in God is not” (Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Temple University Press, 1990, p. 24). Consider too the title of J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism: the ‘miracle’ is not that theism is true, but that it has a “continuing hold on the minds of many reasonable people” (The Miracle of Theism, Clarendon Press, 1982, p. 12).

[13] See, e.g., Calvin’s Institutes, I.3.

[14] For documented criticisms of Plantinga on this point, see: Michael Sudduth, ‘Plantinga’s Revision of the Reformed Tradition: Rethinking our Natural Knowledge of God’, Philosophical Books 43:2 (2002).

[15] C.S. Lewis provides one famous example. It should be further noted that the two means of acquiring religious beliefs distinguished here need not be mutually exclusive; a combination of intuition, investigation, and inference may be involved in some cases.

[16] For example: Stephen J. Wykstra, ‘Toward a Sensible Evidentialism: On the Notion of “Needing Evidence”’, in William L. Rowe and William J. Wainwright (eds.), Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed. (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1998); Michael Sudduth, ‘The Internalist Character and Evidentialist Implications of Plantingian Defeaters’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 45 (1999), pp. 167-87; Michael Sudduth, ‘Proper Basicality and the Evidential Significance of Internalist Defeat: A Proposal for Revising Classical Evidentialism’, in G. Brüntrup and R.K. Tacelli (eds.), The Rationality of Theism (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999).

[17] On the atheist side: Michael Martin, Atheism, esp. chapter 12; Richard Gale, On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). On the Christian side: Donald M. Baillie, God Was In Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement, 2nd ed. (Faber and Faber, 1961), esp. chapter 5; Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974).

[18] My thanks to Michael Sudduth for comments on a draft of this paper.