Alvin Plantinga is a modern luminary of philosophy, known especially for his successful defeater for the logical problem of evil, a truly historic achievement in philosophy, and a significant undermining of the most formidable possible defeater to faith in the Christian concept of God (Catholicism, 2018; Logical Problem of Evil | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.; Plantinga, 2015, p. 115).
Knowledge and Christian Belief is Plantinga’s self-admitted “user friendly” redux of his landmark Warranted Christian Belief (Plantinga, 2000). Even so, for the neophyte to philosophy, it demands slow and multiple reads in some sections, and certainly tweaks the brain. As an introduction to the concept of warranted Christian belief and Plantinga’s Augustinian/Calvinistic model (A/C model), it seems to suffice.
He begins the discussion with the obligatory review of whether or not we can actually conceive of or talk of God coherently at all, given the infinite and perhaps ineffable nature of such a being. Plantinga rebuffs Emmanuel Kant’s idea that nothing is directly experienced, but only perceived, and since God is not perceived by the regular senses, must be perceived (impossibly) a priori, also known as “properly basic.”
Plantinga replies that not only could God create us with the faculties to experience or know at least of Him in a basic manner, Augustine and Calvin (and Plantinga) argue that he did! Additionally, Kant’s assumption already seems self-defeating since we are talking about a God that we supposedly can’t even conceive of. Morris addresses this objection in more detail (1997), and Plantinga’s redux is not comprehensive, but merely making the point that we can conceive of God at least in part, and that objections to the contrary are easily defeated.
The next interesting distinction Plantinga makes is the difference between de facto and de jure objections to the existence of God, i.e. factual deficiencies v. logical or moral deficiencies in the ideas regarding God. Interestingly, he is not just explaining this difference for the sake of clarity, but will later go on to explain how in the atheist objections, the de jure objections that belief in God is illogical or immoral are logically dependent on the de facto arguments about whether or not God exists, and so should be ignored or abandoned until a probable de facto argument against God’s existence is offered. Not that there are not possible defeaters for the de jure objections, but that such argumentation is meaningless if in fact God is shown not to exist.
Plantinga does review the primary de jure objections, arguing defeaters for all of them. These arguments include that (1) Christian exclusivism is arrogant (retort: if I have demonstrably better epistemic grounds, it is not arrogant to make such truth claims), (2) Christian belief is unjustified (retort: we have ample evidence for the probability of God’s existence, and are violating no moral duty or obligation in believing), and (3) Christian belief is irrational (retort: belief is rational, if not warranted, if
that belief is
(1) produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject to no dysfunction)
(2) in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for the cognitive faculties,
(3) according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth (2015, p. 28)
Of course, he spends a few pages explaining the components of this triad of attributes defining how beliefs can be rational and warranted, and this is the core of his approach. He goes on to rebuff irrationality arguments from both Freud and Marx by showing at which of the three steps they argue against the rationality of faith, and why their arguments fail. Interestingly, he does not deny that Freud’s wish-fulfillment (we are looking for a loving Father) is part of our makeup, but that this does not necessarily distort our perceptions or disprove the verity of our conclusions. In fact, if our faculties are not overly warped by this need (as they may also be by avarice, fear, dislike of the idea of God, etc.), it may actually be understood as a built-in feature designed by God to lead us to the truth. We should be careful to not use Freud’s accusation as a genetic fallacy in determining the truth of God’s existence. Our motives are worth considering, but they are not the arbiter of verity.
What is most fascinating is Plantinga’s description of how faith is formed, i.e. it is not primarily an intellectual conviction (though that could precede or follow the acquisition of belief) nor an experience (though it is accompanied by, or occasioned by experience), but rather, it is gained in a properly basic way, not preceded by argument, but by intuitive recognition in response to an actual work of the Spirit of God, the “inward instigation of the divine invitation,” as Aquinas put it (2015, p. 60).
I was struck by the commonness of this miraculous experience across the ages – that the very same thing experienced and documented by men like Luther and Edwards is the same as I experienced in my conversion decades ago. That alone seems to testify to a work that can not be understood or discovered through anything other than experience.
I do have a couple of criticisms of this book. First, he only addresses three of the many possible defeaters to Christian theism (historical biblical criticism, pluralism, and evil), and I wished for a more comprehensive list. Second, his discussion of the functions of the inner man in conversion, involving intellect, will, and affections, as well as the work of sealing of the heart, seem under-developed, and I would suggest that this may be because of Plantinga’s evangelical commitment to a bipartite anthropology, rather than the more robust tripartite view which I hold and hope to champion. However, as an introduction this subject by the philosopher who largely introduced this monumental suite of arguments, this book is worth the read.
Catholicism, B. E. for. (2018, June 16). “Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation. Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2018/06/logical-problem-of-evil-alvin-plantingas-decisive-refutation.html
Logical Problem of Evil | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved July 9, 2020, from https://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/
Morris, T. V., & V. Morris, T. (1997). Our Idea of God. Regent College Publishing.
Plantinga, A. (2000). Warranted Christian Belief (1 edition). Oxford University Press.
Plantinga, A. (2015). Knowledge and Christian Belief. Eerdmans.