The following is a review of Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015). Plantinga is representative of the reformed epistemology movement. I may write more on this later, as I have wrestled greatly with the issue of what generates belief in God. As a self-avowed empiricist, I am hesitant to embrace anything that resembles a rationalistic approach to religious belief. Do we have innate knowledge of God, that precedes any empirical evidence or experience? At a very basic level, reformed epistemology believes that belief in God is not based upon evidence or philosophical argumentation. However, it would not be fair to say that Plantinga is somehow arguing that each person comes “pre-loaded” with the knowledge of God, prior to any experience. In his mind, there seems to be a distinction between “cognitive capacity” and “cognitive content.” It is this distinction that I will explore further in a related post. For now, let this review serve as an introduction to the discussion.
Alvin Plantinga characterizes Knowledge and Christian Belief as a “shorter and more user-friendly version” of his much larger work, Warranted Christian Belief. He notes that he has made a few minor changes of emphasis, but follows the same flow of thought. The original book was a 500 plus page philosophical treatise forming the concluding work of a three volume set on warrant. The chief issue that Plantinga explores is the justification of Christian belief (one of the central goals of reformed epistemology). He is responding to multiple variations of the claim that Christian belief is irrational. His goal is not to demonstrate that Christian belief is true (he most certainly believes it is). He is simply trying to establish if the Christian has warrant for holding to belief in the Christian faith. Are Christians justified? In the end he maintains that Christians do in fact have warrant, but not on the basis of philosophical argument.
Chapter one begins by exploring the fundamental philosophical obstacle to knowledge of God: Kant’s distinction between the world as we know it and the world as it really is. Kant’s insights have had an enduring impact on religious thought since he first published his Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Plantinga brilliantly points out that Kant’s premise is self-defeating (or at least as it is expressed in post-Kantian philosophy). The statement that we can’t think, say or know anything meaningful about God is a statement about God. If statements about God are meaningless, then the above statement (about God) is meaningless as well. The point is no longer valid. There really is no good reason to suppose that, if God exists, he couldn’t simply create people with the a priori capacity to know and think about him.
In Chapters two and three he goes on to demonstrate the idea that belief in God is properly basic. This is the critical point he is making in this work and what distinguishes his work as representative of reformed epistemology. Plantiga argues the widely accepted view that there are some beliefs which do not have to be established on the basis of propositional evidence (i.e. beliefs about our own mental life, self-evident beliefs, etc.). These are beliefs that are beyond doubt and that others cannot accuse us of being irrational or unjustified for holding. We don’t reason our way to these beliefs; they are merely thrust upon us. We can’t be unjustified in believing something that isn’t within our power not to believe. Plantinga is convinced that Christian belief falls within this category. God has instilled within his creation the cognitive capacity to form belief in God. Here Plantinga uses Frued’s own critique of religious belief against him by claiming that it is the unbeliever who has malfunctioning faculties. Unbelief in God is very much a result of the impact sin has on this sensus divinitatis. Much of this discussion is tied to insights gained from
Aquinas and Calvin. If the world was created by God, then he would have necessarily imprinted upon his creation the ability to know him. Of course, that’s a big if.
While the sensus divinitatis is damaged by sin, it is not obliterated. Knowledge of God is still properly basic. But how can one move from belief in God as properly basic, to belief in the Christian faith (i.e. Jesus, the authority of the Bible, etc.)? Can we say that the Christian faith is properly basic and therefore has warrant? Plantiga extends his argument to account for the internal work of the Holy Spirit, which moves the Christian to form these beliefs. These beliefs do not come to us through our senses, cognitive faculties, or even the sensus divinitatis. They are a divine gift. And if it is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerating the heart and leading the believer to form these beliefs, then she has no power to resist them. They are thrust upon her, much in the same way as belief in God is through the sensus divinitatis. They are produced by a “belief producing process that is functioning properly.” Thus, Plantinga maintains that Christian belief has warrant.
Doesn’t this mean that Christian belief gets its warrant from subjective religious experience? How would this be any different from others claiming contradictory beliefs on the basis of subjective experience? In response to this, Plantinga cautions that just because there is this experiential nature to faith, it does not mean that faith is a blind leap. Faith should never be contrasted with knowledge. All of this brings Plantinga to the exploration of defeaters. It is one thing to come to a belief beyond our control, quite another to stubbornly hold to it in the face of formidable evidence to the contrary. While a belief may initially have warrant, it can lose warrant (become irrational) if the circumstances that formed it change. Plantiga explores several possible defeaters, arguing that none of them diminish the warrant that Christians have in believing in God and the Christian faith.
Throughout this work, I continued to wonder if Plantinga would ever get to answer the question of “if” God in fact exists (given how his argument for warrant hinges on this condition). His response is simple: that is not the point of this work. Ultimately, he is convinced that the truth of belief in God is not something that can be established by argument.