Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith, Part 1

Plantinga_review_05092015Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  (Goto Part 2; Goto Part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Part 3 of my Longfield review ended with a rather frustrating assessment:

“The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense.  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon.  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith.” [1]

For most of the period since 1925, evangelicals have had a bit of a philosophical inferiority complex—having to take on faith that the confessional stance of the church since about the fourth century was not defensible in a rigorous philosophical sense.  It is at this point that Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief becomes both an important and interesting read.

The philosophical problem is more specifically found in epistemology—how do we know what we know?  Because Christianity is a religion based on truth claims, epistemology is not just nice to know—it is core tenant of the faith.  For example, Jesus said:

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32 ESV)

Being unable after 1925 to agree on the core confessions of the denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and evangelicals more generally were placed on the defensive. Faith increasingly became private matter as more and more the denomination withdrew from public life, from active evangelism and missions, and from teaching about morality.  Later, unable to meet the modern challenge, the denomination came to be coopted by postmodern philosophies—if faith is simply a strongly held value, then it will crumble when confronted with more deeply held beliefs.

Into this crisis of faith, Plantinga defines his work in these terms:

“This book is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief.  When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church.” (vii)

Notice that Plantinga has to both specify that he is writing about epistemology (theory of knowledge)—“intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief”— and specify what Christianity is—“what is common to the great creeds”.  Plantinga expands on this problem saying:

“Is the very idea of Christian belief coherent?…To accept Christian belief, I say, is to believe that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good person (a person without a body) who has created us and our world, who loves us and was willing to send his son into the world to undergo suffering, humiliation, and death in order to redeem us.” (3)

In other words, in his mind the measure of the depth of this crisis of faith extends to the very definition of the faith.

Alvin Plantinga wrote Warranted Christian Belief while working as the John A O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame [2].  He writes in 14 chapters divided into 4 parts:

Part 1: Is There a Question? (pages 1-66)

  1. Kant
  2. Kaufman and Hicks

Part 2: What is the Question? (67-166)

  1. Justification and the Classical Picture
  2. Rationality
  3. Warrant and the Freud-and-Marx Compliant

Part 3: Warranted Christian Belief (167-356)

  1. Warranted Belief in God
  2. Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences
  3. The Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model: Revealed in Our Minds
  4. The Testimonial Model: Sealed in Our Hearts
  5. Objections

Part 4: Defeaters (356-499)

  1.  Defeaters and Defeat
  2.  Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship
  3.  Postmodernism and Pluralism
  4.  Suffering and Evil

Plantinga lays out his argument in a lengthy preface and follows his chapters with an index.

Plantinga’s book focuses on two main points which he describes as:

  1. “An exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion” where he answers a “range of objections to the Christian belief”; and
  1. “An exercise in Christian philosophy…proposing an epistemological account of Christian belief from a Christian perspective.” (xiii)

In other words, Plantinga responds to objections the faith and lays out a model for understanding the philosophical acceptability of faith—an idea that he calls “warrant”.  Plantinga defines warrant as:

“warrant is intimately connected with proper function. More fully, a belief has warrant just it is produced by cognitive process or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment that is propitious for the exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true belief.” (xi)

The core discussion of warrant lays out what he refers to as the Aquinas/Calvin model of faith. He writes:  “Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin concur on the claim that there is a kind of natural knowledge of God.” (170). This innate knowledge of God given at birth he refers to as a “sensus divinitatis” which is triggered by external conditions or stimuli, such as a presentation of the Gospel (173).

Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief is an important contribution to epistemology because he meets the objections to faith head on and offers a plausible explanation for why Christian faith is reasonable, believable, and true. Christians need to be aware of these arguments both to know that their faith is defensible and to share this defense when questions arise.

Part of this argument is that if the existence of God cannot be logically proven and cannot be logically disproven then it is pointless to talk about logical proofs—the modern challenge to faith is essentially vacuous—empty without philosophically based merit. Faith rests on what is more reasonable and more consistent with experience—what beliefs are warranted, not mathematical proofs[3]. From Plantinga’s perspective, we accordingly do need not be defensive about our faith.

In this review, I have outlined Plantinga’s basic presentation.  In part 2, I will review the arguments against faith and, in part 3, I will look at Plantinga’s model of faith in greater depth.

 

[1] Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-11i)

[2] http://philosophy.nd.edu/people/alvin-plantinga.

[3]In financial modeling of complex firms, the rule of thumb is that it takes a model to kill a model—managing the firm without a model threats firm profitability and ultimate survival.

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