Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith, Part 2

Plantinga_review_05092015Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief.  New York:  Oxford University Press. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Alvin Plantinga sees two basic classes of objections to Christian faith since the Enlightenment:

  1. The first objection he calls the de facto arguments—objections to the truth of Christian belief.
  2. The second objective he calls de jure arguments—objections often harder to pin down—more like innuendo than like a serious philosophical critique.

He further breaks down the de jure objection into 3 categories: Christian belief is unjustified, irrational, and unwarranted (viii-x). Let me address each of these 4 arguments in turn.

De Facto Objections to Faith. The most widely known de facto objection to faith is based on suffering (viii), but Plantinga sees these arguments as well known and straightforward to address (ix).

One objection has to do with discussing God’s transcendence.  Citing Gordon Kaufman (1972, 8), for example, Plantinga writes:

“The central problem of theological discourse, not shared with any other ‘language game’ is the meaning of the term ‘God’. ‘God” raises special problems of meaning because it is a noun which by definition refers to a reality transcendent of, and thus not locatable within, experience.”

Plantinga turns this argument on its head asking—did Kaufman (or, for that matter, Kant who he is paraphrasing) show (or prove) that this critique has any real merit? (5; 31)  This same response to other objections phrased primarily as slander or innuendo aimed at believers or God himself.  Plantinga observes: ”If God is omnipotent, infinitely powerful, won’t he be able to manifest himself in our experience, bring it about that we experience him?” (34)

In another example, when Freud objects to Christian faith because it is likely wish fulfillment, Plantinga asks: what is the problem?  Are you saying faith is like to be false? (x) It is hard to rebut a poorly articulated criticism which takes more the form of an ad hominine attack than a philosophical claim about truth. It is like the television show that repeatedly (and disproportionally) pictures Christian pastors as unsophisticated or morally corrupt, but offers no information to support for the implied character assassination—repeating a claim does not strengthen its merits, but it does wear out those targeted.

The implication in Plantinga’s rebuttal is that Christians are frequently too polite to unmask unfair criticism designed primarily to intimidate or shame believers.  Perhaps, for this reason, Plantinga focuses more on the 3 de jure objections (63).

Christian Faith is Unjustified.  Plantinga notes that critics claim that is unreasonable or unjustified, but the precise nature of their objection is unclear—it lacks cogence.  What exactly is the question?

He observes that the 3 traditional proofs of God’s existence—the cosmological[1], teleological[2], and ontological arguments[3]—provide a prima facia argument for God’s existence and basically rebut this criticism (68).

Plantinga explores the requirements of evidentialism, which argues: “that belief in God is rationally justifiable or acceptable only if there is good evidence for it. (70; 82)  He then observes that John Lock offers 4 kinds of knowledge:

  1. “Perceiving the agreement or disagreement of our ideas.” [judgment?]
  2. “…propositions about the contents of your own mind…”
  3. “…knowledge of other things of external objects around you.”
  4. “…demonstrative knowledge…know by a proportion by deducing it…” (75-77)

After a lengthy discussion of the classical requirements of evidentialism, Plantinga finds no de jure question to suggest that Christian faith is unjustified (107).

Christian Faith is Irrational. Plantinga asks: “what is it for a belief to be rational?” He observes these forms of rationality:

  1. “Aristoltelian rationality, the sense in which, as Aristole said, Man is a rational animal…
  2. Rationality as a proper function [not dysfunction or pathology 110];
  3. Rationality as within or conforming to the deliverance of reason;
  4. Means-ends rationality, where the question is whether a particular means someone chooses is , in fact, a good means to her ends; and
  5. Deontological rationality [or justification].” (109)

In his review of these different definitions of rationality, he finds “not much of a leg to stand on.” (135) One point that would suggest a rational criticism is when someone loves another person or people group sacrificially. If I put myself at risk in becoming a missionary to a dangerous place or people group, then in a real sense I am acting sub-rationally and those disadvantaged by my actions may criticize my rationality (or my motives) in various ways.

Christian Faith is Unwarranted. Plantinga observes that atheologians (Freud, Marx, Nietzsche) have criticized Christian belief as irrational but not in the sense described above—Nietzsche, for example, referred to Christianity as a slave religion (136). Freud described Christianity as “wish-fulfillment” and as an illusion[4] serving not a rational purpose, but serving psychological purposes (142). In Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” suggests more a type of cognitive dysfunction (141).

Plantinga concludes:

“when Freud and Marx say that Christian belief or theistic belief or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.” (151)

Plantinga accordingly concludes that the real criticism of “Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.” (153; 163).  In this context, warrant means:

“…a belief has warrant only if it is produced by cognitive faculties that are functioning properly, subject to no disorder or dysfunction—construed as including absence of impedance as well as pathology.” (153-154)

Plantinga’s strategy in analyzing the atheologian complaints accordingly is to discuss what they are not saying—not complaining about evidence, not complaining about rationality in the usual sense, not offering evidence that God does not exist—to eliminate the non-issues. What remains as their complaint is a twist on rationality—actually more of a rant—you must be on drugs or out of your mind—which is not a serious philosophical complaint except for the fact that so many people repeat it. So Plantinga politely calls this complaint a charge of cognitive dysfunction.

At this point, Plantinga has defined the de jure criticism of atheologians in a manner which can now be properly evaluated in philosophical sense[5]. The problem is not a problem per se with the existence of God (a metaphysical issue), but with the process of accepting a belief (an anthropological issue). This definition both clarifies and simplifies the development of a response.

In part 3 of this review, I will examine his response to this problem statement.


[1]Taylor (2006, 113) writes:  “God’s existence can be explained by the fact that he is perfect in nature and therefore necessarily existent.”

[2]Taylor (2006, 127) writes: “The traditional design argument focuses on things in nature that appear to be designed.”  Complexity in nature points to a grand designer the way that finding a watch on the beach points to the watch maker.

[3]“Anselm defined God as that than which nothing greater can be conceived” which is the most common ontological argument for God’s existence (

[4]Plantinga notes that an illusion, in contrast to a delusion, is not necessarily false (139).

[5] As I have observed elsewhere, when employing the scientific method of analysis it is frequently the case that the problem definition is the most challenging step. The steps often employed in the scientific method are:  felt need, problem definition, observation, analysis, decision, and responsibility bearing.   Stephen W. Hiemstra. June 2009. “Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?” pages 51-54 of Risk Management.  Society of Actuaries.  Accessed: 18 February 2014. Online:


Kaufman, Gordon.  1972.  God the Problem. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Taylor, James W. 2006.  Introducing Apologetics:  Cultivating Christian Commitment.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

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