By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Alvin Plantinga begins his rebuttal of atheistic critiques citing the Apostle Paul’s words:
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20 ESV)
This is an interesting place to start because Paul goes on to share what is essentially the God’s curse for rejecting salvation under the new covenant in Christ. The curse is that the disbeliever is “given over to” (become a slave of) the desires of their own heart which has, of course, been corrupted by original sin. Paul’s assessment here is that disbelievers have specifically fallen into the sin of idolatry. This curse is not a random rant, as is often alleged.
Plantinga recaps the atheologian’s complaint with these words:
“What we saw is that this complaint is really the claim that Christian and other theistic belief is irrational in the sense that it originates in cognitive malfunction (Marx) or in cognitive proper function that is aimed at something other than the truth (Freud).” (167)
Behind modern atheism is a similar problem of idolatry where the idolatry is focused on technologies to manipulate creation physically (science) and other techniques (social, political, and psychological) to manipulate fellow human beings. It is interesting that only the church and faith could stand in the way of such Faustian manipulation.
Plantinga builds a conceptual model on the foundation articulated by Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin (A/C) based on Paul’s own words. The claim is offered that “there is a kind of natural knowledge of God.” (170). Calvin calls this knowledge sensus divinitatis which is:
“A disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity.” (171)
Plantinga offers 6 characteristics of this sensus divinitatis model:
- “ According to the A/C model, this natural knowledge of God is not arrived at by inference or argument…but in a more immediate way…In this regard, the sensus divinitatis resembles perception, memory, and a priori belief…”
- “Proper Basicality with Respect to Justification. On the A/C model, then, theistic belief as produced by the sensus divinitatis is basic…As I argued above…it is really pretty obvious that a believer in God is or can be deontologically justified.”
- “Proper Basicality with Respect to Warrant…Perceptual beliefs are properly basic in this sense: such beliefs are typically accepted in a basic way, and they often have warrant.”
- “Natural Knowledge of God. This capacity for knowledge of God is part of our original cognitive equipment, part of the fundamental epistemic establishment with which we have been created by God.”
- “Perceptual or Experiential Knowledge…knowledge of God ordinarily comes not through inference from other things one believes, but from a sensus divinitatis…To the believer, the presence of God is often palpable.”
- “Sin and Natural Knowledge of God…this natural knowledge of God has been compromised, weakened, reduced, smothered, overlaid, or impeded by sin and its consequences.” (175-184)
Plantinga summarizes with these words:
“a belief enjoys warrant when it is formed by properly functioning cognitive faculties in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth—which includes…the avoidance of error.” (184)
In a nutshell, God made us to accept belief in a natural, sober way and when we respond in faith our belief cannot be ridiculed as dysfunctional or in any way in error.
Plantinga then turns back to the atheological critics. For example, with respect to Freud, he writes:
“…according to the Heidelberg Catechism, the first thing [on coming to faith] I have to know is my sins and miseries. This isn’t precisely a fulfillment of one’s wildest dreams.” (195)
Obviously, sin is a problem for those who, like Freud, believe that faith is some kind of projection of desire onto God. Plantinga offers an interesting insight into sin’s pervasive and devastating impact on fallen humanity:
“Original sin involves both intellect and will, it is both cognitive and affective. On the one hand, it carries with it a sort of blindness, a sort of imperceptiveness, dullness, stupidity. This is a cognitive limitation that first of all prevents its victim from proper knowledge of God and his beauty, glory, and love; it also prevents him from seeing what is worth loving and what worth hating…But sin is also and perhaps primarily an affective disorder or malfunction. Our affections are skewed, directed to the wrong objects; we love and hate the wrong things.” (207-208).
Let me end my summary at this point.
Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief provides the reader with an interesting rebuttal to the main complaints of the modern atheists—Marx, Freud, and, to a lesser extent, Nietzsche—about faith. None appeal to scientific knowledge in their complaints; in fact, they offer little real evidence for their characterizations of faith. Religious faith is justified and immune from slander when approached soberly and in full knowledge of alternatives. While a typical reader would probably enjoy a thumbnail sketch of these arguments, Plantinga’s thoroughness offers comfort for those afflicted by the apologetic passions.
Plantinga’s work has one implication that deserves thought. If the modern critique of the Christian faith washes out ultimately as nothing more than unsophisticated slander, then philosophies and actions predicated on that slander are themselves without warrant—nothing more than rabbit-hole and, in some cases, a nightmare. What fruit has come of it that deserves saving and what fruit should be discarded? (Luke 76:43-44)
Having crawled out of the rabbit-hole and dusted ourselves off, what would hitting the reset button look like?
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” (Rom. 1:22-25 ESV) That is, by giving them over to their own desires, they receive the pagan’s curse.
 Goethe’s Faust (1806) sells his soul to the devil in exchange for access to all knowledge, especially transcendental knowledge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goethe%27s_Faust).