Proper Mental Function

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

“…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think⁠1 about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

As alluded to in earlier posts, many questions about information, learning, and decision processes have a core concern about proper mental function. This is especially true in view of the unity of feelings and thinking that we see throughout the New Testament, as when the Apostle Paul writes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)⁠2 Similar concerns arise in criticism about the reasonableness of faith.

Modern Complaints about Faith

Plantinga (2000, 136-142) 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. Freud described Christianity as “wish-fulfillment” and as an illusion serving not a rational purpose, but serving psychological purposes. In Marx’s description of religion as “the opium of the people” suggests more a type of cognitive dysfunction.

Plantinga (2000, 151) 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.”

Plantinga (2000, 153-154, 163) accordingly concludes that the real criticism of “Christian belief, whether true or false, is at any rate without warrant.” 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. 

Plantinga politely calls this complaint a charge of cognitive dysfunction. More recent critics are even less formal in their criticism.  Ganssle (2009, 4) observes that the New Atheists⁠3 do not bother to valid their hypotheses and maintain a deliberate strategy of innuendo that he describes as a Nietzschean genealogy—a genealogy given not to prove that one’s family includes royalty, but to discredit the family (Ganssle 2009, 136-137). This pattern of arguing dysfunction and innuendo makes it important to clarify what proper mental function looks like.

A Model of Mental Function

In outlining a proper mental function, Plantinga (2000, xi) defines: 

“warrant is intimately connected with proper [mental] 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.” 

He goes on to explain: 

“…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.” (Plantinga 2000, 153-154) 

We accordingly care a lot about the mental state of society when in comes to faith, as cited above in Philippians 4:8.

Education and Goodness

In this argument about proper mental function is a hint of the age old belief that faith and education are related. In developing the  discipline of study, we become are more open to truth, including the truth of God and God’s goodness. However, discipline is a necessary but insufficient condition for faith. Faith is an act requiring emotions and the mind working together. The mind alone cannot bring about faith.

Rational Thinking and Sin

Implicit in Plantinga’s concept of warrant is a preference for rational thinking, much like an economist would argue consumers consider all competing products, features, and prices before making a purchase. Proper time and effort are taken to consider all the facts pertinent to a purchase and assesses these facts independent of other consumers—no mandates from leaders or fads influence the ideal purchasing decision. Obviously, the economist also assumes that the consumer is not high on drugs, not subject to impulses brought about by psychiatric dysfunction, and able to afford the products under consideration. 

The point is that Plantinga’s model of proper mental function is a common feature in many fields of inquiry.

Interestingly, Plantinga cites the Apostle Paul in his rebuttal of atheistic critiques:

“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)

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 (Rom 1:22-25).  

Sin appears in Paul’s argument as a generic mental dysfunction that obscures rational decisions and destroys relationships by cutting us off from other people and from God. Stealing, adultery, lying, and disrespecting our parents all obviously undermine relationships oftentimes for selfish reasons and are irrational in an atmosphere of full-disclosure in a highly interdependent society. Even if the Ten Commandments are not displayed in every courtroom, many court proceedings could be avoided if everyone took the commandments seriously.


1 The Geek word for think, λογίζομαι, means: “to give careful thought to a matter, think (about), consider, ponder, let one’s mind dwell on “ (BDAG 4598, 2) The word also carries a mathematical connotation as with the word, reckon (BDAG 4598,1).

2 Thompson (2011, 107) characterizes the entire Letter to the Philippians as focused on developing the proper frame of mind (φρονέω e.g. Phil 1:7)

Ganssle (2009, 1-2) views the New Atheists as: Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Their work shares three things in common:  passion, belief not only in atheism but the danger of believing in God, and their status as public intellectuals speaking outside their fields of experience.


Ganssle, Gregory E.  2009. A Reasonable God: Engaging the New Face of Atheism. Waco: Baylor University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, James W. 2011. Moral Formation According to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Proper Mental Function

Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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