Alvin PLANTINGA. Knowledge and Christian Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. $16.00 pb. Pp. 129. ISBN: 978-0-8028-7204-3. Reviewed by John V. APCZYNSKI, Professor emeritus, St. Bonaventure University, 14778-0012.
Alvin Plantinga is major contributor to the development of an intellectual defense of Christian faith within the analytic philosophical tradition. Early in his career he successfully defeated the claim that the reality of evil was logically incompatible with the acceptance of a notion of a benevolent God. Subsequently he challenged the assumptions of classical foundationalism by exposing its self-referential incoherence and defending the view that some beliefs about perception, for example, are validly understood to be “properly basic.” Then in Warranted Christian Belief (2000) he presented an argument defending his claim that fundamental Christian beliefs are entitled to be taken as properly basic as well. This was a technical work of analytic philosophy which was, unfortunately, inaccessible to many Christians and even university students. In this work Plantinga attempts to remedy this by paring down his technical discussion and presenting the main features of his argument, thereby making it more accessible. This allows the rigorous strengths of the analytic style of philosophizing to be highlighted while simultaneously exposing some of its more problematic assumptions.
Plantinga begins with the possibility of our knowledge of God. Since “knowledge” is expressed through propositions, Plantinga intends to make a strong case that, even though it is correct to affirm that we cannot “comprehend” God (5), this does not entitle us to claim we do not know anything of God. He implies that theologians, such as Gordon Kaufman, who argue that our concepts about God are human constructs that aim to capture insights about the divine do not fully accept that we know God. Plantinga’s philosophical assumptions apparently do not allow metaphorical language a sufficient purchase on the reality of God to function as knowledge. Subsequent discussion exposes why this is the case: Plantinga intends to present a rather robust understanding of biblical and doctrinal language about God. Without this assumption he fears we cannot know anything at all about God.
Next he turns his attention to proffered objections to belief in God. Here he notes that these are of two sorts, those that deny the reality of God and those that hold that belief in God is irrational or unjustified. This latter (de jure) objection is the more common. An example would be that science explains the natural world so that belief in God is rationally superfluous. Plantinga points out how this is false insofar as it is a metaphysically naturalistic understanding of science which poses this objection, not science itself. In attempting to clarify the precise point of such objections, Plantinga points out that typically the claim is that the Christian does not have sufficient propositional evidence that belief in God (or belief in Christian doctrines) is justified. This is the objection derived from classical foundationalism (15). Here Plantinga adduces his earlier argument that classical foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent, so that the objection fails. He further proposes that Christian beliefs may very well be properly basic, as so many of our other ordinary beliefs. Such beliefs may be properly basic if they are warranted, and they are so provided they are produced in a person by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a cognitive environment that is appropriate for that person’s cognitive faculties, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at truth (28).
Next Plantinga turns to a defense of understanding Christian claims so that they may have warrant. To accomplish this he initially proposes a model derived from Aquinas and Calvin which he terms the A/C model (31). This holds that there is a “natural knowledge of God” (Aquinas) or a sensus divinitatis (Calvin), whereby an awareness of God may be triggered in a variety of ways. Belief in the proposition that God exists (or is real or loves me) is not a conclusion from other premises, but a direct awareness occasioned by a sense of the majesty of the universe or being saved by God; in this sense is it properly basic and endowed with warrant so that it qualifies as knowledge. It is more like perception than a conclusion from other rationally held propositions.
Plantinga extends this basic pattern to embrace full-fledged Christian belief, from the reality of sin and divine redemption effected by Christ. In order to achieve this Plantinga must add the crucial proviso that this knowledge is grounded not only by our natural epistemological processes, but is supplemented by supernatural grace in the form of promptings of the Holy Spirit (56). Plantinga, of course, recognizes that faith has more than epistemic properties, such as practical values guiding and directing our lives. But his focus is on the cognitive aspect of faith. This is due in part to his application of analytic philosophy to a defense of the propositional content of beliefs and also to his espousal of a conservative reading of Scripture and the standard teachings of Christian Churches. This renders his position more like a defense of the forms of Protestant “orthodoxy” that emerged in the century after Calvin and dominated ecclesiastical dogmatics into the modern era. This observation should not be taken to imply that Plantinga has an impoverished understanding of faith; quite the contrary, he offers reflections drawn on resources from Calvin, Luther, and Edwards to portray eloquently the transformative effects of grace on our hearts (70-75). Plantinga correctly points out that from the vantage point of philosophical analysis, however, these factors may be put aside.
Having provided this defense of conservative Christian faith claims, Planting turns to a consideration of possible defeaters. This highlights the limitations of an analytic philosophical approach to Christian belief. Some claims of historical biblical criticism, for example, might be understood to challenge a straightforward reading of orthodox beliefs. Instead of taking this as an opportunity to “develop” a believer’s understanding of doctrines, though, Plantinga has recourse to shoring up a conservative position. For example, he emphasizes how the divine authorship of the bible allows a defense of the traditional Christian interpretation of texts in the face of historical challenges. This leads to some odd claims: since God is the author of the entirety of the biblical texts, traditional ecclesiastical interpretation understand their meaning is more accurate than that of the original author or audience, as in the case of the prophecy of Isaiah really being about Christ and not the young wife of the king (96). Similarly in the case of religious pluralism Plantinga undercuts the force of the challenge by not acknowledging its full thrust. For example, he claims that to hold the truth of one’s Christian beliefs because of divine grace is not a case of epistemic egoism because we do this all the time, as a trained scientist correcting a novice illustrates (112). But what about a Christian philosopher encountering a Hindu sage? By means of such strategies, Planting believes he successfully defends his basic claim regarding the truth of Christian beliefs.
Plantinga is rather convincing when he exposes how those who claim that a belief God exists is false or is irrational or intellectually defective fail to make their cases. Upon careful inspection, most such claims are flawed at best, given that such a belief may be properly basic as he defends it. When he turns to a defense of a more properly theological set of propositions, however, the limitations of Plantinga’s approach become manifest. His restrictive assumptions for treating potential defeaters would not be acceptable even to many Christians who do not accept such an inflexible reading of doctrines. There is an observation that Plantinga makes in passing that might provide an access to further development of his position. When exposing his version of warrant for affirming the truth of theistic belief, he acknowledges that someone would accept or reject his analysis depending on the religious or metaphysical stance the person adopted (40). This is essentially a hermeneutical observation that all thinking unfolds out of anterior frameworks and is historically conditioned. To incorporate such an insight – as I believe Charles Taylor attempts in his works – would go a long way to strengthening Plantinga’s analysis.