Christian Belief manifests remarkable breadth and depth of Christian vision.
It includes some good humor to boot, as is fitting (and probably mandatory)
for a 500-page tome with routine interludes of fine print. Much of the book
is both true and warranted, and profoundly Christian as well. Parts of chapter
7, on “Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences,” are alone worth the
price of admission.
Even so, the book offers an autobiographical remark that is neither true nor warranted: “In fact, I ... can’t sing a note” (p. 50). As an official symposium contributor, I’m morally, epistemically, and professionally duty-bound to correct this. On October 31, 1998, Alvin Plantinga became the first human ever to sing the classic RoiTan cigar song to the audience of the annual Wheaton College Philosophy Conference. (“Man to man with a RoiTan! Man to man with a RoiTan cigar!”) At least he was the first person to do so after being set up by arch-instigator Stephen Wykstra. (This was the very same memorable week that the Wheaton College student newspaper created a national stir by exposing Plantinga as a David Letterman lookalike.) Now, either repressed memory or excessive modesty accounts for omitted reference on p. 310 to the historic musical performance. His singing, perhaps as expected, was notably less distinguished than his philosophy. He did nonetheless sing a note, contrary to p. 50, even if it was less than transparent what note he was singing. (Oddly, I don’t recall any boisterous demand for an encore, of the sort typical at college concerts.)
What’s more, I (along with many others still alive) have warrant for the belief that the Plantinga RoiTan mini-concert occurred in Wheaton. This warrant does not derive from an argument yielding the belief as a conclusion. I at least don’t have such an argument that is any good, logically or epistemically speaking. I do, however, vividly remember the mini-concert. I remember, too, that the singing was accompanied by a guitar and even by arch-instigator Wykstra himself but not by any light show or any dancing. (The mini-concert, though unadvertised, was within the bounds of all college and town regulations, statutes, rules, and ordinances, so far as I know.) My belief that the mini-concert occurred is produced by a cognitive faculty that meets the necessary and sufficient conditions for Plantinga-style warrant. Such warrant aims to capture what distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief. My belief results from a cognitive faculty functioning properly in a hospitable epistemic environment according to a design plan (of God’s) successfully directed at truth. Memory is not alone in this regard. Perception and a priori intuition likewise can yield warranted belief without relying on an argument or on an evidential basis of propositions. So beliefs resulting from memory, perception, and a priori intuition can be properly basic, in Plantinga’s verbiage. The same holds, according to Plantinga, for beliefs about God. His book tells the elaborate story of the latter view, giving abundant credit to Aquinas and Calvin as esteemed forerunners.
Plantinga embraces, naturally for a Christian, the following two propositions (p. 438):
(1) The world was created by God, an almighty, all-knowing and perfectly good personal being (the sort of being who holds beliefs, has aims and intentions, and can act to accomplish these aims).
(2) Human beings require salvation, and God has provided a unique way of salvation through the incarnation, life, sacrificial death, and resurrection of his divine son.
bystanders (among others) may wonder whether Plantinga seeks to argue, once
and for all or at least for some, that (1) and (2) are true. Fine print and
misleading autobiography aside, what actually is Plantinga up to in this weighty
book? I mean at its core, beyond all devilish details, digressions, and debunkings.
In particular, what is its real payoff for (1) and (2)? Does it enable us to
sing the merits of (1) and (2), even outside choir practice and church worship?
People weary and wary of singing just for the converted and the choir will wonder.
Plantinga does daringly and disarmingly exclaim: “I think there really
are arguments available for (1)” (p. 452). That’s an encouraging
(and I presume true) autobiographical note, but if such arguments appear in
the book, they are hidden from me at least.
What about arguments for (2)? Plantinga elaborates as follows (pp. 200-201):
My aim is to show how it can be that Christians can be justified, rational (both internally and externally), and warranted in holding full-blooded Christian belief.... Justification [taken deontologically, in terms of non-violation of intellectual obligations] and internal rationality [as proper function of one’s cognitive processes given one’s actual, possibly grossly misleading experiences] are easy enough.... External rationality and warrant are harder. The only way I can see to argue that Christian belief has these virtues [viz., external rationality and warrant] is to argue that Christian belief is, indeed, true. I don’t propose to offer such an argument. That is because I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion. That is nothing against Christian belief, however, and indeed I shall argue that if Christian beliefs are true, then the standard and most satisfactory way to hold them will not be as the conclusions of argument.
this sounds a note that will doubtless disappoint many, especially the many
looking for a good argument that Christian belief is true. Perhaps they should
be disappointed, owing to misguided expectations regarding the bearing of argument
on Christian belief. Let’s consider.
Plantinga refrains from arguing that Christian belief is true, on this ground: “I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.” So a worthwhile argument for Christian belief, by Plantinga’s lights, must seem very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion. We’re now on very thin ice, quite aside from the unclear talk of an argument’s seeming “very likely” to convince. (What kind of “likelihood” is pertinent anyway? I mean, more specifically than “the kind that makes the claim true.”) Does he mean everyone who doesn’t already accepts its conclusion? If so, why accept that dubious requirement? It amounts to:
(a) It’s worthwhile, proper, or generally OK to argue that Christian belief is true only if one’s argument seems very likely to convince everyone who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.
perfectly worthwhile, proper, and generally OK arguments fail to seem very likely
to convince everyone who doesn’t already accept their conclusions. So
(a) is much too demanding. Plantinga’s hallowed freewill argument against
the logical problem of evil for theism is perfectly worthwhile, proper, and
generally OK. Even this argument, however, fails to seem likely to convince
everyone who doesn’t already accept its conclusion. Some people who don’t
already accept its conclusion are just too stubborn, whimsical, or outright
weird to be convinced by the argument. (It would, of course, be impolite to
name names in public.) This fact reflects badly on the wayward people in question,
not on the revered argument. The argument is beyond reproach or reproof, despite
its failure to convince all.
Perhaps, then, Plantinga meant not (a) but rather:
(b) It’s worthwhile, proper, or generally OK to argue that Christian belief is true only if one’s argument seems very likely to convince at least one person who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.
problem is that (b) is obviously too weak to yield Plantinga’s desired
result. It’s a very sad but true comment on our species that any argument,
or at least any non-hilarious argument, seems very likely to convince at least
one person who doesn’t already accept its conclusion. Many people are
terribly and shamelessly gullible in the face of arguments (see any sizeable
introductory logic or nonlogic class for such people). So we’ll be able
to find, in fairly short order, at least one person who is very likely to be
convinced by an argument for Christian belief but who doesn’t already
accept it conclusion. (I’ve come across many such people, even outside
my remote but celebrated homeland of North Dakota, where the RoiTan classic
still remains as the state song for all festive purposes, even ahead of “Home
on the Range.”) Hence, (b) won’t support Plantinga’s bold
view that his arguing for the truth of Christian belief isn’t worthwhile,
proper, or generally OK. It seems ill-advised, then, to base the supposed impropriety
of an argument for the truth of Christian belief on the argument’s shortcoming
in apparent likelihood to convince. In fact, Plantinga’s line of argument
kindly disarms itself. His argument for not arguing for the truth of Christian
belief does not “seem very likely to convince one who doesn’t already
accept its conclusion.” By his own standard, then, Plantinga should relinquish
and renounce his argument, preferably in public.
What, then, will underwrite Plantinga’s bold view? He must have some rationale for it. It didn’t just sound good to him when he sang it, the way the RoiTan classic did at Wheaton. Permit me a brief diagnosis in keeping with Plantinga’s evident liking for things unstintingly Calvinist. The Calvinist problem, as always, is sin, blinding and desperately corrupting sin (italics theologically mandatory). According to Plantinga’s Calvinism (mercifully free of explicit foreordained reprobation), “we human beings, apart from God’s special and gracious activity, are sunk in sin; ... [so] without some special activity on the part of the Lord, we wouldn’t believe” (p. 269; cf. p. 303). We are sunk deeply in sin, so deeply that our coming to have Christian beliefs must come “by way of the work of the Holy Spirit, who gets us to accept, causes us to believe, these great truths of the gospel” (p. 245, italics mine; cf. p. 260). Plantinga notes that God’s causing us to do something rules out our doing it freely (p. 462). It follows, on his view, that nobody freely comes to have Christian beliefs. So far, so very Calvinist, with even intimations of God’s selective irresistible grace in regeneration of the “favored” (p. 254). Plantinga looks for scriptural support in Jesus’s remark (John 6:44) that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (p. 269).
The proposed diagnosis won’t serve. One difficulty is that John’s Gospel resists a Calvinist reading of divinely selected and caused regeneration. The notion of “drawing” people in John suggests universality of drawing and human freedom to reject or embrace the drawing. Jesus thus remarks that “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all (pantas) [people] to myself” (John 12:32). Famously (even at concerts and sporting events), John’s Gospel teaches that God so loved the whole world (ton kosmon) that he gave his unique Son, so that anyone who trusts in him will have everlasting life. Taken as a whole, John’s Gospel does not portray God as causing some but not others to believe. Instead, the Gospel assumes a typical free response of receiving or rejecting God’s gracious salvation intended for all people (cf. John 1:11-13, 3:19-21). Just as the Father, in seeking genuine love and thus respecting freedom, did not cause Jesus to obey (John 10:17-18), so also the Father does not cause the “favored” to be faithful.
God graciously gives us the freedom to ask for God’s salvation or to reject it. Otherwise, in regenerating just some “favored” people in bondage, God would show a kind of selective love incompatible with genuine love of all enemies. So God would be inconsistent in commanding us to love all our enemies. God, of course, is at least as loving as humans. So, sincerely offering the gift of faith and salvation to all (and not just the “favored”), God wants none to perish but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). This divine want is free of deceit; likewise for the unrestricted invitation of Revelation 3:20. The necessary role of human freedom in loving God results, at it happens, in the gracious want and invitation being unsatisfied. We would have a kind of deceit (or at least a pathetic notion of want) if God (i) reported his wanting the salvation of all, (ii) could cause all to have saving faith, but (iii) failed to cause all to have saving faith. Neither God nor anyone else, however, can cause a person to love others in the manner essential to saving faith. True love is inherently resistible. Calvinism, however well-meaning and ornately systematic, thus distorts and underestimates God’s universal genuine love.
Calvinism aside, the crucial role of the Holy Spirit in faith and regeneration does not make argument for Christian truths superfluous. The Holy Spirit can and sometimes does use arguments as pathways to (or components of) free human reception of faith and regeneration. One’s freely coming to God via the work of the Holy Spirit can and sometimes does include one’s coming by way of argument. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of one of my personal favorites:
1. Your human life will be dominated by unselfish love toward all others only if your selfish human fears are subdued at least for the most part.
2. Your selfish human fears are subdued at least for the most part only if an all-loving God pours out (in response to your free request) all-encompassing divine love in your heart.
3. Some human lives are indeed dominated by unselfish love toward all others.
4. So, an all-loving God exists.
This all-too-sketchy sketch of an argument draws from such New Testament passages as Romans 5:5 and 1 John 3:14, 4:12-13,18. (Astute readers will, of course, know how to fill out the sketch.) The Holy Spirit is not required (at least by me) to use any such argument but could do so without reproach (from me at least). I for one find sustenance in such an argument (when properly amplified), and many Christians (who haven’t set foot in North Dakota) testify to the Spirit’s using arguments on occasion for Christian beliefs. What’s more, 1 Peter 3:15 (whose author hadn’t even heard of North Dakota) apparently links (part of) apologetics with giving a reason (logon) for the truths central to Christian hope.
Plantinga’s reluctance to propose arguments for Christian belief is befuddling at best. He claims, anticlimactically, that in asking about the truth of Christian belief, “we pass beyond the competence of philosophy” (p. 499). If, however, philosophy can inquire about (1) with arguments (as Plantinga blithely acknowledges), what’s the problem with Christian belief from the standpoint of philosophy? Christian faith is a gift that must be sealed upon one’s heart, and we do indeed suffer (even sinkingly) from sin, but how do such truths make Christian belief “beyond the competence of philosophy”? Inquiring minds will want to know, even after reading the book’s fine print. Our tending not to follow God’s ways on our own does not besmirch philosophy per se, an sich, or in itself. (Likewise, bad reasoners don’t make reasoning itself hopeless.) The performance of philosophers, however pathetic and pathological at times, leaves unscathed the competence of philosophy. Philosophy done properly (unlike that in Corinth in Paul’s day or that in parts of Paris in our day) is, I submit, a worthwhile means to our freely discerning and welcoming the inviting and drawing love of God’s Holy Spirit for all, even for roguish philosophers. It’s not just a fancy tool for pollution control (as p. 499 suggests). We do, after all, speak wisdom (sophian) among the mature children of God, even if not wisdom of this world (1 Corinthians 2:6).
Plantinga notes repeatedly and buoyantly that Christian belief is not typically formed on the basis of argument. That seems undeniable and even true. Still, Christian philosophers have epistemological work to do. Otherwise we wouldn’t have Warranted Christian Belief. Plantinga proposes that the Holy Spirit enables believers to apprehend the glory and beauty of the gospel in a manner that restores (to an important extent) the operation of the sensus divinitatis. (It just sounds better in Latin, I guess.) This apprehension is not a premise in an argument. It is rather an occasion of one’s forming the belief that the gospel is from God and true. Plantinga apparently suggests at one point that this apprehension is (on the model of perception) part of one’s (nonpropositional) evidence for the gospel truths in that it is part of what makes those truths evident for one (pp. 305-306). He evidently backs off this suggestion, however, in his official mood (p. 326). He actually had my hopes up for awhile, only to dash them in the end.
My hopes stemmed from my moderate evidentialism, the view that warranted belief in God must rest on evidence (but not necessarily propositional evidence) indicating the reality of God. (Unfortunately, “evidentialism” seems to be a dirty word in Plantinga’s vocabulary.) The New Testament promises morally transforming evidence to genuine seekers after God. Since this evidence is a definitive indication of the God of morally serious love, it manifests God’s character. So it exhibits God’s morally serious love. Paul thus remarks that hope in God does not disappoint us (epistemically or otherwise) “because God's love has been poured out in our hearts” by God's Spirit (Romans 5:5; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16-17; 1 John 4:12-13,16,19). The presence of God's morally transforming love is the key cognitive foundation for filial knowledge of God. Such divine love is a foundational source of knowledge of God (Colossians 2:2; 1 Corinthians 8:2-3; Ephesians 3:17-19.) It is real evidence of God's reality and presence. This love is a personal intervention by God and the basis of a personal relationship with God. It is the presence of a personal God. So filial knowledge of God exceeds propositional knowledge. It rests on morally transforming love from God that produces a loving character in children of God, despite their obstruction at times. This transformation happens to one, in part; it is neither purely self-made nor simply the byproduct of a self-help strategy. This widely neglected supernatural sign is available at God’s appointed time to anyone who turns to God with moral seriousness. It transforms one's will to yield gratitude, trust, and love toward God and love toward other people. So: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.... Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 3:14, 4:8, NRSV).
We need to learn how to apprehend, and to be apprehended by, God’s supreme love for all of us, not just truths about God’s love. Neither God nor God’s love is a proposition or an argument. Neither is reducible to an intellectual entity. The evidence of God's reality offered by loving character-transformation in God's children is epistemically crucial. It goes much deeper than the comparatively superficial evidence found in entertaining signs, wonders, visions, ecstatic experiences, and fancy philosophical arguments. We could consistently dismiss any such sign, wonder, vision, ecstatic experience, or argument as illusory or indecisive, given certain alterations in our beliefs. In contrast, genuine character transformation toward God's all-inclusive love does not admit of easy dismissal. It bears directly on who one really is, the kind of person one actually is. Such transformation cuts too deeply against our natural tendencies toward selfishness to qualify as just a self-help gimmick. It thus offers a kind of firm evidence that resists quick dismissal. (For more on this topic, see my booklet, Why Isn’t God More Obvious? (Norcross, GA: RZIM, 2000).)
A problem facing Plantinga’s epistemology is easily put. When exactly does an experience that occasions a belief yield warrant for that belief, and when not? Obviously, not all experiences that occasion a belief yield warrant for that belief. Plantinga’s answer, as suggested above, invokes a feature of the cognitive faculty that yields the belief. That faculty must function properly in a hospitable epistemic environment according to God’s design plan successfully directed at truth. This view leads Plantinga to argue, with plenty of fine print, that agnosticism and naturalism about human origins lead to the destruction of knowledge (pp. 222-40). Now, given the role Plantinga assigns to cognitive faculties and God’s design plan in warrant, his conclusion is not a far reach. Might one plausibly dissent from that role, however?
Assuming agnosticism for the sake of argument, Plantinga claims that “... because I now do not believe that my cognitive faculties are reliable..., I also realize that ... beliefs produced by my faculties are no more likely to be true than false” (p. 238). This inference is much too quick and bad to boot. One might have an undefeated truth-indicator (say, an auditory experience of the RoiTan song) for a perceptual belief (that the RoiTan song is being sung), even if one lacks actual reliability and even supposed actual reliability in one’s cognitive faculty of hearing. The evidence, or warrant, for a belief need not derive from the general reliability of the faculty producing the belief.
At the 1998 Wheaton Conference I had a rare auditory experience of a Plantinga RoiTan mini-concert and I had no defeaters of this nonpropositional evidence. (The singing, as expected, didn’t seem to express full propositions, in keeping with current trends in the gangster rap tradition.) I wouldn’t automatically have had a defeater even if my faculty of hearing (sensus auditionis, if the Latin excites you) were on balance unreliable. Such general unreliability is perfectly compatible with my having an impeccable warrant-yielding truth-indicator (or evidence) in a particular case. A generally unreliable microphone can deliver crystal-clear, faultless singing in some cases, as all seasoned conference singers know. So truth-indicators (for example, in experience) can warrant a belief without general reliability in the faculty yielding the belief. As for the painful thickets of Gettier-style worries, we can trim those with a special no-defeaters restraint on warrant (of the sort I’ve proposed in Knowledge and Evidence). In any case, defeaters are not generated by mere belief in the way an example on p. 485 suggests. (The treatment of defeat on p. 491 improves on this.) Mere belief, even if aimed at truth, can be epistemically and alethically bankrupt and thus incapable of defeating warrant. Given these considerations about truth-indicators and defeat, we shouldn’t endorse the argument of pp. 222-40 that agnosticism and naturalism about human origins lead to the destruction of knowledge.
Even granting that Christian belief isn’t always formed on the basis of argument, we must still explain the grounds on which Christian belief is to be recommended as true. I mean recommended beyond Sunday or Wednesday choir practice and church service, to non-Christians. One might discern just a trace of a hint of something on this pressing topic on p. 307, but the book steers clear of this matter. I regret that Plantinga didn’t wax effluent and effulgent here. His misdirected pessimism about the contribution of argument for Christian truth robbed him of an important opportunity. Even so, Warranted Christian Belief is a truly remarkable book whose praises we all should sing. It’s fortunate for us all that Plantinga the occasional conference singer kept his day job.