Knowledge and Christian Belief. By Alvin Plantinga. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. 144 pp. Paper, $16.00.
Alvin Plantinga explains there are two kinds of objections to Christianity: de facto and de jure. The first kind of objection says we shouldn’t believe in Christianity because it is factually false. The second kind of objection says we shouldn’t believe in Christianity because it is irrational to do so, whether we can show it is factually false or not. Most Christian apologetics deals with de facto questions, offering arguments and evidences in defense of the Christian faith. In Knowledge and Christian Belief, a summary of his much longer Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga addresses the second kind of objection, asking, do Christian beliefs enjoy justification, rationality, and warrant?
Plantinga’s argument is that Christian belief is rational, because it is properly basic. A belief being properly basic means it can be held without evidence. Although many critics of Christianity claim you should proportion your belief to the evidence, the fact is, you cannot have evidence for all your beliefs, because then you would be involved in an infinite regress. Thinking has to start somewhere. Classical Foundationalism (CF) claims that thought begins with properly basic beliefs. Some beliefs are self-evident (e.g., 1+2=3). Other beliefs are incorrigible (e.g., like our sense beliefs). According to CF, Christian belief is only rational if it comes by way of argument from self-evident or incorrigible evidence, or from propositions derived from that evidence. But as Plantinga points out, CF has a serious problem: it is neither self-evident, nor incorrigible! Hence CF fails its own test of rationality, and is self-referentially incoherent (p. 15).
In chapters three and four, Plantinga proposes an alternative to CF, which he calls the A/C model (after Aquinas and Calvin). On the A/C model, beliefs are properly basic if they are produced by cognitive faculties, operating according to a design plan, that are functioning properly, in a suitable environment, and which are aimed at producing true beliefs. He follows Aquinas and Calvin in proposing that one of those cognitive faculties is a sensus divinitatis designed by God to form true beliefs about Him in suitable contexts. In that sense, beliefs formed by the sensus divinitatis are as basic as perception, memory, and a priori knowledge (p. 35). Plantinga goes on to argue for an extended A/C model. Not only do we have a sensus divinitatis, but the extended model also allows for the Holy Spirit to give people faith in Christian doctrine (e.g., about sin, the atonement, the resurrection, etc). But, since the activity of the Holy Spirit is also a “belief producing process” according to a design plan, these beliefs would also be rational and have warrant (p. 56).
This approach to the rationality of faith actually turns the tables on atheists, for while they would argue that theistic belief is produced by cognitive processes gone wrong (e.g., Freud), on Plantinga’s A/C model, it is actually atheistic beliefs that are due to improperly functioning cognitive faculties (p. 37).
Atheists will obviously complain that the A/C model stacks the deck by assuming that Christian belief is true. Plantinga agrees. But he points out that atheists reject the sensus divinitatis because they take atheism for granted (p. 43). But this raises a critical question. There is no neutral way to approach the question of the rationality of beliefs. The disagreement over the de jure status of Christian beliefs will depend upon de facto questions about our cognitive faculties, which will depend on the truth of Christian theism. As Plantinga says, “any successful objections to the model will also have to be a successful objection to the truth of Christian belief” (p. 68).
Someone could admit that in an ideal situation Plantinga’s A/C model might mean beliefs produced by that process do have warrant. But since there are defeaters to Christian belief—that is, positive reasons for thinking Christianity is not true, such as modern Biblical criticism, religious pluralism, and the problem of evil—it would be irrational to accept Christian beliefs in a basic way (p. 89). The next chapters address these alleged defeaters and conclude that Christian faith is still warranted.
JOTGES readers who are interested in apologetics ought to be familiar with Plantinga. But even though this is an introductory work, the average reader will have a hard time following Plantinga’s argument. It is introductory, but not popular in the way that Josh McDowell writes for a popular audience. Plantinga is doing serious academic philosophy. JOTGES readers will appreciate the way Plantinga acknowledges that beliefs are not under our voluntary control (p. 16); that faith is propositional and has an object (pp. 58–59); and that saving faith is faith that the gospel promise is true “for me” (pp. 58–59). Highly recommended for those interested in apologetics.
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