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Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief: A Review of the Preface

 

This is not a book review per se.  I will focus on only two paragraphs from Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, the last book of his trilogy Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function.  “Only two paragraphs?,” you ask.  “That hardly seems fair to this scholarly author.”  Likely, you are correct, but I believe that these two paragraphs are representative of Plantinga’s thinking and style that is present in this book and others that he has written.  Among both Christians and non-Christians, I would expect little debate that Plantinga is the best known of Christian philosophers.  He has forged new respect for Christians in philosophy in the scholarly and academic world inside and outside of the Church.  Surely, I do not want to detract from the great things that he has written, especially his encouragement of Christians in philosophy not to let secular philosophy determine their agenda.[1]  Perhaps, this paper is his most famous and encourages Christians to pursue areas that are of interest and needful for the Church and the Kingdom.  He also has important works against science,  naturalism, and other subjects.

 

However, John Frame has warned against “philosophical imperialism.”

 

The comprehensiveness of philosophy has often led philosophers to seek to rule over all other disciplines, even over theology, over God’s Word. Even philosophers attempting to construct a Christian philosophy have been guilty of this, and some have even insisted that Scripture itself cannot be understood properly unless it is read in a way prescribed by the philosopher! Certainly, philosophy can help us to interpret Scripture; philosophers often have interesting insights about language, for example. But the line must be drawn: where a philosophical scheme contradicts Scripture or where it seeks to inhibit the freedom of exegesis without Scriptural warrant, it must be rejected.”[2]

 

Please note, Frame is not here directing his thoughts towards Plantinga in particular.  He gives no indication that he has any philosopher or any group of philosophers in mind, although he does direct comments towards “Reformed epistemology”(of which Plantinga was a founder) in Appendix J of this same book.[3]  But we need to take his warning to heart.  You will see that Plantinga “contradicts Scripture” in minimizing and blurring Biblical distinctives that have been hammered out with extremely hard work and often bloodshed.  Those distinctives should not be minimized.

 

I will begin with the actual quote of the first two paragraphs of his book, so that you may see that I am taking nothing out of context.  Indeed, I will repeatedly quote from them again and again to deal with nuances and meaning.  I have not read this entire book, but I have read a great deal of it sufficiently to see that these two paragraphs represent a pattern that minimizes Biblical distinctives and explores nuances to such a degree that only a professional philosopher or theologian could begin to keep track of them.[4]  This pattern seems to be consistent with many philosophers, Christian or not.  They define words to their own design, if they define them at all—a major deficiency amongst almost all philosophers.[5] They keep forging new terms ad infinitum, with additional nuances that threaten to make the general field of modern philosophy a non-navigable maze of minutiae.  For example, there are twenty-five types of “realism” listed under that name at wikipedia.com.  Then, each author will further break those down into his nuances and shades of meaning.  If there are five authors under each area, then that would result into 125 different individual philosophies, which in time would multiply further. 

 

This multiplication of themes and sub-themes is taking place in “Christian” philosophy, as well.  To see this picture, one has only to look at the titles of articles in Faith and Philosophy which is a quarterly that was founded by Plantinga and now in its 26th year of publication. 

 

Now, I do not want to disparage Christian philosophy altogether.  There are subjects that trained philosophers could explore and discuss that would be helpful to individual Christians and their worldview.  I am working on some of those subjects myself at www.biblicalphilosophy.org.  However, the Christian may not “free lance.”  He may not minimize Scriptural authority.  He may not obfuscate clear meanings of Scripture.  He may not minimize the scholarly work of theologians and Christian philosophers of the past. 

 

You can do a little practical experiment of your own that will only take a few minutes.  Read the following two paragraphs by Plantinga and then read the first two paragraphs of Chapter One of the Westminster Confession of faith.  Note the contrast of the specificity and clarity of the WCF to the generalizations, even inconsistencies of Plantinga.  “Not fair,” you say.  “The WCF was a document forged by many theologians over time.”  I beg to differ.  Philosophers, as well as theologians, are particularly trained in words, definitions, analyzing meanings, and applying the rules of logic and grammar.  It is reasonable to expect them to be precise, and especially coherent, as that is one of their traditional tests of truth.  Plantinga even carries the label, “analytic philosopher.”  So, his analysis ought to be clear, concise, and consistent.

 

Then, you could move from the WCF to John Calvin in his Institutes.  Read Gordon Clark—any  two of his paragraphs in The Trinity Review at www.trinityfoundation.org and contrast his clarity with that of Plantinga.  Then, read any two paragraphs of the Bible, especially one of the Pauline epistles, as Paul was trained in Greek philosophy, as well as Jewish theology.  You will find the clarity of all these in contrast to the writing of Plantinga.

 

So, let us proceed to these two paragraphs and analyze them.

 

Preface to Warranted Christian Belief

 

This book is about the intellectual or rational acceptability of Christian belief. When I speak here of Christian belief, I mean what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church, what unites Calvin and Aquinas, Luther and Augustine, Menno Simons and Karl Barth, Mother Teresa and St. Maximus the Confessor, Billy Graham and St. Gregory Palamas—classical Christian belief, as we might call it.

 

Classical Christian belief includes, in the first place, the belief that there is such a person as God. God is a person: that is, a being with intellect and will. A person has (or can have) knowledge and belief, but also affections, loves, and hates; a person, furthermore, also has or can have intentions, and can act so as to fulfill them. God has all of these qualities and has some (knowledge, power, and love, for example) to the maximal degree. God is thus all-knowing and all-powerful; he is also perfectly good and wholly loving. Still further, he has created the universe and constantly upholds and providentially guides it. This is the theistic component of Christian belief. But there is also the uniquely Christian component: that we human beings are somehow mired in rebellion and sin, that we consequently require deliverance and salvation, and that God has arranged for that deliverance through the sacrificial suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who was both a man and also the second member of the Trinity, the uniquely divine son of God. I shall use the term ‘Christian belief’ to designate these two components taken together. Of course, I realize that others may use that term more narrowly or more broadly. There is no need to argue about words here: the beliefs I mentioned are the ones I shall discuss, however exactly we propose to use the term ‘Christian’. I also recognize that there are partial approximations to Christian belief so understood, as well as borderline cases, beliefs such that it simply isn’t clear whether they qualify as Christian belief. All of this is true, but as far as I can see, none of it compromises my project.

 

“Classical Christian belief.”  Plantinga is arguing for “classical Christian belief,”[6] but he never defines it.  He says that such belief “includes” certain characteristics that he lists.  But “includes” is imprecise.  In fact, it seems that he means to be imprecise when towards the end of this quote, he states, “Of course, I realize that others may use that term more narrowly or more broadly.  There is no need to argue about words here.”  Oh?  Argument, if nothing else, is about “words,” definitions and precise statements.  Plantinga has not written two paragraphs in this book without saying that “none of it (different definitions of Christianity) compromises my project.”  Unless he has a precise definition of Christianity, he has nothing to defend!

 

In the first paragraph, he links a number of people in history and from modern times with a wide variety of beliefs which he includes under “classical Christian belief.”  But the beliefs of these people differ considerably.  Calvin, Luther and Augustine were Reformed; the others in the list were not.  Aquinas believed that rationalism could “prove” the existence of God by his cosmological argument.  Simons founded the Mennonites, a sect of Anabaptists.  Barth has been called the “father of neo-orthodoxy.”  Mother Teresa has served the lowliest of the people of Calcutta, but she belongs to a church that still stands upon the dictates of the Council of Trent.  St. Maximus the confessor was a strong theologian of the 7th century who defended monothelitism.[7]  Billy Graham was a great evangelist who believed in free will, whereas Calvinists do not. St. Gregory Palamas is a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

 

Now, all of these people fall under the broad name “Christian,” but their beliefs differ widely.  Those consistently Reformed and Roman Catholic believe that each is heretical.  Barth believed more strongly in a personal, existential experience than a Word “once delivered.”  Can those who strongly believe in the Bible as “inerrant and infallible” live under the same umbrella as those who believe in the Roman Catholic Apocrypha, the magisgterium, and the Pope, or the “encounter” of the Neo-orthodox? 

 

Plantinga posits “what is common to the great creeds of the main branches of the Christian church,” but he never names those creeds.  The Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) and the Synod of Dordt (1618-9) condemned those of Arminian and Pelagian persuasion.  The creeds of the Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries still stand against the Council of Trent (1545-1563).  John Knox of the Scottish Reformers wrote “A Warning Against the Anabaptists.”  And, on and on, the theological debates were and still continue.  If they were all acceptable under “classical Christian belief,” there would be no debates.

 

I could go on, and likely, you the reader, could too.  That all these could be lumped under a broad banner of Christianity as historically and commonly defined is not disputed.  What is disputed is that Plantinga glosses over distinctions about which many of these people labored, fought, and died.  Most on both sides would protest vigorously at his broad categorization.  There is no classical Christian belief![8]  Perhaps, one could say that most Christians believe in the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed.  But common belief in those simple formulas belies other critical distinctions between factions within Christianity.  Those factions are still vying for their distinctives.  For Plantinga to lump these together shows a facile disregard (1) to the past, present, and ongoing fight for Christian truth and (2) to the people involved. 

 

Now, even worse, Plantinga carries the label of “Reformed epistemology,” indentifying himself with that tradition.  Yet, no Reformed Christian with any more than a basic understanding of his faith could consistently lump all those differing beliefs under one category, as Plantinga does.  The original WCF called the Pope the Antichrist!  That indicates the hostility that existed then, and theologically, still exists today.  It is strange that the Roman Catholic University of Notre Dame would give him an esteemed chair.  (It would seem, then, they too have lost their identity with these particular issues, also.)

 

Start with persons or God?  From the 2nd sentence in the 2nd paragraph to “the uniquely Christian component,” Plantinga is discussing God in the concept of “classical Christian belief.”  He begins, “God is a person: that is, a being with intellect and will.”  Well, that is certainly orthodox Christianity.  However, I suggest that Plantinga has the cart before the horse.  God precedes persons.  God is the Creator of persons.  God is unique; persons as individuals are not unique as a class, as there are billions of them!  God is in a class by Himself; He is supremely unique.  He is even One God in Three Persons.  So, Plantinga’s first error is not beginning his “theistic component” with God and then work to persons.

 

“Ed, you are nitpicking!”  Well, my nitpicking is going to get rather lengthy here, so I may as well answer your objection now.  And my answer is the common and central problem with Plantinga—he is casual, nay careless, with definitions and propositions[9].  His beginning with a human person, rather than God is my first example (but not the first in reading order of the passage cited).  Actually, we ought to back up one step further—to the Bible. 

 

Now, remember Plantinga is a philosopher.  Socrates said that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”  The word, “philosophy,” literally means “love of wisdom.”  Moreland and Craig write, “Philosophy is the attempt to think hard about life, the world as a whole and the things that matter most in order to secure knowledge and wisdom about these matters…. (One should think) rationally and critically about life’s most important questions in order to obtain knowledge and wisdom about them.”[10]  Philosophy is the very discipline that is most concerned with precise definitions and rational thinking.[11]  We should expect that philosophers be the best at reasoning carefully.  But Plantinga is not doing so here.

 

The character of God.   “A person has (or can have) knowledge and belief, but also affections, loves, and hates; a person, furthermore, also has or can have intentions, and can act so as to fulfill them.”  Here, Plantinga is demonstrating characteristics of God, based upon His being a “person.”  But again he errs.  God does not have “beliefs.”  Belief includes “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).  God does not “hope” for anything—He simply “is” with all His perfect attributes.  To God, nothing is “unseen,” as He is omniscient.  God has no “intentions,” as what He wills is absolutely certain to come to pass, if not as He speaks it, as during Creation week, then in time and history (Acts – plan for Jesus).  “Intention” and “act” are one and the same in God’s timeless eternity. 

 

God does not have “affections,” since being “Reformed,” Plantinga should know by the statement in the WCF, Chapter 2, Section 2 that states that “God … is … without … passions ….”[12]  Passions is the word that the 17th century writers used for emotions.  With God there is no “shadow of turning” which is a good definition of emotions, as “a tendency towards change or a reaction to change.” 

 

With the characterization that God has “love” … “to the maximal degree” and is “perfectly good and wholly loving,” Plantinga is inconsistent with his own position.

 

Alvin Plantinga … argues that it is for all we know true that, while God could have created a world without evil and suffering, in all possible worlds with free agents some of those agents will freely commit evil acts.  Hence, so far as God desires to create a world where creatures possess freedom, it was not possible to do so without a limited amount of evil… Plantinga extends the free-will defense to cover natural evil by arguing that such events might be the result of free acts of demonic agencies.[13]

 

The Scripture says that God “works all things according to the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).  If God is “perfectly good,” as Plantinga says, how can he reconcile the “evil” that he sees in the world?  If God is “perfectly good,” then He can only decree “good” events.  A large part of Plantinga’s work has been this “free-will” defense of the existence of evil.  But here, God needs no defense.  He needs worship and acclamation that He “works all things,” as stated in Ephesians above.[14]  His Providence includes what we call “evil” from a human perspective, all controlled and directed under that good Providence.

 

“Uniquely Christian component.”  I will not quibble here.  This description of Christianity is approximate—much better than Plantinga’s description of God.  I will remark that Christ’s perfectly keeping of the law, as fulfillment of God’s covenant with Adam, is an essential “component” of Christian salvation that is not mentioned.  Also, His ascension into heaven is necessary for man’s salvation.  But I can accept this “uniquely Christian component,” limited though it may be.

 

“Broadly” and “approximations.”  Plantinga recognizes that “others may use that term more narrowly or more broadly.  There is no need to argue about words here: the beliefs I mentioned are the ones I shall discuss…. I also recognize that there are partial approximations to Christian belief so understood, as well as borderline cases, beliefs such that it simply isn’t clear whether they qualify as Christian belief.” 

 

Here, I must strongly differ with Plantinga again.  If there is no particular Christian belief, there is nothing to defend—for that is what his book is about, a defense of Christian belief or one that it is “warranted.”  Christians, today, are largely and staunchly anti-intellectual.  They throw terms around like love, faith, hope, salvation, grace, providence, and many others with only a vague resemblance, if not sometimes antithetical, to a Biblical definition.  What Christians need more today are precise definitions that fit into at least a basic system that is coherent and corresponds to Biblical truth. 

 

Plantinga furthers this obfuscation of Biblical words and system.  While his intentions are good, his method is disastrous.  “Is this too strong a condemnation?,” you ask.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, He is the logos, the very Word of God.  He is precisely the Word and has written The Word through the Holy Spirit.  As the Word and Word, words cannot be more important.  And, words carry no meaning without precise definitions.  Further, systems of argument that are inconsistent are easily refuted. 

 

I have discussed only the first two paragraphs of a 499-page book (excluding the Index).  These paragraphs represent Plantinga’s typical writing construction.  I can find few sections that provide clear, precise definitions, thinking, and reasoning.

 

Conclusion

 

I do not recommend Plantinga in general.  But, in fact, there is no modern Christian philosopher that I would recommend.  As I said with Plantinga and is also true of others, in certain areas they are worthwhile.  Plantinga’s refutation of naturalism and evolution are good, but these seem to be in papers, not in books.  J. P. Moreland has some good presentations on science and the scientific method, but he has problems, as well.[15]

 

There are only two philosophers that I recommend without reservation: Gordon Clark and Carl F. H. Henry.  They are both in heaven, but their works are mostly still available.  The Trinity Foundation actively publishes Clark’s works.  Ronald Nash comes close, but is too empirical at some points.  Likely, John Frame would be excellent, as he has an extensive formal education in philosophy, but he writes primarily as a theologian.  Even so, as cited in this paper, he has occasionally written on philosophy and what should be expected of Christians in philosophy.  Others with whom I am familiar, but do not recommend, are:  Scott Oliphint, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, Richard Swinburne, Peter Van Inwagen, and William Lane Craig. 

 

If any readers want to recommend someone that I have missed, please do so.  However, John Frame has further stated, “I do not believe, however, that a Christian philosophy now exists that is reasonably adequate for the needs of the modern Protestant theologian.”[16]

 

In Plantinga and others, both Christian and non-Christian, there seem to be an endless pursuit to “justify” knowledge.  There are even attempts to justify knowledge that is true!  Now, if a person is convinced that a certain knowledge is true, why does it need further justification according to some rules of philosophy?  Who made philosophy the judge of truth?  In three millennia, there is no composite work recommended by many, much less most or all, philosophers.  Again, Frame is pertinent.  “The chain of justification cannot go on forever.”[17]  For Frame’s comments on Reformed epistemology, see the reference above.

 

There is no question that Plantinga has spawned considerable growth of Christians working in philosophy.  Likewise, there is considerably more discussion between Christians and non-Christians in philosophy because of his efforts.  I want to be willing to acknowledge evidence that he has advanced the Kingdom of God.  However, I am afraid that Christians in philosophy are similar to Christians in psychology—they have minimized or even been anti-Scriptural, about which Jay Adams, the Bobgans, and others have written so clearly and accurately.  But, unfortunately, this abuse of Scripture extends to virtually every area of scholarship and worldview.[18]

 

“The Bible is true about everything to which it speaks, and it speaks to everything,” must be the battle cry of regenerate Christians.  Christianity has been relegated to a non-factor as a cultural influence since the Enlightenment for ignoring this truth.  Today, Christians have a gigantic literature and presence on the Internet.  But great discernment is needed.  Philosophy, as early as the 11th and 12th century, was considered to be the handmaiden of theology and now Frame warns of “philosophical imperialism.” Philosophy needs to return to that role.  There are skills that philosophy has developed that could be powerfully useful to theologians and pastors.  But I am afraid that Plantinga and too many other Christians in philosophy are not advancing the Kingdom of God because they are not foundationally and thoroughly Biblical. 

 

Endnotes


[1] “Advice to Christian Philosophers” may be found here. http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth10.html.

[2] John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1987), page 85-86.

[3] Ibid., pages 382=399.

[4] I am suspicious that were one to track these nuances, the result would be worse than what I have described here.  Plantinga just wanders all over the Christian and philosophical map with little, if any, definitive principles or positions.

[5] A publishing standard should be made that no philosopher is published without his having a Glossary either in the book or online where readers can understand more concretely what he means.  That philosophy does not have a recognized standard Glossary or Lexicon trumpets the vague and spurious nature of their enterprise!

[6] This term does not appear in Christian Philosophy A-Z (Daniel J. Hill and Randal D. Rauser, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

[7] This belief states that Jesus Christ had only one will, a union of both body and soul.  It is considered orthodox that He had two wills: one associated with his human body and another of His divine nature.  These two wills are necessary to explain his agony in the Garden, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

[8] This term is one example of the vague ideas of philosophy in general.  One can discuss ad infinitum because one can never be pinned down on exactly what he believes.  Then, paper after paper can be written to increase the confusion to a degree that no one can have time to read or understand—all in the name of pursuing truth—but never arriving (II Timothy 3:7).

[10] J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), page 13.

[11] Theology is also, but our focus here is particularly philosophy.

[12] Some readers may never have encountered this concept. See Gordon Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe: The Westminster Confession: Yesterday and Today  (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1979), pages 28-29.

[13] Hill and Rauser, Christian Philosophy A-Z, page 38.

[14] See Jay E. Adams, The Grand Demonstration (Santa Barbara, CA: Eastgate Publishers, 1991).

[15] See my website, www.biblicalphilosophy.org, on the Table of Contents page, “Critiques of Christian Philosophers.”

[16] Frame, op cit, page 318.

[17] Ibid, page 346.

[18] I have written about these areas on my other website, www.biblicalworldview21.org.


 

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