Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted
Christian Belief: A Review
of the Preface
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
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
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
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.”
note, Frame is not here directing his thoughts towards Plantinga
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“Classical Christian belief.”
Plantinga is arguing for “classical Christian
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.”
if nothing else, is about “words,” definitions and precise
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.
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!
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.)
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
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
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.”
Philosophy is the
very discipline that is most concerned with precise definitions
and rational thinking.
We should expect that
philosophers be the best at reasoning carefully.
But Plantinga is not doing so here.
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
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 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.
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.
His Providence includes what we call “evil” from a human
perspective, all controlled and directed under that good
“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
“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
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
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
Christians need more today are precise definitions that fit into
at least a basic system that is coherent and corresponds to
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
For Frame’s comments on Reformed epistemology, see the
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.
“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
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.
John Frame, The
Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ:
P&R Publishing Company, 1987), page 85-86.
I am suspicious that were one to track these nuances,
the result would be worse than what I have described
Plantinga just wanders all over the Christian and
philosophical map with little, if any, definitive
principles or positions.
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!
This term does not appear in
Philosophy A-Z (Daniel J. Hill and Randal D. Rauser,
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).
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
These two wills are necessary to explain his
agony in the Garden, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
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
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).
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig,
Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), page 13.
Theology is also, but our focus here is particularly
Some readers may never have encountered this concept.
See Gordon Clark,
What Do Presbyterians Believe: The Westminster
Confession: Yesterday and Today
NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 1979), pages 28-29.
Hill and Rauser,
Christian Philosophy A-Z, page 38.
See Jay E. Adams,
The Grand Demonstration (Santa Barbara, CA: Eastgate