Research Fellowship - Philosophy & Apologetics

Alvin Plantinga Helps Us Navigate the So-Called Problem of Faith and Reason.

This post is a review by Shawn Langley of Alvin Plantinga by Greg Welty from the P&R Great Thinkers series. Shawn is a Research Fellow with the BibleMesh Institute.

In a previous essay, we considered how philosophical discussions can serve our theological efforts in their giving us a toolset, a tradition, and a template as we strive to articulate truth carefully and winsomely. To develop this further, it might help us to look at an example of this approach taken from contemporary philosophy.

One apt candidate for such a comparison is Alvin Plantinga, subject of the most recent addition to P&R’s Great Thinkers series, who is in the eyes of many the “most influential Christian philosopher over the last half century” (Welty, Alvin Plantinga, xi). This particular volume, written by fellow philosopher Greg Welty, serves not only “to meet the need for critically assessing the seminal thought of [Plantinga]”, but also as a guide into the types of problems that have characterized his long career and the extent to which we ought to incorporate his insights in our own attempts at engaging the challenges of the day (xi).

Dutch Reformed Theology and Plantinga’s Philosophy

Alvin Plantinga was born in Michigan in 1932 to parents who “both traced their ancestry to the Netherlands” (5). Far from a mere biographical footnote, this heritage was to have a formative and lasting impact on Plantinga due primarily to the esteem for the church cherished within his family. This included especially their involvement in the Dutch Reformed movement, known for its emphasis on God’s sovereign work in every sphere of life, particularly philosophy.

Welty explains the significance of this background as nothing less than career-defining. As he says, “Plantinga’s steadfast refusal to do philosophy in a ‘religiously neutral’ way is due to his Dutch Reformed upbringing” (5). As Welty helpfully shows, Plantinga’s interest in philosophy was deeply motivated by, and in no way contradictory to, his similar interest in the church and its theology.

The Problem of Faith and Reason

One of the clearest examples of how Plantinga has used philosophy to inform his theological commitments is on the question of faith and reason. There is a long history of distinguishing between the two, but how exactly do they differ? For example, is faith merely believing something we have no reason to believe, or, perhaps worse, is it believing something reason seems to contradict? Such a caricature, Plantinga would say, falls short by failing to recognize how reason is less clear-cut than typically acknowledged and faith more complex than often assumed.

As Welty explains, the problem for many seems to be “that reason is perfectly fine as it is, but faith simply doesn’t measure up to the standards of reason (for some reason!), and because of this conflict, faith is a substandard way of living one’s intellectual life” (17). In other words, on this construal whatever faith and reason may turn out to be, faith is surely a lesser capacity, while reason is the obvious standard for what can and should be known.

According to one popular objection, for instance, faith beliefs are implausible, unless it can be demonstrated through evidence or airtight arguments how they are indisputably based on some generally accepted principles of reason, such as what we know through our five senses or what are sometimes called self-evident truths.

Needless to say, this is not a favorable prospect for faith, especially given that showing something to be beyond dispute based on the alleged authority of general rational acceptance is as arbitrary as it is unattainable. If faith beliefs must be evidentially based on other types of beliefs before they can be counted as reasonable, then a vast majority of such beliefs would appear to be in a predicament.

Plantinga on Faith and Reason

But for Plantinga, drawing especially on the Christian tradition, such a dire outlook is neither convincing nor necessary. In what meaningful sense, he asks, does faith differ from other apparently acceptable forms of reason? For example, what is the difference in believing you see a tree when presented with a certain type of sensory experience (e.g. seeing a tree), and believing God is merciful when presented with a certain type of religious experience (e.g. the comfort of the Spirit)?

According to Plantinga, to distinguish between these types of “believings” is only appropriate on the assumption that God would not or could not present himself to us in such a way. But is it not possible that God has created us with just such a cognitive capacity for spiritual knowledge analogous to those for other types of knowledge, like our senses?

If Christianity is true, Plantinga argues, such a process is not only possible but almost certainly what we would expect in light of what John Calvin calls our sensus divinitatus, the “sense of the divine” present in us by way of our being created in God’s image. But were this explanation possible, Welty says, it “follows that not a single important thing we believe as Christians has to be based on argument in order to be intellectually proper or consistent with reason: not our belief in God, or belief in the Bible, or belief in the great things of the gospel” (36).

Implications for Philosophy & Theology

The significance of this is easy to miss but hard to overstate. What Plantinga and his contemporaries in the Christian philosophical community contend is that our understanding of knowledge will ultimately depend on our view of God: if he exists; if he is good; if he has revealed himself. And, if these things are so, then questions of reason or rationality are not all that different from questions of faith insofar as faith simply further defines how different objects of knowledge are classified (cf. Rom. 8:5-8).

Our understanding of knowledge will ultimately depend on our view of God.

This challenges many present-day notions of faith as somehow secondary to reason, for anyone untroubled by belief in God (as is the case with most good theists, Plantinga would say) is perfectly within their intellectual rights in holding faith and reason as equally acceptable processes for acquiring knowledge.

But this also challenges the present-day notion of reason. It turns out that developing a theory of knowledge is considerably difficult, and this difficulty is only intensified when the idea of God is ignored. For example, as Plantinga has argued, successful accounts of knowing require circumstances quite like those described in Christian theology, including some sort of cognitive blueprint, an intellectual environment that happens to match the blueprint, and an objective reference point for what is true about the blueprint.

It turns out that developing a theory of knowledge is considerably difficult, and this difficulty is only intensified when the idea of God is ignored.

Looking at the question this way flips the discussion on its head. Faith is shown to be on par with reason when it comes to the knowing process, and reason becomes in some sense dependent on certain theological categories to meet the requirements needed for knowledge. All this entails that our theological considerations are not only appropriate to philosophical discussions but are at times even necessary for clarifying or correcting them.

The God of Faith and Reason

Through Welty’s analysis of this and similar questions from Plantinga’s tireless engagement with philosophy and theology, we come to see the simple centerpiece of his thought. The Christian understanding of and commitment to a robust view of God does not merely meet the minimum standard for intellectual respectability: it is that standard.

The Christian understanding of and commitment to a robust view of God does not merely meet the minimum standard for intellectual respectability: it is that standard.

If God has made us such that we grow in our knowledge of the truth as we ever encounter him in nature and in Scripture, we need not be alarmed by efforts to undermine our confidence in how he has chosen to reveal himself to our hearts and minds. Faith, in all its complexity, is only intellectually suspect if we concede that we were never meant to find God, and Christians have little reason to entertain such a concession.

The significance of this rediscovery, for Plantinga and for us, is that the processes of reason can no longer claim somehow to pass the final verdict on God, because it is God himself who has determined and given meaning to those processes in the first place.

Shawn Langley

Shawn Langley

Shawn Langley is also a Research Fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge, England. His writing focuses on the relationship between philosophy & theology, particularly the way epistemological questions shape and are shaped by biblical interpretation.