Review: Faith and Rationality (Plantinga)

The contributors in this volume argue that given the inadequacies in epistemic evidentialism and classic foundationalism, the believer is warranted and rational in believing that God exists apart from evidence. I will summarize the key arguments, point out tensions and weaknesses, and conclude with some comments.

Wolterstorff’s essays:
NW argues that foundationalism and evidentialism (particularly in the stronger Cliffordian case) cannot present a challenge to theism because said evidentialism is self-referentially incoherent (it’s claim fails to live up to its own standards). NW’s longer essay surveys the various options. He sometimes gets lost (or the reader does) in the many nuances, but there are some gems from Thomas Reid.

AP gives his legendary essay on reason and belief in God. It’s a fantastic essay, but in many ways the reader is urged to skip it and go to AP’s larger trilogy (on the flip side, reading this essay serves as a nice intro to the larger trilogy). The essay’s strength is in rebutting claims on how a Christian knows (or can’t know) a certain thing. I am also glad he dealt with The Great Pumpkin Objection. I think his response gives the Reformed Epistemologian breathing room, but I am not sure it makes the objection go away.

Mavrodes, Alston, Holwerda

Mavrodes gave several short stories on religious belief. They were better than I expected. His essay “Turning,” while fascinating as a story goes, is otherwise incoherent. Alston introduces what will be his later project on sense perception and religious belief. I will say no more. Holwerda responds to Wolfhart Pannenberg. I think he does a great job showing WP’s criticism of dialectical theology, and gives some good problems to WP, but I would hesitate to recommend this essay because it came out before WP’s publication of his systematic theology (which Holwerda himself acknowledges).


George Marsden gives an amazing essay on American Religious Epistemology in history. He shows how Thomas Reid was received by 19th century theologians. The theologians interpreted Reid along empirical and inductive lines (which may or may not be what Reid himself intended). This proved disastrous when it met Darwinism and probably paved the way for Old Evangelicalism’s demise.


Most of these contributors have since fine-tuned their arguments. The book itself cannot serve as a template. Further, I think the authors do a good job in showing Christian belief is warranted, but not that it is correct. And while Plantinga is correct that creating worldviews on the spot is a difficult endeavor (ala the Great Pumpkin), he didn’t say it was impossible.

Longer review:


Plantinga: Reason and Belief in God


Argues that classical foundationalism is referentially incoherent.   Further argues that the Reformed objection to natural theology is such when it is rooted in classical foundationalism.

  1. The Evidentialist objection to belief in God
    1. Theistic belief:  rationality as such
    2. objections to theistic belief (evil, etc)
    3. The evidentialist objection stated: A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence (Hume)
      1. A. Flew: Presumption of atheism
  2. M. Scriven: Atheism is obligatory in the absence of evidence
  3. The evidentialist objection and intellectual operation.  However, why should we suppose that it is irrational to accept theistic belief in the absence of evidence?  What exactly is the obligation here?  Which intellectual obligations?  What about Russellian paradoxes, when a self-evidently false follows from a self-evidently true?
  4. Can i have intellectual obligations for beliefs which are not under my control?


Part II: Aquinas and Foundationalism

  1. Aquinas and evidentialism
    1. Aquinas on knowledge:  self-evident; known through itself (per se nota), and what is known from another (per se aliud).  Self-evident propositions are known immediately.
    2. Aquinas on knowledge of God: he seems to hold that some beliefs about God are properly basic, but not everyone is going to have this type of knowledge (SCG, III, 38).
  2. Foundationalism
    1. Some propositions are properly basic; others are not.  
    2. noetic structure:  an account would specify which beliefs are basic and which aren’t.
    3. to be rational is to do the right thing with respect to one’s believings.
    4. Collapse of Foundationalism
      1. very few of our beliefs can meet Fn’s criteria.
    5. The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology
      1. Plantinga argues that the Reformed tradition was primarily rejecting classical foundationalism:  rather, they asserted belief in God to be properly basic.
        1. Bavinck:  “Scripture does not make God the conclusion to an argument.”
        2. Calvin: belief in God is part of the foundations of knowledge.
        3. If I believe in god only because of the evidence, then must I keep checking philosophical journals to see if they came up with a zinger?  What then, stop going to church? Become a libertine?

Part IV: Is Belief in God Properly Basic?

  1. Certain beliefs are properly basic in certain circumstances.
    1. How do we arrive at, or develop criteria for meaningfulness, or justified belief, or proper basicality?
    2. What is the status of criteria for knowledge (Chisholm)?  The foundationalist responds
      “For any proposition A and person S, A is properly basic for S if and only if A is incorrigible for S or self-evident to S.”

      Plantinga asks, “But how could one know a thing like that?  What are its credentials? Clearly enough, it is not self-evidently true” (75),

  2. The Ground of Belief in God
  3. Is Argument Irrelevant to Basic Belief in God?

Still, a classic work in its own right.


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