Tag Archives: alvin plantinga

What Is Faith – Part 4

Last week we saw where faith came from and how it works.

  • Faith comes from the “internal instigation” of the Holy Spirit.
  • What Jesus called a new birth.
  • What we also call regeneration of the heart.


Faith plays out through a series of events – some virtually simultaneous in occurrence.

  • Call – through a drawing of the Holy Spirit and the speaking of the Gospel.
  • Regeneration – the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Conversion – a combination of faith and repentance.


Today, I want us to finish up with an apologetic of faith.

  • I want to deal with the following question.
  • Is faith rational?



Christian Epistemology:

To get started, we have to see what Christian epistemology looks like.

  • Epistemology is the study of how we come to know what we know.
  • What is knowledge, and what is its source, and why is it reliable.


Alvin Plantinga describes Christian epistemology this way:

  • All humans have a “sensus divinitatis” – sense of divinity.
  • This is “a kind of faculty (like sight or hearing)”.
  • It is a “belief-producing faculty…designed and created by God”.


“The purpose of the [sense of divinity] is to enable us to have true beliefs about God”.

  • “Under the right conditions” our sense of divinity comes to true beliefs about God, the Gospel and reliability of Scripture.
  • The right conditions are the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit.


Christian beliefs are triggered by and arise out of circumstances.

  • These circumstances would be the “ordo salutis” stuff we spoke of last week.
  • All the stuff God is doing in us through the Holy Spirit.


So given the call and regeneration stuff, we just find ourselves believing in God.

  • It seems right to do so.
  • In fact, outside of the Holy Spirit’s work we would not choose these beliefs.


This is crucial for the rationality of Christian epistemology.

  • We believe because of the actions of an outside agent.
  • Our belief does not originate in our “stuff”.


Plantinga puts it this way:

“These beliefs do not come to the Christian just by way of memory, perception, reason, testimony, the sensus divinitatis, or any other of the cognitive faculties or processes with which we human beings were originally created; they come instead by way of the work of the Holy Spirit, who gets us to accept, causes us to see the truth of these great truths of the gospel. These beliefs don’t come just by way of the normal operation of our natural faculties; they are a supernatural gift” – Alvin Plantinga.


So, then, we have seen what a Christian epistemology looks like.

  • And no doubt, there are clearly some presuppositions in play here.
  • A couple of them are that God exists and that He has revealed Himself in Scripture.
  • More on these later*.



Anatomy of Irrational Belief:

Now we need to see what an irrational belief might look like.


Philosophers suggest that a belief is irrational if (Alvin Plantinga):

  • (1) It is produced by cognitive faculties that malfunction.
  • (2) It is produced by a cognitive process aimed at producing something other than true beliefs.


I would have to add a third supposed criteria often used by the lazy or unsophisticated.

  • (3) A belief is irrational because it is emotionally troubling or distasteful.
  • This is a rhetorical appeal to emotions to portray a belief as absurd or even hateful.


An example of the first:

  • This would be a cognitive faculty that has been physically or chemically damaged.
  • It also could be one that is “blinded by ambition” or “blinded by loyalty” – Plantinga.
  • “You can also be blinded by covetousness, love, fear, lust, anger, pride, grief, social pressure, and a thousand other things” – Alvin Plantinga.


An example of the second:

  • This would be a cognitive process that forms beliefs whose aim isn’t truth but to…
  • Contribute to survival.
    • Plantinga is well known for lodging this argument against Evolutionary Naturalism.
  • Provide peace of mind.
  • Provide some psychological well-being.


An example of the third:

  • Belief “A” is irrational because it is unfair, intolerant, or objectionable.



All of this means that for one to criticize a belief producing system as irrational it must be shown:

  • That the cognitive faculties used to produce it are malfunctioning.
  • That the cognitive process used to produce it isn’t aimed at producing true beliefs.


We have already seen that in Christian epistemology:

  • There is a cognitive faculty called the “divine sense” that when acted upon by the Holy Spirit produces belief in the Christian God.
  • And that this “divine sense” is designed by God to produce true beliefs about Himself.
  • So, on its face, Christian epistemology is not irrational.




Now lets go back to the presuppositions behind a Christian epistemology.

  • At a minimum they are that God exists and that He has revealed Himself in Scripture.


So, here is the thing!

  • Anyone who makes knowledge claims does so having already assumed the truth of certain presuppositions.


The most obvious of these is an appeal to the past or experience as indicators of:

  • The reliability of our reason.
  • And the uniformity of the laws of nature.


For example:

  • I know it to be factually true right now that Norfolk is east of Suffolk.
  • Why – because I was in Norfolk on Friday and to get there, I drove east.
  • I know it to be factually true that when I strike a golf ball with my putter, the ball will stop.
  • Why – because I just saw this repeatedly happen yesterday.
  • I know it to be factually true that I have a Prius.
  • Why – because I remember driving it this morning.


In all of these examples, things are assumed without being accounted for or explained.

  • Specifically, everyone believes the world will act uniformly today because it did so in the past.


In other words, that which was true yesterday is true today.

  • What “east” was yesterday will be what it is tomorrow.
  • Friction and energy depletion will work tomorrow the same way they did yesterday.


About these presuppositions, Alvin Plantinga says:

“And what about the very idea of past occasions, or more generally what about the very idea of a past? I certainly believe that indeed there has been a past; but where can I find a good argument for the conclusion that there really has been a past? The whole development of modern philosophy from Descartes to Hume really shows that there is no good argument from what is self-evident [the assumption of a past] to propositions of this sort [that there really has been a past]” – Alvin Plantinga.


In other words, the past, and thus our experience, cannot be shown to be objectively real.

  • Yet, even though they are unaccounted for, they are a starting point for trusting our reason.


Circular Reason:

These types of unaccounted for assumptions lead to circular reasoning.

“All chains of argumentation, especially over matters of ultimate personal importance, trace back to and depend upon starting points which are taken to be self-evidencing; thus circularity in debate will be unavoidable” – Greg Bahnsen.


For example, as we have just seen:

  • We use reason informed by past experience – a past that is assumed as self-evident – to conclude that reason is reliable.
  • So we are using our reason to argue for the reliability of our reason.


Atheist David Hume concedes:

  • “When it is asked, What is the nature of all our reasonings concerning matter of fact? the proper answer seems to be, that they are founded on the relation of cause and effect. When again it is asked, What is the foundation of all our reasonings and conclusions concerning that relation? it may be replied in one word, Experience. But if we still carry on our sifting humour, and ask, What is the foundation of all conclusions from experience? this implies a new question, which may be of more difficult solution and explication” – David Hume.
  • He understands the problem of using reason to assume reason.


As we said earlier, a Christian epistemology has the same problem.

  • We assume the existence of God, and that He has revealed Himself in the Bible.
  • We use the Christian Bible to argue our Christian epistemology.
  • See note at bottom for more on circular reasoning*.


At this point, Greg Bahnsen says we must do the following.

“At this level of conflict with the unbeliever the Christian must ask, what actually is the unquestionable and self-evidencing presupposition? Between believer and unbeliever, who actually has the most certain starting point for reasoning and experience? What is that presuppositional starting point? Here the Christian apologist, defending his ultimate presuppositions, must be prepared to argue the impossibility of the contrary—that is, to argue that the philosophic perspective of the unbeliever destroys meaning, intelligence, and the very possibility of knowledge, while the Christian faith provides the only framework and conditions for intelligible experience and rational certainty. The apologist must contend that the true starting point of thought cannot be other than God and His revealed word, for no reasoning is possible apart from that ultimate authority. Here and only here does one find the genuinely unquestionable starting point” – Greg Bahnsen.


In other words, the only way to account for the reliability of reason is if Christian epistemology is true.

  • Without a transcendent, objective source of knowledge all reasoning is irrational.
  • This is because there is no way to account for it objectively.



Irrational Faith:

Understanding all of this, we can now look at some common objections to the rationality of Christian beliefs.

  • As we do, we will see if we can identify the problem with each approach.


(1) God of the Gaps

  • Christian faith may have been rational before the advent of modern science – but no longer.
  • Science has demonstrated that it can provide empirical evidence for why things are the way they are.
  • Locusts don’t swarm due to the judgment of God, but because of a “build-up of serotonin”.
  • Crops don’t flourish because God has shown favor, but because the right combination of water and nutrients were introduced.


Is this using objection 1, objection 2, objection 3 or a combination of them all?

  • Is it successful?
  • What unproven presuppositions lie behind this accusation?


(2) Religious Pluralism

  • The numbers of religious traditions that claim to know the truth are enormous.
  • It seems unlikely that one is any better than the others.
  • Nor does it make sense that a cognitive process aimed at supposedly producing true beliefs would produce so many beliefs at odds with each other.


Is this using objection 1, objection 2, objection 3 or a combination of them all?

  • Is it successful?
  • What unproven presuppositions lie behind this accusation?


(3) Intellectually Arrogant

  • It is arrogant, narrow-minded and intolerant to think that you have stumbled upon the truth.
  • Not to mention, this implies that those who disagree with you are somehow intellectually inferior.
  • “William Cantwell Smith: ‘except at the cost of insensitivity or delinquency, it is morally not possible actually to go out into the world and say to devout, intelligent, fellow human beings: ‘. . . we believe that we know God and we are right; you believe that you know God and you are totally wrong’” – Alvin Plantinga.


Is this using objection 1, objection 2, objection 3 or a combination of them all?

  • Is it successful?
  • What unproven presuppositions lie behind this accusation?


(4) Evidence Deficient

  • There simply isn’t any good empirical evidence that Christian truth claims are tenable.
  • Supernatural truth claims can’t be tested.
  • Even if they are true – there is no way to know them to be so.


Is this using objection 1, objection 2, objection 3 or a combination of them all?

  • Is it successful?
  • What unproven presuppositions lie behind this accusation?


(5) Wish-Fulfillment

  • “These [religious beliefs], which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes. As we already know, the terrifying impressions of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection — for protection through love — which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization; and the prolongation of earthly existence in a future life provides the local and temporal framework in which these wish-fulfillments shall take place” – Alvin Plantinga (quoting Sigmund Freud).


Is this using objection 1, objection 2, objection 3 or a combination of them all?

  • Is it successful?
  • What unproven presuppositions lie behind this accusation?


Plantinga sees wish-fulfillment as the most persuasive argument against the rationality of Christian beliefs.

  • Even so, he dispatches it quite easily.


He does so as follows:

  • The claim, he says, is that “there is a failure of rational faculties to work as they should”.
  • The malfunction is wish-fulfillment.
  • The false belief is God.


But, Christian epistemology “stands Freud and Marx on their heads” – Plantinga.

  • “It is really the unbeliever who displays epistemic malfunction; failing to believe in God is a result of some kind of dysfunction of the sensus divinitatis” – Alvin Plantinga.


He goes on to say:

  • “According to St. Paul, it is unbelief that is a result of dysfunction, or brokenness, failure to function properly, or impedance of rational faculties. Unbelief, he says, is a result of sin; it originates in an effort, as Romans 1 puts it, to ‘suppress the truth in unrighteousness.’”


And even more fun is this:

  • “Indeed, unbelief can also be seen as resulting from wish-fulfillment — a result of the desire to live in a world without God, a world in which there is no one to whom I owe worship and obedience” – Plantinga.


But wait…there is more!

  • It might be that wish-fulfillment does produce many false beliefs.
  • But, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t produce the one true belief it is aimed at producing – belief in God.




Christian beliefs are not irrational any more than it is to believe in the past.

  • We could theoretically be wrong, but we are not irrational.


The only legitimate objection to Christian belief would be to show that our presuppositions are wrong.

  • Specifically, that the Christian God doesn’t exist and/or that He did not reveal Himself in Scripture.


The problem here, of course, is that there are just as many logically sound arguments for belief in the personal God of the Bible as there are against such a belief.

  • So ultimately, we always end up back at our presuppositions.


And as Greg Bahnsen said earlier, we argue for the “impossibility of the contrary”.

  • Without God as the source of an objective, transcendent knowledge, and without Him providing adequate reasoning apparatus to “know” this knowledge, there is no meaningful reasoning about knowledge.


For as Scripture says:

  • Colossians 2:2–3 (ESV) — 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
  • Proverbs 2:6 (ESV) — 6 For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
  • Job 38:36 (ESV) — 36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind?
  • Isaiah 55:9 (ESV) — 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
  • Colossians 1:15–17 (ESV) — 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.



*A further word about circular reasoning:

“Indeed, it is the case, as many will be quick to point out, that this presuppositional method of apologetics assumes the truth of Scripture in order to argue for the truth of Scripture. Such is unavoidable when ultimate truths are being debated. However, such is not damaging, for it is not a flat circle in which one reasons (i.e., “the Bible is true because the Bible is true”). Rather, the Christian apologist simply recognizes that the ultimate truth—that which is more pervasive, fundamental, and necessary—is such that it cannot be argued independently of the preconditions inherent in it. One must presuppose the truth of God’s revelation in order to reason at all—even when reasoning about God’s revelation. The fact that the apologist presupposes the word of God in order to carry on a discussion or debate about the veracity of that word does not nullify his argument, but rather illustrates it” – Greg Bahnsen.