A Response to Alvin Plantinga’s “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology”

by Max Andrews

In this article Plantinga uses the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck as an outline for the reformed objection to natural theology.  The first aspect of the objection is that arguments or proofs are not, in general, the source of the believer’s confidence in God.  Secondly, argument is not needed for rational justification; the believer is entirely within his epistemic right to believing that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion.

There are three further points made.  We cannot come to knowledge of God on the basis of argument; the arguments of natural theology just don’t work.  Secondly, Scripture ‘proceeds from God as the starting point,’ and so should the believer.  Finally, Bavinck points out that belief in God relevantly resembles belief in the existence of the self and of the external world. Furthermore, the Christian ought not believe on the basis of argument; if he does, his faith is likely to be unstable and wavering.

To criticize someone as irrational is to criticize them for failing to fulfill duties and responsibilities, or for failing to conform to the relevant norms or standards ethically.  Plantinga rejects the doxastic system of internalism and foundationalism and advocates an externalist reliabilism.  The reformed objection to natural theology, or reformed epistemology, is primarily an objection to foundationalism.

The main argument is:

  1. We cannot know God on the basis of argument.
  2. Scripture starts with God and so should the believer.
  3. We must presuppose God’s existence in an apologetic and belief in God is properly basic.

Although I wouldn’t deny God as being a properly basic belief, per se,  I don’t think that’s the only means by which we can come to know that God exists.  Calvin said that this is the natural human condition; it is because of our presently unnatural sinful condition that many of us find belief in God difficult or absurd.  Calvin thinks that one who doesn’t believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position.  There’s the rub.  We may have ethical hurdles that taint, influence, or dilute or pollute or mind and reasoning capabilities but that doesn’t necessarily entail that we cannot form true premises and conclusions.  I certainly believe that we cannot reason our way into a salvific relationship with God, but we can know God exists via argument—plain theism.

4 Comments to “A Response to Alvin Plantinga’s “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology””

  1. I thought Plantinga, and Reformed epistemology more broadly, was foundationalist–just with a much broader foundation of basic beliefs. Have I been wrong?

  2. AFAIK Plantinga is against cartesian foundationalism and evidentialism. WLC did a good podcast on this with in the last few months.

    Forgive the typos I’m on a tablet.

  3. So, is it inappropriate to call Plantinga a foundationalist in any sense? If so, what do we call it? It seems to me that he is a foundationalist but that he accepts more as warranted knowledge (the foundation of a noetic structure) than Descartes would allow.

  4. My understanding is that Plantinga rejects Classical foundationalism because it is too strong ( and also self-defeating). In it’s place he proposes a more moderate foundationalism where propositions or beliefs that entail ‘God exists’ are properly basic. So his early religious epistemology is still foundationalist but weaker than classical ( Cartesian, etc) foundationalism. If ‘ belief in God is properly basic’ as he posits, then by the language of basicality, he is/was a foundationalist. (‘basic’ is a term of foundationalist epistemology). There is much more to this of course. Basic beliefs are grounded in experience, triggered by the sensus divinitatis. There is emphasis more on epistemic externalism than internalist deontic duty.

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