Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reformed Epistemology Beyond Plantinga

Owen Anderson has written a small piece aiming to show difficulties in Alvin Plantinga’s conception of warrant.   Anderson asserts that Plantinga’s position leaves the unbeliever with a legitimate excuse for not believing in the Christian God.  Along the way Anderson advances a number of philosophical theses that I maintain are problematic for a Reformed Christian and subsequently limit the agreement one has concerning his critique of Plantinga.

This paper will follow the following structure:

  1. Plantinga and Warrant
  2. Anderson’s Critique
  3. Anderson Critiqued
  4. Warrant without Defeaters
  5. Anderson’s position incompatible with Reformed Theology
  6. Plantinga Reconsidered
  7. Conclusion

Plantinga and Warrant

In short, Plantinga’s position maintains that one is warranted in believing in God without having to give justification for foundationalist evidential demands.  Further, one is warranted in knowledge if one’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly in a proper environment.

Anderson’s Critique

Anderson says Plantinga’s position is incompatible with Christian teaching because of the following claims:
  1. Guilt presupposes inexcusability
  2. Inexcusability presupposes ability
  3. Ability presupposes clarity
  4. Clarity presupposes rationality

The main criticism is that Plantinga (seems) to allow that other religions can claim warrant for belief and thus evade Romans 1:21.  Another criticism is that Plantinga does not allow that God’s existence is sufficiently clear.

Anderson Critiqued

P1 seems like standard ethical and Christian teaching.   P2 is incompatible with Reformed Theology (see below).  P3 is not necessarily wrong, but it rests upon a major confusion throughout Anderson’s paper.  When he says “ability presupposes clarity,” does he mean moral ability or natural ability?  In fact, I don’t think he can answer the question because of his commitment to P2.  However, I don’t disagree that there is a clear, rational standard to which men are held accountable. P4 is fine; however, I have a problem with the way this clause is phrased:  if the alternatives to knowing God are rational then humans have an excuse to not knowing God.

Further, there is a difference between the clarity of God’s revelation and willing not to worship God.  Indeed, Anderson writes, “Inexcusability requires that if they had wanted to, they could have known God as they should have.”  Besides the confusion of moral and natural ability, this entails Anderson’s rather unique view about Romans 1:21. In another essay Anderson argues that this verse does not teach that the heathen knew God, but that God’s special revelation has undergone decay.   

For the moment I feel justified (warranted?) in standing with the tradition of commentaries on Romans 1:21 and say that the unbeliever knew (in some sense; I wonder if we are all interpreting “know” in a univocal sense) God.  

Excursus:  Commentaries on Romans 1:21

(Instead of quoting publisher, text, and page number, I will simply say Charles Hodge in loc, etc.)

John Murray:  “The knowledge of God must in this context be the knowledge derived from the manifestation given in the visible creation...The inexcusableness resides in the fact that being in posession of this knowledge they did not render to God the glory.”

John Calvin: “He plainly testifies here, that God has presented to the minds of all the means of knowing him, having so manifested himself by his works, that they must necessarily see what of themselves they seek not to know.”

Charles Hodge:  “Thus, in the first instance, in verse 19 and 20, he proved that the heathen had a knowledge of God which rendered them inexcusable, and then the fact that they were without excuse, is proved by showing that they did not act in accordance with the truth.”

Anderson says his paper is about “the clarity of God’s existence, not epistemic rights.”  Well, if that’s true then why is Anderson discussing Plantinga’s earlier works (Warrant and Proper Function and Warrant the Current Debate)?  Those books are defending the claim of warrant against foundationalism; they are not attempting to set forth God’s existence.  

A critique on more factual grounds

This doesn’t really affect the substance of the paper, but it’s worth pointing out.  Anderson says “Plantinga never endeavors to show that it is clear that God exists.”  This is odd, since Plantinga has defended the Ontological Argument (Doubleday 1965) and has offered Two Dozen or So arguments for the existence of God.   If this is indeed what Anderson is saying, then (P)3--4 fall.  

Warrant Without Defeaters

Much of Anderson’s critique seems to operate on only half of the Plantingian position.  Anderson writes, “All the adherents of world religions are rational in this broad sense of the term,” yet Christianity holds them accountable without excuse.  This is similar to the famous “Great Pumpkin” charge thrown at Plantinga:  Why can’t someone say that belief in the Great Pumpkin is perfectly basic and one has rational warrant?

If that is all that warrant said, then that would be a problem.  Yet just because one claims “properly basic belief” and “warrant” does not mean the position is immune to defeaters.  Consider:
  1. a more thorough and robust account of a warranted belief is one that is not subject to defeaters.  So, I'd say that and adherent of ____(insert deity)_____ has undefeated defeaters (think Islam, for example).
  2. Also, if one includes positive arguments (perhaps revamped natural theology ones), then we actually have reasons *for* our belief as well.  Why should I believe in ____(insert deity)_____?  I can tell others why they should believe in ____Yahweh____, can they do the same?
  3. many versions of beliefs in _____(insert deity)____ do not provide a basis for our belief in the reliability of our cognitive faculties, hence they'd have a defeater for all their beliefs, including belief in ____(insert deity)____.  So, why should the believer in ___Shivah___ think his/her cognitive faculties are reliably aimed at truth?  Does ___Shivah___ believe in those categories (i.e., true/false)?  If not, would he design his "children" to have cognitive faculties with beliefs aimed at truth?  And, if so, why believe this?  Is it revealed in the Vedas?  Where?

Anderson’s Position incompatible with Reformed Theology

Anderson holds to the principle “ought = ability.”  This follows upon his confusion of natural ability with moral ability.  This is not an extreme position to hold, as most free-will theists hold it today.   The problem is that Reformed theology rejects this position.  If [moral] ought = [physical] ability, then man has free will to believe in God apart from considerations of sin.  This is perfectly consistent with Kantian ethics and Arminianism.  It is not with Reformed theology.

Anderson writes, “If this [sin] is the result of something outside my control, then I cannot be held accountable.”  But the consequent does not follow, at least not universally.  What about original sin?  Why am I held accountable for what Adam did?  

Plantinga Reconsidered

Let’s pretend for a moment that Anderson’s critique holds.  What must we give up of Plantinga’s position and what can we retain.  Anderson says Plantinga’s views are incompatible with Christianity, yet one suspects that Anderson is overreaching on Plantinga.  Plantinga’s initial forays into warrant  merely dealt with belief in general in response to Cliffordian Evidentialism.

Beyond Foundations

The initial attraction to Plantinga’s “warrant” is not its providing an argument for the existence of God.  In fact, I don’t think that is Plantinga’s position at all.  As I’ve read the development of Plantinga’s corpus, Plantinga developed his “warrant” in response to classical foundationalism’s challenge on epistemic justification, not for whether warrant offers a “silver bullet” argument for God’s existence (to borrow an illustration from John Frame).  

The evidentialist challenge: if it is not rational to accept some proposition about God, then one ought not to accept it; b) it is not rational to accept such propositions without adequate evidence and with firmness not exceeding the evidence (Wolterstorff 136).  But as Plantinga pointed out, evidentialism of this sort usually connotes a form of internalism: I must satisfy some epistemic duty in order to have proper belief in God.  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?

If internalism is false, as I maintain the above evidential variety is, does this mean some form of externalism follows?  I think so, though I can’t argue it here.  But more to the point:  are all forms of externalism versions of warrant?  I don’t think so.  Reliabilism and models of perception are externalist, though inadequate by themselves.  

Let’s Assume Plantinga is in Fact False

If Plantinga’s account is incorrect, must I abandon externalism and embrace internalism?  I have seen no convincing arguments that I should (though to be fair that wasn’t Anderson’s point). But are all of Plantinga’s unique points wrong?  Let’s consider “proper function.”  If I am drunk are my reasoning faculties performing correctly?  Obviously not.  But that’s probably not why people object to “Proper Function.”  Does sin make my cognitive faculties malfunction?  Well, maybe.  This brings us in to the psychology of belief, a study I am not prepared to enter.


Anderson’s critique has forced Reformed Epistemology adherents to clarify a number of issues.  Unfortunately, one has to pay a high price to fully accept Anderson’s position.  His equivocation of natural/moral ability and is ought = can positions render many of his conclusions unacceptable to traditional Reformed theology.

Works Cited:

Calvin, John. Romans.
Hodge, Charles. Commentary to the Romans.
Murray, John. Commentary to the Romans.
Plantinga, Alvin.  “Reason and Belief in God.” Faith and Rationality.
-----------------.  The Ontological Argument.  Doubleday, 1965.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  “Can Belief in God be Rational if it Has no Foundations?”  Faith and Rationality.  Notre Dame.  


  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Do you think you've considered all of the possible meanings of ought/can so as to make sure you are understanding what I meant?

  2. Hello Prof Anderson,

    No. I haven't considered all the definitions. I didn't think your article intended to go into a full acct of the possible nuances. I'm open to correction.

  3. In general I agree with your critique of ought/can when it assumes libertarian free will, Arminianism, Kant, and is used to challenge the doctrines of total depravity and original sin. However, part of what I was doing in this article was contrast the Westminster Confession of Faith's claims about what can be known about God from natural theology, and "Reformed Epistemology's" objection to natural theology.

  4. I'll look into that. I've just never seen the ought/can distinction applied in any other way. Thanks.

  5. You seem to hint at it when affirming the natural/moral ability distinction. Responsibility requires some sense of can. We just need to explain what sense. In what sense can we know God? If the WCF affirms that the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest God then ought all humans to know this? Or check out the Larger Catechisms explanation of the first commandment. In my more recent books from last year I trace some of this at Princeton (Reason and Faith at Early Princeton published by Palgrave) and in Charles Hodge (Reason and Faith in the Theology of Charles Hodge also with Palgrave). In my earlier book on the Clarity of Gods Existence I discuss some of the layers of free will and the distinctions about ought/can and soteriology.

  6. *** If the WCF affirms that the light of nature and the works of creation and providence manifest God then ought all humans to know this? Or check out the Larger Catechisms explanation of the first commandment. ***

    I agree with all of that. So that I understand you correctly, for the sake of argument,

    Does the pagan in the middle of the jungle (who's never been evangelized) know God in any sense?

  7. Do you mean does he have a worldview that includes a belief about what is eternal (without beginning)? Yes.