Review: Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga

In Warranted Christian Belief (henceforth WCB), Alvin Plantinga examines the conditions under which theistic and Christian beliefs possess warrant—that which transforms true belief into knowledge. His definition of warrant (defended at length in the prior two books in this trilogy) is as follows:

A belief has warrant just if it is produced by cognitive processes or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment propitious for that exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true beliefs. (Location 114 Kindle edition)

It is important to recognize that Plantinga’s goal in this book is not to argue for the truth of Christian belief, but for its warrant. Once the reader realizes this, it becomes clear why Plantinga introduces the distinction between de facto and de jure objections to theistic and Christian belief. A de facto objection attacks the truth of Christianity and is hence making a metaphysical or an ontological claim (e.g., God does not exist). Popular de facto objections are the logical problem of evil or that the attributes of God are logically inconsistent. De jure objections are epistemological in nature. For example, a de jure objection might hold that whether or not Christian belief is true, it is nonetheless unjustified or unwarranted to hold such belief. Plantinga sees the book serving two distinct functions:

On the one hand, it is an exercise in apologetics and philosophy of religion, an attempt to demonstrate the failure of a range of objects to Christian belief. …. On the other hand, however, the book is an effort in Christian philosophy…the effort to consider and answer philosophical questions from a Christian perspective. (Location 153 Kindle edition) 

Part I: Is There a Question? Before the discussion of de jure objections to Christian faith can proceed, however, there is a preliminary objection which must be addressed: is Christian belief so much as possible? He notes that a number of thinkers (possibly Kant, certainly Gordon Kaufman and John Hick) have claimed that God is so transcendent that none of our concepts can be applied to him. If this is true, Plantinga notes, there isn’t such a thing as theistic or Christian belief at all. The central tool Plantinga uses in rebutting these claims is that they seem to be incoherent.[1]
Part II: What is the Question? Plantinga then turns to a variety of de jure objections which might be raised against the Christian faith. Namely, that Christian belief is unjustified, that it is irrational, or that it is unwarranted.[2] In dealing with the de jure challenge from justification, Plantinga revisits earlier arguments from Warrant: The Current Debate (henceforth WCD).[3] The upshot is that justification is just too easy a status to maintain. Rather than adopting a triumphalist tone, therefore, Plantinga notes that this cannot be a serious contender as a viable de jure objection.[4] Plantinga then examines the argument that Christian belief is irrational (in several senses of the word). For example, Plantinga examines the question of whether one can be internally rational and externally rational in holding Christian beliefs. Internal rationality is, like justification, too easy a status to obtain and hence not a viable candidate for the de jure objection. Internal rationality involves whether or not one is ‘rational’ in forming certain beliefs given that one has certain internal experiences. For example, say I am appeared to ‘treely’-I experience the visual sensations that usually accompany me actually seeing a tree. Unbeknownst to me, however, I have just had a stroke and am in fact having an illusory experience. Still, given that I seem to see a tree, I am reacting appropriately in forming the belief that I do see a tree.[5] Well, what then about external rationality? This is closer to a viable de jure objection, but is best handled under the ‘warrant’ header. So Plantinga next examines a complaint that theistic and Christian belief is unwarranted. Plantinga discusses the anti-theistic arguments of Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx, with the bulk of the discussion focusing on Freud and Marx (henceforth the ‘F-M complaint’). Freud proposes that mankind believes in God on the basis of wish fulfillment, a cognitive faculty which functions to help us deal with the cold, cruel, lonely, and purposeless nature of the universe. Plantinga first notes that simply providing a causal explanation of an event is not the same as demonstrating the truth or falsity of an event: 

But the general project under which the efforts of Freud and Marx fall is that of giving naturalistic explanations of religious belief…but of course giving a naturalistic account of a kind of belief isn’t automatically a criticism of that kind of belief…consider belief in laws of logic or the basic truths of arithmetic. Perhaps it is possible to give a naturalistic account of our knowledge of these truths. Such an account would not invoke the truth of these beliefs as part of the explanation; it would proceed instead by outlining certain salient features of the causal genesis or antecedents of these beliefs, perhaps pointing to events of some kind in the nervous system…The existence of a causal explanation of this sort would not show or tend to show that such beliefs are unreliable. The same would go for religious belief…perhaps God designed us in such a way that it is by virtue of these processes that we come to have knowledge of him. This would have no tendency to discredit religious belief, just as memory is not discredited by the fact that one can produce memory beliefs by stimulating the right part of the brain. (p. 149 Kindle edition) 

However, in assuming that the ‘point’ of wish fulfillment is providing comfort rather than true beliefs, Plantinga thinks that at last a viable de jure objection to theistic and Christian belief has at last been found. Recall that on Plantinga’s definition of warrant (see footnote 4) the relevant cognitive power or faculty must be aimed at the production of true beliefs. If, in addition, the cognitive faculty is not aimed at truth, Plantinga thinks the assumption of reliabilism (the cognitive power or faculty in question is no more likely to generate a true belief than a false belief) is also undercut. [6]So—what would warranted Christian belief look like? Plantinga then provides a ‘model’ of warranted Christian belief.
Part III: Warranted Christian Belief. In presenting his model of warranted Christian belief, Plantinga is making several claims. First he claims that the model is consistent with what most or all of the discussants would agree to. Second, that there are not any cogent objections of either a scientific or philosophical kind that are not also cogent objects to the truth of theism or Christian belief. (This has two implications: that if theistic or Christian belief is true, then the model or one similar is also true; and that there will be no viable de jure objections that are independent of de facto ones.) He notes that he believes that the claims of Christian theism are true, although his aim is not here to argue for their truth.[7]
In presenting his model of warranted Christian belief, Plantinga taps the writings of the apostle Paul[8], Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin. His ‘Aquinas/Calvin’ (henceforth A/C) model involves the claim that we have a ‘natural knowledge’ of the existence of God. Calvin spoke of the ‘sensus divinitatis’, a cognitive power or faculty by which we know that God exists.  The upshot of this discussion is that, when we are in certain circumstances (e.g., seeing the beauty of a mountain range, hearing a snippet of Bach, watching our children play) certain beliefs are formed in us. We do not come to the belief ‘there is a God’ on the basis of an inference from other beliefs (hence these beliefs are ‘basic’)—rather the circumstances are the occasion of such belief formation. Nor, Plantinga points out, does this discredit such belief formation from being knowledge.[9] 

In this regard, the sensus divinitatis resembles memory, perception, and a priori belief. Consider perception: I look out into the back yard, I see that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom. I don’t note that I am being appeared to in a certain way and then make an argument (recall that much of modern philosophy has showed that such arguments are thoroughly inconclusive). Rather, in being appeared to in that way, the belief that the coral tiger lilies are in bloom spontaneously arises. This belief is basic, in the sense that it is not accepted on the basis of other propositions. All of these, we might say, are starting points for thought. But (on the model) the same goes for the sense of divinity….This belief is another of those starting points of thought; it too is basic.” (p. 174 Kindle edition) 

So, on the A/C model, the belief ‘there is a God’ is not only basic, it is properly basic. The holder is justified (he has violated no epistemic duties). Many of the beliefs we hold (religious or not) do not derive their warrant from other beliefs. As noted above, in memory, perception, and a priori knowledge we do not (and often cannot) argue from other beliefs we hold. Whether those beliefs are warranted will usually depend on what is true of the wider world. Given theism, our cognitive faculties are designed to form true beliefs, they are designed according to a good design plan, and we are placed in a congenial cognitive environment for the faculties we do have.[10]
Plantinga then returns to the F-M complaint. He notes that the F-M de jure complaint is really presupposing a de facto complaint.[11] If the A/C model holds, then the conditions of warrant are met. If the A/C model is false, then the conditions of warrant are not met. The point of our faculties will not be true beliefs, there will not only be no good design plan but probably no plan at all, proper function (as argued in WPF) is an illusory concept, etc. etc. The comfortable fit between theism, the A/C model, and proper function also has an interesting implication: 

In an etymological sense, Marx thinks, the believer is insane. But here the A/C model stands Freud and Marx on their heads (more accurately, what we see here is part of…extensive borrowing from Christian and Jewish ways of thinking): according to the model, 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. (p. 182 Kindle edition) 

Now, so far Plantinga has only presented a model of warranted theistic belief. What about specifically Christian beliefs? The same approach he used for modeling warranted theistic belief is followed, but with several important additions. Here, the appropriate faculty or power or process is not the sensus divinitatis but rather what might call the ‘triumvirate’: the testimony of the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and faith. Justification and internal rationality de jure complaints have no more traction here than they did before. It is also easy to see how, if the Holy Spirit exists (as stipulated by the ‘expanded’ A/C model) then the resulting beliefs would be true.[12] But the discussion of faith deserves lengthier comment. For, as Plantinga notes, Calvin defines faith as a case of knowledge. He defends thinking of faith as a type of knowledge in that it is a belief producing process like perception or memory. Given that the expanded A/C model is also true, then the conditions of warrant are met and it is also knowledge.[13]
Part IV: Defeaters. Plantinga then notes that one can agree that, given the truth of the expanded A/C model, Christian belief is warranted. Nonetheless, they may insist that there are various defeaters for Christian belief: reasons to give up holding such belief. Plantinga tackles three broad kinds of arguments: higher Biblical criticism, religious pluralism and postmodernism, and the problem of evil. In addressing the arguments from higher biblical criticism, Plantinga notes that the practitioners of this art explicitly claim to bracket their theological presuppositions. This, Plantinga avers, is erroneous. Put briefly, the de facto affects the de jure. Once again, an illicit shortcut has been taken. The arguments from postmodernism and religious pluralism display various types of incoherence and are thus rejected. In handling the well-worn problem of evil, Plantinga notes that (1) the logical problem of evil has, to the satisfaction of many if not all philosophers, been rebutted (2) the probabilistic arguments of William Rowe either run afoul of unjustifiable assumptions[14] or else are so structured that arguments of comparable strength can be constructed along the same lines for the conclusion that God does exist and (3) the probabilistic argument of Paul Draper puts forth a standard for being ‘evidentially challenged’ which would undercut many beliefs which we do hold (properly) to be knowledge.[15]
Summary. So it seems that Plantinga has successfully defended theistic and Christian belief against a range of de jure objections. In doing so, he has also provided Christians with a coherent way of viewing their own religious epistemology. Much work remains to be done, no doubt—and one might wish that Plantinga was a more robust supporter of arguments for natural theology for the truth of theism and Christianity[16]—but Plantinga has already done yeomans work and provided plenty of fertile fields for future thinkers to till. All believers owe him a debt of gratitude.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.

[1] Put bluntly, fascinating details aside, it seems that arguing that none of our concepts apply to God presupposes that at least one concept—that none of our concepts apply—can apply to God!

[2] Subtleties abound. Plantinga actually examines multiple types of rationality and the problems they pose—or fail to pose—for Christian belief. For sake of brevity—and its illuminating connection with the de jure complaint connected to warrant—I only discuss the argument from internal rationality here.
[3] The problem with justification accounts of warrant is that justification is deontological and internalist in nature. That is, as long as one is doing what one believes nonculpably to be one’s duty, then one is justified. There is no discussion of factors outside the person. So, if a brain tumor causes me to form a belief, I am justified—regardless of whether the belief is true or false.
[4] The ‘easy status’ of justification crops up again when Plantinga discusses the ‘Great Pumpkin objection’ later in the book. All kinds of beliefs can be justified: the real question is going to involve whether or not the beliefs are warranted, which—as indicated by the definition of warrant above— requires bringing in externalist factors.
[5] Again, echoes of a familiar refrain: on Plantinga’s view, any adequate definition of warrant must account for externalist factors. Note the externalist portions of Plantinga’s definition of warrant: A belief has warrant just if it is produced by cognitive processes or faculties that are functioning properly, in a cognitive environment propitious for that exercise of cognitive powers, according to a design plan that is successfully aimed at the production of true beliefs. (Location 114 Kindle edition)
[6] If the relevant cognitive power or faculty is not ‘aimed’ at the production of true beliefs, then: Theistic belief is no more respectable, epistemically speaking, than propositions selected entirely at random. (p. 159 Kindle edition)
[7] Plantinga further argues that there are daunting difficulties in arguing for the truth of specifically Christian beliefs. There is a fascinating secondary literature between Plantinga, Swinburne, and McGrew regarding historical arguments for the Resurrection.
[8] See Romans 1.
[9] For most of us, sensory perception (seeming to see a flower) or memory (seeming to recall that I had a good donut prior to church service this morning) are circumstances under which we form certain beliefs (I see a flower, I had a donut). No inference is made from these experiences to such beliefs: the beliefs form in us spontaneously, as it were.
[10] It is fairly clear, I think, that if the A/C model is true then the conditions laid out in the proposed definition of warrant are met. The same holds for the ‘expanded’ A/C model.
[11] And here we see the ontological or metaphysical or ultimately religious roots of the question as to the rationality or warrant for belief in God. What you properly take to be rational, at least in the sense of warrant, depends on what sort of metaphysical and religious stance you adopt.  (p. 188 Kindle edition)
In a roundabout way, this is the point of his epistemological arguments against naturalism. Theism underwrites proper function and the presupposition of reliabilism whereas metaphysical naturalism does not. In shot, metaphysics has consequences!
[12] There are absolutely fascinating sidebars to this: to what extent is the testimony (dis)analogous to human testimony? One point to remember: the warrant in human testimony is lost if the testifier is lying (because their cognitive faculties are thus *not* aimed at the production of true beliefs) or is in some way dysfunctional. Given that on the expanded model the Holy Spirit will always function properly and never lie, then obviously warrant will be maintained. There is also an extensive discussion of whether or not all of this talk of ‘properly basic’ beliefs is the same thing as religious experience. As Plantinga would say, I leave that for homework.
[13] Plantinga also discusses at length the role that sin plays in wreaking havoc on both our cognitive and affective (emotional) lives. We do not think what we ought or value what we ought. The Holy Spirit—for believers—repairs this damage.
[14] Like the fact that, because some evil seems not to be justified in terms of some resulting good, therefore it probably isn’t. Given the gulf between God and ourselves, Plantinga ask, why think we would know of such a good even if there is one?
[15] The gist of this is not easy to state in a summary fashion. Perhaps the best thing to do is describe Plantinga’s counter-example. Consider the following propositions: (1) I am in my study (2) I am within four feet of a dog (3) I am at the dog pound. I believe (1) and (2). But (3) meets Draper’s conditions for providing an evidential challenge: it seems that (2) is more likely true given (3) than (1). But then doesn’t (3) provide an evidential challenge for me holding (1)? Not really. Why not? Because the evidentialist assumption (that evidence must be propositional) is again at play. Because each of these propositions has a good deal of warrant for me, warrant that is independent of its probabilistic relationships to the beliefs involved in the evidential challenges. In cases like this, being evidentially challenged comes to very little. (p. 476, Kindle edition)
[16] He doesn’t discount them entirely, of course. But he is more comfortable with thinking of them as useful for handling defeaters for theistic or Christian belief.

Written by

Brian Auten is the founder emeritus of Apologetics315. He is also director of Reasonable Faith Belfast. Brian holds a Masters degree in Christian Apologetics and has interviewed over 150 Christian apologists. His background is in missions, media direction, graphic design, and administration. Brian started Apologetics315 in 2007 to be an apologetics hub to equip Christians to defend the faith.

Type at least 1 character to search
Catch the AP315 Team Online:

The mission of Apologetics 315 is to provide educational resources for the defense of the Christian faith, with the goal of strengthening the faith of believers and engaging the questions and challenges of other worldviews.

Defenders Media provides media solutions to an alliance of evangelistic ministries that defend the Christian worldview. We do this by elevating the quality of our members’ branding to match the excellence of the content being delivered.