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Perhaps the world’s most important living Christian philosopher

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Author Alvin Plantinga

Author Alvin Plantinga

Matt Cashore

By any measure, Alvin Plantinga, O’Brien Professor of Philosophy emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, ranks among the foremost philosophers in America, and he’s widely regarded as the world’s most important living Christian philosopher. He’s been selected to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Scotland not just once, but twice, and he holds honorary doctorates from universities in North America, Europe and the British Isles, including one awarded by Brigham Young University in 1996.

Plantinga has been a prolific author, writing many articles and such books as “God and Other Minds” (1967), “God, Freedom, and Evil” (1974) and “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism” (2011).

He’s noted for formulating a number of significant arguments, including his “evolutionary argument against naturalism.” If, he reasons, the human mind developed in a purely natural way to help us feed, flee, fight and reproduce — in other words, as a practical survival tool — we have no really secure basis for trusting it as a guide to grand theoretical or abstract truths with no survival value (for example, about the nature of reality or the existence of God, or even about naturalism and evolution themselves).

“On the other hand, if God created our minds, we can have heightened confidence that they’re genuinely oriented toward truth.” (The argument is considerably more detailed and rigorous than my inadequate summary here can illustrate, and even such vocally atheistic philosophers as Thomas Nagel take it quite seriously.)

Plantinga has been particularly interested in the question of whether religious faith can be rationally justified. Some philosophers and many atheists have argued that it cannot. In their view, faith goes so far beyond what reason and evidence support that it must be pronounced irrational and even, in a sense, a violation of intellectual ethics. He has addressed that topic and such claims in a trilogy of important books published with Oxford University Press: “Warrant: The Current Debate” (1993), “Warrant and Proper Function” (1993) and “Warranted Christian Belief” (2000). Recently, he’s published “Knowledge and Christian Belief” (2015), a shorter and much more accessible version of that third book.

“Warrant,” in Plantinga’s vocabulary, is something like “justification.” A warranted belief is one that is justified; a person holding the belief is within his or her rights, or is rational, to hold it, regardless of whether he or she is ultimately correct. Plantinga, a Dutch Reformed Protestant who began his teaching career at Calvin College in Michigan, argues for what he calls “Reformed Epistemology” or the “Aquinas/Calvin model” — a way of coming to religious conviction that will seem quite familiar to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose concepts of “the light of Christ” and of gaining a “testimony” are closely parallel.

According to this model, belief in God and in central truths of Christianity can be what philosophers call “properly basic.” That is, such belief needn’t depend on inferences or external arguments from other beliefs. Calvin, for example, wrote of an inborn “sensus divinitatis,” an innate and direct perception of God or the divine. “To know in a general and confused way that God exists,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, “is implanted in us by nature” — even though, in this fallen world, the “sensus divinitatis” or natural knowledge that God exists can become damaged or be altogether erased. Full belief, on this view, is the work of the Holy Ghost.

If Christian theism is true, Plantinga argues, a reader of the scriptures can come to know directly for his or herself, by divine action, without any knowledge of ancient languages or expertise in history or training in logic, theology or philosophy, that what they teach is true. And he or she is rational, in that case, to base his or her life upon that conviction. He or she has — and Plantinga’s trilogy demonstrates this via close and careful reasoning — met all the requirements for intellectual integrity and rationality.

Notice, though, Plantinga’s premise “if Christian theism is true.”

“This,” he says in the closing paragraph of “Knowledge and Christian Belief,” “is the really important question. And here we pass beyond the competence of philosophy. In my opinion, no argument with premises accepted by everyone or nearly everyone is strong enough to support full-blown Christian belief, even if such belief is, as I think it is, more probable than not with respect to premises of that kind. Speaking for myself and not in the name of philosophy, I can only say that it does, indeed, seem to me to be true, and to be the maximally important truth.”

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.