The typical PCA member doesn’t lose much sleep wondering whether God exists. Or if Jesus is truly the Son of God. Asked whether the Bible is literally the Word of God, most would likely respond with the sanctified equivalent of “Duh!” Among denizens of academia’s hallowed halls, however, such has hardly been the case. In fact, a university professor’s admission of trust in the “eternal verities” was tantamount to professional suicide, a seeming admission to having the IQ of a boiled egg. Believing simply “because the Bible says so” was inexcusable.
This began to change, however, in the 1970s, through the influence of Dr. Alvin Plantinga. Already the holder of an impressive pedigree, including a doctorate in philosophy from Yale, Plantinga wrote God, Freedom and Evil in 1974, a portion of which was subsequently published as The Nature of Necessity by Oxford University Press. Prior to these books, non-Christian philosophers and other skeptical intellectuals confidently held the assumption that it was contradictory to claim that God exists and that evil in the world exists. With a single literary swipe, however, Plantinga debunked this prevailing notion, exposing flaws in such reasoning and affirming that it was possible for a perfect, good God to have created a world in which evil exists.
In the 30 years since, his status as “the most influential Christian philosopher alive today” has not hampered the 73-year-old’s standing among his peers. Plantinga has served on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame since 1982, currently holding the John O’Brien Chair in Philosophy and directing the Center for the Philosophy of Religion at the University. Twice he has lectured at the prestigious Gifford Lecture Series in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has authored nearly a dozen books, including Warranted Christian Belief, the third in a series defending the rational integrity of Christianity.
Most recently, Plantinga has concentrated on exposing the philosophical arguments that often undermine Christian confidence, including naturalism (especially advocacy of naturalistic evolution) and biblical scholarship couched as “higher criticism.”
However, perhaps his greatest contribution has been breaking down barriers for devout followers of Christ, enabling them to emerge from the philosophical “closet” and become active in the professional mainstream of American philosophical thought. In fact, the Society of Christian Philosophers was founded in the 1980s to encourage and promote fellowship and the exchange of ideas among believers who daily must pit their reasoning skills against peers whose anti-theistic thinking still predominates intellectual culture.
So last spring, when Plantinga lectured at Covenant College’s 2006 Christian Student Philosophy Conference, students eagerly acknowledged his contributions both to academia and the body of Christ.
Free to explain why we believe
Dr. William Davis, the chair of Covenant’s philosophy department, regards himself as a beneficiary of Plantinga’s trailblazing. “Fifty years ago, a Christian in philosophy had to keep his faith a secret. It was disreputable in a field dominated by skeptics and logical positivists. The view was that if something could not be verified by the senses or measured by science, it was unworthy of consideration. By the time I started my graduate work in the late ‘80s, however, it was no longer necessary to apologize for having a faith commitment. We were free to explain why we believed as we did, without fear of ridicule.
“Today we can even boldly debate thinking that excludes God,” Davis said. “A question Dr. Plantinga asks over and over is why people think the naturalistic evolution story can explain humans as we know them – how can the process of ‘natural selection’ explain mankind’s love for beauty, for example, or our willingness to sacrifice for truth?”
Philosophy has been defined in many ways, but Davis views it simply as “deep, clear thinking about important stuff.” If mankind were truly the result of random evolution, he and Plantinga contend, why would the “important stuff” even matter?
The validity of believing that God acts in the world
During his talks, Plantinga underscored the validity of believing that God acts directly in the world. For example, he argued that belief in miracles does not require ignoring science, nor does confidence in science mandate refusal to consider the miraculous. “There’s nothing in science that’s incompatible with miracles and divine action,” Plantinga stated. “By doing a miracle, God wouldn’t be going against scientific laws.”
He also asserted that followers of Christ need not—and should not—be bullied into believing that they cannot know that Jesus is God and that the Bible is the Word of God. Whether we are laypeople, or pursue careers in academic environs, we can engage in dialogue with nonbelievers boldly, as Plantinga explains in the following interview.
Even though you are well established as a Christian philosopher, does anyone still ask you, “Christian philosopher— make up your mind”?
Not too frequently anymore. It’s true that in many state and secular universities, Christian belief is attacked in philosophy, literature, and history classes, among others, but that doesn’t mean we should not study in those areas. The Christian philosopher responds to attacks from secular, atheistic philosophers—doing so from a Christian perspective.
With so much damage done by naturalistic thinkers, it’s a shame for Christians to withdraw from the debate and leave that whole area to them. Philosophy is not by nature non-Christian at all, despite the fact that many philosophers are not Christians. We need to be thinking hard about important topics.
You have written on the topic of “warrant.” What do you mean by that?
“Warrant” refers to whatever it is that when added to true belief yields knowledge. It concerns in what way we can truly know our Christian beliefs, as opposed to a lucky guess. Hebrews 11:1, for example, defines faith in the King James Version as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But the word substance literally means “stands under,” or supports. And evidence is whatever makes some belief evident and sensible.
The Bible says that faith is the gift of God, and one evidence of that is being able to form certain beliefs on God’s say-so, supported by our cognitive powers. Because of processes God has instilled in His followers, we have evidence of the Holy Spirit, as John Calvin stated.
As I write in Warranted Christian Belief, “Is it rational, reasonable, justifiable, warranted to accept Christian belief? Or it there something epistemically unacceptable in doing so, something foolish, or unjustified, or unreasonable? Is the idea of Christian belief coherent? Can there be such a thing as Christian belief?” Obviously I believe the answer to the last two questions clearly is affirmative.
How would you assess the Church’s ability to carry on a conversation with the world? Do you think that Christians have been too easily bullied?
I certainly do think that we have been too apologetic over the last 100 years or so, especially in the intellectual realm. We seem to think we need to get approval from non-Christians to be secure in our own faith. But the Bible tells us the cross is foolishness to those who don’t believe, so it’s not surprising that non-believers often find our beliefs substandard or unacceptable. That’s doesn’t mean, however, that they are.
It’s not like everybody has to become some kind of philosopher. We’re not all called to that. But I often speak directly to Christian philosophers, urging them to become more self-confident as Christians and to realize that their job is not to get their non-Christian peers to approve of them or respect them. Their main job is to be philosophers of the Christian community; we ought to be in dialogue with the rest of the world, but I don’t see that as our main audience.
It’s not hard to see why there is a lot of bullying going on. Kids go to college and their professors talk about how irrational Christianity is. Not only are the students often ill-equipped to respond, but the professors are speaking from positions of authority. They explain their arguments in great detail, even though those who approach philosophy from a Christian perspective can discern that, for the most part, those arguments are really of little substance.
How would you suggest that the Church become bolder without coming across as arrogant, “intolerant,” or naïve?
I would suggest simply listening and trying to learn from what others are saying. We don’t have to act as if we know it all. We should be neither too arrogant nor too reticent. We can be confident in what we believe.
Some people would say that if you feel what you are saying is right, then you’re arrogant. But the truth is, if you claim that you’re not forming an opinion at all, for fear of becoming arrogant, then you end up being arrogant toward people who do hold opinions.
In the academic world, Christians hardly ever come across as arrogant. If anything, they appear timid, reluctant to stand up for what they believe. In other contexts, arrogance may be a problem. Christian TV evangelists, for instance, may at times seem arrogant, but it’s not arrogant to stand up for what you believe. You’re not arrogant by virtue of thinking something is true, having sound reasons for what you believe, and then standing up and saying so.
As I stated in “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” what is needed in today’s world is Christian courage, or boldness, or strength, or perhaps Christian self-confidence. We must display more faith—more trust in the Lord—putting on the whole armor of God.
Don’t concede the debate
As Plantinga proceeded through his series of talks at Covenant, he made it clear there is no reason for Christians to concede the debate, whether on scientific empiricism vs. miracles, evolution vs. creation, or any of numerous issues being raised in our postmodern, post-Christian society. Regardless of which personal or professional endeavors we find ourselves in, we would do well to heed his observations and experience as a philosopher—and follower of Christ.
From his “Advice to Christian Philosophers” Plantinga says, “I deeply believe that the pattern displayed in philosophy is also to be found in nearly every area of serious intellectual endeavor. In each of these areas the fundamental and often unexpressed presuppositions that govern and direct the discipline are not religiously neutral; they are often antithetic to a Christian perspective. In these areas then, as in philosophy, it is up to Christians who practice the relevant discipline to develop the right Christian alternatives.”
Robert J. Tamasy, a member of North Shore Fellowship (PCA) in Chattanooga, Tenn., is vice president of communications for Leaders Legacy, Inc., a ministry to business leaders, based in Atlanta, Ga. He is the author of Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace (River City Press) and co-author of The Heart of Mentoring with David A. Stoddard (NavPress).