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Foundations of Faith, Week 4

Defeaters?

Presented on July 30, 2006
Last revised September 16, 2006

Remember how my interest in this subject began with my frustrated outburst, "No one ever came to faith in Christ because they lost an argument?" If that is true, and if Plantinga is right, evidence and argument aren't where the life is.

Warrant and Defeaters

In Part III, I described Plantinga’s model for the formation of Christian belief. Faith arises, he says, not from a process of logical reasoning based on evidence, but directly from the operation of the Holy Spirit and an understanding of the Scriptures. The importance of this model, says Plantinga, is that it shows how Christian belief can have warrant, and therefore be epistemologically OK.

Plantinga doesn’t claim to prove Christian belief, but only to establish that, if true, it is warranted, even in the absence of proof in the sense of reason based on evidence. Consider again my understanding of Plantinga’s definition of warrant.

A belief that is formed by a way of knowing, whose purpose is to produce true beliefs, functioning properly in a person, under conditions which allow proper function, is said to have warrant, i.e. it’s “epistemologically OK” to believe it, unless it has defeaters.

A defeater is a belief that contradicts another. If I hold a belief, and then come to believe something else that contradicts it, I am logically compelled to abandon my original belief. Recall the grits example. I believed that I had grits for breakfast, and was warranted in so believing because I remembered it. Then someone produced a receipt from the restaurant, with my signature, and no mention of grits. If I believe that the receipt is genuine, I have acquired a defeater. I may go on believing that I had grits for breakfast, but am no longer warranted in doing so.

So, in order to sustain the warrant of Christian belief, the believer must face, and answer, possible defeaters. As anyone who has professed Christian belief for long can attest, there is no shortage of candidates.

Cheap Plastic Defeaters

Many commonly encountered defeaters are not really serious objections at all. They are just good-sounding but easily refuted conversation-stoppers—what in logical terms are called fallacies. They often appear as short sentences, with the implied conclusion that there is something wrong with belief or the believer.

One is the ad hominem attack. Attack the believer, not the belief. “Christians are hypocrites.” If you fill in the implied bits, it reads like this: “Christians believe the Gospel. But all the Christians I know are hypocrites. Therefore the Gospel is false.”

A second is begging the question—introducing what you’re arguing for into the foundations of the argument, or the line of reasoning. “Evolution proves that Christianity is false.” That expands to read, “Observations of geology, fossils, and molecular biology show an interconnectedness of living things, and a pattern that goes from simple to complex over time. Mutation and natural selection offer a good explanation for most of the evidence, without having to appeal to God’s intervention. (Here it comes). That shows God was not involved. But Christianity teaches that God was involved. Therefore, Christianity is false.”

A third is assuming a cause-and-effect relationship where there might not be one. “Terrible atrocities have been done in the name of Christ.” True enough, but no defeater of Christian belief. The expanded form is, “If Christianity were true, Christ would not allow wicked things to be done in His name. Wicked things have been done in His name. Therefore, Christianity isn’t true.” Another one is, “If Christianity were true, God would have made it obvious. God hasn’t made it obvious. So Christianity must not be true.”

There are a lot more kinds of fallacy. You can read about them on Wikipedia under Logical_Fallacy.

Logical fallacies are cheap plastic defeaters. Careful and honest thinkers and arguers don’t use them, and don’t fall for them. As Christians, we shouldn’t use them and fall for them either. When we must argue, we must argue fairly.

Serious Defeaters

Then there are some pretty serious potential defeaters. Plantinga singles out:

I will briefly summarize each of these.

Biblical criticism—this is the so-called “scientific” or “historical” study of the Bible, and it really got started in the 19th century. Let’s take the Bible as we would any collection of manuscripts, and try to figure it out. Who wrote it? When? Why? How much editing and compiling has been done, and by whom, and why? What are the underlying true events behind it? The problem comes with the assumption that that there are no supernatural realities—naturally, then, that’s the conclusion you reach. Believers need not be disturbed, and can even learn from this sort of research. We know a lot more about how the Bible may have come to be, from a human perspective, and that can help us understand it better. If anything, the manuscript support is stronger now than it once was, and archaeology has confirmed some things that used to be considered myths. Once detached from its assumptions, this form of Biblical scholarship is no serious threat to Christian belief.

The fact of religious pluralism was what caused to give up trying to "figure it out," and instead seek God directy and conversationally. By the time I finished college, I thought that, logically, either all of the world religions were wrong, or they were all wrong but one. Each probably had its share of crackpots and fanatics, and each probably had its share of really fine people, and the adherents of each seemed to be convinced. So how could I ever figure it out? That led to my seeking help from God, and that led to Jesus a few years later. The pluralist argument goes something like this; “None of the religions are really true, not like real truth—scientific truth—I mean, how could they be? But they’re really meaningful to their adherents, and maybe they do more good than harm. Given that, isn’t it pretty arrogant to say ’Christianity is the only way?’” What is called “Christian exclusivism” is thought to be at best, arrogant, and at worst, downright dangerous—the seeds of persecutions and oppression.

The charge of arrogance and exclusivism is emotionally powerful, but as a potential defeater for the truth of the Gospel, or even its warrant, it is also is pretty weak. There are a lot of other areas of life—most of them, in fact —where there really is a right answer, and holding onto the truth, especially when it's an unpopular view, is considered a virtue. This objection of exclusivist arrogance only applies if Christian belief is in fact not true, or perhaps not warranted. But isn’t that a hidden assumption? In addition, this argument can be turned back on itself. This objection most often comes from unbelievers who pride themselves on being tolerant. Worldwide, not many people agree with them. So isn’t it arrogant of them to say that they alone are right—all those religions really are false--while 4+ billion people believe in one of them? What makes one arrogant is arrogance, whether it is about belief or agnosticism.

Related to pluralism is postmodernism. The evidence-plus-reason approach of the Enlightenment, that has been at the core of Western philosophy for about 400 years, is crumbling. The very idea that there is any truth at all, about other than foundational, “obvious” things, is itself under attack. I don’t know too much more about postmodernism, but if there is indeed no ultimate truth, or knowable truth, then that would be a defeater for Christian belief. But postmodernism doesn’t really prove that, it just claims it, so the postmodernist movement is not much of a defeater either. It's just another group of people who don't believe.

Plantinga says that the most serious objection is the argument from evil. This also goes all the way back to the Greeks. There is a strong form and a weak form. The strong form goes like this. “The Judeo-Christian teaching about God is that He is all-powerful and also loving. Given the amount of real, admitted, and pointless evil and suffering in the world, God must either not be all-powerful or not be all-loving. Therefore, the Judeo-Christian teaching is contradictory, and therefore false.” Interestingly, Job, which is probably the oldest book in the Bible, is largely about this very thing. According to Plantinga, this objection has been dealt with, finally, in philosophical circles over about the last 25 years. The counter-argument has to do with the nature of free will, and I haven’t read enough to know much about it.

The weak form of the problem of evil is just that the prevalence of evil is evidence against the existence of God, and that since the scientific evidence against God is already strong, the truth of belief in God is just not that likely. There are two responses; first, belief doesn’t get its warrant from evidence, so an evidence-based argument from evil is not that strong. Second, explicitly Christian belief is actually stronger than basic belief in God. Because of the incarnation and the cross, God can hardly be accused of keeping His distance. He hasn’t coped with evil and suffering by preventing them—rather, He has experienced them, just as we do, and is in the process of eliminating them.

The last word on defeaters is that believers shouldn’t be afraid of them. I’ve heard it said the skeptics have been trying to bring the Gospel down for 2000 years, so it’s pretty unlikely that your friend or relative just uttered the one statement that is finally going to do it in. I think that sometimes God can use potential defeaters of faith as pruning agents, to rid our belief systems of beliefs that we think are part of God’s truth but really aren’t. When we get caught in this situation, we can fear, “Well, if we admit we were wrong about this, won’t that just cause people to believe we’re wrong about the important things, too?” Or we fear, “If I change my mind about that, am I just compromising or being weak in faith?” Not really. We are to be humble and teachable, and repentance should come easily to us, if we indeed have a wrong belief.

Apologetics and Evangelism

The act of defending a belief or position is called apologetics, and the Bible calls Christians to defend what they believe:

“...always be ready to make a defense.”
—1 Peter 3:14

But at least in the Western world, we’re children of the Enlightenment, so we immediately think “evidence.” We start with positions that our adversary accepts, and from those we reason, or argue. But what if neither side can ever win? What if that's not where faith really comes from? Remember how my interest in this subject began with my frustrated outburst, “No one ever came to faith in Christ because they lost an argument?” If that is true, and if Plantinga is right, evidence and argument aren't where the life is.

Now, it's good to know what evidence there is for faith, and to be able to talk about it, but maybe we don't need to get too hung up on evidence and argument. Maybe what we need to be about is telling our stories, and sharing what Jonathan Edwards calls the “great things of the Gospel”—our sin and separation from God, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, and how we can be restored to a right relationship with God by His grace, through faith. This should be accompanied by a Christ-following life—“Preach the Gospel at all times—use words if necessary.” Let the sensus divinitatus, the Scriptures (we don’t need to identify them as such —the medicine will still work if there’s no label on the bottle), and the Holy Spirit do their work. If Plantinga is right, the warrant for Christian belief does not fundamentally rest on evidence and argument. If that’s so, evidence and argument shouldn’t be our primary concern as we interact with the world around us.

Thank you for taking the time to read this far. I leave you with the words of Paul the Apostle:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
—1 Corinthians 1:20-25

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV