Foundations of Faith, Week 3

How Christian Belief Gets Warrant

Presented on July 23, 2006
Last revised September 16, 2006

Note however that the models [of warranted theism and Christian belief] do not depend on the Bible being inerrant; they merely agree with the Bible when it says that belief is formed by the instigation of the Holy Spirit and an encounter with the message of the Bible.

Warrant, Revisited

These pages are a review of Alvin Plantinga's “Warranted Christian Belief,” as I taught it in a four-week class at Blackhawk Church.

Towards the end of Part II, I restated 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 “epistemicologically OK” to believe it, unless it has defeaters.

Warrant is what distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief. The main point of Plantinga's book is to establish that, if true, Christian belief is probably also warranted. In other words, Christian belief does not need “proof” in the evidence-and-reason sense in order to be a philosophically defensible.

According to Plantinga, the strongest de jure objection to Christian faith is that it lacks warrant. In Freud's thought on belief, Plantinga finds the charge that Christian belief is produced by a means of belief formation—wishful thinking—whose purpose is other than the production of true belief. In Marx's thought, Plantinga finds the charge that it is produced under conditions, the pervasiveness of the class struggle, that are not conducive to the formation of true belief.

So the question becomes, “What is a valid belief-forming mechanism for theism and Christian belief? When, and under what conditions, does it function properly? And are there defeaters?”

A “Model” for Warrant

Plantinga doesn't set out to prove that Christian belief is true, or even to prove that it has warrant. What he is trying to do is show is a way in which it could have warrant, and argue that, if true, it actually has warrant in a way similar to that (It confused me, too).

Plantinga goes about this by examining three great Christian philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century Catholic, John Calvin, a 16th-century reformer, and Jonathan Edwards, an Enlightenment-era 18th-century American preacher whose sermons were used of God to bring about a great revival, the first Great Awakening, in pre-revolutionary America. He uses their writings to construct a pair of what he calls “models” of warrant. He explains “models” at the beginning of Chapter 6, and again at the beginning of Chapter 10. A model of how an idea gets warrant is another idea that is:

  1. Clearly possible
  2. Subject to no objections that do not assume the idea seeking warrant is actually false
  3. If true, implies that the idea it models is indeed warranted.

I will try to make my own example. If the idea is “theism is warranted,” then Plantinga's Aquinas/Calvin Model (see next section) of beliefs formed by the working of the sensus divinitatus is a model of how it is warranted. The A/C model has no substantial objections—it is logical, consistent, and cannot clearly be proven false, without assuming that theistic is itself false. Plus, everyone who understands it would agree that, yes, if the model, or something like it, is really happening, then theism is indeed warranted.

Both of Plantinga's models, for theism and for Christian belief, assume that the belief in question is true. This seems circular, but he argues later in Chapter 10 (p. 351-2) that it is not.

To me, this is the weakest part of Plantinga's argument. it seems like he has to qualify his project to such lengths that it doesn't have very much power. Maybe that's because I don't understand this philosophical tool very well. This is motivation enough for me to read his earlier book, Warrant and Proper Function.

Warrant for Theism

Plantinga’s Aquinas/Calvin model for warranted theism—basic belief in the existence of God, rests on what Aquinas called the sensus divinitatus—the sense of the divine.

Under certain circumstances, says Plantinga, such as beholding the beauty of the physical world or contemplating our own nature and guilt, the divine sense produces in us a belief that there is a God, not by way of reasoning, but we “just know.” This knowledge comes not by way of reason—“Look at all those stars; there must be a God,” but in the same basic way that we know that 1+2=3 or that there are trees outside.

The model is that we all have a sensus divinitatus. It's purpose is to produce the true belief that there is a God. When it functions properly, and is under conditions where it can function properly, then it produces theistic belief. If theistic belief lacks defeaters, it is therefore warranted. If there really is a God, then something like this model is very likely true, and belief in God has warrant even if it cannot be “proven.”

The punch line, says Plantinga, is that there is no de jure objection to theism that does not also assume, at least indirectly, that theism is false. Believers are warranted in believing, because if God really exists, belief in God very likely has warrant, because it is probably produced by the sensus divinitatus or something very much like it.

Applying the idea of a model, it is clearly possible that we have such a sense, and that its purpose is to point us to God.. If there is no God at all, then we don't

Warrant for Christian Belief

Plantinga goes on to say that the sensus divinitatus as a source of warranted belief is in trouble. Its proper function has been compromised, and it is trying to operate under unfavorable conditions.

One of the more fascinating parts of Warranted Christian Belief is Chapter 7. In it, he describes sin as an epistemological disability in each of us, and the Fall as a pollution of our epistemological environment. It is as though our spiritual vision—our ability to see God—has been largely blinded, and we have been thrust into a foggy space full of flashing lights.

This impairment of the sensus divinitatus becomes part of what Plantinga calls the extended Aquinas/Calvin model. On this model, the sensus divinitatus is complemented by the work of the Holy Spirit and the testimony of Scripture in producing beliefs in the properly basic way. These beliefs go way beyond simple theism to include what Jonathan Edwards calls “the great things of the Gospel,” like the contents of the Apostles' Creed. Different Christians would disagree on exactly when and why these begin to operate in a person, but the net effect of the Holy Spirit and Scripture is to create warranted beliefs, in a properly basic way.

This model does not rule out the role of evidence and reason in shaping belief, it merely establishes a way in which belief can have warrant. It also does not assume the inerrancy of Scripture. It only invokes Scripture as an agent in producing the beliefs, and which has the production of true beliefs as its purpose.

What the Bible Says About Epistemology

Though Plantinga does not emphasize it, the Bible seems to express a view of epistemology that is consistent with, or at least allows for, Plantinga's models for warrant.

When it comes to the sensus divinitatus and basic belief in God, the Psalms (Old Testament) contains:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
—Psalm 19:1

And the New Testament (one of the apostle Paul's letters) says:

“…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what was made, so that men are without excuse.”
—Romans 1:19-20

I don’t know New Testament Greek, so I can’t tell you if Romans 1:19-20 is saying that from the creation we can reason or argue that God exists, or that from creation we just know. If the latter, the Bible is agreeing with Plantinga (and Aquinas and Calvin) about the sensus divinitatus. No surprise—that's probaby where they got the idea.

The Romans passage also introduces the idea that we are responsible for what we know in this way, and another New Testament letter, the Letter to the Hebrews, identifies this simple theism as the starting point of full Christian belief:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek Him.”
—Hebrews 11:6

When the sensus divinitatus arouses in us a belief in God, common sense dictates that we seek God out. The Bible then says that we will know more by means of the Holy Spirit and the Bible.

Jesus is quoted as saying:

“But when He, the Spirit of Truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth.”
—John 16:8.

The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells of the work of the risen Christ when he tells readers to

“...fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.”
—Hebrews 12:2

And Paul the Apostle tells the Romans

“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ”
—Romans 10:17

and reminds Timothy:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have know the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
—Timothy 3:14-15.

The Bible is corroborating Plantinga's models—not surprising since Aquinas, Calvin, and Edwards were all strongly influenced by the Bible. Note however that the models do not depend on the Bible being inerrant; they merely agree with the Bible when it says that belief is formed by the instigation of the Holy Spirit and an encounter with the message of the Bible.

There's one place in the Bible which specifically addresses epistemology. Much of the New Testament concerns the spread of the Christian message out of its Jewish birthplace and into Greek-speaking (and Greek-thinking) Gentile lands. Paul the Apostle encountered the descendants of and their ideas. About as much time separated these people from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and their foundations of Western philosophy as separates us from John Locke, Rene Descartes, and the Enlightenment.

To the people at Corinth, he writes:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
—I Corinthians 1:20

Paul acknowledges that, to many, the great things of the Gospel are foolishness, and regarded as beneath being taken seriously. Paul uses “foolishness” in 2 Timothy 2:23 and Titus 3:9 to describe quarreling among believers about things that don’t matter.

 “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of god and the wisdom of God.”
—I Corinthians 1:22-24

People have different ways of knowing, and different people and cultures tend to favor some over others. The Jews wanted evidence. There’s nothing wrong with evidence—Jesus did wonders, and even told people to believe because of them. But miracles don’t create faith, and the lack of miracles doesn’t prevent faith. The Greeks wanted logic and reason—the wisdom of the world. There’s nothing wrong with logic and reason—we are told to love the Lord our God with all our minds—but you can’t reason your way to faith.

To use a modern metaphor, you have to use the right tool for the job. Trying to know God by evidence alone or reason alone is like trying to drive screws with a saw or a hammer. There’s nothing wrong with saws and hammers—they’re just not the right tools for driving screws. Christians seem to fall into the opposite trap—they insist on using the screwdriver of “faith” or the Scriptures to cut wood or pound nails—things that are best done with the other ways of knowing that God has given us.

Later in his writing to the Corinthians, Paul says:

“This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
—I Corinthians 2:13

Warrant, Summarized

There are still many mysteries, but there is a picture of the foundations of faith.

People have a sense of the divine which, when touched by the grandeur of nature or contemplation of the meaning of life, creates simple belief in the existence of God in a properly basic way. Because it originates from the sense of the divine, the purpose of which is to produce such beliefs, it has warrant, at least enough to motivate a seeker.

Further, God is at work in the world, through His Word and His Spirit, to create faith. Because the purpose of these is the production of true beliefs, and they are operating under conditions for which they were intended, the beliefs they produce in the great things of the gospel are also warranted.

Evidence may be brought to bear, and we’re told in 1 John 4:1 to “test the spirits,” but the foundations of the faith we have do not rest upon evidence and argument. Even so, according to God and Alvin Plantinga, they are sufficient to say, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Evidence and reason have their place, but they are not the root of the matter.

The final condition of warrant is that the belief in question lack defeaters. When it comes to defeaters for belief in God and explicitly Christian belief, there is no lack of candidates.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV