Knowledge and Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga — A Book Review

During my undergraduate studies in philosophy at Rhodes College, under Dr. Larry Lacy, and at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, one of the questions that preoccupied me was this: how can we know that God exists? It still seems to me that, for all of us, this is perhaps the most important question we could ever resolve!

Ever since then, I’ve repeatedly sought to resolve this serious question via the formal study of epistemology. This is the academic study of ‘what is knowledge and how we obtain knowledge.’ The most careful, rigorous thinking available to me seems appropriate to the sober responsibility of ascertaining the nature of God’s existence.

As I began my undergraduate studies, I assumed that first I needed to gain a general understanding of how to define the concept of ‘knowledge’ (this is a very contested enterprise) and secondarily, the conditions by which we come to know something. Then, I could apply this general understanding of knowledge to the specific question of God’s existence.

For instance, if knowledge is true belief held on the basis of good evidence, then, consider the following:

  1. It is true that God exists.
  2. I have strong evidence that God exists.
  3. Therefore, I know that God exists.

If this is a legitimate project, then all that remains is amassing the evidence for God’s existence, fairly weighting it against the counter-evidence, and seeing where the scales fall.

This approach would be fine if we can make some basic assumptions, like “My mind is capable of reasoning well,” and “I live in a context where I can acquire knowledge,” and so on. But obviously, if we cannot assume these truths, we are in serious trouble. For instance:

  • If cultural biases keep me from reasoning well about other people groups, then ‘my truth’ will be far removed from ‘their truth.’
  • If pride and sin happen to severely distort the human effort to think about God, then even with the best evidence available, my mind may still reject the conclusion ‘God exists.’
  • If the pressures of evolution have totally shaped our neurological processes for the aim of survival, then our ‘beliefs’ may be no more than convenient fictions that are designed to promote the propagation of our competing genetic material.

That is, the ontology of ‘what it means to be human’ precedes the question of ‘what is knowledge and how do we obtain it?’ Who we are profoundly shapes what we can know.

During my undergraduate studies, I thought Alvin Plantinga, a professor at Notre Dame, best recognized the significance of these broader considerations. And in part because of how cleverly he showed that a narrower view of knowledge faces tremendous difficulties, his massive Warrant trilogy (Warrant: The Current Debate, Warrant & Proper Function, and Warranted Christian Belief) represents a very important contribution to the field of epistemology. Ever since, I’ve recommended these important books to others, but their voluminous length and technical rigor made them generally inaccessible. So excitement would be an understatement when I heard that Plantinga had released Knowledge and Christian Belief as a popular level summary of his academic work.

Unfortunately, Plantinga’s stated goal in writing this book was to present, “a shorter and (I hope) more user-friendly version of WCB [Warranted Christian Belief].” But this was a mistake. Except for lazy philosophy undergraduates, almost no one needs a user-friendly version of Warranted Christian Belief. Instead, what I wish Plantinga had written was an accessible, popular-level book called something like A Thinking Person’s Guide To Knowing God. (For what its worth, and to be entirely audacious, I would dearly love to collaborate with him on such a project).

The main thesis of Plantinga’s work is that there are no good objections to the rationality of Christian belief unless Christianity itself is false. That’s such an important statement it is essential to pause, think about it carefully, think about it some more, and finally, to reflect on it once again. Too often the search for God’s existence is conducted in a highly artificial and actually presumptuous sense of disinterested objective neutrality. “We’re good, smart people; how about we all look for the truth about this God question!”

But let’s humble ourselves for one moment. If the Triune God of the Scriptures is real, then he can not only create everything out of nothing, ensure the spin of elementary particles across the galaxy works out, and raise Jesus from the dead, but he can probably create people capable of knowing that He exists and loves them. So a rational person should bet that, if Christianity is true, then there is likely a variety of ways that it is rational to know that God exists and, even better, to personally know God.

For the details, at the present time there’s no better solution than to plow through Knowledge and Christian Belief. You may find, as I did, that it is a very enjoyable read. Plantinga possesses a crafty sense of humor, an artful clarity in his illustrations, and a very lively philosophical prose. Further, it is very refreshing to see the affections given sustained treatment. For instance, Plantinga approvingly quotes John Calvin:

Of the Holy Spirit, he says that “persistently boiling away and burning up our vicious and inordinate desires, he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion” (72).

Plantinga has long advocated for Christian courage, this work exemplifies it on every page. And what account of Christian knowledge is any good if it falls short of accounting for the zealous devotion that may be inspired by the Holy Spirit?

That said, there are some unnecessary diversions into the finer points of Kant’s philosophy, a densely compressed and consistent use of technical terms like warrant (beliefs produced by “cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth,” 84), illustrative examples from the historical archives of formal logic, and a generally breezy assumption that a bit of hard work on the reader’s part is worth it. So a general background in philosophical terminology and the customary style of writing in this discipline will be advantageous.

For the advanced reader who doesn’t have the time for Warranted Christian Belief, I highly recommend Knowledge and Christian Belief. Whether you read the book or not, chew on the thought that there are no good objections to the rationality of the heartfelt belief that “Jesus is my Lord and Savior,” unless Christianity is false. I hope that thought will whet your appetite to give this relatively difficult but important book the old college try.