Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Half the Question, Half the Answer: Plantinga On How One Can Know Christianity Is True

“A problem with evaluating this version of the argument is that the Reformed epistemologist (this Reformed epistemologist, anyway) doesn’t claim as part of his philosophical position that belief in God and the deliverances of IIHS do have warrant. That is because (above, p. 186ff.) in all likelihood they have warrant only if they are true, and I am not arguing that these beliefs are in fact true. No doubt the Reformed epistemologist does believe that they are true, and is prepared to claim that they are, even if he doesn’t propose to argue for that claim” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 347).

In the last post, I discussed the Truth Incarnate (Jesus in the flesh) and the incarnation of contemporary truth. It is my conviction that the Scriptures teach that the Word manifested Himself among us (humanity), and that the truth in the world today will, like Jesus its paradigm, manifest itself in physical evidences (such as argumentation, historical proof, etc.). To claim, however, that the truth need neither evidence nor argument (the stance of Reformed Epistemology) is to hold to an epistemology whose stance is counter-biblical.

In today’s post, I will focus on the inadequacy of Reformed Epistemology in the area of evidence. Not only does RE fail to address the issue of incarnation of truth (Jesus and modern-day evidence); it also fails to address the necessity of convincing others. One of the positive strengths of RE is that the view is consumed with helping assure Christians of the truth of their faith apart from evidence or argument. Plantinga states in his work Warranted Christian Belief that Christians can believe in the truth of Christianity because of the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit Himself shows us that the great things of the gospel are true. It’s not that an argument or evidence is needed to convince us. We are convinced because the Holy Spirit convinces us (John 16:7-11). Because we can know the gospel is true due to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit need not evidence nor argument to make Christianity true. I would agree with Plantinga that Christianity is either true or not apart from evidence, in the same way that a trial suspect is either guilty or not before the court case begins. Where I disagree with Plantinga, however, is in his implied assumption that because truth is independent of evidence, therefore it need no evidence. Evidence should serve a confirmatory function---that is, the evidence will only confirm what the truth is. DNA, for instance, will not make someone the father of someone else’s child; the person either is or is not the father, prior to a DNA test. Rather, the DNA test only confirms the identity of the child’s father. It is the confirmatory function of evidence that makes evidence itself essential to any investigation of the truth. Having said all this, let me state that I believe Christianity is true independent of the evidence...but I do not think the evidence is “optional” in the investigation of the truth. Rather, because Christianity is true, the evidence will only confirm the truth of Christian belief.

Plantinga’s quote above provides insight into the apologetic methodology of the individual who holds to Reformed Epistemology: while they can confidently assert that Christianity is true, they will not “argue that it is.” Plantinga says, “I am not arguing that these beliefs are in fact true.” He also states that he would “claim” Christianity is true, though “he doesn’t propose to argue for that claim.” There is a difference between making a claim and arguing for it. One can claim that a stay-at-home mom is a serial killer, but one also has to prove that the individual is a serial killer. Just saying, “Well, can’t you see the truth? She’s got kitchen knives in her hand,” doesn’t make the mother a killer. One must have quite a bit of evidence to have someone take his or her claim regarding the mother seriously.

Think of math class. When I was growing up, it wasn’t enough to answer the math problem and say, “I got 35.” One also had to show how he or she arrived at the answer (35). It involved saying things like, “Well, I first multiplied these two numbers...then I divided by this...and then I added 12,” for example. In mathematics, one arrives at answers by performing certain known mathematical operations. By showing how you arrived at an answer, you let the teacher know that you understood how to solve the problem such that, if you had to solve another like it (that involved another answer), you could solve it on your own without the teacher’s help, every step of the way. Understanding the mathematical operations was key in math class...not just having the right answers. Should it not be the same way in anything else?

In the same way, one cannot just claim that “Christianity is true” without showing it. Showing it plays no role in convincing you that Christianity is true. If it did, you wouldn’t already believe that it is! Rather, convincing others of the truth of Christianity is independent of your belief that Christianity is true...but its purpose is designed to convince someone else of the truth of Christianity.

Taking these words into account, Plantinga’s decision to claim Christianity is true but not argue for it is due to his emphasis on the internal justification of the individual:

“Again, what I’ve really argued is that this believer is subjectively justified” (Dr. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 102, footnote #56).

The key to justification here is “subjectively justified.” When something is “subjective,” it is based upon the preference of the person involved. So if justification is subjective, then it is based on the person’s conviction or belief. Thus, when Plantinga says that the believer is “subjectively justified,” he is saying that the believer is justified internally because he or she possesses no mental defects, and, having thought through their beliefs rationally, is warranted to believe in God. Internal justification and internal rationality go together---if someone is justified within themselves for how they arrive at theistic belief, then he or she is also “internally rational.” However, what Plantinga has abandoned for us is “external” justification---that is, whether or not we are justified toward other persons (including atheists and agnostics). In his section titled “External Rationality and Warrant: Faith is Knowledge,” Plantinga writes:

“...it [faith] is also unusual in the way in which that content is known; it is known by way of an extraordinary cognitive process or belief-producing mechanism. Christian belief is ‘revealed to our minds’ by way of the Holy Spirit’s inducing, in us, belief in the central message of Scripture. The belief-producing process is dual, involving both the divinely inspired Scripture (perhaps directly, or perhaps at the head of a testimonial chain) and the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. Both involve the special activity of God” (Plantinga, WCB, 256).

According to Plantinga, Christian belief is externally justified and rational because of the Holy Spirit who produced it. The Spirit serves as the “self-authenticating witness” of the truth of Christianity:

“When these beliefs are accepted by faith and result from the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS), they are produced by cognitive processes working properly...when it does produce this effect, therefore, it is working properly; thus the beliefs in question satisfy the external rationality condition, which is also the first condition of warrant” (Plantinga, WCB, 257).

Why are our cognitive processes working properly when we believe? Because God has designed us to know about His existence...and we can only know this when the Spirit internally woos us to receive Christ.

But this works against Plantinga’s claim. He states that he will “claim” Christianity is true, but not “argue” for it. But why? If according to the model, our cognitive processes are working properly when we believe in God, then one can only make sense to fellow believers, those who, like Plantinga and me, have the Holy Spirit to confirm the rationality of their faith. And if Reformed Epistemology is only concerned about fellow believers, then one need not explain why Christianity is true (or even defend Christianity---believers are already convinced). But what about the atheist and agnostic who do not believe? Can they know the Holy Spirit lives within believers? Can they vouch for the Holy Spirit’s presence? No.

If this is an epistemology for believers, fine...however, Plantinga desires his system to be able to ward off objections made by atheists and agnostics. How, though, will Reformed Epistemology accomplish this if it only seeks to “convince the already convinced”? In my next post, I will discuss the important role the believer is to play (by the aid of the Holy Spirit) in “convincing the unconvinced.” God bless.

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