Book Review: Knowledge and Christian Belief

Alvin Plantinga’s Knowledge and Christian Belief was written as a synopsis of his much larger work: Warranted Christian Belief but is by no means a quick and easy read. While it is only 126 pages (not including index), Plantinga wrote about subjects that should cause the reader to slow down in order to think through much of what has been written. In addition, Plantinga’s writes with sophistication. At times, it seems as if he sought out the most obscure wording or phrasing possible and put them into the book. “What sort of phenomenology is involved in this epistemic process: what does it seem like from the inside?” (P. 97) is one such example. It took this reviewer a while to remember that some people do, in fact, speak in such a manner.

The goal of the book is to show that Christian belief is not without warrant. There is reasoning behind faith in general and the Christian faith in particular. To show this, the author lays out his argument in ten short chapters, going from the basic belief in God to Christian beliefs such as the Trinity, resurrection, and such, ultimately to answer defeater arguments against Christian belief (or belief in God in general). As he began the book, Alvin Plantinga quickly explained the philosophies of the detractors of faith, such as: Hume, Freud, and Marx. In doing so, arguments were made as to why these men were wrong and demonstrating that faith is not irrational, but highly rational when and if the mind is working as it ought.

For most of the rest of the book, Dr. Plantinga utilizes much of philosophy and theology of Aquinas and Calvin, putting their similar thoughts together in what he deems: The Aquinas/Calvin model of philosophy. This model basically states that there is an innate knowledge within humanity that knows there is a higher being. One does not have to philosophize or conjure up some notion; it naturally comes from within. Dr. Plantinga extended the model to other areas of Christian belief. Humanity knows there is a God, it seems then that man is made in his image yet fallen, and in need of a savior. The reader is walked through how this can all come about simply by extending the Aquinas/Calvin model.

It was in chapter four that the book began to come together a little better, but in an odd way. To this reviewer, it seemed as if faith was being deconstructed. This is the chapter from which the quote above was taken. To answer his question on the sort of phenomenology in the epistemic process, Plantinga asserts that “In the model, the beliefs constituting faith are typically basic; that is, they are not accepted by way of argument from other propositions or on the evidential basis of other propositions.” (P. 97). In other words, no one has to argue the point. Scripture is read and because one believes Scripture as authoritative or someone over them who is authoritative, he believes what he read or was read to him.

The sixth chapter is all about the Holy Spirit turning one’s affections toward God. This was by far, the most understandable and thought-provoking chapter in this book. This would be a chapter for every believer to read. Plantinga explained that eros is not simply a sexual love, but a love that has longings. That means that sex is a strand of eros, but not eros in its entirety. This eros is the love that a Christian has for God and God has for the believer as well. The explanation within this chapter can be life-changing for many believers in this world.

The objections begin in chapter seven; systematically and methodically, Plantinga dismantles the atheologian’s arguments. Beginning with higher criticism or as the author calls it, “Historical Biblical Criticism” it is shown that conservative Christians discount this way of reading the Bible because there is no warrant in their eyes to accept it. “It offers her no reason at all for rejecting or modifying her beliefs; it also offers little promise of enabling her to achieve better or deeper insight into what actually happened.” (P. 106). From there, one reads a short chapter on pluralism—the multiple and conflicting religions of the world. The author explained that a Christian believing himself to be right and all others to be wrong does not have to be egoism or elitism. It certainly can be but does not have to be.

Finally, Plantinga takes on the problem of evil. The philosopher is sure to make the reader understand that he is not writing on theonomy but is writing on how evil excludes there even being the possibility of God’s existence. This chapter was written well until he wrote these words: “The list of atrocities human beings commit against others is horrifying and hideous; it is also so long, so repetitious, that it is finally wearying. Occasionally, though new depths are reached.” (P 120). If the author had stopped there, all would be in agreement and continue on. However, Plantinga quoted from a book about such a depth of atrocity. The illustration was absolutely beyond the pale. There was no need, no warrant (to use Plantinga’s word) to put such an illustration into the book. Was not the holocaust, the rape of Nanking, or some other well-known atrocity not enough? What person needs to read such an illustration to know that mankind is capable of such horrors? How or why this got passed the editors at Eerdmans Publishing is uncertain.

For that reason, this reviewer would not recommend this book to be read by anyone. Perhaps that is a bit harsh, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” as it were, but it is not only a pastor’s job to put good defenses into the hands of his members, but also to protect them from harm. This pastor existentially believes that the illustration could be an assault on the mind and heart. It is possible to use the material within the book to teach a class on this branch of apologetics and leave out the illustration. It is possible to white-out the illustration in its entirety and share the book to one well-acquainted with philosophy. Given its complex language and thought process, along with the illustrations, it is believed that there are easier, clearer books on apologetics for a layperson to read if he desires to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.