Reformed epistemology

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist. From the collection of the Bibliothèque de Genève (Library of Geneva)

In the philosophy of religion, reformed epistemology is a school of thought regarding the epistemology of belief in God put forward by a group of Protestant Christian philosophers, most notably, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Michael C. Rea.[1]

Central to reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God is a "properly basic belief" and does not need to be inferred from other truths to be reasonable. This view, "reformed epistemology", is so named because it represents a continuation of the 16th century Reformed theology of John Calvin, who postulated a sensus divinitatis, an innate divine awareness of God's presence .[2]

Concepts, definitions, and background[edit]

Reformed Epistemology aims to demonstrate the failure of objections by modern foundationalists and evidentialists when they assert that theistic belief is rational only if it is demonstrated though propositional or physical evidence. Reformed epistemology demonstrates that if Christianity is true Christian belief is reasonably expected to be properly basic. A properly basic belief is a true belief that does not require justification through other beliefs.

Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology grew out of his earlier argument in God and Other Minds (1967). There, Plantinga argued that if our belief in other minds is rational even though it is not demonstrable though propositional or physical evidence, then belief in God is also rational.

Three decades later in Warranted Christian Belief (2000a) Plantinga presented his Reformed Epistemology. He argued that theistic belief has sufficient "warrant" because there is an epistemically possible model according to which theistic belief is justified in a basic way, that is, belief in God may be foundational or basic. In Plantinga's position, warrant is defined as the property of beliefs that makes them knowledge. Plantinga, argues that a properly basic belief in God is warranted when produced by a sound mind, in an environment supportive of proper thought in accord with a design plan successfully aimed at truth[3] Because there is a epistemically possible model according to which theistic belief is properly basic, that is designed to form true belief in God, belief in God is warranted, even apart from theistic evidence and argument. Plantinga contends that this model is likely true if theistic belief is true; and on the other hand, the model is unlikely to be true if theism is false.

This connection between the truth-value of theism and its positive epistemic status suggests to some that the goal of showing theistic belief to be externally rational or warranted requires reasons for supposing that theism is true (Sudduth, 2000). It should be noted that though Reformed Epistemology denies that theistic arguments are necessary to rational belief in God, many of its adherents see theistic arguments as providing sufficient propositional and physical evidence to warrant that belief, even apart from Reformed Epistomology.

Faith as addressing issues beyond the scope of rationality[edit]

The position that faith addresses issues beyond the scope of rationality holds that faith supplements rationality, because the scope of rational human knowledge is limited. In essence, under this view, faith corresponds to beliefs that, although quite possibly true, cannot yet be fully grasped by our reason.

John Calvin interpreted the following passages of the Bible as teaching this view of faith and reason:

"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1

"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." 1st Corinthians 13:12

Some have argued that strict rationalism to the exclusion of this type of faith erroneously concludes that because rational thought is successful at explaining some things, knowledge that comes from beyond the realm of rational thought is illegitimate. According to this line of reasoning,

Our science-dominated culture has ruled out religious experience as a clue to reality; but on what grounds? Science in the 1600s was so successful in understanding the physical dimension of reality that people in the 1700s began to think that the physical may be the only dimension of reality. But success in one area of inquiry does not invalidate other areas. The burden of proof is on those who would exclude a particular kind of experience from being a source of knowledge.[4]

Under this view, faith is not static belief divorced from reason and experience, and is not illegitimate as a source of knowledge. On the contrary, belief by faith starts with the things known by reason, and extends to things that are true, although they cannot be understood, and is therefore legitimate insofar as it answers questions that rational thought is incapable of addressing. As such, beliefs held by this form of faith are seen dynamic and changing as one grows in experience and knowledge; until one's "faith" becomes "sight." This sort of belief is commonly found in mysticism.

Plantinga's reformed epistemology[edit]

Alvin Plantinga's contributions to epistemology include an argument which he refers to as "Reformed epistemology". According to Reformed epistemology, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God. More specifically, Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, and due to a religious externalist epistemology, he claims belief in God could be justified independently of evidence. His externalist epistemology, called "Proper functionalism", is a form of epistemological reliabilism.[5]

Plantinga discusses his view of Reformed epistemology and Proper functionalism in a three-volume series. In the first book of the trilogy, Warrant: The Current Debate, Plantinga introduces, analyzes, and criticizes 20th-century developments in analytic epistemology, particularly the works of Chisholm, BonJour, Alston, and Goldman.[6] Plantinga argues that the theories of what he calls “warrant”—what many others have called justification (Plantinga draws out a difference: justification is a property of a person holding a belief while warrant is a property of a belief)—put forth by these epistemologists have systematically failed to capture in full what is required for knowledge.[7]

In the second book, Warrant and Proper Function, he introduces the notion of warrant as an alternative to justification and discusses topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability.[8] Plantinga's "proper function" account argues that as a necessary condition of having warrant, one's "belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers" are functioning properly—"working the way it ought to work".[9] Plantinga explains his argument for proper function with reference to a "design plan", as well as an environment in which one's cognitive equipment is optimal for use. Plantinga asserts that the design plan does not require a designer: "it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans",[10] but the paradigm case of a design plan is like a technological product designed by a human being (like a radio or a wheel). Ultimately, Plantinga argues that epistemological naturalism- i.e. epistemology that holds that warrant is dependent on natural faculties – is best supported by supernaturalist metaphysics – in this case the belief in a creator God or designer who has laid out a design plan that includes cognitive faculties conducive to attaining knowledge.[11]

According to Plantinga, a belief, B, is warranted if:

(1) the cognitive faculties involved in the production of B are functioning properly…; (2) your cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which your cognitive faculties are designed; (3) … the design plan governing the production of the belief in question involves, as purpose or function, the production of true beliefs…; and (4) the design plan is a good one: that is, there is a high statistical or objective probability that a belief produced in accordance with the relevant segment of the design plan in that sort of environment is true.[12]

Plantinga seeks to defend this view of proper function against alternative views of proper function proposed by other philosophers which he groups together as "naturalistic", including the "functional generalization" view of John Pollock, the evolutionary/etiological account provided by Ruth Millikan, and a dispositional view held by John Bigelow and Robert Pargetter.[13] Plantinga also discusses his evolutionary argument against naturalism in the later chapters of Warrant and Proper Function.[14]

In 2000, the third volume, Warranted Christian Belief, was published. In this volume, Plantinga's warrant theory is the basis for his theological end: providing a philosophical basis for Christian belief, an argument for why Christian theistic belief can enjoy warrant. In the book, he develops two models for such beliefs, the "A/C" (Aquinas/Calvin) model, and the "Extended A/C" model. The former attempts to show that a belief in God can be justified, warranted and rational, while the Extended model tries to show that specifically Christian theological beliefs including the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, the atonement, salvation etc. Under this model, Christians are justified in their beliefs because of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing those beliefs about in the believer.

James Beilby has argued that the purpose of Plantinga's Warrant trilogy, and specifically of his Warranted Christian Belief, is firstly to make a form of argument against religion impossible—namely, the argument that whether or not Christianity is true, it is irrational—so "the skeptic would have to shoulder the formidable task of demonstrating the falsity of Christian belief"[15] rather than simply dismiss it as irrational. In addition, Plantinga is attempting to provide a philosophical explanation of how Christians should think about their own Christian belief.


Although Reformed epistemology has flourished among several theistic philosophers, it has been criticized by theists and non-theists alike. Those of faith have frequently criticized Reformed epistemology for its commitment to negative apologetics, counter-arguments to arguments that faith is not rational, the fact that it offers no reasons for supposing that theism or Christianity is true (so-called positive apologetics), and its claim that any such inferences are unsound.

Rationalist objection[edit]

Reformed epistemology is to some extent a response to the rationalist objection to belief in God, which can be formulated as an argument as follows:

  1. It is irrational or unacceptable to accept theistic belief without sufficient evidence.
  2. There is not sufficient/appropriate evidence or reason for theistic belief.
  3. Belief in God is irrational.[16]

The conclusion is not that God does not exist but rather that it is irrational to believe that God does exist.

Response to the rationalist objection[edit]

While many theists would reject the second premise, Reformed Epistemologists reject the first premise — namely, that belief in God is irrational unless supported by sufficient evidence, where "sufficient evidence" is defined as providing evidence and propositions from which to reasonably infer God's existence. Reformed epistemologists argue that this reasoning is unduly strict, for there are many reasonable beliefs that virtually all people accept such evidence, such as belief in other minds beside our own, belief that the external world exists apart from us, and belief in the events of the past. Many of our perceptual beliefs are not formed by way of a evidence and rational argument: e.g. "I am perceiving the appearance of a 'tree'. The way thing appear are the way things are; therefore: I am seeing a real tree." Rather, upon seeing a tree, one simply believes one sees a tree. We might say that the experience epistemically "grounds" the belief without an argument providing the basis for believing in what is seen. Reformed epistemology concludes that such beliefs are warranted and rationally accepted. Reformed epistemology therefore rejects as arbitrary the rationalist requirement for for an argument based on "sufficient evidence".

Great Pumpkin Objection[edit]

Another common objection, is known as the "The Great Pumpkin Objection"., which Alvin Plantinga (1983) describes as follows:

It is tempting to raise the following sort of question. If belief in God can be properly basic, why cannot just any belief be properly basic? Could we not say the same for any bizarre aberration we can think of? What about voodoo or astrology? What about the belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween? Could I properly take that as basic? Suppose I believe that if I flap my arms with sufficient vigor, I can take off and fly about the room; could I defend myself against the charge of irrationality by claiming this belief is basic? If we say that belief in God is properly basic, will we not be committed to holding that just anything, or nearly anything, can properly be taken as basic, thus throwing wide the gates to irrationalism and superstition? (p. 74)

Rebuttal to the Great Pumpkin Objection[edit]

Linus awaits the Great Pumpkin in the comic Peanuts.

Plantinga's answer to this line of thinking is that the objection simply assumes that the criteria for "proper basicality" propounded by Classical Foundationalism (self-evidence, incorrigibility, and sense-perception) are the only possible criteria for properly basic beliefs. It is as if the Great Pumpkin objector feels that if properly basic beliefs cannot be arrived at by way of one of these criteria, then it follows that just 'any' belief could then be properly basic, precisely because there are no other criteria. But, Plantinga says it simply doesn't follow from the rejection of Classical Foundationalist criteria, that all possibility for criteria has been exhausted, and this is exactly what the Great Pumpkin objection assumes.

Plantinga takes his counter-argument further, asking how the great pumpkin objector "knows" that such criteria are the only criteria. The objector certainly seems to hold it as 'basic' that the Classical Foundationalist criteria are all that is available. Yet, such a claim is neither self-evident, incorrigible, nor evident to the senses. This rebuts the Great Pumpkin objection by demonstrating the Classical Foundationalist position to be internally incoherent, propounding an epistemic position which it itself does not follow.


  1. ^ Cowan, Steven (2000). Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-310-22476-1. 
  2. ^ See Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk. I, Chap. III.
  3. ^ (Warrant and Proper Function, New York: Oxford UP, 1993, viii)
  4. ^
  5. ^ Compare "L'epistemologia riformata (Plantinga)", article on Philosophia Reformata. (Italian) Accessed 3 May 2016
  6. ^ Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  7. ^ Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, 1993. 3.
  8. ^ Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  9. ^ WPF, p. 4
  10. ^ WPF, p. 21
  11. ^ WPF, 237.
  12. ^ Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 1993. 194.
  13. ^ WPF, p. 199-211.
  14. ^ Fales, E. (1996). "Plantinga's Case against Naturalistic Epistemology". Philosophy of Science. 63 (3): 432–451. doi:10.1086/289920. 
  15. ^ Beilby, James (2007). "Plantinga's Model of Warranted Christian Belief". In Baker, Deane-Peter. Alvin Plantinga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 125–165. ISBN 0-521-67143-4. 
  16. ^ Alvin Plantinga. "Reason and Belief in God". Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 27. 


  • Alston, William P. (1991). Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Cornell University Press.
  • Alston, William P. (1996). "Belief, Acceptance, and Religious Faith". In Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today, Jordan & Howard-Snyder (eds.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Clark, Kelly James. (1990) Return to Reason. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Plantinga, A. & Wolterstorff, N., eds. (1983). Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (1967). God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God. Cornell University Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (1983). "Reason and Belief in God". In Plantinga & Wolterstorff (1983), pp. 16–93.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (1993a). Warrant: the Current Debate. Oxford University Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (1993b). Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford University Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (2000a). Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford University Press.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (2000b). "Arguments for the Existence of God". In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
  • Plantinga, Alvin. (2000c). "Religion and Epistemology". In the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
  • Sudduth, Michael. (2000). "Reformed Epistemology and Christian Apologetics". <>.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. "How Calvin Fathered a Renaissance in Christian Philosophy". Lecture at Calvin College.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (1976). Reason within the Bounds of Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (2001). Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

External links[edit]