The Magazine

Calvin and Hobbes

The revival of Christian philosophy.

Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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Warranted Christian Belief
by Alvin Plantinga
Oxford Universiy Press, 576 pp., $24.95

Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology
by Nicholas Wolterstorff
Cambridge University Press, 627 pp., $54.95

WHAT ACCOUNTS for the surprising upturn of interest in philosophy of religion in major American departments of philosophy over the last thirty years? Alvin Plantinga's "Warranted Christian Belief" and Nicholas Wolterstorff's "Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology" are illustrative of contemporary philosophy of religion at its best. These are mature books, by philosophers at the pinnacle of their careers, both of whom began the study of philosophy as undergraduates at Calvin College. What do these books tell us about the nature, and the reasons for the success, of Christian philosophy of religion?

What is most striking about the writings of Plantinga and Wolterstorff is the way they deploy the logical skills and technical virtuosity of trained analytic philosophers to defend an account of philosophy quite alien to secular academia. They offer Christian apologetics without apology.

Alvin Plantinga is so celebrated for his ability to dissect arguments and to invent creative counter-examples that the "Philosophical Lexicon" of Daniel Dennet includes the following entry: "alvinize, v. To stimulate protracted discussion by making a bizarre claim. 'His contention that natural evil is due to Satanic agency alvinized his listeners.'" "Warranted Christian Belief" is both the last book in a trilogy of investigations in contemporary epistemology and a rehearsal of the major arguments that have preoccupied its author throughout his career.

Like his previous works, "Warrant" shows Plantinga at his best when dismantling purported refutations of Christian belief. Subjected to careful, logical scrutiny, many such objections simply dissolve. In Warrant, Plantinga restates his demolition of the so-called problem of evil. The strongest version of this objection holds that the existence of evil is "logically inconsistent" with the existence of the sort of God in whom Christians believe. Yet it is not clear that there is any logical inconsistency here; thus, opponents of theism retreat to the weaker claim that the existence of evil offers "powerful evidence against" the existence of God. But this objection hinges upon the question whether God has good reasons to permit evil. Those who argue that he does not are hard pressed to demonstrate precisely how they know this. As Plantinga sees it, this objection typically reduces to some version of the following, feeble line of reasoning: "I see no reason why God should permit such evil, therefore there is no such reason."

Although Plantinga is fond of taking on atheists, he reserves his harshest judgment for the alleged friends of Christianity who cede too much ground to modern secularism. Embarrassed by the intellectually unfashionable details of the Gospels, some philosophers of religion--most notably John Hick, the highly influential philosopher of religion who functions as a sort of pope for those who no longer think Christian doctrines are true but who want to continue to call themselves "Christian"--go so far as to concede that all particular religious claims are "literally false," even if religious belief serves the admirable practical goal of helping individuals to overcome selfishness. As Plantinga sees it, Hick's attempt to avoid the imperialism of claims to truth involves him in an even greater form of self-exaltation, since in Hick's view everyone is wrong except an enlightened few who have had the opportunity to read Hick.

Plantinga is most impatient with liberal scripture scholars, who often base their creative reconstructions of the Gospels on "what we now know" to be scientific or rational. Theologians, some of whom are remarkably ignorant of what is actually going on in philosophy or science, often talk as if there were a clear consensus among philosophers about what's rational or even about how we should determine what's rational. For example, Christians who want to dispense with what they take to be the unseemly stories of miracles in scripture often rely upon the premise that miraculous intrusions into nature have been shown to be scientifically impossible. But science has never demonstrated any such thing.