FaithReasons Important Apologists
Alvin Carl Plantinga
Technically, Alvin Plantinga is a philosopher and not strictly speaking an apologist but his work in philosophy has done much to help the apologist’s task. Plantinga is an American philosopher in the analytic tradition. He is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and is currently the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at his alma mater Calvin College.
Plantinga was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on November 15, 1932. His parents, Cornelius A. Plantinga (1908–1994) and Lettie G. Bossenbroek (1908–2007) had a great influence on him. Plantinga’s father was a first-generation immigrant, born in the Netherlands. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Duke University and a Master’s Degree in psychology. Under the guidance of his father, Alvin left high school early and on his 17th birthday, he enrolled in Jamestown College, in North Dakota. Later that year his father accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In January 1950, Plantinga moved to Grand Rapids with his family and enrolled in Calvin College.
While there Alvin was awarded a scholarship to attend Harvard University. In 1950, Plantinga spent two semesters at Harvard. In 1951, while on break from Harvard, Plantinga attended some philosophy classes at Calvin College, and was so impressed with Calvin philosophy professor William Harry Jellema that he returned to Calvin. In 1954, He began graduate school at the University of Michigan where, among others, he studied under William Alston, William Frankena, and Richard Cartwright, . In 1955, he transferred to Yale University and received his Ph.D. in 1958. Plantinga started his teaching career as an instructor in the philosophy department at Yale in 1957.
In 1958 he became a professor of philosophy at Wayne State University, a school influential in analytic philosophy. From there, in 1963, he accepted a teaching job at Calvin College, replacing his former professor Jellema who was retiring. He served there for 19 years before moving to the University of Notre Dame in 1982. He retired from the University of Notre Dame in 2010 and returned to Calvin College, receiving the first chair position of the William Harry Jellema Chair in Philosophy.
Plantinga has contributed greatly to the field of philosophy. He developed a comprehensive epistemological account of the nature of warrant which makes a case for the existence of God as a basic belief. He has also provided powerful argumentation in support of the claim that there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, wholly good God. His work has contributed to the overall contemporary view that the logical problem of evil is no longer a real challenge to theism.
He argued, “It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures.”
I remember, while in graduate school, I met Dr. Plantinga. He is a very gracious and encouraging person, very willing to talk with young graduate students. He was there to lecture on his evolutionary argument against naturalism. He made the case that the truth of evolution is an epistemic defeater for naturalism. He argued that if evolution and naturalism are both true, human noetic faculties evolved to produce beliefs which are focused on maintaining survival (“feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproducing”) not necessarily focused on producing true beliefs. As human noetic faculties are focused on survival rather than truth in the naturalistic evolutionary model, there is good reason to doubt the veracity of the outcomes of those faculties.
If, however, God created man “in his own image” either through some evolutionary process or some form of direct creation , then it would be reasonable to believe that our faculties would probably be reliable. These highlights are certainly not the limit of his philosophical influence.
The Plantinga family has thrived.
Plantinga’s brothers have been very successful. Cornelius “Neal” Plantinga, Jr., is a theologian and former president of Calvin Theological Seminary. Leon, is an emeritus professor of musicology at Yale University and Terrell worked for CBS News. In 1955, Plantinga married Kathleen De Boer. They have four children: Carl, Jane, Harry, and Ann. Both of his sons are professors at Calvin College, Carl in Film Studies and Harry in computer science.
Harry is also the director of the college’s Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Plantinga’s oldest daughter, Jane Plantinga Pauw, is a pastor at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Seattle, Washington, and his youngest daughter, Ann Kapteyn, is a Wycliffe Bible Translators missionary in Cameroon. Dr. Plantinga has also received significant academic honors. Plantinga served as president of the American Philosophical Association, Western Division in 1981-1982 and as President of the Society of Christian Philosophers 1983-1986.
He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1971–1972, and elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1975. In 2006, the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion renamed its Distinguished Scholar Fellowship as the Alvin Plantinga Fellowship. In 2012, the University of Pittsburgh’s various Philosophy Departments awarded Plantinga the Rescher Prize. He presented the 1987-1988 Gifford Lectures.
His publications include:
Alvin Plantinga (his bio is on this page), a Christian philosopher within the analytic tradition, focuses in this work on one of the primary issues in philosophy of religion: can belief in God be rationally justified? The book is divided into three sections. Plantinga, in his first section, reviews the main traditional and modern arguments for and against the existence of God (this includes the Cosmological, Ontological, and Teleological arguments). He concludes that they all fail to rise to levels of conclusive proof (I am convinced that he is incorrect on this point regarding some of the arguments and the trends in current philosophy of religion studies tend to support this).
In his second section, he discusses responses to defeaters to theism and shows how they can be addressed. His 3rd section is where he makes his most important contribution. He attends to the philosophical problem of the existence of other minds and defends this analogical argument against criticisms. He then argues that belief in God is analogical to belief in other minds. He concedes that although neither could be conclusively demonstrated in light of strong skepticism, both are fundamentally rational positions. This is the foundation for his claim that belief in God is “properly basic”.
From there Plantinga concludes, that “belief in other minds and belief in God are in the same epistemological boat; hence if either is rational, so is the other. But obviously the former is rational; so, therefore, is the latter.” As was indicated before, I remain unconvinced that Plantinga’s concessions to skepticism are necessary (and he has moved somewhat on this position as well), but this work is important insofar as it creates a whole new line of conversation in regard to a reasoned and reasonable defense of theism. It is, therefore, an important work in a larger intellectual defense of theism.
We have seen a number of good reasons for recognizing the truth of the existence of God. We have also seen why the challenges to theism fail. Still, there is a challenge to theism which recognizes the force of the above arguments and still rejects the theistic position. This is the claim that the arguments do not prove theism but only the existence of a deity in some sense. Theism (belief in a personal all powerful God) is not the only possibility that remains. There are multiple other options that the arguments leave as possible options.
These include: Deism (belief in a creator/judge God who may or may not care for creation), Polytheism (belief in multiple Gods), Pantheism (belief that all that is is God), and Finite Theism (belief in a personal but finite/limited God). The claim is that arguments which we have considered do not close the door on these options. I argue that this challenge is not entirely accurate. Still, further arguments are necessary to refute some of these options.
I am convinced that the arguments do directly refute the option of Pantheism. The concept of God that the arguments (contingency, eternality, and design) advocate is a personal God separate from His creation. The arguments show that God existed before creation and created a universe that does not have His attributes. Therefore, they are not the same.
Also the God evidenced in the arguments is also personal insofar as He initiates His own movement (has a personal and free will). These characteristics that are inherent to the concept of God developed in the arguments is not the same as a Pantheistic deity. In fact, these attributes show that the God identified in the arguments could not be a Pantheistic deity. This indicates that if the arguments are sound, the pantheistic view is false and can be rejected as such.
"Is it natural not to believe in God?"
Not all challenges to theism rise to the level of defeaters (which is an argument that attempts to offer challenges by showing why theism cannot be true either by arguing that the position is impossible or incoherent). This is because:
A number of people in the New Atheist movement have used a claim which states that atheism is the default position of humanity either because we all start off without belief (the softer form) or because atheism does not involve adopting beliefs (the stronger claim). Both forms are trying to argue that atheism is natural and any form of belief in God is in some sense unnatural.
Actually, the default position of humans is to seek truth and relationship. Denying truth involves declaring something even if it is only a negation (saying there is no milk in the fridge is still a declaration about a state of affairs). Any statement about what does or does not exist involves interpretation of data that calls for an inference from what is known (data) to what is claimed about the known. Claiming there is or is not something is an interpretative statement. This makes it impossible to claim that atheism holds no beliefs (See FR1 for some key definitions related to this issue).
Not believing in some state of affairs is still a belief regarding that state of affairs. Furthermore, the fact that the overwhelming majority of people believe in some idea of God and on average only less than 5% of the population now and at any period in history are/have been atheists is a real challenge to the claim that atheism is the default view of humans. In fact, if Pascal is correct, in his claim that as humans we have a emptiness that only God can fill, then we naturally incline to God.
This makes sense of 3 things. First, the human yearning for relationship makes sense if we were designed for relationship. Second, our desire to look beyond ourselves for both relationship and truth makes sense if truth is found there. As C.S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Third, the fact is that the majority of humans incline towards belief in God in light of their gathering of experiences/data throughout their lives. If atheism were the natural view, and belief in a divine realm the aberration than the percentage orientation would likely lean the other way. So regardless of whether God exists or not (and I have shown on previous posts that there is strong evidence for theism. See FR2a-f for a discussion of some of these arguments), the claim that it is natural not to believe in God is just plain false and intellectually unreasonable.
"The Problem Of Scientism"
Isn’t scientific proof the only worth-while proof? The problem is that one can not prove God using science, so why should we believe in God?
This is another example of an argument against theism that is not a legitimate challenge but is still used as such by one who is uninformed. This is in large part due to a lack of understanding of a recent development in philosophical thought. There is a position that is considered a dead view among philosophers today. Still, this position is advocated by many who are atheistic or skeptically agnostic. This view is known as Logical Positivism. It is the
view which claims that the only legitimate proof or at least the only proof that offers information that is of value is proof that is empirical in nature. Another way of stating this is that a valid appeal to evidence has to have the evidence rooted in information that can be garnered from what one can sense with the five senses. Essentially this reduces to validating only information that rises out of the so-called sciences like biology, chemistry, physics and so on. Any information not derived from the senses is unreliable at best and entirely useless for any advance of true knowledge. This would include metaphysics, theology, and to some degree history, among other disciplines.
So for our purposes, this claim is a declaration that “science” can offer knowledge but theology has nothing to contribute to human understanding (this view tends to reduce to scientism in the hands of laymen). The problem with this view (aside from the extreme arrogance of the position) is that it is self-refuting. Prove that empirical proofs are the only legitimate proofs empirically. This can not be done. Hence the claim is self-refuting (meaning it denies the truth of its own claim in the very assertion of it). The reason theistic critics want this position is that one does not know of God via the senses.
They also tend to worship at the foot of “science” and think that it is the only method which offers valid proof. Clearly this is not so but a number in that camp want/wish it were so. The self-refuting nature of the method shows this can not be the case (see my posts in FR1 regarding belief, knowledge and various proofs). The fact is that there are many disciplines that can not be proven empirically.
Some examples are mathematics (reason based), definitions of concepts (we can perfectly define a triangle without ever having seen one), personal consciousness, feelings, quantum mechanics, black holes, knowledge of the existence of ancestors, and many more. We know of most of these things through identifying their effects which appears then to be a valid way of seeking truth.
My arguments for theism use the same causal inquiry method. So, if the theistic critic’s claim to the limits of valid inquiry is inadequate (self-refuting) and causal inquiry is legitimate, than that kind of inquiry into the existence of God must be legitimate argumentative grounds for discovering truth (we know of both black holes and God by observing the effects of their being and reasoning from those observations to a conclusion that fits and explains the data.
If the method is valid for one, it must be for the other as well). It appears that this challenge to theism is based on a fundamental lack of understanding. And again, theism comes out looking stronger for it.
A number of years ago I was teaching a Sunday School class on Apologetics. A friend and class member, Kira Whitmore, challenged me to summarize in brief snippets the varied points so that a layman could have quick points of reference so to be reminded of what was learned. That is the genesis of this page. My plan is to present a systematic series of apologetics lessons in short chunks. On Mondays, we offer the FaithReasons apologetics series.
Each of these posts has a number (indicating a topic section) and a letter (indicating the sequential part of that topic section) that follows a systematic sequence which will, when complete, present in bite size form a complete outline of an apologetic method following a Classical apologetic model. The series is developing and offering an outline of apologetic material in a systematic way.
Each week we offer a next installment in the series which will be repeated throughout the week at different times of the day so as to catch the eye of as many as possible. We will also offer other related posts while trying to follow a theme for each week (to the degree that we can) that centers around the Apologetics series posts. These include biographical sketches of Important Apologists, Quality Quotes from apologists/thinkers, book reviews on apologetic themes (often in a Top 10 series), Flawed Posts which are quotes from critics of Christianity, Apologetic themed verses, occasional posts from other pages as well as apologetic themed video lectures.
Other than the last two in the above list, all the text material here is original to FaithReasons (the memes we post and offer our analysis of is often borrowed from other sites and when appropriate, will be cited when original to their page). The FaithReasons series is an outline form of my apologetics class I taught in seminary (the “we” is a reference to my page administrators who help me run this page). On Sundays we will offer the “Sundays Best” which is the 3 weekly highlights. We hope that this material is an encouragement to you. Please feel free to ask questions and/or discuss the material covered in each post.
Our goal here is to expose as many people as possible to a well reasoned defense of the Christian faith (to the degree that we are able to offer one). In light of this goal, please “like” and “share” any post that you find interesting as this helps in the broader exposure of the material we post. As well, encourage friends that you think would find this material interesting to “like” the page. That is a great help to us.
Thom A Schultz
"The Art of Gentle Persuasion"
Before I address some further challenges to theism, I do want to address a side issue about which apologists should be aware. This is not so much an apologetic issue but more a pre-evangelism issue that has apologetic impact (in fact a good portion of Alister McGrath’s book Mere Apologetics, which is reviewed on this page as number 4 in the Top 10 On/About Apologetics series, addresses this pre-evangelistic issue in a variety of ways).
This issue is a concentration on the “gentleness” part of the apologetic task set forth in 1 Peter 3:15. Often it is the case that people accept or reject a position, not for good reason but due to emotional background issues. This is the case regarding decisions about belief in God and acceptance of a religious position as well. People will often reject belief in God because of personal or emotional concerns and use argumentation to mask the decision.
I am not in any way suggesting that they are lying (save maybe to themselves). They may have convinced themselves that their declared opposition reasoning is the real ground of their decisions. Nonetheless, the actual cause may be otherwise. Perhaps they had a bad experience in a Church or with a Church leader (which could be anything from a judgmental attitude to some form of abuse or just merely being teased).
It is also the case that they may have had a personal trauma or a moral issue which causes them to believe (and sadly not without some warrant) that they won’t be accepted at a Church or by Christians. I have found that many times objections are masking the real issues (as people have a natural tendency to want to see themselves as rational and not led around solely by their emotions).
This does not mean that we should not address their objections. We should address them. What it does mean, however, is that we should be sensitive to the real possibility that there may be underlying issues which are really driving their resistance (if you find that they are irrationally committed to their view despite all your legitimate responses, you may be dealing with undercurrent issues).
We should never, though, assume this understanding onto them and confront them with it without them first coming to a personal awareness of it. This is because: (1) You may be wrong, (2) It could be viewed as offensive to accuse them of being merely emotive, and (3) In their lack of personal awareness of it they will just deny it anyway. So what than do we do?
If they choose to share them with you, only then should you address the problems (perhaps by apologizing for past church failures that they suffered under and explaining that the offense was out of character for the way Christians are prescribed to live.
Still, always let a gentleness and sensitivity lead the conversation). Remember that our purpose is not merely to win a debate but to lead the interlocutor into a place where she is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit and entering into a relationship with our Lord. Be challenged by the words of Peter when he wrote:
"[I]n your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…"
The various religions claim revelation from God, yet they all contradict each other. How can one believe any of them? There are multiple ways to which this objection can be addressed. A brief but legitimate and effective way is:
(1) In the statement 2+2=4, how can we accept that 4 is the correct answer when there are so many possible numbers from which to choose? One should quickly see the absurdity of the question. The fact is that the possibility of truth is not negated merely because there are options.
There are, however, more direct answers. The (1)st response is that Judeo-Christianity is unique insofar as they are historically rooted religions. As such, these traditions are subject to falsification or probabilistic verification (PV refers to the the fact that historical claims can not be provably known with certainty but can only be identified as more or less probable. When the historical evidence is strong the position is more probable. Interestingly, experimental science can only offer probability as well. See earlier FR posts on proofs and scientific proofs in (FR1).
The Holy Spirit may provide the Christian with certitude regarding the historical claim but apologetics focuses on offering proofs. Remember, certainty/knowledge is not easy to attain). The resurrection of Christ becomes central to this verification process for the Christian (1 Corinthians 15:14 and 1 Cor. 15:3-7. We see Paul teaching this very idea).
2(nd), Philosopher Mortimer Adler, in his Truth In Religion (a book he wrote before he converted to Christianity at the age of 95) addressing the possibility of discovering religious truth argued that a test of religion is if the worldview it advocates supports the possibility of scientific discovery. This allowed him to reject eastern religions (such as Buddhism and Hinduism) as false as they argue that everything is illusion and science and the claims that it affirms are part of that illusion.
This, then, left the monotheistic religions as possible sources of truth as each of them teach that there is a real world created by an intelligent being and understanding of that world is discoverable. I am convinced that these two tests (and there are other tests that can aid in this process as well) provide the tools needed to distinguish between true and false religion. This means that just because there are varied religious options does not negate the possibility of identifying a true religion and the revelation it advocates as being in some sense from God.
FaithReasons Top 10 Books On/About Apologetics (#5).
Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (IVP Press: 2011) 752 pages
This is a well written and accessible work of significant weight (and it is actually heavy). In a Christianity Today interview Dr. Groothuis refers to this work as “as close to a magnum opus as I will ever have.” Groothuis, a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, presents the various arguments for theism and Christianity which he covers very well. He argues that their collective weight presents a strong overall case for the truth of Christianity. He is very strong on the argument for truth as available and accessible. He offers a solid discussion of the arguments for theism which he covers.
As a Christian Aristotelian, I would prefer to see more use of Thomistic arguments (the strength, I think, of the Thomistic arguments is they do not rely on any current scientific insight which can be very transitory but rely more on fundamental causal principles that are not as likely to be revised). Still, I think he makes fine use of the philosophical, scientific and historical arguments that he does cover as part of his overall case for Christianity (he also includes a few essays from other scholars in their respective fields to buttress his comprehensive case).
He, as well, offers an important discussion section on comparative religion which is very helpful. The book as a whole is a strong comprehensive case for the truth of Christianity although there were points where I would have liked to see him show the interconnectedness of the arguments as parts of the comprehensive case. Also, there are times that he is too brief in his presentation of an argument which could have been developed more fully (an ironic criticism given the length of this book). Still, the work is thorough and addresses all the important issues in apologetics.
That alone would be reason to have this book on your shelf. This is a book with which every apologist should be acquainted. It is also a fine work to recommend to a searcher who is willing to read an extended argument for the truth our faith.