Reformed epistemology

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Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist Portrait john calvin.jpg
Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist

In the philosophy of religion, Reformed epistemology is a school of philosophical thought concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) as it applies to religious beliefs. [1] The central proposition of Reformed epistemology is that beliefs can be justified by more than evidence alone, contrary to the positions of evidentialism, which argues that while belief other than through evidence may be beneficial, it violates some epistemic duty. [2] Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God may be "properly basic" and not need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted. [3] William Lane Craig describes Reformed epistemology as "One of the most significant developments in contemporary Religious Epistemology ... which directly assaults the evidentialist construal of rationality." [2]

Philosophy of religion is "the philosophical examination of the central themes and concepts involved in religious traditions". Philosophical discussions on such topics date from ancient times, and appear in the earliest known texts concerning philosophy. The field is related to many other branches of philosophy, including metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Evidentialism is a thesis in epistemology which states that one is justified to believe something if and only if that person has evidence which supports his or her belief. Evidentialism is therefore a thesis about which beliefs are justified and which are not.


Alvin Plantinga distinguishes between what he calls de facto from de jure objections to Christian belief. A de facto objection is one that attempts to show that Christian truth claims are false. In contrast, de jure objections attempt to undermine Christian belief even if it is, in fact, true. Plantinga argues that there are no successful objections to Christian belief apart from de facto (fact-based) objections. [3]

Alvin Plantinga American Christian philosopher

Alvin Carl Plantinga is an American analytic philosopher who works primarily in the fields of philosophy of religion, epistemology, and logic.

Reformed epistemology was 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. [4] More recent influences on reformed epistemology are found in philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion, [5] published in 1976, and Plantinga's "Reason and Belief in God", [6] published in 1983.

John Calvin French Protestant reformer

John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, aspects of which include the doctrines of predestination and of the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation, in which doctrines Calvin was influenced by and elaborated upon the Augustinian and other Christian traditions. Various Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which look to Calvin as the chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world.

Sensus divinitatis

Sensus divinitatis, also referred to as sensus deitatis or semen religionis, is a term first used by French Protestant reformer John Calvin to describe a hypothetical human sense. Instead of knowledge of the environment, the sensus divinitatis is alleged to give humans a knowledge of God.

Nicholas Wolterstorff American philosopher

Nicholas Wolterstorff is an American philosopher and a liturgical theologian. He is currently Noah Porter Professor Emeritus Philosophical Theology at Yale University. A prolific writer with wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests, he has written books on aesthetics, epistemology, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy of education. In Faith and Rationality, Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and William Alston developed and expanded upon a view of religious epistemology that has come to be known as Reformed epistemology. He also helped to establish the journal Faith and Philosophy and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Although Plantinga's Reformed epistemology developed over three decades, it was not fully articulated until 1993 with the publication of two books in an eventual trilogy: Warrant: The Current Debate, [3] and Warrant and Proper Function. [7] The third in the series was Warranted Christian Belief, [8] published in 2000. Other prominent defenders of Reformed epistemology include William Lane Craig, William Alston, and Michael C. Rea. [9]

William Payne Alston was an American philosopher. He made influential contributions to the philosophy of language, epistemology, and Christian philosophy. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and taught at the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, University of Illinois, and Syracuse University.

Michael C. Rea is an analytic philosopher and, since 2017, John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in metaphysics and philosophy of religion and has competence in epistemology and applied ethics as well. He is currently writing a book on divine hiddenness, in which he appeals to quantifier pluralism and argues that God cannot be quantified over by humans. Also, he is scheduled to give the 2017 Gifford Lectures, where he will also talk about divine hiddenness.

Concepts, definitions, and background

Alvin Plantinga's Reformed epistemology includes two arguments against classical foundationalism. The first grew out of his earlier argument in God and Other Minds (1967). In that work Plantinga argued that if our belief in other minds is rational without propositional or physical evidence, then belief in God is also rational. In his 1993 works, Plantinga argued that according to classical foundationalism most of us are irrational for having many beliefs we cannot justify, but which foundationalism does not accept as properly basic. Plantinga's second argument against classical foundationalism is that it is self-referentially incoherent. It fails the test of its own rules, which require that it be either self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses.

Foundationalism concerns philosophical theories of knowledge resting upon justified belief, or some secure foundation of certainty such as a conclusion inferred from a basis of sound premises. The main rival of the foundationalist theory of justification is the coherence theory of justification, whereby a body of knowledge, not requiring a secure foundation, can be established by the interlocking strength of its components, like a puzzle solved without prior certainty that each small region was solved correctly.

In Plantinga's view, 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. [10] Because there is an epistemically possible model according to which theistic belief is properly basic and designed to form true belief in God, belief in God is probably warranted if theism is true. Plantinga does not argue that this model is true, but only that if it is true, theistic belief is also likely true, because then theistic belief would result from our belief-forming faculties functioning as they were designed.

Theism belief in the existence of at least one deity

Theism is broadly defined as the belief in the existence of the Supreme Being or deities. In common parlance, or when contrasted with deism, the term often describes the classical conception of God that is found in monotheism – or gods found in polytheistic religions—a belief in God or in gods without the rejection of revelation as is characteristic of deism.

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 warranted requires reasons for supposing that theism is true (Sudduth, 2000). This point is answered by many theistic arguments which purport to provide sufficient propositional and physical evidence to warrant that belief, apart from reformed epistemology.

Plantinga's Reformed epistemology

The best-known defender of reformed epistemology is Alvin Plantinga. 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. [11]

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 Roderick Chisholm, Laurence BonJour, William Alston, and Alvin Goldman. [12] Plantinga argues that the theories of what he calls "warrant"—what many others have called justification (Plantinga draws out a difference: justification is a matter of fulfilling one's epistemic duties, whereas warrant is what transforms true belief into knowledge)—put forth by these epistemologists have failed to capture in full what is required for knowledge. [13]

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. [14] 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". [15] 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", [16] 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 in some designer who has laid out a design plan that includes cognitive faculties conducive to attaining knowledge. [17]

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. [18]

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. [19] Plantinga also discusses his evolutionary argument against naturalism in the later chapters of Warrant and Proper Function. [20]

In 2000 Plantinga's 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 core Christian theological beliefs, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, the atonement, salvation, etc.[ clarification needed ] can be warranted. Under this model, Christians are warranted 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" [21] 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.

In 2016, Plantinga published Knowledge and Christian Belief, which is intended as a shortened version of Warranted Christian Belief . However, Plantinga does add brief sections on the latest developments in epistemology and how they relate to his work. He is especially critical of New Atheism owing to their reliance on de jure objections to the Christian faith. [22]


Although Reformed epistemology has been defended by several theistic philosophers, it has both Christian and non-Christian critics.

Great Pumpkin Objection

A common objection, known as "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)


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. [6]

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. [6]

Other objections

Other common criticisms of Plantinga's Reformed epistemology are that belief in God – like other sorts of widely debated and high-stakes beliefs – is "evidence-essential" rather than properly basic; [23] that plausible naturalistic explanations can be given for humans' supposedly "natural" knowledge of God; [24] that it is arbitrary and arrogant for Christians to claim that their faith-beliefs are warranted and true (because vouched for by the Holy Spirit) while denying the validity of non-Christians' religious experiences; [25] and that there are important possible "defeaters" of Christian belief that Plantinga fails to address (e.g., passages in the Bible that seem hard to reconcile with his assumption of divine authorship and inerrancy).

Related Research Articles

Faith and rationality are two ideologies that exist in varying degrees of conflict or compatibility. Rationality is based on reason or facts. Faith is belief in inspiration, revelation, or authority. The word faith sometimes refers to a belief that is held with lack of reason or evidence, a belief that is held in spite of or against reason or evidence, or it can refer to belief based upon a degree of evidential warrant.

Faith, derived from Latin fides and Old French feid, is confidence or trust in a person, thing, or concept. In the context of religion, one can define faith as confidence or trust in a particular system of religious belief. Religious people often think of faith as confidence based on a perceived degree of warrant, while others who are more skeptical of religion tend to think of faith as simply belief without evidence.

The theory of justification is a part of epistemology that attempts to understand the justification of propositions and beliefs. Epistemologists are concerned with various epistemic features of belief, which include the ideas of justification, warrant, rationality, and probability. Loosely speaking, justification is the reason that someone (properly) holds a belief.

Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means "faith-ism".

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion and popular culture.

Philosophical theology is both a branch and form of theology in which philosophical methods are used in developing or analyzing theological concepts. It therefore includes natural theology as well as philosophical treatments of orthodox and heterodox theology. Philosophical theology is also closely related to the philosophy of religion.

Basic beliefs are, under the epistemological view called foundationalism, the axioms of a belief system.

The argument from a proper basis is an ontological argument for the existence of God related to fideism. Alvin Plantinga argued that belief in God is a properly basic belief, and so no basis for belief in God is necessary.

Robert N. Audi is an American philosopher whose major work has focused on epistemology, ethics, and the theory of action. He is O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and previously held a Chair in the Business School there. His 2005 book, The Good in the Right, updates and strengthens Rossian intuitionism and develops the epistemology of ethics. He has also written important works of political philosophy, particularly on the relationship between church and state. He is a past president of the American Philosophical Association and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

The evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN) is a philosophical argument asserting a problem with believing both evolution and philosophical naturalism simultaneously. The argument was first proposed by Alvin Plantinga in 1993 and "raises issues of interest to epistemologists, philosophers of mind, evolutionary biologists, and philosophers of religion". The EAAN argues that the combined belief in both evolutionary theory and naturalism is epistemically self-defeating. The argument for this is that if both evolution and naturalism are true, then the probability of having reliable cognitive faculties are low.

The argument from religious experience is an argument for the existence of God. It holds that the best explanation for religious experiences is that they constitute genuine experience or perception of a divine reality. Various reasons have been offered for and against accepting this contention.

God and Other Minds is a 1967 book by the American philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga which re-kindled philosophical debate on the existence of God in Anglo-American philosophical circles by arguing that belief in God was like belief in other minds: although neither could be demonstrated conclusively against a determined sceptic both were fundamentally rational. Though Plantinga later modified some of his views, particularly on the soundness of the ontological argument and on the nature of epistemic rationality, he still stands by the basic theses of the book.

Religious epistemology as a broad label covers any approach to epistemological questions from a religious perspective, or attempts to understand the epistemological issues that come from religious belief. The questions which epistemologists may ask about any particular belief also apply to religious beliefs and propositions: whether they seem rational, justified, warranted, reasonable, based on evidence and so on. Religious views also influence epistemological theories, such as in the case of Reformed epistemology.

Warranted Christian Belief is a book written by Alvin Plantinga and published in 2000. It constitutes, after Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and proper function, both published in 1993, the last part of his trilogy on epistemology.

Warrant and Proper Function is the second book in a trilogy written by philosopher Alvin Plantinga on epistemology. In this book, Plantinga introduces the notion of warrant as an alternative to justification and discusses topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability. 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". 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 has somehow furnished us with our design plans", but the paradigm case of a design plan is like a technological product designed by a human being. 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.

Analytic theology refers to a growing body of theological literature resulting from the application of the methods and concepts of late 20th century analytic philosophy to theological writing and thought. In the last decade, various lectures, study centers, conference sections, academic journals, and at least one monograph series have appeared with “Analytic Theology” in their title or description. The movement counts both philosophers and theologians in its ranks, but as the head-noun theology in the title indicates, a growing number of theologians with philosophical training are producing AT literature. Analytic theology is strongly related to the philosophy of religion but is wider in scope due to its willingness to engage topics not normally addressed in the philosophy of religion. Given the types of historical philosophy that have funded analytic philosophy of religion, analytic theologians are frequently involved in retrieval theology as they revisit, re-appropriate, and modify older Christian solutions to theological questions. Analytic theology has strong roots in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of religion in the last quarter of the 20th century as well as similarities at times to scholastic approaches to theology. However, the title analytic theology primarily refers to a resurgence of philosophical-theological work during the last 15 years by a community of scholars spreading outward from centers in the UK and US.


  1. "The Epistemology of Religion". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  2. 1 2 Craig, William Lane. "Religious Epistemology". BeThinking. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  3. 1 2 3 Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant: The Current Debate (PDF). 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780195078619.
  4. See Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk. I, Chap. III.
  5. Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1976). Reason within the bounds of religion . Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company. ISBN   9780802816436.
  6. 1 2 3 Plantinga, Alvin; Wolterstorff, Nicolas (1983). "'Reason and Belief in God' in Faith and Rationality". Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press: 16–93.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant and Proper Function. 2. Oxford University Press. ISBN   9780195078640.
  8. Plantinga, Alvin (2000). Warranted Christian Belief. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN   978-0195131925.
  9. Cowan, Steven (2000). Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. pp. 19–20. ISBN   978-0-310-22476-1.
  10. Warrant and Proper Function, New York: Oxford UP, 1993, viii
  11. Compare "L'epistemologia riformata (Plantinga)", article on Philosophia Reformata. (in Italian) Accessed 3 May 2016
  12. Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  13. Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, 1993. 3.
  14. Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  15. WPF, p. 4
  16. WPF, p. 21
  17. WPF, 237.
  18. Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 1993. 194.
  19. WPF, p. 199-211.
  20. Fales, E. (1996). "Plantinga's Case against Naturalistic Epistemology". Philosophy of Science. 63 (3): 432–451. doi:10.1086/289920.
  21. Beilby, James (2007). "Plantinga's Model of Warranted Christian Belief". In Baker, Deane-Peter (ed.). Alvin Plantinga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 125–165. ISBN   0-521-67143-4.
  23. Wykstra, Stephen. "Toward a Sensible Evidentialism: on the Notion of ‘Needing Evidence’." In Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed., edited by William Rowe and William Wainwright. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1989): 426-437.
  24. Barrett, Justin L., 2004, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, Lanham: AltaMira.
  25. Feldman, Richard. “Plantinga on Exclusivism”. In Faith and Philosophy 20 (2003): 85-90.