Barth Metaphysics

As presented by Plantinga, Barth is the most belligerent of these Reformed objectors to natural theology, but certainly no more genuinely threatening than the other two. For one thing, Barth's objection could have force only against Christian practitioners of natural theology. He accuses them of being in 'the standpoint of unbelief', which is 'to hold that belief in God is rationally acceptable only if it is more likely than not with respect to the deliverances of reason. . . . [Such a person's] ultimate commitment is to the deliverances of reason rather than to God. Such a person "makes reason a judge over Christ," or at any rate over the Christian faith. And to do so, says Barth, is utterly improper for a Christian'(Plantinga 1983: 70-1).

For another thing, Barth's accusation is manifestly unfair, as Plantinga recognizes. He presents a reasonable defence against it, one that seems also to count as a defence of natural theology itself, even in the light of Reformed epistemology. '[A] natural theologian . . . offers or endorses theistic arguments, but why suppose that her own belief in God must be based upon such argument? . . . Perhaps her aim is to point out to the unbeliever that belief in God follows from other things he already believes, so that he can continue in unbelief (and continue to accept these other beliefs) only on pain of inconsistency' (ibid. 71). What he says here about his imagined Christian natural theologian is also perfectly suited to such real ones as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, as long as we recognize that the aim spelled out in his example isn't the only one they had.

What interests Plantinga about Barth's objection to natural theology is not the objection itself: 'here he is probably wrong, or at any rate not clearly right. More interesting is his view that belief in God need not be based on argument' (ibid. 71). In fact, considered in themselves, probably none of these Reformed objections to natural theology interest Plantinga much or strike him as providing end p.19


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved grounds for a philosophical repudiation, or even devaluation, of the enterprise itself, despite some of the things he says in introducing them. He comes close to showing this, I think, in his summary interpretation of the Reformed rejection: 'In rejecting natural theology, therefore, these Reformed thinkers mean to say first of all that the propriety or Tightness of belief in God in no way depends upon the success or availability of the sort of theistic arguments that form the natural theologian's stock in trade. I think this is their central claim here, and their central insight. . . . The correct or proper way to believe in God, they thought, was not on the basis of arguments from natural theology or anywhere else; the correct way is to take belief in God as basic' (ibid. 72).

As we've been seeing, and as that passage itself indicates, these Reformed thinkers are not really 'rejecting natural theology', but only one possible application of it. And since they are raising religious objections against that application, what they would mean by 'the propriety or Tightness of belief in God' or'[t]he correct or proper way to believe in God'would constitute a religious, not an epistemological, approbation of shunning evidence or argument as a basis for believing in God. But in finally paraphrasing these Reformers as having thought that 'the correct way is to take belief in God as basic', Plantinga seems again to be suggesting that the high spiritual value they place on believing without evidence constitutes an epistemological appraisal, the one he expresses in the thesis of Reformed epistemology. I think he's overinterpreting them.

As far as I can see, then, 'the Reformed objection to natural theology' is a religious objection directed not against natural theology but against only one possible application of it, a religious objection that does not support any formidable philosophical objections, a religious objection that therefore

provides a dubious basis for Reformed epistemology.

25 On Plantinga and natural theology, see also Kenny 1992a and esp. 1992b.

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