He sums up the first of them in these words: 'According to Bavinck, then, belief in the existence of God is not based upon proofs or arguments. . . . Christians do not need such arguments. Do not need them for what?' (ibid.). Plantinga's answer to that question consists in these two claims, derived from Bavinck: (1) 'arguments or proofs are not, in general, the source of the believer's confidence in God';

end p.11


(2) 'argument is not needed for rational justification . . . The believer does not need natural theology in order to achieve rationality or epistemic

propriety in believing' (ibid. 64-5).

17 I'm focusing here on Plantinga's presentation of Bavinck rather than on the material he quotes from him; but the opening sentence of the quotation is worth repeating here as an indication of the universality of Bavinck's categorical rejection: 'A distinct natural theology, obtained apart from any revelation, merely through observation and study of the universe in which man lives, does not exist' (quoted ibid. 64).

In claim 1, 'the source' might mean not merely what causes the believer's confidence, but also what serves as its epistemic ground. But, in juxtaposition with claim 2, claim 1 is more reasonably interpreted as being about just the cause. On that interpretation, claim 1 is surely beyond dispute as regards theistic believers generally, even if 'confidence in God' is taken to mean merely belief that God exists (which is how I take it here). Of course, an argument for the existence of God might well be used in an attempt to convert someone from atheism or agnosticism to theism, and if it succeeded, then, of course, an argument would have been the cause (and, at least to

begin with, also the ground) of that believer's belief.

18 In summing up 'The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology', Plantinga acknowledges as much, though not very encouragingly: 'One who holds this view need not suppose that natural theology is of no use. . . . [NJatural theology could be useful in helping someone move from unbelief to belief. . . . [T]here may be (in fact there are) people who accept propositions and argument forms out of which a theistic argument can be constructed' (ibid. 73). As far as I can tell, Plantinga himself is one of those people; see below.

But such cases—probably rare—are compatible with claim 1, the denial in which is only 'in general'.

What's interesting about claim 1 here is that it offers at most a basis for objecting to claims for a particular practical application of natural theology, and no basis at all for objecting to natural theology considered as what it is—a branch of philosophy. The fact that a lay person's beliefs about the existence and nature of atoms do not, in general, have their source in arguments or proofs has no tendency to denigrate, much less to undercut, atomic physics. Just as obviously, in acquiring one's religious beliefs, one typically does not, and certainly need not, engage in philosophical analysis and argumentation of any sort. And this is just what the great natural theologians, such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, have always claimed. But, of course, they go on to insist, one way or another, that this faith acquired on the basis of an initially unquestioning end p.12


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved acceptance of, say, parental or priestly authority should seek under-standing, at various levels, by various means. What we call natural theology is the theoretical inquiry they recognized as occupying the highest level and providing the most reliable means available to reason independent

of revelation.

The second of the claims into which Plantinga analyses Bavinck's position is just as surely not beyond dispute, especially as illustrated by Plantinga: 'the believer is entirely within his epistemic right in believing, for example, that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion' (ibid. 65). But even if one accepted this particular instance of the thesis of Reformed epistemology, it seems clear that it could, at best, offer rational justification only in an epistemic vacuum, which human nature abhors. Even the non-philosophical believer is likely to acknowledge her need for supportive evidence and argument in case her belief is shaken or disappointed by her own experience—a sort of thing that happens often enough to believers. And if her belief is expressly challenged by other people, none of them are going to consider her belief (or her) to be rationally justified if her response is 'I just believe it; that's all'. But an educated, intelligent person living, as we do, in a society in which many educated, intelligent people disbelieve, 'for example, that God has created the world' lives in circumstances replete with challenges of that sort.

None the less, even if claim 2 were granted, it wouldn't provide a basis for rejecting natural theology except in response to someone who had foolishly claimed that natural theology is practically and universally indispensable to theists. In expounding Bavinck, Plantinga says that the believer's 'belief in God can be perfectly rational even if he knows of no cogent argument, deductive or inductive, for the existence of God' (ibid. 65). That's undoubtedly true regarding some believers, in some circumstances. And such a believer, considered simply as such, really does have no more need for natural theology than he has for philosophy of mathematics when balancing his cheque book—which is no objection to philosophy of mathematics.

Plantinga extracts three more claims from Bavinck's attack, the first of which is this: (3) 'we cannot come to knowledge of God on the basis of argument; the arguments of natural theology just do end p.13


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved not work' (ibid.). Here, in the second clause of claim 3, there certainly is a straightforward objection to natural theology itself; but it's just the extra-large size of the sort of objection any philosopher practising natural theology should expect and know how to deal with. And many of them—Aquinas, for instance—might even welcome such objections: 'if any people want to write back against what I have said, I will be very gratified, because there is no better way of uncovering the truth and keeping falsity in check than by arguing with people who disagree with you' (De perfectione 20

20 Although this passage does not appear in Aquinas's presentation of his natural theology, it expresses his view, shared with truth-seekers in all times and places, of the best way of making intellectual progress in general—a way codified and institutionalized in the disputational 'scholastic method' that characterizes much of medieval philosophy and theology, including Aquinas's.

But even if it were true that none of the available arguments worked, that wouldn't support the strong claim in the first clause (even when 'knowledge of God' is interpreted only as knowledge that God exists). The failure of every known argument for the existence of God might mean no more than that natural theology hadn't yet succeeded in doing what it set out to do. So, while the second clause of claim 3 contains what is unmistakably a general philosophical objection to natural theology itself, it would take a lot of careful work to back up that inductive generalization. And the strong claim in the first clause, which is really independent of the one in the second clause, is no more an objection to natural theology than is claim 1, which it markedly resembles.

In connection with claim 3, unlike the others, Plantinga distances himself from Bavinck, who, he says, 'follows this passage [the one Plantinga is drawing on] with a more or less traditional attempt to refute the theistic proofs, including an endorsement of some of Kant's fashionable confusions about the ontological argument' (1983: 65). The way Plantinga expresses himself here suggests that he thinks Bavinck's rejection of the existence arguments is unsophisticated, and perhaps even excessive. None the less, in concluding his discussion of the Reformed objection to natural theology, Plantinga appears to imply his own rejection of'the theistic proofs' when, by way of showing that even the Reformed objector'need not suppose that natural theology is of no use', he says that 'if there were good arguments for the existence of God, that would be a fact worth knowing in itself' (ibid. 73;

Plantinga's emphasis).

21 The passage continues in this way: '—just as it would be worth knowing (if true) that the analogical argument for other minds is successful, or that there are good arguments from self-evident and incorrigible propositions to the existence of other minds'. On his view of arguments for other minds, see below.

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© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved

In an earlier book of his, however, he himself developed an important version of the ontological argument. In appraising the stages of his argument there, he says, 'Clearly they are valid; and hence they show that if it is even possible that God, so thought of, exists, then it is true and necessarily true that he does. The only question of interest, it seems to me, is whether its main premiss—that indeed unsurpassable greatness is possibly exemplified, that there is an essence entailing unsurpassable greatness—is true. I think this premiss is indeed true. Accordingly, I think this version of the Ontological Argument is sound' (Plantinga 1974: 216-17). And he seems not to have changed his mind on that point at the time he wrote his 1983 22


22 See e.g. his remarks on the ontological argument in Plantinga 1985: 70-1. This is one of the reasons why I find Plantinga's attitude toward natural theology in general hard to read. But I think there's no doubt about his particularized opposition to it in connection with the development of Reformed epistemology in Plantinga 1983, and in examining that opposition, I've so far not found any formidable objection, philosophical or religious, to natural theology itself.

The fourth claim Plantinga extracts from Bavinck is this: (4) 'Scripture "proceeds from God as the starting point," and so should the believer. There is nothing by way of proofs or arguments for God's existence in the Bible;

that is simply presupposed. The same should be true of the Christian believer then; he should start from belief in God rather than from the premises of some argument whose conclusion is that God exists. What is it that makes those premises a better starting point anyway?' (Plantinga 1983: 65). Unlike the other claims Plantinga finds in Bavinck, 4 is religious and parochial, stated in a way that expressly pertains only to Christians. As an objection to natural theology, then, claim 4 could on its strongest interpretation provide no more than a specific religious scruple against engaging in the enterprise or taking its results seriously. But in fact there is nothing in the first three sentences of claim 4 that even Christian practitioners of natural theology would hesitate to endorse. By way of showing that this endorsement gives them no religious qualms about their enterprise, however, they might very well cite some familiar scriptural passages—for example, Psalm 19: 1: 'The heavens declare the glory of God; and the end p.15

Kretzmann, Norman , (deceased) formerly Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cornell University, New York

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