Calvin

Plantinga's quotations from Calvin, the second in his list of three Reformers, include this religious objection to one sort of use of natural theology: The prophets and apostles do not . . . dwell upon rational proofs. ... If we desire to provide in the best way for our consciences ... we ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit' (quoted in Plantinga 1983: 67). Interpreting the religious objection philosophically, Plantinga says: 'If my belief in God is based on argument, then if I am to be properly rational, epistemically responsible, I shall have to keep checking the philosophical journals to see whether, say, Anthony Flew has finally come up with a good objection to my favorite argument. . . . [A]nd what do I do if someone does find a flaw in my argument? Stop going to church?' (ibid.). But it would be unlikely to turn out that way, even for someone who does take natural theology to provide epistemic justification for her belief in God. More probably, it would be like the circumstances of a philosopher who founds her epistemology on what she takes to be her rational conviction that there is an external world, and who is consequently interested in new formulations of scepticism because they might reveal flaws in the formation or presentation of her conviction. In such circumstances it would be irrational for her to ignore or disdain scepticism's objections. But her reaction to a cogent objection would normally be a refurbishing of her formulation of realism, not a conversion to solipsism.

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The firmest basis available for any objection to natural theology that Calvin might raise can be seen in his very strong declarations regarding a natural, universal human awareness of God—the sensus divinitatis. This characteristic doctrine of his may seem to insulate his position, by fiat, from any serious interest in, let alone use for, natural theology's existence arguments: " There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity." This we take to be beyond controversy. . . . [M]en one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker. . . From this we conclude that it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother's womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget' (quoted ibid. 65-6; first emphasis added). In glossing this declaration, Plantinga weakens it significantly, in a way that makes it less implausible: 'Calvin's claim, then, is that God has created us in such a way that we have a strong tendency or inclination toward belief in him. . . . The fact is, Calvin thinks, one who does not believe in God is in an epistemically substandard position' (ibid. 66). Judging only on the basis of the bit of Calvin that Plantinga quotes here, I think Calvin would have to describe the unbeliever as in an epistemically impossible position, and I find that consequence and the doctrine on which it apparently depends unbelievable.

Although this doctrine of the universally innate, unforgettable, unignorable sensus divinitatis would seem to render existence arguments pointless, Plantinga's Calvin, a little surprisingly, also makes use of the idea that is central to arguments from design, attributing to it more efficacy than even proponents of such arguments are likely to claim for it: God 'daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him' (quoted ibid. 66). Plantinga seems not to want to deny that 'some version of the teleological argument' might be discerned here. Instead, he again denies that the believer needs such support: 'It is not that such a person [beholding the starry heavens, for instance] is justified or rational in so believing by virtue of having an implicit argument . . . No; he does not need any argument for justification or rationality. His belief need not be based on any other propositions at all' (ibid. 67). Well, if such people are, as Calvin says we all are, made in such a way that they 'cannot open their eyes without end p.18

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© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved being compelled to see him', then what Plantinga says here is plainly true. But if that plain truth is to have any philosophical efficacy, many of us would, embarrassingly enough, need some evidence that we are, indeed, made in that way, endowed with the sensus divinitatis.

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