The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology

Atheism aside, the most apparent contemporary opposition to taking natural theology seriously is associated with Alvin Plantinga. His own appraisal of natural theology considered in itself may well have been obscured in work he's done recently, but that work seems to have been interpreted by many readers as bypassing, discounting, or even repudiating natural theology. In

several well-known articles,

13 Besides the one I draw on just below, see e.g. Plantinga 1986a, 1986b, and 1987. he has tried to establish the rationality of believing without any evidence or argument that God exists. One of those articles—'Reason and Belief in God' (Plantinga 1983)—has emerged as the locus classicus of the position he and others have called 'Reformed epistemology'. The following passage can serve as a statement of the thesis of Reformed epistemology: '[I]t is entirely right, rational, reasonable, and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all' (ibid. 17). In the context of foundationalism, which informs much of the discussion in Plantinga 1983, beliefs maintained without ulterior propositional evidence (evidence presented in propositions other than the one believed) are interpretable as basic beliefs. S's belief that p is a belief that is basic for S just in case S believes that p but not on the basis of any end p.9


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved other belief(s) of S's. In that context the question of the rationality of believing without ulterior propositional evidence becomes the question whether a given basic belief is properly basic, whether the belief is justified simply by the nature of the believed proposition itself or the circumstances of the formation of the belief. So the thesis of Reformed epistemology appears to be interpretable as the claim that, for any S, S's belief that God exists is, or could be, properly basic.

I've argued elsewhere that Plantinga's position isn't really so radical or so opposed to evidentialism as that thesis and his development of the thesis

make it seem, and I won't review those arguments now.

14 See Kretzmann 1992; also e.g. Maitzen 1995.

Taken at face value, as Plantinga does take it in his 1983 article, the thesis does at least devalue, and might well be read as repudiating, natural theology, which traditionally begins with (and has sometimes been confined to) arguments for the existence of God. Reformed epistemology's opposition to natural theology needn't be inferred from some reading of its thesis, however, since it appears to be developed explicitly in Part III, 'The

Reformed Objection to Natural Theology' (ibid. 63-73).

15 An earlier version of this appears as Plantinga 1982. Part III of Plantinga 1983 has been excerpted and reprinted separately (along with most of Part IV D, 'Fideism') in Plantinga 1992.

The objection has its historical roots in the Protestant Reformation, as does the thesis itself, according to Plantinga. In his view, the thesis expresses '[w]hat the Reformers [especially Calvin and Calvinists] meant to hold', but '[w]hat they say . . . has been for the most part unclear, ill-focused, and unduly inexplicit'; and he sets out to 'try to remedy these ills' because, he thinks, the Reformers' 'fundamental insights here are correct' (ibid. 16-17). Among those insights he includes 'the Reformed rejection of natural theology','understood as an implicit rejection of classical foundationalism in favor of the view that belief in God is properly basic' (ibid. 17; emphasis


16 The fact that Plantinga argues that the belief that God exists is 'properly basic' shows that his constructive project in his 1983 article isn't operating entirely independently of foundationalism. His opposition to it is directed exclusively (or at least primarily) against what he calls 'classical' foundationalism, just because of its restrictions on proper basicality: 'Ancient and medieval foundationalists tended to hold that a proposition is properly basic for a person only if it is either self-evident or evident to the senses: modern foundationalists—Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and the like—tended to hold that a proposition is properly basic for S only if either self-evident or incorrigible for S. . . . [A] classical foundationalist is any one who is either an ancient and medieval or a modern foundationalist' (Plantinga 1983: 58-9).

end p.10

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

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