Reformed Epistemology Requires Psychic Abilities!

I'm trying to meet a deadline for a new book I'm writing by the end of this month. I think I'll make it. Below are 2200 words out of a 10,000 word chapter on Christian apologetics. See what you think.

With regard to Reformed Epistemology, Alvin Plantinga seeks to show that Christians can be rational in having a “full-blooded Christian belief” in the “the great truths of the gospel.”[i] But his conclusion is only correct if his Christian God exists. That’s a big IF! All he’s doing is arguing it’s reasonable to believe in God, if God exists. Don’t think so? Then listen to Richard Swinburne, who correctly argues that Plantinga’s conclusion in his 500 page book in defense of reasonable Christian belief, Warranted Christian Belief, is “of little use.” For Plantinga
works up to the conclusion that ‘if Christian belief is true, it very likely does have warrant.’ But this conditional is of little use to anyone without some information about the truth of the antecedent (whether Christian belief is true); and on that, Plantinga explicitly acknowledges in his final paragraph, he cannot help us. For he writes there that on the really important question of ‘is Christian belief true,’ ‘we pass beyond the competence of philosophy.’”[ii]
Not only is this the case but Plantinga says something else every Christian apologist should take note of: “I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion.”[iii] Now that’s quite the admission, isn’t it, from someone who is a bit revered among evangelicals.

What an apologetical method should do is engage in positive apologetics by presenting sufficient evidence for the truth of Christianity. Reformed Epistemology doesn’t even pretend to do this. Plantinga is defending the reasonableness of Christianity against objections brought against it, known as negative apologetics. But engaging in this activity without first presenting sufficient evidence for the truth of Christianity is like having the gas without having a car. Still, negative apologetics is not nothing. At least one might have gas.

Plantinga challenges the idea that belief in God needs any evidence at all. He says “the believer is entirely within his epistemic rights in believing, for example, that God has created the world, even if he has no argument at all for that conclusion. His belief in God can be perfectly rational even if he knows of no cogent argument, deductive or inductive, for the existence of God—indeed, even if there is no such argument.”[iv] He argues there are countless things we believe (and do so properly) without proof or evidence, such as the existence of other persons (or minds); that the world continues to exist even when we don’t perceive it; that we have been alive for more than twenty-four hours; that the past really happened; that we aren’t just brains in a vat; that we live in an ordered universe; that we can trust our minds and our senses about the universe; that cause and effect are universal laws of nature; that nature is uniform and intelligible; and so on. He further argues by analogy that people can also believe in God (and do so properly) without proof or evidence. In particular, since believing there are other persons is rational without evidential support, so also is belief in God.

I have come to the conclusion that all of these scenarios are disanalogous to believing in God. For with God there is no empirical experiential evidence he exists—such as gained from seeing hearing or touching him—since he’s conceived as a spiritual being. Nor does anyone see God do a miracle either. Even if an extremely rare unexplainable event took place we don’t see him doing it.[v] By contrast, when it comes to experiencing life 24-hours ago we have the artifacts of yesterday, like a photograph, a dirty pair of pants, a friend who remembers what we talked about during lunch, and perhaps a future paycheck showing we worked that day, etc. So these scenarios do not apply to God. Other hypothetical scenarios that are far-fetched, including the possibility there isn’t a material world, or that we’re living in a Matrix, or the Cartesian demon hypothesis, are not good defeaters of the demand for sufficient evidence either, as I’ve argued at some length.[vi] The major problem with them is that possibilities don’t count. Only probabilities do if we’re thinking like scientists. It may be remotely possible that we’re living in the Matrix right now, or dreaming or being deceived by an evil demon. But I’m not changing anything I do or anything I think based on a possibility. We must think exclusively in terms of the probabilities.

Now I unwittingly accept some things without objective evidence for them, like my own subjective experience of being me. However, I can easily offer concrete examples where it would be irrational not to have the needed objective evidence for them. Consider the nature of nature and the workings of nature, studied in disciplines like geology, chemistry, astronomy, neurology, biology, zoology and so forth. In these concrete examples rational people need sufficient objective evidence before coming to any conclusions. But they are the kinds of examples mathematician W.K. Clifford (1845-1879) surely had in mind when discussing the ethics of a shipowner who had stifled his doubts about a ship’s seaworthiness by trusting in God’s providence, rather than in patiently investigating the evidence for himself. So while Clifford may have claimed too much when he said, “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence,”[vii] Plantinga failed to properly and charitably understand him. We most certainly do need sufficient objective evidence for almost everything. Plantinga focused on Clifford’s statement rather than on his concrete example, so his ship of arguments sailed right past Clifford’s ship in the middle of the night without a good skirmish.

The most I could grant for the sake of argument—as loathe as I am to do even this—is that it might be rational to believe in a Supreme Being without evidence. But even if I grant that, the belief in a particular triune God who created the universe from nothing, who tested Adam and Eve in the Garden, rescued the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, sent an incarnation of himself to earth, who was born of a virgin in Bethlehem, who did and said the things we read about in the canonical Gospels, who was crucified as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, who bodily arose from the dead and who ascended into the sky with the promise of coming again to judge the world is simply not a god-belief I'm rational to believe without proof or evidence! There’s just way too much belief going on there.

Plantinga surely believes there is historical evidence for his fundamentalist “full-blooded Christian belief” even though bizarrely he argues it’s reasonable to believe without any of it. Speaking for 16th century reformer John Calvin—and agreeing with him—Plantinga says the great truths of the gospel found in a self-authenticating Scripture are evident in themselves. “[W]e don’t require argument from, for example, historically established premises about the authorship and reliability of the bit of Scripture in question to the conclusion that the bit in question is in fact true; for belief in the great things of the gospel to be justified, rational, and warranted, no historical evidence and argument for the teaching in question, or for the veracity or reliability or divine character of Scripture are necessary.”[viii]

Upon what basis does Plantinga say this? He believes we all have a sense of divinity (or sensus divinitatis, if you prefer the Latin) within us, and a (holy) Spirit Guide who guides us to know “the great truths of the gospel” when reading the Scripture. This is the same thing psychics claim they can do. They too claim to arrive at truth by reading tea leaves and tarot cards. He’s effectively saying the spirit world gives Christians these same kinds of psychic abilities! So if we were to ask a Christian if Jesus died as a substitutionary atonement for our sins, which is surely one of the great truths of the gospel that Plantinga believes, just have him or her open the Bible to any page and start reading, or turn to the “correct” page and start reading. They don’t need to bother studying the Bible, or in reading good commentaries (although they can). Just read the Bible. They certainly don’t have to be properly trained to study the Bible by learning the science of hermeneutics. We might also want to know if we should be baptized to be saved. That’s an important truth of the gospel, one way or another, right? For if we need to be baptized God should tell us. So just ask a Christian what God says. “No,” might be the answer. “How do you know?” we might ask. “Because God told me so.” There that settles it, except for the fact that I personally came from a Christian tradition that concluded otherwise. Any other questions about “the great truths of the gospel” would be met with this same answer, “Because God told me so.” We might as well ask Christians to tell us what happened at Custer’s last stand, or who killed JonBenĂ©t Ramsey, or solve any other unsolved crimes. We might ask them to read palms and contact the dead like psychics supposedly do. Why would God limit this knowledge to just the great truths of the gospel?

Lest anyone think I am too harsh on Plantinga, I assure you I’m not trying to be, although in describing and criticizing such a large body of work in such a small space my descriptions contain within them my criticisms. I just disagree, strongly. Pay close attention to what Plantinga says: “Faith involves an explicitly cognitive element; it is, says [John] Calvin, knowledge…and it is revealed to our minds. To have faith, therefore, is to know and hence believe something or other.” And Christian beliefs come “by way of the work of the Holy Spirit, who gets us to accept, causes us to believe, these great truths of the gospel. These beliefs don’t come just by way of the normal operation of our natural faculties, they are a supernatural gift.”[ix] If this is not claiming to have psychic abilities then I don’t know what is. And if anyone thinks psychic abilities are incompatible with Christianity then just think of the Christians in Haiti who embrace both Catholicism and voodoo.

Finally, Old Testament scholar and philosopher of religion Jaco Gericke has written a devastating criticism of Plantinga’s Epistemology:
[P]ast critiques of Plantinga have tended to focus almost exclusively on problems in the philosophical “superstructure” of Reformed Epistemology with little real attention being paid to the biblical-theological “base structure” of his arguments. And yet it cannot be disputed that the latter is ultimately foundational to the former—its raison d’ĂȘtre, if you will. But if this is indeed the case, it means that whatever the merits of Plantinga’s sophisticated philosophical rhetoric, if it can be shown that his biblical foundations are both mistaken and/or nothing of the sort, the entire modus operandi of Reformed Epistemology will have been fatally compromised.[x]
One of Gericke’s main criticisms concerns the particular belief in God that Plantinga thinks is properly basic. Plantinga’s view of Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is
radically anachronistic and conform[s] more to the proverbial “God of the Philosophers” (Aquinas in particular) than to any version of Yahweh as depicted in ancient Israelite religion. This means that the pre-philosophical “biblical” conceptions of Yahweh, the belief in whom is supposed to be properly basic, [are] not even believed by Plantinga himself. His lofty notions of God in terms of “Divine Simplicity,” “Maximal Greatness,” and “Perfect-Being Theology” are utterly alien with reference to many of the characterizations of Yahweh in biblical narrative (e.g., Genesis 18).[xi]
In sum, presuppositionalists, including Plantinga, simply assume what needs to be proved, way too much. This is not an acceptable way for reasonable people to argue on behalf of Christianity, or most things. Anyone who argues this way, or who think this is acceptable, ought to pay closer attention to their lying brains.


[i] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford, 2000), pp. 200, 245, 262.

[ii] Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 74–75.

[iii] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 201. Elsewhere Plantinga defended some arguments for Christian faith, most notably the Ontological Argument.

[iv] Plantinga, “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), p. 65.

[v] David J. Hand explains how unexplainable rare events happen all of the time in his book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

[vi] John W. Loftus, The Outsider Test for Faith (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2013), pp. 70-72, 134-144, and Why I Became an Atheist, pp. 43-47.

[vii] W.K. Clifford, “Ethics of Belief” 1877, found online:

[viii] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 262.

[ix] Ibid., pp. 245-246.

[x] Jaco Gericke, “Fundamentalism on Stilts: A Response to Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology,” Verbum et Ecclesia 30, no. 2 (2009), See also his chapter, “Can God Exist If Yahweh Doesn’t?” in the anthology I edited, The End of Christianity (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011), pp. 131–54.

[xi] Gericke, “Can God Exist If Yahweh Doesn’t?” p. 150.