Jaco Gericke: Fundamentalism on Stilts: A Devastating Response to Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology

[First published 12/12/09] Dr. Jaco Gericke is a philosopher of religion and a biblical scholar to boot. He has written what can be considered a refutation of Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology. Gericke tells me, "The trouble with Craig and and Plantinga is that their philosophy of religion conveniently ignores the problems posed for their views by the history of Israelite religion. They might as well try to prove Zeus exists. People sometimes forget 'God' used to be Yahweh and it is possible to prove from textual evidence that 'there ain't no such animal.'" Dr. Gericke writes:
Not so long ago I was so irritated by a book of Alvin Plantinga's that I wrote a rebuttal from the perspective of a biblical scholar who happens to know what goes on in the philosophy of religion. It concerns the foundations of Plantinga's views and can be applied to William Lane Craig as well. Their philosophy may sound complex and formidable but if you know both the philosophy of religion and also the history of religion their smarts ain't nothing but Fundamentalism on Stilts.
Anyone who is biblically literate should know there is no reason to be a Christian fundamentalist. So with that in mind, below is a summary of Gericke's important points and a link to his pdf article. Enjoy!
It is my conviction that while the philosophy of religion can and should be applied to biblical thought (something I do myself), it is hermeneutically problematic when one does this while at the same time failing to take seriously the philosophical implications of the history of (Israelite) religion.

However, up to now no Old Testament scholar that I am aware of has bothered to respond to the charges of [Reformed Epistemology], to the effect that their views are still considered intellectually respectable in many philosophical circles (in biblical scholarship the movement is mostly unknown). So, out of a concern to expose the fallacies of the sort of philosophy of religion one might call ‘fundamentalism on stilts’ (i.e. making outdated biblical-theological conceptions seem respectable with the aid of philosophical jargon) I have decided to accept the invitation of Stump (1985) and others and to devote this article to a discussion of why I believe some of [Reformed Epistemology’s] philosophy of religion is seriously damaged by a failure to appreciate the problems of Old Testament theology. I have no pains with the concept of a ‘Reformed’ epistemology per se but I do believe that in the writings of some philosophers of religion it really involves little more than a disguised attempt to sneak fundamentalist theology back into the academia.

What is relevant to the present discussion is the fact that past 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’être, 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.

Like most Protestant fundamentalists accusing the rest of the world of not being ‘biblical’ enough and constantly calling everyone to return to a ‘biblical’ view on just about every particular theological subject, Plantinga is neither as ‘biblical’ nor as ‘Reformed’ as he thinks. His philosophical arguments aimed at discrediting the work of biblical scholars engaging in historical-critical analysis are riddled with a number of glaring fallacies, stereotypically encountered in the writing of all fundamentalist philosophers of religion.

First of all, Plantinga claims that belief in God is properly basic and that the God with reference to whom belief is such is, conveniently for him, the God of the Bible (Plantinga 2000c:384). Yet Plantinga’s view of YHWH is radically anachronistic and conforms more to the proverbial ‘God of the Philosophers’ (Aquinas in particular) than to any version of YHWH as depicted in ancient Israelite religion. This means that the pre-philosophical ‘biblical’ conceptions of YHWH, the belief in whom is supposed to be properly basic, is 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 YHWH in biblical narrative (e.g. Gn 18).

The second problem follows from the first: What kind of God is it with reference to which Plantinga asserts belief to be properly basic? It is useless to say belief in God is properly basic unless one can specify what the contents of the beliefs about God are supposed to be. But in this Plantinga’s philosophy is radically undermined by his failure to take cognizance of the fact that he is committing the fallacy of essentialism. Like all fundamentalists he seems to know nothing (and want to know nothing) of the philosophical problems posed by conceptual pluralism in Old Testament theology or the diachronic variation in the beliefs about YHWH in the history of Israelite religion. In short, he seems blissfully unaware that there is no such thing as the ‘biblical’ perspective on God.

A third problem concerns another way in which Plantinga’s philosophy of religion brackets the history of religion....the fact is that it is wrong to assume, as Plantinga does, that the Old Testament is anti-evidentialist. On the contrary, there is ample reason to believe that a ‘soft’ evidentialism is in fact the default epistemology taken for granted in ancient Israelite religion given the nature of many of the pre-philosophical epistemological assumptions in the biblical narratives. The whole idea of miracles (signs) and revelation via theophany, audition, dreams, divination and history can be said to presuppose an evidentialist epistemology (see the oft-repeated formula ‘so that they may know…’). After all, of all the religious epistemologies that come to mind, it is difficult to imagine that the prophet Elijah in the narrative where he takes on the Baal Prophets on Carmel was endorsing anything remotely similar to ‘Reformed Epistemology’ (see 1 Ki 18). If that is not an instance of evidentialism in the Old Testament, what is?

A fourth biblical-theological shortcoming concerns Plantinga’s naïve-realist hermeneutics....Plantinga imagines himself to be loyal to and fighting for the Bible as such when in fact he is not so much defending the Bible for its own sake but struggling to place his own Reformed Fundamentalist view of the Bible beyond the possibility of critique.

The fifth problem – and this point follows from the previous one – Plantinga argues along typical fundamentalist apologetic lines that one either assumes beforehand that the Bible is the Word of God or merely fallible human superstition.... Plantinga’s own presuppositionalist hermeneutics show that he is more interested in safeguarding his own fundamentalist assumptions than allowing them to be modified should the nature of the biblical data require it. In wanting to prejudge the issue on inspiration, Plantinga conveniently forgets that the question of meaning precedes the question of truth (as analytic philosophy has taught us), and that without this insight no corrective from the Bible on dogmas are possible to begin with.

The sixth problem is that Plantinga claims that his own readings of the Bible follow a ‘traditional’ approach. However, not only is any appeal to tradition in itself a potential logical fallacy in the justification of truth claims in the philosophy of religion, but the problem is also that the concept of a singular ‘traditional’ reading is meaningless, for there never was a single way of reading the text anywhere in the history of interpretation.

A seventh and final matter for discussion concerns the non-sequitur involved in the ultimate objectives of [Reformed Epistemology] in the context of the discussion with biblical scholars and the critique of biblical criticism. Plantinga thinks that if he can discredit historical criticism and evolutionary theory, then his own fundamentalist and creationist hermeneutics win by default and can be taken seriously again (2000c:398). In this he seems to forget that proving historical criticism wrong is not the same as proving historical/grammatical hermeneutics correct – that is another task on its own. The same is the case with regard to his raging against evolution – even if Plantinga could somehow demonstrate a fatal problem in the theory, this does not vindicate creationism. The latter still needs to be justified as part of a separate project and imagining that it gets a second chance if evolution is someday left behind is as naïve as thinking that astrology gets another shot at it if a contemporary astronomical theory is discredited. It does not work that way – one has to go forwards, not backwards, and creationism and fundamentalism have had their day.

In the end...it eventually becomes readily apparent that Plantinga’s entire case is in fact little more than a huge demonstration of special pleading. [Emphasis JWL's] Time and again it is implied that the main reason Plantinga cannot and will not accept a critical approach to the text is not because he really understood what biblical criticism is all about, but rather because of what he takes to be its implication – that he would have to take leave of his own cherished personal ‘properly basic’ dogmas about the text. This is why Plantinga will not be taken seriously by mainstream biblical theologians.

Plantinga has mistaken the philosophy of religion for fundamentalist Christian apologetics. In doing so, he turns out to be neither biblical nor Reformed (or even really ‘philosophical’) in his arguments. It hardly matters how sophisticated, coherent, interesting, orthodox, complex or convincing the philosophical and specifically epistemological arguments in justifying [Reformed Epistemology] in its current format might be or become. As long as the assumptions underlying the philosophical jargon are riddled with such biblical-theological fallacies as demonstrated above, Plantinga’s version of [Reformed Epistemology] will be considered by many to be no more than fundamentalism on stilts.

Clicking on this link will send you to a pdf of the original article. Link

John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. Thank you so much!