Chapter 1


Nicholas Wolterstorff, one of the foremost contemporary advocates of Reformed epistemology, has identified five theses on the nature of faith and of reason, and on the relation between them, which seem to be characteristic of the Reformed tradition.1   They are so in the sense that they are usually associated with the Reformed tradition but not in the sense that all who locate themselves in the tradition would accept all five of them or that only those in the tradition would accept any of them.

First, Wolterstorff says that it has characteristically been maintained within the Reformed tradition that one can be rationally justified in believing in God without doing so on the basis of any reasons or evidence.   Belief in God can be justified immediately rather than mediately through reasons or evidence.   It can itself form the basis for mediate justification and so is ‘properly basic’ to a rational structure of knowledge and beliefs.

Secondly, according to Wolterstorff, it has characteristically been maintained that belief that the Christian Scriptures are revealed by God can also be justified immediately rather than on the basis of argument from reasons or evidence.   Divine revelation is not externally authenticated – it is self–authenticating.

Thirdly, he says, it has characteristically been held that the effects of sin extend to our rational capacities for acquiring beliefs and knowledge.   Sin not only affects our wills – it has noetic effects also.

A fourth thesis identified by Wolterstorff concerns the pluralism of the academy.   It has characteristically been maintained that a competent specimen of science may well not be neutral with respect to the Christian faith and that, in the event of conflict, the science should be re–done rather than that the faith should be given up.   The fifth characteristic thesis is closely related to this but is put in the more positive terms that a Christian’s engagement in scientific activity should be directed in appropriate ways by his faith.  These last two theses could be brought together into one which maintains not only the inevitability but also the desirability of worldviews affecting theory construction in science.

Through the centuries since the Reformation and up to the present day, there have been a number of philosophers and theologians of note within the Reformed tradition whose writings give evidence of their maintaining most if not all of these characteristic theses.   Several of these have had particular emphases in their thought which have given rise to various sub–traditions within the broad stream of Reformed thought2 and these are also related to varying emphases and sub–traditions in the application of that thought to education.

It is impossible within the confines of this study to do more than look briefly at just a few of these writers and any selection will inevitably leave out others of equal and arguably greater significance.   I have chosen to give a brief outline of  Abraham Kuyper’s theory of knowledge since what he wrote around the turn of the present century has been widely influential in a range of sub–traditions.   I shall also outline the main details of the approach of Cornelius Van Til as a writer from the earlier and middle decades of this century who represented a particular sub–tradition and who held to particularly strong versions of the characteristic theses of Reformed epistemology.   My main focus will be on the work of Alvin Plantinga since he is a very well–known contemporary philosopher of religion and he has been largely responsible for the remarkable upturn of interest in Reformed epistemology in the past decade.


Abraham Kuyper, founder of the Free University of Amsterdam and Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, must rank as one of the foremost Reformed thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and one of the most quoted in later attempts to develop a Reformed account of knowledge and faith.   The fullest account that he has given of his approach is to be found in his ‘Encyclopaedie der Heilige Godgeleerheid’, a major portion of which exists in English translation as ‘Encyclopaedia of Sacred Theology’3 and it is mainly upon this that the following brief outline relies.


Kuyper says that faith is of crucial importance within knowledge and by this he means not faith in God or in Christ or, indeed, faith with any particular content but “a function of the life of our soul which is fundamental to every fact in our human consciousness”.4  By this faith function, we obtain certainty directly and immediately rather than by demonstrative argument, and faith is therefore opposed not to knowledge but to demonstration.   Knowledge may be the result of either faith or demonstration.   Even demonstration itself is ultimately grounded in faith because we cannot demonstrate the axioms of thought.   Among the other certainties are those of our own existence, the general reliability of our senses, the existence of natural laws and the existence of other minds.   By faith we know the ego exists and by faith we “vault the gap” from the ego to the non–ego in every area of knowledge.   Without faith, says Kuyper, there is no other bridge to be built from the phenomena to the noumena.5

Kuyper uses the word ‘science’ in a way that is roughly equivalent to ‘form of knowledge’ and he distinguishes between those sciences which he variously refers to as “material”, “ponderable”, “exact” and “natural” and those which he terms the “spiritual” sciences.   The former are concerned with the perception of objects through the senses but the latter have to do with the intellectual, ethical, social, juridical, aesthetic and theological aspects of reality.   In relation to these spiritual realities of love and of right and the like, of which we may often be more certain than of physical realities, Kuyper proposes a psychic sense whereby, as he puts it, “in entire independence of our senses and of any middle link known to us, the elements of the spiritual world affect our subject spiritually and thus to our apprehension appear to enter immediately into our consciousness.”6

The starting–point of Kuyper’s theory of knowledge is in the state of affairs that he believes would exist if there were no disturbance caused by sin.   If there were no sin, the cosmos would be “an open book” for the universal human consciousness, not that we would know everything instantaneously and exhaustively but that there would be nothing without or within us to frustrate our human consciousness in entering more and more deeply into the cosmos in representation and conception.7

Subjective factors would not in themselves constitute a problem in science because there would be a natural harmony between individual subjects.   For Kuyper it is evident that no such harmony exists universally or necessarily; it is lacking both within the subject and within the object – the cosmos of which man is a part – and, indeed, between subject and object.   As evidence of this, he lists the following: the presence of falsehood in the world; unintentional mistakes; the phenomena of self–delusion and self–deception; the possibility of confusion at the boundary of the real and the imaginary; the fact that falsehood within finds a “coefficient” in falsehood transmitted from without through education, language and general culture; the effects of bodily illness on the spirit; the influence of “the sin–disorganised relationships of life”; and the influences of falsehood and inaccuracies in one area of our individual consciousness upon other areas even to the extent of affecting one’s “life–and–world–view”.   All of these relate to what Kuyper terms “the formal workings of sin on our minds” but he goes on to discuss in addition the workings of sin on our consciousness through moral motives and especially the influence of self–interest, the “darkening of our consciousness” through estrangement from the object of our knowledge so that love of child or nature or whatever is replaced by absence of the sympathy or affinity that formerly aided understanding, and the loss of harmony within ourselves in the plurality of conflicting motives and emotions.7

Kuyper sees sin as something that disrupts the otherwise harmonious relationships that would exist among people as the knowing human subjects and between them and the objects of knowledge.  It is this estrangement that frustrates humankind’s deepening grasp of what is there to be known and understood.   It is not that personal holiness can be correlated with scientific progress on the part of the individual or its absence with lack of such progress on his part for this would be to take an individualistic and atomistic view of the whole process of knowledge.   For Kuyper, knowledge and understanding are to be sought by humankind collectively and co–operatively.   Furthermore, Kuyper maintains,8 the noetic effects of sin do not include loss of the capacity for logical thought and this capacity can be developed by training and is presumably something which varies from individual to individual independently of their personal holiness or sinfulness.   Kuyper also allows that the noetic effects of sin are less evident where the subjective factor in knowing is less prominent, i.e., less evident in the material sciences than in the spiritual sciences, and he suggests that it is most evident in the science of theology because of its distinctive object, that of God himself, and the importance for it of the distinctive relationship between object and subject.9


One of most controversial aspects of Kuyper’s thought is his development of the thesis that sin has noetic effects into the proposal that there are two kinds of people and two kinds of science.   Regeneration or, as he terms it, ‘palingenesis’, is taken by Kuyper to be a change of man in his very being which leads to a change of consciousness.   What this means for science is described by him as follows:

“Both parts of humanity, that which has been wrought upon by palingenesis and that which lacks it, feel the impulse to investigate the object, and, by doing this in a scientific way, to obtain a scientific systemization of that which exists.   … But however much they may be doing the same kind of thing formally, their activities run in opposite directions because they have different starting–points; and because of the difference in their nature they apply themselves differently to this work, and view things in a different way.”10

It might be claimed, in response to such an account, that this alleged difference is not evident in science and that, if it were, co–operation and even communication between the two kinds of people over matters scientific would be impossible but Kuyper makes a number of points in response to such objections:

(i) there is a very broad realm in which the difference between the two kinds of people exerts little or no influence and this includes matters of sense observation as the  raw material of natural science, the facts of history and of other spiritual sciences and the laws of logic;

(ii) palingenesis is a continual process so that there is not at once a radical and complete change in the content of consciousness;

(iii) the Christian framework of creation, fall and redemption was for many centuries a common framework of thought for both groups; and

(iv) those who are regenerate remember and can appreciate the viewpoint of the unregenerate.11

There is therefore a large area in which both groups may work together and even attain academic laurels together without the difference of principle becoming involved; and even when the lines divide, it is still possible to appreciate mutually the reasons for the divergence and, taking into account the differences of premise or starting–point, to criticise logically the other’s progress.   This should not be taken to mean that there will be a uniform set of results obtained by each of the two groups.   Subjective factors will operate for both because in both groups individuals differ from one another and because no individual has mastery of the field so that, in both groups, different schools of thought will emerge.   A starting–point in Christian premises will not wholly determine the outcome any more than will one in naturalistic premises.12

If there are two kinds of people and two kinds of science and this difference is most strongly felt in theology, then it is likely to issue in two views of the very nature of theology itself.   Indeed, Kuyper argues that naturalistic premises and the premises of palingenesis do logically lead to two different views of theology.   He claims that to omit the facts of sin and of palingenesis from science means that everything must be considered normal as it is, so that man is not alienated from God, his being and his consciousness are not influenced by sin and he needs no restorative power from without and no special revelation to his consciousness in order to attain to a true view of the cosmos.13   The existence of God must then become questionable simply because in this ‘normal’ world there are those who deny it and those who question whether God can be known even if he exists.   The consequence is that the object of theological thought becomes uncertain as to its existence and so theology cannot be a science since, argues Kuyper, theological science requires an object in a God who certainly exists.   Naturalistic premises lead inevitably to the conclusion that theology is not a science.   Kuyper allows that, on such premises, there is still the possibility that religion may be studied scientifically but, he argues,this is not theology but religious studies.

Since for Kuyper science is the study of the cosmos under its various aspects and theology is a science, he says that divine revelation must lie not outside of but within the cosmos and always present itself in cosmical form.14   Further, he maintains, revealed knowledge of God belongs to spiritual science and is analogous to man’s knowledge of his fellow man both in that it must be disclosed by the other and also in that man must begin from the knowledge he has of himself.   Therefore, if God is to reveal knowledge of himself within the cosmos, it must be revealed within man himself for him even to begin to grasp it and, since God is pure Spirit, within his psychic existence and not in his body.   So, just as our self–knowledge is linked with and the basis of our knowledge of others, it must also be the case that knowledge of God “coincides” with man’s own self–knowledge and be “given ‘eo ipse’ in his own self–consciousness … not as discursive knowledge, but as the immediate content of self–consciousness”.15   As the image of God, man is in his inner being a revelation of God so that, as Kuyper puts it:

“If the cosmos is the theatre of revelation, in this theatre man is both actor and spectator.”16

This constitutes in man that part of an innate theology which, according to Kuyper, is what Calvin meant by his talk of the “seed of religion”, that spiritual eye within, the lens of which may be dimmed but always so that lens and eye remain even in fallen man.  The faith function of the inner being, which bridges the gap from the ego to the non–ego of other minds, to the data of our perceptions, to the axioms of thought and the like, operates too in relation to the revealed knowledge of God and is “but the opening of the spiritual eye and the consequent perception of another Being, excelling us in everything, that manifests itself in our own being”.17   By the “logical action” of our minds – another part of the image of God within – we turn this perception into (scientific) knowledge of God.


Kuyper claims that man can never rid himself of the seed of religion, the sense of deity within, but, because of the nature of sin, the manifestation of God within the inner being of man as sinner must be no longer of a God with whom he has an affinity but rather of one who is antipathetic to him.   Kuyper claims that the sinner can never rid himself of faith either but it must turn into unfaith in attaching itself to something other than God and therefore something creaturely which the sinner finds sympathetic or, at least, not antipathetic.   Man as sinner seeks something to which he can cling by faith.   Logical action remains in the sinner as long as he is not insane but it leads not to the knowledge of God but to his denial in the intellect.   We retain the power of thought but, says Kuyper, “the pivot of our thought becomes displaced”.18

The effects of sin are such as to make the knowledge of God impossible apart from modifications in the way in which God is revealed.   In the intermediate state of the cosmos in which, because of God’s ‘common grace’, “the wheel of sin is revolving but the brakes are on”, man is in a state in which palingenesis is still possible.   In palingenesis, the revelation of God comes from without rather than from the seed of religion within and is of a sympathetic God in the incarnate Christ of the scriptures.   In palingenesis, recovery of the original working of faith is possible “by bending right again, from the root up, the direction of his psychical life”.19  Logical action regains its power in relation to divine things through what Kuyper takes to be the illumination of the Holy Spirit in palingenesis.   This does not imply anything for the acuteness of the action of logical thought since this differs from person to person regardless of the effects of sin or palingenesis.   What it does is to restore the displacement of the “pivot of our thought”.20

Because of sin, natural theology is unable of itself to give what Kuyper terms “any pure knowledge of God”.   On the other hand, special theology presupposes natural theology and cannot be conceived apart from it.   Kuyper argues that this is necessarily so because grace creates no single new reality and no new component part is added to man in palingenesis.   Palingenesis is a re–creation and not a creation of something new, otherwise the organic nature of the cosmos would be destroyed.   Miracles should be seen not as magical incidents but as integral to the palingenesis of all things; and to see them out of this relation is “to debase the Recreator of heaven and earth to a juggler”.21   The miracle of the incarnation is such that our own human nature becomes the revelation of God.   The same God reveals himself to the same ego of man in the same consciousness through natural revelation before the fall and special revelation in this present temporary age between the fall and the complete renewal of all things.   If man had not been created capable of receiving knowledge of God in the first place, he could not now know him by means of special revelation.   Kuyper writes of the relationship between natural and special revelation in the following terms:

“It is upon the canvas of this natural knowledge of God itself that the special revelation is embroidered”.22

Kuyper denies that the reality and reliability of special revelation can be demonstrated “at the bar of human reason” because it is not a matter of rational demonstration and, even if it were, the natural is so affected by sin that it cannot judge the special.   This does not mean that reason may be ignored so that we can believe anything we like.   Kuyper suggests that it is important that the believer be able to see for himself the reasonableness of his beliefs and be able to prove this to those who share his premises and even be able to show to somebody else that with the assumption of the believer’s premises he can accept his conclusions.   Kuyper is also pessimistic as to the value of apologetic attempts to bring forward positive evidences for faith in the form of miracles, the fulfilment of prophecies, the majestic style of the scriptures and the like.   The divine character of the scriptures will shine out from them but not to the person who will not see.   Evidences may be of value to those within the faith in order to combat doubt but no giving of reasons, refuting of objections, adduction of evidence is of value either as the ground of the believer’s confession of faith or as a means to compel another to such confession.   Certainty concerning special revelation is given only by the witness of the Holy Spirit just as the witness of our own spirits – which coincides with the witness of the Creator – gives certainty concerning the natural revelation of the sense of our own ego, the laws of thought and the existence of others.23


Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia was strongly influenced by Abraham Kuyper in his development of what he termed “a Christian theory of knowledge”.24

Van Til is one of the most forthright and controversial of recent Reformed writers but his writings are often somewhat lacking  in clarity of expression and in the analytical rigour that can be expected of most of the best of modern philosophers.   He gives much space to the repetition of what sound like bold and extravagant claims without always fully explaining what he means and he does not always clearly justify steps in his arguments.   In spite of these problems, the main thrust of his thought seems fairly clear and provides an example of one of the boldest versions of the characteristic theses of Reformed epistemology.


Van Til’s position on the subject of the place of argument and evidence in relation to belief in God is often termed ‘presuppositionalist’.   He makes the startling claim that “God cannot be proved to exist by any method other than the indirect one of presupposition”25 and he boldly asserts that man presupposes either God or himself as “the final reference point in all human predication”.26   If the God believed in by Christians exists then he is self–sufficient and if he is self–sufficient then, Van Til argues, he alone is self–explanatory and so must be the final reference point in human predication.   On the other hand, if man assumes himself to be “autonomous”, he thereby takes himself to be the final reference point and he virtually negates the Christian God.   The issue between these two presuppositions cannot be settled by direct appeal to facts or laws because the question is as to what is the final reference point required to make facts or laws intelligible.   The only way to proceed is by an indirect method of reasoning by presupposition, i.e., the Christian must adopt the non–Christian position for argument’s sake in order to show that on its presupposition “the ‘facts’ are not facts and the ‘laws’ are not laws” and he must also ask the non–Christian to adopt the Christian position for the sake of argument “in order that he may be shown that only upon such a basis do ‘facts’ and ‘laws’ become intelligible”.27

A recurring theme throughout Van Til’s writings is that to take man as final reference point is a sinful assumption of autonomy.   He does not define clearly what he means by ‘autonomy’ but the following are typical of what he says about it:

“Man has set aside the law of his Creator and therewith has become a law to himself.   He will be subject to none but himself.   He seeks to be autonomous.   He knows that he is a creature and ought to be subject to the law of his Creator.”28

“There is no autonomy of theoretical thought as such.   There is a would–be autonomous man, who thinks about his entire environment in terms of his thought as legislative and as determinative of the structure of the temporal world.”29

It would seem that Van Til means by ‘autonomy’ some kind of radical independent–mindedness whereby man takes his reason to have the final say on what he can accept as true, meaningful or good.   The alternative for Van Til is to take what God reveals to man as the final authority as to what is true, meaningful or good.   This seems to amount to a broadening to extend to the whole of knowledge of the particular thesis in ethics that good is what God is and what he commands.   In that particular context, autonomy is often discussed over against such arguments as that the basis of the obligation to recognise God’s commands as our duties lies in the fact that he is our Creator.30   Van Til may be seen as presenting an epistemological analogue of the divine command theory of ethics.

Van Til distinguishes between what he terms “the ultimate starting–point” and “the proximate starting–point” and he argues that “the human consciousness must, in the nature of the case, always be the proximate starting–point” but that “God is always the most basic and therefore the ultimate or final reference point in human interpretation”.31   This seems to mean that it is the self which makes the decisions in thought and practical life but that the standard for such decisions is in an authoritative divine revelation.

A person’s thinking should therefore be authentically his own.32   At the same time, he should obey God’s authority but not as that of an expert whose credentials he has first autonomously accepted for, as he writes:

“If we must determine the foundations of the authority, we no longer accept authority on authority.   Authority could be authority to us only if we already knew that it had the right to claim authority.   Such could be the case only if we knew in advance the nature of that authority.   Thus we would have a theory of being already taken for granted at the outset of our investigation.”33

Van Til believes that ontology can and should have priority over epistemology and claims that his theory of knowledge is what it is because his theory of being is what it is.   ‘What is there to know?’ or, rather, ‘Who is the original knower?’ must be asked before we ask ‘How do we know?’.34   The Creator–creature distinction is central to Van Til’s theory of being so that he claims he does not start with being in general but with God’s being as self–contained and created being as dependent upon God.35   To the objection that the epistemological question can and must be asked without saying anything with respect to the ontological question, Van Til has the ready response that to assume this already excludes one answer to the question of knowledge itself.36   Such a being as God could not speak otherwise than with absolute authority and to assume that man has either the capacity or the right to judge what God says is to deny both his authority and his being.   The assumption of autonomy reflects a prior ontological commitment which itself prejudges epistemological issues.


Van Til holds that there is a two–fold revelation of God in nature and in the scriptures and these form a unity in which general and special revelations presuppose and supplement one another.   He follows Calvin, Kuyper and others in holding that there is a sense of deity within man whereby self–knowledge and knowledge of God are given together.   Man’s mind cannot be conscious of itself without being conscious of its creatureliness so that man cannot truly know himself without knowing himself for what he is, that is, unless he knows himself as a creature made in the image of God.   In this way, Van Til claims, self–consciousness presupposes God–consciousness but this sense of deity within must be distinguished from man’s reaction to it as a sinner whereby he seeks to suppress it.37

Van Til holds that the Creator’s revelation to man as creature must be authoritative and self–authenticating because otherwise such a revelation would be subject to an authority and test for validity which would have to be held to be more certain that that which it tests.   It is the work of the Holy Spirit that results in the knowledge that the scriptures are the Word of God but, says Van Til, this testimony of the Holy Spirit does not give additional information alongside that which the revelation contains.   Witness to truth cannot be by way of further truth, otherwise the truth is not self–authenticating and if there were further truth it would need yet further truth to testify to it and so on ‘ad infinitum’.38

This testimony of the Spirit is a divine activity that “opens (men’s) eyes to see things as they truly are”.39   The metaphor Van Til uses here is that used by Calvin of sight being needed to distinguish light from darkness.   The need is of sight, not of further light.  The work of the Spirit is immediate even though it may use argumentation and take place in the presence of the evidence of “the heavenly content of the Word”.40   Preaching and reasoning are therefore not in vain, according to Van Til, because it is the sense of deity within along with all the evidence of nature and scripture that provides “a background and foundation” for the work of the Holy Spirit.41   Nevertheless, reason is not competent to judge revelation because it is from revelation that reason learns its proper function as created by God and properly subject to the authority of God.42


Van Til makes a distinction between intellectual understanding of the issues between Christian and non–Christian presuppositions and the knowledge that is the result of the testimony of the Holy Spirit.   This knowledge is “ethical” and he writes:

“Though he is dead in sins, this deadness of the natural man is an ethical deadness, not a metaphysical escape from God.   As the image of God and therefore endowed with the sense of deity, man can very well understand intellectually what is meant when the preacher tells him that he is a sinner and that he ought to repent.   He knows God as Paul says so specifically in his letter to the Romans.   Yet ethically he does not know God.   His mind is darkened and his will is perverted, as Paul says with equal clarity.   … As a consequence of this darkness of mind, this spiritual blindness, the natural man does not know truly that which, in the sense above defined, he knows and cannot help but know.”43

Here and elsewhere in his writings, Van Til merges ethical and epistemological aspects of man’s activities so that, for example, he defines an “epistemological reaction” as a “reaction as an ethically responsible creature of God”.44   For Van Til, man’s assumption of his own autonomy is a manifestation of his own sinfulness.   His ethical rebellion consists, at least in part, of the choice of the wrong epistemological principle.   In seeking to interpret the universe without reference to God, man sets himself an ideal which is inconsistent with his own creatureliness and, in taking the right to decide on such issues, he actually decides these issues about the final reference point in a certain way.

Of the effects of sin upon man’s use of his intellectual powers, Van Til writes:

“The saw may be very shiny and ever so sharp; if the set is wrong it cannot but do damage.   So the intellect of fallen man may be ever so brilliant, but since the set of his person, as a covenant–breaker, is wrong, it will in the ultimate sense do all the more damage.   It may also at the same time, because of God’s common grace, do all the more good for the progress of culture.”45

Although the gulf between ultimate presuppositions is very wide and, as he puts it, “epistemologically the believer and non–believer have nothing in common”,46 Van Til is often at pains to point out that the difference is in principle only and, because of God’s common grace, is not fully worked out in practice.   Fallen man in his scientific activity makes use of what Van Til terms “borrowed capital” and makes positive contributions “in spite of his principles and because both he and the universe are the exact opposite of what he, by his principles, thinks they are.”47   His discoveries of truth are adventitious as far as his principles are concerned but, from the point of view of Christian presuppositions, the evidence of God’s common grace to all.


It was in the eighties that contemporary analytical philosophers first began to take notice of Reformed epistemology.   Their interest in the subject was sparked off by the publication around the beginning of the decade of three seminal papers by Alvin Plantinga.48  It was in these papers that Plantinga first began to set forth his version of the first of the characteristic themes of Reformed epistemology but it can be viewed as a development of his earlier studies of rationality and religious belief.   In particular, it follows on from the conclusions of his book ‘God and Other Minds’ which was published about twelve years earlier,49 in which he examined the traditional arguments for and against the existence of God and decided that  both natural theology and natural atheology were unsuccessful.   He went on in that book to explore various analogies between belief in God and belief in other minds and concluded that these two beliefs were on epistemological par so that, he says, since we hold belief in other minds to be rational, we must say the same for belief in God.   It is but a step from this to the argument that it is perfectly rational to accept belief in God without accepting it on the basis of evidence or argument from other beliefs.   In other words and using the phrase that Plantinga has successfully implanted into the language of philosophical discussion of the rationality of religious belief, it is but a step to the argument that belief in God is ‘properly basic’.

Although most of the work that Plantinga has published to date on Reformed epistemology50 – and most of the discussion that it has engendered51 – has been concerned with this theme of the proper basicality of belief in God, he has also indicated his acceptance of the other characteristic themes identified by Wolterstorff.   He accepts that in reading the Bible a person may find himself with the properly basic belief that God is speaking to him and refers to “the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” as being “a source of reliable and perfectly acceptable beliefs about what is communicated (by God) in Scripture”.52   He also says that if it were not for the existence of sin in the world we would all wholeheartedly and spontaneously believe in God.53   His inaugural address contained advice to Christian philosophers to exhibit more autonomy and integrality and maintained that they have a perfect right to start with the views they hold as Christians rather than from the naturalistic perspective from which, he says,  most contemporary philosophers do in fact start.54   However, since to date Plantinga has not really developed these comments on the other themes, this outline of his version of Reformed epistemology will be focussed mainly on the first theme – that of the proper basicality of belief in God.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is another analytical philosopher who has been associated with Plantinga in this interest in Reformed epistemology.   They jointly edited the published essays that arose out of a yearlong project of the Calvin (College) Center for Christian Studies, a project on the topic of “A Reformed View of Faith and Reason”55 and Wolterstorff has made his own contribution in work on the criteria of rationality, of which I shall give some more detail in the next chapter.56     William Alston has also been associated with Plantinga in this development.   He says that he almost entirely agrees with Plantinga’s position57 and he has attempted to develop it further particularly in his work on religious experience and on what he terms “the perception of God”.58   I shall also refer to this in the next chapter.59


A major element of Plantinga’s Reformed epistemology is his rejection of what he terms “the evidentialist objection to belief in God”.   He cites a number of philosophers – notably W. K. Clifford, Bertrand Russell, Brand Blanshard, Michael Scriven and Anthony Flew – who have argued that belief in God is, in some sense of the term,  irrational because, they claim, there is a lack of evidence or reasons for it.60   Although the philosophers he mentions have all concluded that belief in God is irrational, it would seem that Plantinga is opposed to all forms of the thesis that belief in God should be based on reasons or evidence even when it is held by those who do believe in God.    He allows that, when he began writing ‘God and Other Minds’, he himself had taken it for granted that the right way to approach the question of the rationality of belief in God was by way of considering the evidence for and against such belief but he had subsequently come to regard this approach as mistaken.61   The issue between Plantinga and those he opposes is not over whether there is or could be adequate evidence for belief in God but over whether the rationality of such beliefdepends upon there being such evidence.

Plantinga says that evidentialism is of at least two distinct kinds which are distinguished by what is meant by describing a belief as rational or irrational.62   The first of these is the position of what he calls “the deontological evidentialist” who thinks of rationality in terms of intellectual duties, norms or obligations and who claims that the person who believes in God without adequate evidence or reasons is guilty of failing in these duties.   According to this form of evidentialism, there is at least a prima facie obligation not to accept belief in God without sufficient evidence.   The second form of evidentialism is “axiological evidentialism” or “value evidentialism” which takes irrationality to be a matter of some flaw or defect in a person’s structure of beliefs.   Belief in God without adequate evidence is seen as such a flaw or defect.

Plantinga takes the former of these views of rationality to be more problematic than the latter because of the difficulty of talking about intellectual duties if, as it seems plausible to suggest, our beliefs are not within our control.   However, he challenges adherents of both forms to show why it is that, on their view of rationality, belief in God without adequate evidence is irrational.   He writes:

“The crucial question here is this: Why does the objector think these things?   Why does he think there is a prima facie obligation to try not to believe in God without evidence?   Or why does he think that to do so is to be in a deplorable condition?   Why is it not permissible and quite satisfactory to believe in God without any evidence – proof or argument – at all?   Presumably the objector does not mean to suggest that no propositions can be believed or accepted without evidence, for if you have evidence for every proposition you believe, then (granted certain plausible assumptions about the formal properties of the evidence relation) you will believe infinitely many propositions; and no one has time, these busy days, for that.   So presumably some propositions can properly be believed and accepted without evidence.  Well, why not belief in God?   Why is it not entirely acceptable, desirable, right, proper, and rational to accept belief in God without any argument or evidence whatever?”63

Plantinga holds that the explanation for the evidentialist assumption that evidence is required to justify belief in God and not to justify certain other beliefs lies in “the fact that the evidentialist objection is typically rooted in some form of classical foundationalism”.64  Foundationalists agree that there are propositions that can be rationally held without being believed on the basis of any other propositions at all, i.e., that there are propositions that are properly basic.   They disagree as to what kinds of proposition are properly basic.   Plantinga says that the “ancient and medieval foundationalism” – of Aristotle and Aquinas, for example – accepts only self–evident propositions and propositions evident to the senses whereas the “modern foundationalism” – of Descartes, Locke and Hume, for example – accepts only self–evident propositions and incorrigible propositions directly about one’s experience.   Ancient, medieval and modern foundationalisms are all forms of what Plantinga terms  “classical foundationalism” and, because the belief that God exists is neither self–evident nor evident to the senses nor an incorrigible belief about one’s own immediate experience, it is not acceptable as a properly basic belief.   Classical foundationalism in all its forms therefore holds that belief in God cannot rationally be accepted without adequate evidence.

Plantinga defines foundationalism in terms of a “rational noetic structure” where a person’s noetic structure is taken to be the set of propositions he believes together with the epistemic relations that hold among these propositions and between him and them.   In a rational noetic structure, the relation of support of beliefs for other beliefs is both asymmetric and irreflexive so that if belief A is based on belief B then belief B should not be based on belief A and belief A should not be based upon itself.   Also a rational noetic structure has a foundation in basic beliefs and non–basic beliefs derive their support from basic beliefs.   It might seem that the more basic a belief is in a noetic structure the more firmly it should be held but Plantinga suggests that basicality and degree of belief can vary independently of one another as can basicality and depth of ingression and also degree of belief and depth of ingression – “depth of ingression” he takes to be a matter of distance from the “periphery” of a noetic structure  and of the consequent “reverberations” through the structure of change in a belief.65

Against this background Plantinga rejects classical foundationalism and, with it, the evidentialist objection to belief in God insofar as it is rooted in this form of foundationalism, and he does so on the grounds that foundationalism of this kind is not true or, even if it is true, it is probably self–referentially incoherent.   His argument against the truth of classical foundationalism is that it would  exclude many propositions that are generally taken to be basic and dismiss as irrational much of what we all in fact believe, e.g., propositions that entail that there are persons distinct from myself or that the world has existed for more than five minutes.66   This is a fairly common objection to classical foundationalism.   The Scottish philosopher of ‘common sense’, Thomas Reid  – a writer who seems to have been particularly influential upon Wolterstorff and Alston as well as upon Plantinga67 – had advanced it in the eighteenth century and G. E. Moore and many others have echoed it in the present century.

Plantinga’s second objection to classical foundationalism is more unique to him.   This is to the effect that classical foundationalism is probably self–referentially incoherent.   His argument here is that the classical foundationalist accepts something like the following statement of rational acceptability but his acceptance of it does not meet its own requirements:– “p is rationally acceptable for S only if either (a) p is self–evident or evident to the senses or incorrigible for S, or (b) there are paths in S’s noetic structure from p to propositions q1 … qn that (i) are basic for S, (ii) are self–evident, evident to the senses or incorrigible for S, and (iii) support p.”68

Plantinga says that this statement itself is neither self–evident, evident to the senses nor incorrigible so, if the classical foundationalist is to be rational in accepting it, he must believe it ultimately on the basis of propositions that are self–evident, evident to the senses or incorrigible and that support it.   Plantinga claims that no foundationalist has ever produced a successful argument for this statement from propositions that meet this condition and, further, that it is very difficult to see how such an argument could go.  From this he concludes that such a statement of classical foundationalism is probably self–referentially incoherent.   He adds that he believes that the classical foundationalist, without any reason for doing so, commits himself to reason or to self–evidence as an acceptable means of acquiring, fixing and sustaining belief.69


Plantinga allows that the evidentialist objection to belief in God is not usually explicitly linked with a classical foundationalist stance and that it need not be based therein but he insists that it is plausible to claim that it is typically rooted in it and it is, after all, “a powerful and pervasive epistemological tradition”.   Indeed, he says that it was “a kind of incipient classical foundationalism” that led him to adopt the approach to rationality that he took when he began to write ‘God and Other Minds’.70   In spite of this and noting that Brand Blanshard was both an evidentialist objector to belief in God and clearly not a foundationalist of any kind but a coherentist, Plantinga also presents a fairly detailed argument to the effect that coherentism does not provide any more viable basis for evidentialism.71

In fact, Plantinga’s argument is two–fold: not only does he find little hope for a coherentist version of the evidentialist objection to belief in God, he also argues that coherentism itself should be rejected as neither necessary nor sufficient for rationality of belief.  First, he argues that, for what he calls the “pure coherentist”, what matters is not really whether some beliefs provide reasons or evidence for holding other beliefs but rather whether these other beliefs cohere with the rest of a person’s noetic structure.   It is not that ‘B coheres with the rest of my noetic structure’ is one’s evidence for B but that coherence is itself the “source of warrant” just as self–evidence, perception, introspection, memory and the like may be sources of warrant for various kinds of foundationalism.   A belief is rational if it coheres with the rest of one’s structure of beliefs and it is not necessary that it have the evidential support of any of these other beliefs.   So, as Plantinga puts it, the pure coherentist “holds that all warranted propositions in a noetic structure are properly basic in that structure”72 and he cannot therefore object to belief in God on grounds of lack of evidence.

Even if the coherentist objects to theistic belief on the grounds that it does not cohere with the rest of the theist’s noetic structure – what Plantinga terms a transposition of the evidentialist objection into the coherentist key – it does not follow that it is belief in God that has to be replaced.   Revision in other beliefs to make them cohere with belief in God could do just as well.   Plantinga points to the example of the incoherence between belief in a personal God and the belief that it is impossible for there to be a person who has no body.   Coherence – and, therefore, rationality of belief – could be achieved here not by giving up belief in God but by giving up instead those beliefs that imply that every person must have a body.73

Having argued thus that the evidentialist objection to belief in God can not easily be rooted in coherentism, Plantinga goes on to reject coherentism itself on the grounds that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for rationality.   Against its sufficiency, he makes use of the familiar argument that coherent structures of belief may be inconsistent with one another so that at least one of them cannot be true.   He also argues that coherence is not necessary for warrant nondefectiveness.   One example he gives here is of an unduly impressionable student who is convinced by an eminent but idiosyncratic epistemologist that no one is ever appeared to redly and who goes away with a noetic structure  that coheres with this belief.   The student could later be appeared to redly and notice that he is thus appeared to and, assuming his noetic structure does not undergo instant change, his belief that he is being appeared to redly will not be warrant defective even though it does not cohere with the rest of his noetic structure.74

Neither coherentism nor classical foundationalism can therefore provide a basis for the evidentialist objection to belief in God.  Plantinga suggests too that some other forms of foundationalism will prove no more adequate in this respect; for example, the inclusion of memory beliefs or beliefs about the mental states of other people in the set of properly basic beliefs does not help because, he says, the self–referential argument will hold equally against these forms.75


To argue that the evidentialist objection to belief in God does not have an adequate epistemological basis does not, of course, establish that belief in God is properly basic.   All it does is to remove an objection to taking it as such.   Plantinga goes on to tackle the problem of the need of a criterion for proper basicality.

His approach is not to propose criteria from the start but to advocate a particularistic method for arriving at them, as he puts it, “from below rather than above”.   We do not need to have an explicitly formed criterion to hand to replace the classical foundationalist criterion in order to be able to recognise examples of properly basic beliefs or to recognise the conditions under which they are properly basic, just as, he says, we do not need a replacement of the positivists’ verifiability criterion of meaning in order to recognise which statements are meaningful and which are not.   He accordingly suggests a broadly inductive method whereby we assemble examples of beliefs and conditions and frame hypotheses as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of proper basicality, hypotheses which can be tested against these examples.   The sample set of belief–condition pairs should be revisable as theories are formed and argument continues and Plantinga admits that this process may well be fairly inconclusive.   It may yield only some necessary and/or sufficient conditions of proper basicality and, indeed, the best that can be done may well be to give some sufficient conditions of prima facie, not ultima facie, justification.   Further, he writes:

“There is no reason to assume, in advance, that everyone will agree on the examples.   The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely proper and rational; if he does not accept this belief on the basis of other propositions, he will conclude that it is basic for him and quite properly so.   Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madelyn Murray O’Hare may disagree; but how is that relevant?   Must my criteria, or those of the Christian community conform to their examples?   Surely not.   The Christian community is responsible to its set of examples, not to theirs.”76

Plantinga goes on to suggest some examples of properly basic beliefs and their justifying conditions.   The perceptual belief, ‘I see a tree’, is typically taken as basic when a person is being appeared treely to.   It is not held on the basis of other beliefs but at the same time it is not groundless.   Being appeared to in this characteristic way plays a crucial role not only in the formation of the belief in question but also in its justification.   The memory belief, ‘I had breakfast this morning’, is properly basic under the circumstance of having a certain “past–tinged experience”.   The belief ascribing a mental state to another person, ‘That person is in pain’, is properly basic under the circumstance of seeing a person displaying typical pain behaviour – it is not inferred from other beliefs.   Each of these are cases of properly basic beliefs with their grounds and the grounds are circumstances or conditions that ground the beliefs rather than evidence from which the beliefs may be inferred.

Plantinga says that similar things can be said about belief in God and he points to conditions that may “trigger the tendency or disposition” to believe in God.   For example, one may be impressed with a sense that God is speaking to him upon reading the Bible, with a sense of guilt in God’s sight upon having done something wrong, with a sense of being forgiven by God upon repenting and confessing sin or with a spontaneous sense of gratitude to God in some deeply satisfying circumstance. Strictly speaking, he says, it is not the belief that God exists that is properly basic.   Rather it is such beliefs as ‘God is speaking to me’, ‘God disapproves of what I have done’, ‘God forgives me ‘ and ‘God is to be thanked and praised’ that are properly basic in the relevant circumstances.   They self–evidently entail ‘God exists’ just as ‘I see a tree’ entails ‘Trees exist’.77

Because of the importance of such grounds for the justification of properly basic beliefs, Plantinga says that the person who holds that belief in God is properly basic is not thereby committed to the view that just about any belief is properly basic in any circumstances or even that just about any belief is properly basic in certain circumstances.   This is his response to what he calls ‘The Great Pumpkin Objection’.   The Reformed epistemologist can properly deny that belief in the Great Pumpkin is properly basic even though he does not have a fully developed criterion of proper basicality.   The differences between belief in God and belief in the Great Pumpkin have to do with the conditions that ground belief in God.   Plantinga writes:

“Thus, for example, the Reformed epistemologist may concur with Calvin in holding that God has implanted in us a natural tendency to see his hand in the world around us; the same cannot be said for the Great Pumpkin, there being no Great Pumpkin and no natural tendency to accept beliefs about the Great Pumpkin.”78

Some would say that this is a rather too easy dismissal of the Great Pumpkin objection.   Both the objection and Plantinga’s response to it will be dealt with in greater detail in later chapters of this present study.


Plantinga denies that accepting belief in God as basic entails accepting it dogmatically.   The person who accepts belief in God as basic will not necessarily hold this belief in such a way that no argument could move him to give it up.   It could be, Plantinga says, that such a person also accepts as basic some propositions from which it follows that God does not exist.   When this is pointed out to him, some change in his noetic structure will be called for but it may be other beliefs – rather than belief in God – that have to be given up.   Where the change should be made will depend on the relative strengths of the beliefs in question.79

Further, even if belief in God is not only basic but also properly basic for a person in certain conditions, it does not follow that he would remain justified in this belief no matter what arguments are produced against his belief in God.   Plantinga holds that the conditions under which belief in God is properly basic confer prima facie justification upon that belief and not ultima facie or all–things–considered justification.   Prima facie justification can be overridden and Plantinga, adopting the usage of John Pollock, says that a condition that overrides a person’s prima facie justification for a belief is, for that person, “a defeating condition or defeater”.    An argument against the existence of God is a potential defeater of the proper basicality of a person’s belief in God but such a defeater is itself a prima facie defeater and may itself be defeated by an argument that refutes that argument.   An “undercutting defeater” is all that is required for the person to be justified in continuing to accept his belief in God as basic.   Plantinga claims that it cannot be required of him that he produce a “rebutting defeater” by way of an argument for the existence of God.  Further, a successful counterargument to an argument against the existence of God does not constitute evidence for the existence of God.

Even the conditions themselves that justify a properly basic belief may be sufficient to overcome the challenge put by the potential defeaters and so it is not necessary to have as “defeater–defeaters” reasons which are independent of a person’s belief in God.  Plantinga accordingly considers what happens when potential defeaters arise such as the probabilistic argument from evil or Marxist and Freudian theories of religious belief and he writes:–
“Two questions then arise.   First how does the degree of nonpropositional warrant enjoyed by your belief in God compare with the warrant possessed by the alleged potential defeater?   It could be that your belief, even though accepted as basic, has more warrant than the proposed defeater and thus constitutes an intrinsic defeater–defeater.  When God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, the belief that God was speaking to him, I daresay, had more by way of warrant for him than would have been provided for its denial by an early Freudian who strolled by and proposed the thesis that belief in God is merely a matter of neurotic wish–fulfilment.   And secondly, are there any extrinsic defeaters for these defeaters?   Someone argues that the existence of 1013 turps of evil is inconsistent with the existence of God; I may then have an extrinsic defeater for this potential defeater.   The defeater–defeater need not take the form of a proof that these propositions are indeed consistent; if I see that the argument is unsound, then I also have a defeater for it.   But I needn’t do that much to have a defeater.   Perhaps I am no expert in these matters but learn from reliable sources that someone else has shown the argument unsound; or perhaps I learn that the experts think it is unsound, or that the experts are evenly divided as to its soundness.   Then too I have or may have a defeater for the potential defeater in question, and can continue to accept theistic belief in the basic way without irrationality.”80
In all this, Plantinga is making the claim that all that is needed to respond to potential defeaters that threaten the propriety of basic belief in God is negative apologetics in the form of attempts to refute the arguments brought against theism.   Positive apologetics in the form of attempts to develop arguments for the existence of God are not needed.81

He further claims that it is not required for knowledge that something is the case that a person should be able to demonstrate to another that it is.   This he opposes to the classical foundationalist picture of knowledge according to which a necessary condition for knowing that something is the case is being able to prove it from beliefs common to all reasonable persons.   Against this, Plantinga says “surely it could be the case (in fact it is the case) that many Christians know that God created the world even if they cannot convince the Bertrand Russells of this world”.82   Plantinga denies that this commits him to a relativism whereby, at the same time, it could be the case that Bertrand Russell could know that God did not create the world.

Properly basic beliefs do not have to be common to all rational persons and, at one level, it would seem that there can be epistemological deadlock between those who have belief in God as a basic belief and those who do not.   This does not mean that the person who holds that belief in God is properly basic and the person who denies that it is can both be right.   Plantinga insists that at least one of them is mistaken.83   However, this is by no means the end of the matter for him for he evidently sees great point in attempting to convince others that belief in God can be held to be properly basic.   This discussion is at the meta–level of epistemic principles rather than at that of first–order religious beliefs.   If belief in God is properly basic it does not follow that the belief that this is so is also properly basic so, at this level, there is plenty of space for discussion and argument.   Reasons why belief in God can be held to be properly basic do not constitute reasons for belief in God and so do not undercut the claim that it is properly basic.   So, for Plantinga, although apologetics may be limited to the negative task of refuting arguments against the existence of God, there is much that is positive in elucidating and arguing for the rationality of the Reformed epistemologist’s claim that belief in God is properly basic.


Plantinga holds that it is the existence of sin in the world that, for many, interferes with belief in God.   He denies that it follows that if a particular person finds it particularly difficult to believe in God that he is particularly sinful any more than saying that disease is a result of sin means that the person who is diseased is any more sinful than the one who is not.   Referring to Thomas Reid’s account of belief–producing mechanisms and Calvin’s of a “sense of deity inscribed in the hearts of all”, Plantinga refers to a disposition to believe in God under certain conditions that has been implanted in us and he writes:

“The disposition to form these beliefs, then, is really a capacity for grasping certain truths about God.   This capacity is part of our native intellectual endowment.   It has been distorted and partially suppressed by sin, but it is present nevertheless; it is among the epistemic powers and capacities with which God has created us.   Of course, in creating us he has also given us other capacities for grasping truth: perception, memory, and the capacity to apprehend certain truths as self–evident.   As a result of sin these capacities and powers sometimes malfunction.   Sometimes they fail to work as God intended them to.   Furthermore (also as a result of sin), human beings sometimes don’t employ these capacities as God intended them to be employed.   The result is error, confusion, fundamental wrong–headedness, and all the other epistemic ills to which humanity is heir.   But when our epistemic powers are employed the way God meant them to be, and when, furthermore, they work in the way God intended them to work, the result is knowledge.”84

What Plantinga says here is rooted in his account of the nature of epistemic justification.85   He prefers to speak of ‘positive epistemic status’ rather than to use the deontological term ‘justification’ since he does not regard epistemic dutifulness as being sufficient for such status and doubts whether it is even necessary.86   As we have seen, he also doubts that coherence is either necessary or sufficient for positive epistemic status.   A third popular contemporary account of the nature of positive epistemic status is that of the reliabilist but Plantinga sees his own approach as being sufficiently different from this kind of account to merit a separate category.   He talks not of ‘belief–producing mechanisms’ being ‘reliable’ but of our ‘epistemic powers’ being in a condition where they are ‘working properly’.87

Plantinga proposes three necessary conditions for positive epistemic status.   The first of these is that a belief has positive epistemic status for a person only if his faculties are ‘working properly’, i.e., working in the way that God had designed that they should, in producing the belief in question.   Typically, we do not decide to hold or form such beliefs but, even when it is a matter of considering evidence, we “simply find ourselves” with them.   Plantinga insists that this notion of working properly is to be sharply distinguished from that of working normally in a broadly statistical sense of the term.   Wishful thinking may be widespread among human beings but to give way to it may not be to employ our cognitive equipment the way it was designed to be employed by God.  Plantinga points out that the idea of one’s faculties working properly is no more problematic for the person who believes that a good God has created us according to a plan than the idea of any human creation working in the way it was designed to work.

A second necessary condition is that our cognitive faculties be properly attuned to their environment.   They might have to be attuned differently if they were to cope with invisible elephants on Alpha Centauri.   A car might be in perfect working order but it will not run well under water.   A belief has positive epistemic status for a person only if his cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which his faculties were designed.

The third necessary condition has to do with the degree of inclination or impulse a person has to accept a certain proposition rather than another.   Here Plantinga suggests that experience has a role to play but not that of the variable experience of sensuous imagery.   Rather it is a matter of “feeling impelled, or inclined, or moved towards a certain belief” and he says “there is a sort of inevitability about it”.88   Thinking of 2 + 1 = 3 feels different, Plantinga suggests, from thinking about 2 + 1 = 4 and not only because of the sensuous imagery of Descartes’ clarity and distinctness but because of feeling impelled to believe the first proposition rather than the second.   So, he claims, when a person’s cognitive equipment is working properly and is correctly attuned to its environment, the strength of the inclination towards believing a given proposition will be related to the degree of positive epistemic status it has for the person.

In this chapter the characteristic themes of Reformed epistemology have been introduced and the ways in which they have been developed by notable Reformed writers have been outlined.   Abraham Kuyper deals with all of the themes identified but that of the proper basicality of belief in God, although present, was not dealt with in quite as explicit a manner as in the case of Van Til and, especially, Plantinga.   All the themes are present in Van Til’s theory of knowledge but the ideas of opposing basic presuppositions and of the sinfulness of the assumption of autonomy were more prominent with him than with either of the others.   Although Plantinga has indicated his support for all the themes identified, most of his work in the area of Reformed epistemology has been focussed on that of proper basicality.   The noetic effects of sin have also received some attention at his hands.   Because he is a contemporary writer and largely responsible for contemporary interest in Reformed epistemology, what he has had to say on these subjects has been given rather more space in this chapter than what has been said by either Kuyper or Van Til.   The three chapters that follow will be concerned with exploring further the first three themes.