Essentials of Christian Apologetics - Lesson 2


Ronald Nash
Essentials of Christian Apologetics
Lesson 2
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Reformed Epistemology


I. Is it necessary to prove the existence of God?

A. Debate between Alvin Plantinga and Antony Flew

B. Evidentialist Challenge


II. Background

A. Innate Ideas

B. Thomas Reid

C. Belief Dispositions

1. External World

2. Other Minds

3. Memory Beliefs

D. Alvin Plantinga


III. Evidentialism - Three Premises

A. It is irrational to accept theistic belief in the absence of sufficient evidence.

B. There is insufficient evidence to support belief in God.

C. Therefore, belief in God is irrational.


IV. Plantinga's Rejection of Evidentialism

A. Fatal Flaw #1 - Belief dispositions

B. Fatal Flaw #2 - Self-defeating thesis

For more information, see:

The full course, Christian Apologetics,

Lecture #3 Postmodern Irrationalism

Lecture #5 Worldview Issues

Lecture #6 Rationality of Belief in God

Nash, Faith and Reason, pp. 69-79


These lessons are a summary of Dr. Nash's introductory course to Christian Apologetics. The full seminary level class is available in our Institute Program.

Dr. Ronald Nash

Essentials of Christian Apologetics



Lesson Transcript


In the last 15 years or so, maybe 20 years, a very powerful a very exciting, very influential development has occurred within American philosophy. It's the development of a new movement called Reformed Epistemology. I want to spend a few minutes talking about reformed epistemology because it eliminates one very important challenge to the Christian faith that should never have been raised in the first place. That challenge says that the first step that any Christian apologist or anyone pretending to do Christian apologetics must do is prove the existence of God. Let me relate a story as I understood it happened. It was a debate that occurred in Dallas, Texas, many years ago between a very, very good Christian philosopher named Alvin Plantinga and a very influential British philosopher named Anthony Flu. They were on a platform in a large auditorium to debate the existence of God and the anti-Christian Anthony Flu, at an early stage in a debate, uttered a challenge somewhat in these words Is a doctor planning a Unless you first prove to me the existence of God, I will not listen to anything else that you have to say. You have the burden of proof. You must prove that God exists. And Dr. Planning simply said, I do not have that obligation. I don't have to prove the existence of God at all. And what followed was a well brought elicited chuckles from a lot of people in the audience. Anthony Flu said, Yes, you must prove that God exists. And Dr. Planning? I said, No, I don't. Yes, you do. No, I don't. Yes, you do. No, I don't.


[00:02:48] Now, among other things, I want to explain what was going on there. Anthony, Flu was issuing what we call the evidential test challenge. It has a name, and that's the name. The evidential challenge. Flu's position is that before a Christian can merit a hearing in a debate about Christian theism, he must first succeed in convincing the nonbeliever that God exists. Otherwise, the nonbeliever will not pay any attention to anything else. The well, that that is that's a bad way to approach all of this. And what I want to do is show you why that challenge must be rejected. I want to show you why that challenge is wrong. And in the process and in the process, I want to explain what reformed epistemology is, how reformed epistemology answers that objection. All right. But let me begin first with a little history and recent Christian writing about epistemology. Philosophers apparently operating on different tracks have found agreement on an important point. In the case of my own track in the Theory of Knowledge, which is a kind of Christian rationalism that receives, it's received its first formulation in the writings of Saint Augustine. It is a mistake to accept an extreme form of empiricism that claims that all human knowledge arises from sense experience. Older advocates of this empiricism used to illustrate their basic claim by arguing that the human mind at birth is like a tabula rasa, a blank tablet, or, if you will, a blackboard without any writing on it. According to this theory of the tabula rasa at birth, the human mind is like a totally clean blackboard. Absolutely nothing is written on it. In other words, human beings are born with no innate ideas or knowledge. As the human being grows and develops, the senses, supply the mind with an ever increasing stock of information.


[00:05:12] All human knowledge results on this model from what the mind does with ideas supplied through the senses, the basic, the basic building blocks of human knowledge. That's empiricism. My alternative to this extreme kind of empiricism can be summarized in the claim that some human knowledge does not arise from sense experience. As many philosophers have noted, human knowledge of the sensible world is possible because human beings bring certain ideas, categories and dispositions to their experience of the world. The importance of empiricism is especially evident in the case of human knowledge of universal and necessary truth. Many things in the world could have been otherwise. The computer I'm using at this moment happens to be brown, but it could have been red. Whether it is brown or red is a purely contingent feature of reality. Whatever color the computer happens to be, it could have been colored differently. But it is necessarily the case that my computer could not have been brown all over and read all over or any other color at the same time and in the same sense, the necessary truth that my computer is brown all over and not at the same time. Red all over cannot be a function of sense experience, since experience may be able to report what is the case at a particular time. But since experience is incapable of grasping what must be the case at all times, the notions of necessity and universality can never be derived from our experience. Rather, they are notions, among others, that we bring to sense, experience and use and making judgments about reality. How do we account for the human possession of these are priori categories of thoughts. Now, let me explain that the word a priori is Latin, of course, and it means independent of sense experience.


[00:07:26] What I've been claiming is that human knowledge is possible only because human beings bring with them to their experience of the world ideas, categories of thought, innate ideas, or dispositions that play an indispensable role in human knowledge but are not themselves derived from sense experience. According to a long and honored philosophical tradition that includes Augustine Descartes and Lignans, human beings have these innate ideas, dispositions and categories by virtue of their creation by God. In fact, this may well be part of what is meant by the phrase the image of God. After all, Christians believe God created the world. It is reasonable to assume that He created humans such that they are capable of attaining knowledge of his creation to go even further. It is reasonable to believe that he endowed the human mind with the ability to attain knowledge of himself. Recently, a number of philosophers approached a very similar position from a different direction, namely the epistemology of the 18th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Read. Nicholas Wolterstorff, formerly of Yale University, now retired from there, explains at the very foundation of Thomas Reed's approach is his claim that at any point in our lives we have a variety of dispositions, inclinations, propensities to believe things, believe dispositions we may call them. What accounts for our beliefs in the vast majority of cases anyway, is the triggering of one and another such disposition. For example, we are all so constituted that upon having memory experiences in certain situations, we are disposed to have certain beliefs about the past. We are all disposed upon having certain sensations in certain situations to have certain beliefs about the external physical world, upon having certain other sensations in certain situations. We are all disposed to have certain beliefs about other persons continuing to follow.


[00:09:51] Reed's trail Wolterstorff goes on to note that Reed was also interested in how humans come to have these belief producing dispositions or mechanisms. Here is how Wolterstorff explained Reed's theory. Reed said somewhere in the history of each of us are to be found certain belief dispositions with which we were simply endowed by our Creator. They belong to our human nature. We come with them. They are innate in us. Their existence in us is not the result of conditioning. It must not be supposed, however, that all such non conditioned dispositions are present in us at birth. Some possibly most emerge as we mature. We have the disposition to acquire them upon reaching one and another level in maturation. Let me approach this from a somewhat different position. Many philosophers will admit that some of the most important things we believe we humans believe have never been proven and in fact could never be proven. Let me give you two or three examples. How do we know that the world outside of us really exists? Now, if I had enough time and if I were cranky enough right now, I suppose I could. I could have many of you doubting the existence of the world outside of your mind. Well, for example. All right. Do you realize that when you perceive the world right now, I'm looking at a table, I'm looking at a sofa, I'm looking at a tape machine, I'm looking at interesting lamps. But do you realize that what I am immediately aware of, what I am most aware of? Are not those things. I'm aware of ideas of those things. What I really am conscious of is an idea of a sofa, an idea of a table, an idea of a lamp, idea of a carpet.


[00:12:05] And where do these ideas exist? They exist in my mind. But what all of us do is we assume that those ideas which are immediately present to our consciousness. Those ideas really point to the existence of a real lamp or real sofa or real chair or real rug that exist in what we call the external world, the world outside of us. But how can we ever be sure that this world that we think exists outside of us, independently of our consciousness, really does exist out there? How can we really be sure that there is an external world? Well, as advocates of reformed epistemology point out, no one has ever really proven that. But nonetheless reformed epistemology ists through the work of Thomas Read and other thinkers argue that this is how that comes about. There is within each of us. The reformed epistemology just argues a disposition to believe in the world outside of us. We have a tendency, a disposition to think that the world exists outside of us. And of course, we all. At least I think that that's a pretty good disposition. How do we explain our belief in the existence of other minds? To use another example, when you look at another person you're aware of, certainly body, you're aware of bodily activity, you're aware of indications that the person hears you, understands you is able to think. But how do we know that human beings actually have a mind now? We we don't question the existence of our own mind because we're immediately conscious of that. But when whence comes our belief that other people have minds? Once comes our conviction that this person I'm looking at, that I'm talking to is a real living person with a mind. Here again, the reformed epistemology just comes to our rescue.


[00:14:23] He says among the many dispositions, to believe that every human being has is the disposition to believe in other minds. All right. Nobody has ever proven that other people have minds. Nobody has ever really proven that there is an external world which the ideas in our mind emulate. Imitate. Give you one other example. When it comes to confidence that we all have that our memory beliefs are the critical, that our memory beliefs are legitimate, truthful. The answer is no one has ever proven that. So here is here are examples of a number of beliefs that we have, which no one has ever proven and which many philosophers think could never be proven. But about those beliefs, we have no question at all. We are confident that those beliefs are reliable. Well, that's one contribution of reformed epistemology that human beings arrive at knowledge, beliefs. Human beings believe that certain things are true because we are born with these innate dispositions to think. And where do these innate dispositions come from? Answer They come from the God who created us. Now what we're talking about here is something very close to what I discussed in my summary tape on Plato's epistemology and Augustine's epistemology. Plato believed that every human being is born with certain innate ideas. He, Plato wasn't sure where those eight and eight ideas came from, but the great Christian philosopher Augustine knew where they came from. God implanted those innate ideas in the human mind. Well, likewise, the reformed epistemology just is telling us that God has implanted these dispositions to believe within each of us. And all that is required for these dispositions to begin to function is some kind of triggering condition. Some kind of triggering condition. Let me pursue this further by quoting the important Christian philosopher Alvin planning in planning A who is a leader of the reformed epistemological movement, draws attention to an important similarity between what Thomas Read said concerning belief forming mechanisms that make knowledge of the world possible, and what reformed thinkers like John Calvin said about belief in God.


[00:17:13] Here's the quote from planning reform Theologians as Calvin have held that God has implanted in us a tendency to accept belief in God under certain conditions. Calvin speaks in this connection of a sense of deity, a census division, a tortoise inscribed in the hearts of all men. Just as we have a natural tendency to form perceptual beliefs under certain conditions. So, says Calvin, we have a natural tendency to form such beliefs as God is speaking to me and God has created all of this, or God disapproves of what I've done. Under certain widely realized conditions. Planning shows no reluctance in describing the idea of God as innate. In fact, in a later discussion on the bigger tape, we will see how this view enables contemporary reform thinkers to give what many see as a new twist to some old arguments for God's existence. Now, with that background, let me go back to this debate in Dallas, Texas, between Dr. Plantinga and Dr. Anthony Flu. The justifiable reason why Plantinga told flu that he did not have to begin by proving the existence of God to gain warrant and credibility and justification, or pick any other words you want for his claims about the Christian faith. Were these Anthony Flu's objection to Plantinga made a fatally flawed presupposition. Flu presupposed the untenable epistemological position known as evidential ism. Now let me summarize the evidential list position that flew presupposed. Okay. The argument, the presupposition, the assumptions of the evidential list goes something like this. Premise one It is irrational to accept theistic belief in the absence of sufficient evidence. It is irrational to believe anything in the absence of sufficient evidence. Premise two There is insufficient evidence to support belief in God. Therefore, belief in God is irrational.


[00:19:58] Okay. So if that the basic evidential objection to Christian theism is this unless you first begin. Proving the existence of God unless you first begin by offering sufficient evidence for your belief that God exists. Your belief that God exists is irrational. Now, many people assume this Anthony flu assumed that many people who actually enter into debates with Christians assume that we have some kind of moral obligation to provide sufficient evidence or proofs for our belief that God exists. But Plantinga rejected that assumption, rejected that position. That's why he refused to grant Anthony Flu's demand that he begin by proving something. Now, actually planning a argues in a variety of writings, there are two fatal flaws in the evidence list position. Two fatal flaws. And if the Christian were to attempt to give the evidential list what he wants, the Christian would become a participant in those mistakes. Here's the first floor planning of points out that there are countless things that we believe and believe properly and justifiably and rationally, without proof or evidence. As we go through life, we are correctly believing all kinds of things when we don't have the first idea, the first idea how to how to prove these things. For example, to use examples that I've already given you. We we believe in the existence of other minds. But we have no proof for that, and we don't know how to prove that. We believe that the world continues to exist even when we are not perceiving it. But we don't know how to prove that. Now, if we followed the evidential list and eliminated from our rational structure, all beliefs for which no proof or evidence is supplied, we would lose our right to affirm a large number of important claims that only a fool would question.


[00:22:29] Some evening. Sit down before you go to bed and just begin to write down all of the things that you and I believe fully, properly believe, justifiably, even without proofs. So that's the first objection in evidential isn't proving something is not a condition for believing, having a proper belief. Life is full of things that we take for granted and take for granted properly without the ability to prove them. So it is clear that we have a right to believe some things without evidence or proof. Since belief in God turns out to belong to the same family of beliefs, we also have a right to believe in God without supporting evidence or arguments. The second fatal flaw of evidential ism is this The thesis is self-defeating. The thesis, remember, is it is immoral to believe anything without proof. But now we can ask where is the proof for the evidential claim? What evidence does the evidential list be? It's. Be it Anthony flu or anybody else? What evidence does he provide for his belief that it is immoral to believe anything in the absence of evidence? First, the evidential list warns his listener against acting immorally with respect to his cognitive activities. But then he turns around and acts immorally himself by advancing a thesis for which he provides no proof or evidence. Either evidential ism is false or it fails the evidential tests on test of rationality. If it is false, then believing it is an irrational and immoral act. If it fails the evidential tests then on his own grounds believing it is an irrational and immoral act either way. Evidential ism is in big trouble. All right. Now, I hope you see the point. When Anthony flew, said Dr. Planning. Unless you first began by proving to me that God exists, I will not pay any attention to anything else you say in planning.


[00:24:37] I said I don't have to. Why? Because all kinds of beliefs we have are not and cannot be supported by evidence and your own claim that it is immoral to believe anything without sufficient evidence is logically self-defeating. I therefore am not going to participate in this particular procedure.