Reformed epistemology

Reformed epistemology

Reformed epistemology is the title given to a broad body of epistemological viewpoints relating to God's existence that have been offered by a group of Protestant Christian philosophers that includes Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and Nicholas Wolterstorff among others. Rather than a body of arguments, reformed epistemology refers more to the epistemological stance that belief in God is properly considered a basic belief, and therefore no argument for his existence is needed. It has been said the title comes from the fact that this view represents a continuation of the thinking about the relationship between faith and reason found in the 16th century Reformers, particularly John Calvin.


Reformed epistemology aims to demonstrate the failure of objections that theistic Christian belief is unjustified, unreasonable, intellectually sub-par or otherwise epistemically challenged in some way. Rationalists, foundationalists and evidentialists claim that theistic belief is rational only if there is propositional and/or physical evidence for it (of which they often assert there is none or too little).

Reformed epistemology seeks to defend faith as rational by demonstrating that epistemic propositions of theistic belief are properly basic and hence justified; as opposed to the truth of theistic belief. Reformed epistemology grew out of the parity argument presented by Alvin Plantinga in his book "God and Other Minds" (1967). There Plantinga concluded that belief in other minds is rational; hence, belief in God is also rational. Later, Plantinga (2000a) argues that theistic belief has "warrant" because there is an epistemically possible model according to which theistic belief is justified in a basic way. In epistemology, "warrant" refers to that part of the theory of justification that deals with understanding how beliefs can be justified or "warranted". Plantinga contends that this model is likely true if theistic belief is true; and on the other hand, the model is unlikely to be true if theism is false. This connection between the truth of theism and its positive epistemic status implies that the goal of showing theistic belief to be externally rational or warranted requires reasons for supposing that theism is true (Sudduth, 2000).

Evidentialist objection to theism

As a corollary to the defense of faith as rational, Reformed epistemology also concurs with the evidentialist objection to theistic belief that is sometimes endorsed by atheists and agnostics. The objection can be formulated as follows:

# It is irrational or unacceptable to accept theistic belief without sufficient or appropriate evidence or reason.
# There is not sufficient/appropriate evidence or reason for theistic belief.
# Belief in God is irrational. [cite_book|author=Alvin Plantinga |chapter=Reason and Belief in God |title=Faith and Rationality |pages=p. 27]

The conclusion is not that God does not exist but rather that it is irrational to believe that God does exist.

Theists have responded to this argument in several ways. A few theists (perhaps Kierkegaard) accept the argument that belief in God is irrational and accept some sort of fideism. Traditionally, most theists have denied the second premise of the argument, and they applied to natural theology to show that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God using premises that all rational people are required to accept. (Perhaps the greatest example of this is Descartes' proof for the existence of God in his "Meditations on First Philosophy".) According to Reformed epistemology, however, natural theology fails, and there are no arguments for the existence of God which all rational persons should accept. [Kelly James Clark. "Return to Reason". p. 41.] The Reformed epistemologist instead denies the first premise — namely, that belief in God is irrational unless support by sufficient evidence.

Reformed epistemologists instead contend that there are many justified beliefs that one must accept without sufficient evidence or argument (for example, belief in other minds or the past). Moreover, many perceptual beliefs are not formed upon arguments: one does not formulate an argument, "I'm being appeared to 'treely,' therefore I believe I am seeing a tree," but rather, upon seeing a tree, one simply believes one sees a tree. Such beliefs are properly basic and need no argument to substantiate them. Reformed epistemology therefore rejects as arbitrary the skeptic's requirement of an argument to prove the existence of God but not of other persons.


Although Reformed epistemology has flourished among several theistic philosophers, it has been criticized by theists and non-theists alike. Those of faith have frequently criticized Reformed epistemology for its commitment to negative apologetics, counter-arguments to arguments that faith is not rational, the fact that it offers no reasons for supposing that theism or Christianity is true (so-called positive apologetics), and its claim that any such inferences are unsound.

Criticisms from those critical of (or agnostic toward) faith as rational have included that Reformed epistemology rests on the presupposition that there is religious truth, but does not present any argument to show that there is any (compare Fideism). Another common criticism is that as a tool for discriminating justified from unjustified constituent beliefs, Reformed epistemology falls short; that it springs forth from a presupposition that within each of us resides a doxastic mechanism that generates religious convictions, belief in God, etc., supporting the conclusion that such beliefs are innate, hence properly basic.

Another common objection, is known as the "Great Pumpkin Objection". Plantinga (1983) states the objection as follows:

It is tempting to raise the following sort of question. If belief in God can be properly basic, why cannot just any belief be properly basic? Could we not say the same for any bizarre aberration we can think of? What about voodoo or astrology? What about the belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween? Could I properly take that as basic? Suppose I believe that if I flap my arms with sufficient vigor, I can take off and fly about the room; could I defend myself against the charge of irrationality by claiming this belief is basic? If we say that belief in God is properly basic, will we not be committed to holding that just anything, or nearly anything, can properly be taken as basic, thus throwing wide the gates to irrationalism and superstition? (p. 74)

In short, the Great Pumpkin Objection states that Reformed epistemology is so liberal that it allows belief in any sort of far-fetched entity to be justified as simply foundational or basic. Someone might, for example, take as basic the belief that the Great Pumpkin is all-powerful, just as the Reformed epistemologist takes a similar belief in God as basic. Perhaps the belief is grounded in an experiential belief, such as Plantinga (1993b) describes. Thus, the objection intends to show that there must be something wrong with Reformed epistemology if it allows belief in the Great Pumpkin to be warranted as basic.

Plantinga's answer to this is that the objection simply assumes that the criteria for "proper basicality" propounded by Classical Foundationalism (self-evidence, incorrigibility, and sense-perception) are the only possible criteria for properly basic beliefs. It is as if the Great Pumpkin objector feels that if properly basic beliefs not be arrived at by way of one of these criteria, then it follows that just 'any' belief could then be properly basic, precisely because there are no other criteria. But, Plantinga says it simply doesn't follow from the rejection of Classical Foundationalist criteria, that all possibility for criteria has been exhausted, and this is exactly what the Great Pumpkin objection assumes.

Plantinga takes his counter-argument further, asking how the GP objector "knows" that such criteria are the only criteria. The objector certainly seems to hold it as 'basic' that the Classical Foundationalist criteria are all that is available. Yet, such a claim is neither self-evident, incorrigible, nor evident to the senses. This rebuts the Great Pumpkin objection by demonstrating the Classical Foundationalist position to be internally incoherent, propounding an epistemic position which it itself does not follow.



* Alston, William P. (1991). "Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience". Cornell University Press.
* Alston, William P. (1996). "Belief, Acceptance, and Religious Faith". In "Faith, Freedom, and Rationality: Philosophy of Religion Today", Jordan & Howard-Snyder (eds.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
* Clark, Kelly James. (1990) "Return to Reason". Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
* Plantinga, A. & Wolterstorff, N., eds. (1983). "Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God". Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (1967). "God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God". Cornell University Press.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (1983). "Reason and Belief in God". In Plantinga & Wolterstorff (1983), pp. 16-93.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (1993a). "Warrant: the Current Debate". Oxford University Press.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (1993b). "Warrant and Proper Function". Oxford University Press.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (2000a). "Warranted Christian Belief". Oxford University Press.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (2000b). "Arguments for the Existence of God". In the "Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy". New York: Routledge.
* Plantinga, Alvin. (2000c). "Religion and Epistemology". In the "Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy". New York: Routledge.
* Sudduth, Michael. (2000). "Reformed Epistemology and Christian Apologetics". < [] >.
* Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (1976). "Reason within the Bounds of Religion". Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
* Wolterstorff, Nicholas. (2001). "Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology". New York: Cambridge University Press.

External links

* [ Religious Epistemology] by Kelly James Clark in the "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" (IEP).
* [ Reformed Epistemology] - by Tim Holt.
* [ Reformed Epistemology and Christian Apologetics] by Michael Sudduth. Saint Michael's College. April 2000
* [ Voodoo Epistemology] by Keith DeRose. (A critical assessment of Plantinga's response to the "Great Pumpkin Objection.")
* [ Why Alston's Mystical Doxastic Practice Is Subjective] by Richard Gale, originally published in "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research", Vol. LIV, No. 4, December 1994.
* [ Reformed Epistemology Bibliography & time line] compiled and categorized by Michael Sudduth.
* [ Reforming Reformed Epistemology (PDF)] Duncan Pritchard. University of Stirling, Scotland.
* [ Are Christian Beliefs Properly Basic?] by Keith DeRose. (A critical examination of Alvin Plantinga's provocative claim that Christian beliefs can be justified even without any evidence for them.)
* [ Articles on Christian Epistemology] - from

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