Reformed epistemology

In the philosophy of religion, Reformed epistemology is a school of philosophical thought concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) as it applies to religious beliefs.[1] The central proposition of Reformed epistemology is that beliefs can be justified by more than evidence alone, contrary to the positions of evidentialism, which argues that while belief other than through evidence may be beneficial, it violates some epistemic duty.[2] Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God may be "properly basic" and not need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted.[3] William Lane Craig describes Reformed epistemology as "One of the most significant developments in contemporary Religious Epistemology ... which directly assaults the evidentialist construal of rationality."[2]

Alvin Plantinga distinguishes between what he calls de facto from de jure objections to Christian belief. A de facto objection is one that attempts to show that Christian truth claims are false. In contrast, de jure objections attempt to undermine Christian belief even if it is, in fact, true. Plantinga argues that there are no successful objections to Christian belief apart from de facto (fact-based) objections.[3]

Reformed epistemology was so named because it represents a continuation of the 16th-century Reformed theology of John Calvin, who postulated a sensus divinitatis, an innate divine awareness of God's presence.[4] More recent influences on reformed epistemology are found in philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion,[5] published in 1976, and Plantinga's "Reason and Belief in God",[6] published in 1983.

Although Plantinga's Reformed epistemology developed over three decades, it was not fully articulated until 1993 with the publication of two books in an eventual trilogy: Warrant: The Current Debate,[3] and Warrant and Proper Function.[7] The third in the series was Warranted Christian Belief,[8] published in 2000. Other prominent defenders of Reformed epistemology include William Lane Craig, William Alston, and Michael C. Rea.[9]

Portrait john calvin
Sixteenth-century portrait of John Calvin by an unknown artist

Concepts, definitions, and background

Alvin Plantinga's Reformed epistemology includes two arguments against classical foundationalism. The first grew out of his earlier argument in God and Other Minds (1967). In that work Plantinga argued that if our belief in other minds is rational without propositional or physical evidence, then belief in God is also rational. In his 1993 works, Plantinga argued that according to classical foundationalism most of us are irrational for having many beliefs we cannot justify, but which foundationalism does not accept as properly basic. Plantinga's second argument against classical foundationalism is that it is self-referentially incoherent. It fails the test of its own rules, which require that it be either self-evident, incorrigible, or evident to the senses.

In Plantinga's view, warrant is defined as the property of beliefs that makes them knowledge. Plantinga argues that a properly basic belief in God is warranted when produced by a sound mind, in an environment supportive of proper thought in accord with a design plan successfully aimed at truth.[10] Because there is an epistemically possible model according to which theistic belief is properly basic and designed to form true belief in God, belief in God is probably warranted if theism is true. Plantinga does not argue that this model is true, but only that if it is true, theistic belief is also likely true, because then theistic belief would result from our belief-forming faculties functioning as they were designed.

This connection between the truth value of theism and its positive epistemic status suggests to some that the goal of showing theistic belief to be externally warranted requires reasons for supposing that theism is true (Sudduth, 2000). This point is answered by many theistic arguments which purport to provide sufficient propositional and physical evidence to warrant that belief, apart from reformed epistemology.

Plantinga's Reformed epistemology

The best-known defender of reformed epistemology is Alvin Plantinga. According to Reformed epistemology, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God. More specifically, Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, and due to a religious externalist epistemology, he claims belief in God could be justified independently of evidence. His externalist epistemology, called "Proper functionalism", is a form of epistemological reliabilism.[11]

Plantinga discusses his view of Reformed epistemology and proper functionalism in a three-volume series. In the first book of the trilogy, Warrant: The Current Debate, Plantinga introduces, analyzes, and criticizes 20th-century developments in analytic epistemology, particularly the works of Roderick Chisholm, Laurence BonJour, William Alston, and Alvin Goldman.[12] Plantinga argues that the theories of what he calls "warrant"—what many others have called justification (Plantinga draws out a difference: justification is a matter of fulfilling one's epistemic duties, whereas warrant is what transforms true belief into knowledge)—put forth by these epistemologists have failed to capture in full what is required for knowledge.[13]

In the second book, Warrant and Proper Function, he introduces the notion of warrant as an alternative to justification and discusses topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability.[14] Plantinga's "proper function" account argues that as a necessary condition of having warrant, one's "belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers" are functioning properly—"working the way it ought to work".[15] Plantinga explains his argument for proper function with reference to a "design plan", as well as an environment in which one's cognitive equipment is optimal for use. Plantinga asserts that the design plan does not require a designer: "it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans",[16] but the paradigm case of a design plan is like a technological product designed by a human being (like a radio or a wheel). Ultimately, Plantinga argues that epistemological naturalism- i.e. epistemology that holds that warrant is dependent on natural faculties – is best supported by supernaturalist metaphysics – in this case the belief in a creator God or in some designer who has laid out a design plan that includes cognitive faculties conducive to attaining knowledge.[17]

According to Plantinga, a belief, B, is warranted if:

(1) the cognitive faculties involved in the production of B are functioning properly…; (2) your cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which your cognitive faculties are designed; (3) … the design plan governing the production of the belief in question involves, as purpose or function, the production of true beliefs…; and (4) the design plan is a good one: that is, there is a high statistical or objective probability that a belief produced in accordance with the relevant segment of the design plan in that sort of environment is true.[18]

Plantinga seeks to defend this view of proper function against alternative views of proper function proposed by other philosophers which he groups together as "naturalistic", including the "functional generalization" view of John Pollock, the evolutionary/etiological account provided by Ruth Millikan, and a dispositional view held by John Bigelow and Robert Pargetter.[19] Plantinga also discusses his evolutionary argument against naturalism in the later chapters of Warrant and Proper Function.[20]

In 2000 Plantinga's third volume, Warranted Christian Belief, was published. In this volume, Plantinga's warrant theory is the basis for his theological end: providing a philosophical basis for Christian belief, an argument for why Christian theistic belief can enjoy warrant. In the book, he develops two models for such beliefs, the "A/C" (Aquinas/Calvin) model, and the "Extended A/C" model. The former attempts to show that a belief in God can be justified, warranted and rational, while the Extended model tries to show that core Christian theological beliefs, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, the resurrection of Christ, the atonement, salvation, etc. can be warranted. Under this model, Christians are warranted in their beliefs because of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing those beliefs about in the believer.

James Beilby has argued that the purpose of Plantinga's Warrant trilogy, and specifically of his Warranted Christian Belief, is firstly to make a form of argument against religion impossible—namely, the argument that whether or not Christianity is true, it is irrational—so "the skeptic would have to shoulder the formidable task of demonstrating the falsity of Christian belief"[21] rather than simply dismiss it as irrational. In addition, Plantinga is attempting to provide a philosophical explanation of how Christians should think about their own Christian belief.

In 2016, Plantinga published Knowledge and Christian Belief, which is intended as a shortened version of Warranted Christian Belief. However, Plantinga does add brief sections on the latest developments in epistemology and how they relate to his work. He is especially critical of New Atheism owing to their reliance on de jure objections to the Christian faith. [22]


Although Reformed epistemology has been defended by several theistic philosophers, it has both Christian and non-Christian critics.

Great Pumpkin Objection

A common objection, known as "The Great Pumpkin Objection", which Alvin Plantinga (1983) describes 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)


Plantinga's answer to this line of thinking 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 cannot 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.[6]

Plantinga takes his counter-argument further, asking how the great pumpkin 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.[6]

Other objections

Other common criticisms of Plantinga's Reformed epistemology are that belief in God – like other sorts of widely debated and high-stakes beliefs – is "evidence-essential" rather than properly basic;[23] that plausible naturalistic explanations can be given for humans' supposedly "natural" knowledge of God;[24] that it is arbitrary and arrogant for Christians to claim that their faith-beliefs are warranted and true (because vouched for by the Holy Spirit) while denying the validity of non-Christians' religious experiences;[25] and that there are important possible "defeaters" of Christian belief that Plantinga fails to address (e.g., passages in the Bible that seem hard to reconcile with his assumption of divine authorship and inerrancy).


  1. ^ "The Epistemology of Religion". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  2. ^ a b Craig, William Lane. "Religious Epistemology". BeThinking. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  3. ^ a b c Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant: The Current Debate (PDF). 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195078619.
  4. ^ See Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk. I, Chap. III.
  5. ^ Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1976). Reason within the bounds of religion. Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company. ISBN 9780802816436.
  6. ^ a b c Plantinga, Alvin; Wolterstorff, Nicolas (1983). "'Reason and Belief in God' in Faith and Rationality". Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press: 16–93.
  7. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (1993). Warrant and Proper Function. 2. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195078640.
  8. ^ Plantinga, Alvin (2000). Warranted Christian Belief. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195131925.
  9. ^ Cowan, Steven (2000). Five Views on Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-310-22476-1.
  10. ^ Warrant and Proper Function, New York: Oxford UP, 1993, viii
  11. ^ Compare "L'epistemologia riformata (Plantinga)", article on Philosophia Reformata. (in Italian) Accessed 3 May 2016
  12. ^ Alvin Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  13. ^ Plantinga, Warrant: The Current Debate, 1993. 3.
  14. ^ Alvin Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  15. ^ WPF, p. 4
  16. ^ WPF, p. 21
  17. ^ WPF, 237.
  18. ^ Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function, 1993. 194.
  19. ^ WPF, p. 199-211.
  20. ^ Fales, E. (1996). "Plantinga's Case against Naturalistic Epistemology". Philosophy of Science. 63 (3): 432–451. doi:10.1086/289920.
  21. ^ Beilby, James (2007). "Plantinga's Model of Warranted Christian Belief". In Baker, Deane-Peter (ed.). Alvin Plantinga. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 125–165. ISBN 0-521-67143-4.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Wykstra, Stephen. "Toward a Sensible Evidentialism: on the Notion of ‘Needing Evidence’." In Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed., edited by William Rowe and William Wainwright. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1989): 426-437.
  24. ^ Barrett, Justin L., 2004, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?, Lanham: AltaMira.
  25. ^ Feldman, Richard. “Plantinga on Exclusivism”. In Faith and Philosophy 20 (2003): 85-90.


  • 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.
  • Plantinga, Alvin (2015). Knowledge and Christian Belief. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI.
  • Sudduth, Michael. (2000). "Reformed Epistemology and Christian Apologetics". <>.
  • Wolterstorff, Nicholas. "How Calvin Fathered a Renaissance in Christian Philosophy". Lecture at Calvin College.
  • 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

Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Carl Plantinga (born 1932) is an American analytic philosopher who works primarily in the fields of philosophy of religion, epistemology (particularly on issues involving epistemic justification), and logic.

From 1963 to 1982, Plantinga taught at Calvin College before accepting an appointment as the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He later returned to Calvin College to become the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy.A prominent Christian philosopher, Plantinga served as president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1983 to 1986. He has delivered the Gifford Lectures two times and was described by Time magazine as "America's leading orthodox Protestant philosopher of God". William Lane Craig wrote in his work Reasonable Faith that he considers Plantinga to be the greatest Christian philosopher alive. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2017.Some of Plantinga's most influential works including God and Other Minds (1967), The Nature of Necessity (1974), and a trilogy of books on epistemology, culminating in Warranted Christian Belief (2000) that was simplified in Knowledge and Christian Belief (2016).

Argument from a proper basis

The argument from a proper basis is an ontological argument for the existence of God related to fideism. Alvin Plantinga argued that belief in God is a properly basic belief, and so no basis for belief in God is necessary.

Australian philosophy

Australian philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the people of Australia and of its citizens abroad.


Axiology (from Greek ἀξία, axia, "value, worth"; and -λογία, -logia) is the philosophical study of value. It is either the collective term for ethics and aesthetics, philosophical fields that depend crucially on notions of worth, or the foundation for these fields, and thus similar to value theory and meta-ethics. The term was first used by Paul Lapie, in 1902, and Eduard von Hartmann, in 1908.Axiology studies mainly two kinds of values: ethics and aesthetics. Ethics investigates the concepts of "right" and "good" in individual and social conduct. Aesthetics studies the concepts of "beauty" and "harmony." Formal axiology, the attempt to lay out principles regarding value with mathematical rigor, is exemplified by Robert S. Hartman's science of value.

Cosmology (philosophy)

Philosophical cosmology, philosophy of cosmology or philosophy of cosmos is a discipline directed to the philosophical contemplation of the universe as a totality, and to its conceptual foundations. It draws on several branches of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of physics, philosophy of science, philosophy of mathematics, and on the fundamental theories of physics. The term cosmology was used at least as early as 1730, by German philosopher Christian Wolff, in Cosmologia Generalis.

Danish philosophy

Danish philosophy has a long tradition as part of Western philosophy.

Perhaps the most influential Danish philosopher was Søren Kierkegaard, the creator of Christian existentialism, which inspired the philosophical movement of Existentialism. Kierkegaard had a few Danish followers, including Harald Høffding, who later in his life moved on to join the movement of positivism. Among Kierkegaard's other followers include Jean-Paul Sartre who was impressed with Kierkegaard's views on the individual, and Rollo May, who helped create humanistic psychology.

Early modern philosophy

Early modern philosophy (also classical modern philosophy) is a period in the history of philosophy at the beginning or overlapping with the period known as modern philosophy.


Ethnophilosophy is the study of indigenous philosophical systems. The implicit concept is that a specific culture can have a philosophy that is not applicable and accessible to all peoples and cultures in the world; however, this concept is disputed by traditional philosophers. An example of ethnophilosophy is African philosophy.

Faith and rationality

Faith and rationality are two ideologies that exist in varying degrees of conflict or compatibility. Rationality is based on reason or facts. Faith is belief in inspiration, revelation, or authority. The word faith sometimes refers to a belief that is held with lack of reason or evidence, a belief that is held in spite of or against reason or evidence, or it can refer to belief based upon a degree of evidential warrant.

Although the words faith and belief are sometimes erroneously conflated and used as synonyms, faith properly refers to a particular type (or subset) of belief, as defined above.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of views regarding the relationship between faith and rationality:

Rationalism holds that truth should be determined by reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma, tradition or religious teaching.

Fideism holds that faith is necessary, and that beliefs may be held without any evidence or reason and even in conflict with evidence and reason.The Catholic Church also has taught that true faith and correct reason can and must work together, and, viewed properly, can never be in conflict with one another, as both have their origin in God, as stated in the Papal encyclical letter issued by Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio ("[On] Faith and Reason").

List of Slovene philosophers

Slovene philosophy includes philosophers who were either Slovenes or came from what is now Slovenia.

List of years in philosophy

The following entries cover events related to the study of philosophy which occurred in the listed year or century.

Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff (born January 21, 1932) is an American philosopher and a liturgical theologian. He is currently Noah Porter Professor Emeritus Philosophical Theology at Yale University. A prolific writer with wide-ranging philosophical and theological interests, he has written books on aesthetics, epistemology, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophy of education. In Faith and Rationality, Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and William Alston developed and expanded upon a view of religious epistemology that has come to be known as Reformed epistemology. He also helped to establish the journal Faith and Philosophy and the Society of Christian Philosophers.

Philosophy of dialogue

Philosophy of dialogue is a type of philosophy based on the work of the Austrian-born Jewish philosopher Martin Buber best known through its classic presentation in his 1923 book I and Thou. For Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence, too readily overlooked by scientific rationalism and abstract philosophical thought, is "man with man", a dialogue which takes place in the "sphere of between" ("das Zwischenmenschliche").

Philosophy of film

The philosophy of film is a branch of aesthetics within the discipline of philosophy that seeks to understand the most basic questions regarding film. Philosophy of film has significant overlap with film theory, a branch of film studies.

Philosophy of geography

Philosophy of geography is the subfield of philosophy which deals with epistemological, metaphysical, and axiological issues in geography, with geographic methodology in general, and with more broadly related issues such as the perception and representation of space and place.

Philosophy of psychology

Philosophy of psychology refers to the many issues at the theoretical foundations of modern psychology.

Religious epistemology

Religious epistemology as a broad label covers any approach to epistemological questions from a religious perspective, or attempts to understand the epistemological issues that come from religious belief. The questions which epistemologists may ask about any particular belief also apply to religious beliefs and propositions: whether they seem rational, justified, warranted, reasonable, based on evidence and so on. Religious views also influence epistemological theories, such as in the case of Reformed epistemology.Reformed epistemology has developed in contemporary Christian religious epistemology, as in the work of Alvin Plantinga (born 1932), William P. Alston (1921-2009), Nicholas Wolterstorff (born 1932) and Kelly James Clark, as a critique of and alternative to the idea of "evidentialism" of the sort proposed by W. K. Clifford (1845-1879). Alvin Plantinga, for instance, is critical of the evidentialist analysis of knowledge provided by Richard Feldman and by Earl Conee.D. Z. Phillips (1934-2006) takes this further and says that the argument of the reformed epistemologists goes further and challenges a view he dubs "foundationalism":

The essence of the Reformed challenge is to accuse the foundationalist of claiming to have a criterion of rationality which, in fact, he does not possess. By means of this alleged criterion the foundationalist claims to discern which epistemic practices are rational and which are not. Non-rational practices, he claims, include those of religion.

Much work in recent epistemology of religion goes beyond debates over foundationalism and reformed epistemology to consider contemporary issues deriving from social epistemology (especially concerning the epistemology of testimony, or the epistemology of disagreement), or formal epistemology's use of probability theory. Other notable work draws on the idea that knowing God is akin to knowing a person, which is not reducible to knowing propositions about a person.

Sensus divinitatis

Sensus divinitatis ("sense of divinity"), also referred to as sensus deitatis ("sense of deity") or semen religionis ("seed of religion"), is a term first used by French Protestant reformer John Calvin to describe a hypothetical human sense. Instead of knowledge of the environment (as with, for example, smell or sight), the sensus divinitatis is alleged to give humans a knowledge of God.In Calvin's view, there is no reasonable non-belief. Neo-Calvinists who adhere to the presuppositionalist school of Christian apologetics sometimes appeal to a sensus divinitatis to argue that there are no genuine atheists:

That there exists in the human mind and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity [sensus divinitatis], we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead…. …this is not a doctrine which is first learned at school, but one as to which every man is, from the womb, his own master; one which nature herself allows no individual to forget.

Analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame posits a modified form of the sensus divinitatis whereby all have the sense, only it does not work properly in some humans, due to sin's noetic effects. (see Reformed epistemology)

Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner proposed an innate sense of God, which has been noted to share elements in common with Calvin's Sensus Divinitatis.Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century American Calvinist preacher and theologian, claimed that while every human being has been granted the capacity to know God, successful use of these capacities requires an attitude of "true benevolence".

Turkish philosophy

Turkish philosophy has long been affected by Islam and the country's proximity to Greece and ancient Greek philosophy.

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