Beyond the Book with Dr. Welty: “Alvin Plantinga”
Chad Burchett | March 22, 2023
What is the value of philosophy for the Church and its public witness concerning the Christian faith? How can Christians respectably engage philosophy as Christians who desire to understand God’s world and provide a defense of the faith? Offering his distinguished career as an exemplar, Alvin Plantinga, the John A. O’Brien emeritus professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University, provides Christians a model of conscientious scholarship and philosophical reflection in defense of the faith that draws deeply from the breadth of the Christian tradition.
Surveying Plantinga’s life-long contributions to philosophy, Greg Welty, professor of philosophy at Southeastern Seminary wrote “Alvin Plantinga” as an accessible resource on the life, legacy, and philosophy of Plantinga. Part of the Great Thinkers series with P&R, “Alvin Plantinga” not only introduces readers to Plantinga’s thought but also provides philosophical and theological evaluation of some of his most enduring contributions.
In the following Q&A, Welty takes the time to answer a few questions about this new book:
What is the scope of the book?
The book includes a biographical section which covers Plantinga’s life and education, but mainly, as a volume in the Great Thinkers series with P&R, the book makes an extended argument that Plantinga should be classed with other luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Barth, Jacques Derrida, and so on. I argue that Plantinga’s significance as a philosopher can be measured both quantitatively (his amount of writing and the number of different topics addressed) and qualitatively (his utilization of distinctively Christian sources, his influence on contemporary discussion and philosophical practice, and his bold methodological stance).
As for scope, the book introduces readers to Plantinga’s ideas on faith and reason, the problem of evil, arguments for the existence of God, the divine attributes, and the relationship between faith and science. It also reflects on his philosophical method and evaluates his relation to the Reformed heritage (the latter being crucial to his upbringing and early intellectual development). Unfortunately, due to space limitations, I couldn’t survey his work in metaphysics and in philosophy of mind.
Who is the target audience?
The book has been written for three groups of people. First, some people have heard of Plantinga and his importance (particularly with respect to the problem of evil or the rationality of belief in God), but they struggle to understand what he is saying or why it is important. To help such people, I provide accessible summaries of Plantinga’s key moves (the “what”) and relate his arguments to a larger cultural context (the “why”).
Second, some people have heard that Plantinga is a “Calvinist” philosopher of some sort, but it’s not clear what is Calvinistic about him, if anything. Here, I highlight several key doctrines in Reformed systematic theology and several themes in the Reformed tradition of defending the faith, and then explain to what extent Plantinga adheres to them or not.
Third, some people wonder whether Plantinga’s contributions are a help or a hindrance to the Church and its task of reaching the world with the gospel. Not everyone agrees here, and I take an eclectic approach in separating the wheat from the chaff, while encouraging readers to think for themselves on these matters.
What motivated you to write the book?
There are other books devoted to Plantinga’s work, but these tend to be devoid of theological evaluation (at least from a conservative, evangelical perspective). There are also books that cover Christian apologetics (the “defense of the faith”), but they do not typically focus on Plantinga’s contributions to apologetics and philosophy. This book tries to combine what is missing in these other book genres: focusing on Plantinga and combining philosophical accuracy with theological evaluation, while still remaining accessible.
What is notable about Plantinga’s philosophical work on behalf of Christian theism? What highlights would you want people to know about Plantinga’s philosophical contributions?
Earlier, I mentioned the qualitative dimension of Plantinga’s philosophical contributions. I find it extraordinary that a philosopher can come to prominence in the 1960s, in a largely secular and even anti-theistic philosophical milieu, and sustain dialogue with a wide array of his peers for sixty years by regularly and robustly drawing upon insights from the full range of the Christian tradition. Plantinga utilizes themes from Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Ockham, Luther, Calvin, Molina, Edwards, and Bavinck — all distinctively Christian theologians. Plantinga’s pioneering work has helped usher in a cultural transition in Anglo-American philosophy, so that nowadays it is no longer rare but commonplace to see sightings of past Christian thinkers in mainstream philosophy journals.
Plantinga’s pioneering work has helped usher in a cultural transition in Anglo-American philosophy, so that nowadays it is no longer rare but commonplace to see sightings of past Christian thinkers in mainstream philosophy journals.
Another notable thing about Plantinga’s philosophical work is that he insists, with a doggedness that sometimes irritates his detractors, that there is nothing inappropriate, unseemly, or embarrassing for a Christian philosopher to simply start with and then use Christian assumptions in his academic work, despite the widespread rejection of these assumptions by the majority of modern thinkers. Plantinga thinks there cannot be any such thing as a “religiously neutral” intellectual endeavor, at least if it aims to be serious and substantial. Many contemporary Christian philosophers will tell you that Plantinga’s bold stance over the years energized them personally and encouraged them in their own work.
What are a few philosophical arguments on which you differ with Plantinga, and what cautions would you offer readers as they engage with Plantinga’s philosophy?
Since only the Scriptures are inspired and ultimately authoritative, we’d be committing religious malpractice to locate infallibility in any uninspired thinker, no matter how useful his or her arguments. (Plantinga would certainly agree!) In the final chapter of the book, I register my doubts that the view of human free will that Plantinga endorses — what is called “libertarian” free will — is really the kind of free will we have or is really all that valuable. However, I also make the case that this view of free will isn’t really as central to Plantinga’s arguments as many seem to think.
Since only the Scriptures are inspired and ultimately authoritative, we’d be committing religious malpractice to locate infallibility in any uninspired thinker, no matter how useful his or her arguments.
I’m also not convinced of Plantinga’s “Molinist” approach to divine providence, since I’m not sure there are any prevolitional contingent truths about how we would use libertarian free will. I’m not even sure there could be such truths, or if they are compatible with God’s nature. But again, rejecting Plantinga’s Molinism only robs us of two of his seven replies to the problem of evil. It might also rob us of his “Ockhamist” strategy in solving the freewill/foreknowledge dilemma, if that depends in turn on his Molinism.
Finally, Plantinga rejects — whereas I accept — several elements of what has come to be known as classical theism. Specifically, he seems to reject divine timelessness and absolute divine immutability and accept the reality of divine passions. But as far as I can tell, no major Plantingian conclusion depends on his rejecting any of these elements of classical theism.
I should also add, perhaps with some passion of my own, that I don’t find anything non-Christian in Plantinga’s advocacy of libertarian free will and Molinism or in his views of divine timelessness, immutability, and passions. I think Christians are free to disagree about these kinds of issues.
What are Plantinga’s landmark works, and which works would you recommend to first-time readers of Plantinga?
If you read only three works by Alvin Plantinga, they should be “Knowledge and Christian Belief” (2015), “God, Freedom, and Evil” (1974), and “Advice to Christian Philosophers” (1984). These are shorter, more accessible expositions of Plantinga’s views on epistemology, the ontological argument for God and the problem of evil, and philosophical method. These just happen to be the views for which he is most famous.
How does the book equip readers to serve the Church and fulfill the Great Commission?
We serve the Church by loving God with all of our minds, and by helping believers with their questions and doubts. Early in grad school, Plantinga discovered that most of the attacks against traditional theism “were totally question-begging if taken as arguments against theism.” I think one reason why he writes so much about anti-God arguments in his written work is that he wants to get the word out that these arguments are weak, despite their popularity.
We serve the Church by loving God with all of our minds, and by helping believers with their questions and doubts.
Those who take my courses in philosophy know that my goal in teaching philosophy is to make the subject more accessible, while helping students do four things: (1) cultivate intellectual skills that are useful for Christian life and ministry, (2) acquire intellectual insight into the relationship between someone’s theological conclusions and philosophical precommitments, (3) encounter the rich heritage of Christian contributions to philosophy, and (4) begin preparing a Christian defense against the wide range of criticisms that have become influential in our day.
It just so happens that Plantinga’s published work is very helpful in equipping us in all four of these ways. Studying him will cultivate those intellectual skills, learning about his rejection of religious neutrality will uncover some of those theology-philosophy connections, his sources will lead you to all of Christian history, and the orientation of the vast majority of his work is towards the defense of the faith.
We also fulfill the Great Commission by using every intellectual tool at our disposal to lovingly but persistently brush away the sinful rationalizations people have for rejecting the good news of the gospel. Anything that can lead unbelievers to take the claims of Christ more seriously, to cultivate an environment in which traditional religious teaching is a “live option,” is of help to the Great Commission (though of course is no substitute for the actual preaching of the gospel).
We also fulfill the Great Commission by using every intellectual tool at our disposal to lovingly but persistently brush away the sinful rationalizations people have for rejecting the good news of the gospel.
How has researching and writing the book shaped you spiritually?
It took some persistence and perseverance to distill into one volume nearly twenty years of teaching Alvin Plantinga’s philosophy in the seminary classroom at the master’s and doctoral levels. While he is only one of many philosophers to whom I expose my students, I think he is one of the “greats,” not only in religious philosophy, but also in philosophy more generally. Reviewing his work was personally edifying and encouraging to me. I was reminded once again that in the providence of God, Plantinga has influenced a generation of Christian philosophers to be rigorous and bold in their defense of distinctive Christian claims. I’m grateful that so much good thinking has been made available to me to assess, build upon, and use discerningly.
Alvin Plantinga (1932– )
Alvin Plantinga is the contemporary world’s most influential Christian philosopher. His work over the past six decades has paved the way for Christian thinkers in the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, and science.
In this accessible overview and analysis of Plantinga’s work, philosophy professor Greg Welty examines his approach to faith and reason, the problem of evil, theistic arguments, the divine attributes, religion and science, and Christian philosophical method. He concludes by studying Plantinga’s body of work and its interaction with his Reformed heritage. Welty combines philosophical accuracy with theological evaluation as he encourages readers to do their own thinking on these critical subjects.
March 29, 2023
Paperback, 208 pages