In Alvin Plantinga’s 1980 address to the American Catholic Philosophical Association “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology”,[i] the proposition God exists is declared to be properly basic by the reformers and as a result natural theology—the arguments for God’s existence—is unnecessary. Following a brief summary of Plantinga’s paper, three benefits of properly basic beliefs will be outlined, and then three reasons will be presented as to why the complete rejection of natural theology using Plantinga’s account of properly basic beliefs simply goes too far.
Plantinga points out this conclusion by establishing that the Classical foundationalist approach of knowledge (commonly attributed to Plato through Aquinas and then a modified form to Descrates through the 20th Century) required all knowledge be built upon certain foundational propositions—namely those that are either self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible—made natural theology necessary. However, reformers like John Calvin rejected Classical foundationalism (in lieu of a form of weak foundationalism) on the grounds that God exists is a foundational proposition per scripture but does not fit the requirements to be a foundational proposition (that is the existence of God is not self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible). As a result, since theologians no longer need to work with foundational principles to arrive at the knowledge of God natural theology becomes unnecessary. Joseph Boyle’s response to Plantinga concisely captures the line of thought: “The Christian knows God exists. Natural theology makes sense only if God's existence is not in the foundations. But it is.”[ii]
I. The Reformed problem with Natural Theology
Plantinga notes that although it seems surprising and counterintuitive, few Reformed thinkers approve of proofs for God’s existence while “for the most part the Reformed attitude has ranged from indifference, through suspicion and hostility, to outright accusations of blasphemy.”
He cites (late 19th, early 20th C.)Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck in particular to show that belief in God entirely based upon proofs has the proverbial cart before the horse in seeking to prove God before calling upon Him. Bavinck notes that arguments or proofs are generally not the source of the believer’s confidence in God and are not needed for “rational justification” since the believer is “within his epistemic right” to believe in God without argument. This is because Bavinck believes: first, one cannot come to knowledge of God on the basis of arguments and second, scripture begins with God and therefore so should the believer (there are no proofs in the Bible). In addition, it is pointed out that belief in God resembles other forms of belief that rarely require proofs, such as belief in the existence of the self, the external world, other minds, and the past. In other words, for the believer, God should be presupposed.
Plantinga then shows that according to John Calvin, presupposing God is justified since God has implanted within humans an innate tendency to believe in him. Unfortunately, people override this disposition due to the noetic effects of sin. Thus, when this implanted disposition is not silenced, a person is “perfectly rational in accepting belief in God in the utter absence of any arguments, deductive or inductive”. Per Plantinga, Calvin does not hold that believers need natural theology, either as the source of one’s confidence or to justify one’s belief. In fact, the Christian ought not to believe on the basis of argument lest an individual build their faith on uncertain grounds.
II. The weak foundationalism shall inherit
As noted above, this rejection of natural theology stems from the reformers rejection of classical foundationalism in favor of what Plantinga labels weak foundationalism. Classical foundationalism is rejected because belief in God is seen as properly basic. According to Plantinga, a belief is considered properly basic when “a person is entirely within his epistemic rights, entirely rational, in believing in God, even if he has no argument for this belief and does not believe it on the basis of any other beliefs he holds”.
Foundationalism in general is loosely defined as a noetic structure or “set of propositions [a person] believes together with certain epistemic relations that hold among [that person] and these propositions”. In other words, the idea that certain beliefs are the foundations upon which other beliefs may rest or be built upon. This noetic structure is almost always composed of both basic and non-basic beliefs, but beliefs (regardless of whether they are basic or non-basic) will be held more firmly and/or will be more ingressive—that is central or core to the entire belief system—than others.
To be clear, Plantinga is not asserting that these aspects of foundationalism are being rejected, but that the requirements in classical foundationalism for what conditions must be met for a belief to be properly basic (i.e., foundational for other beliefs). These requirements again are that foundational beliefs must be “certain,” that is: self-evident, evident to the senses, or incorrigible, whereas the first two conditions are derived from works of medieval thinkers such as Aquinas and the third condition of incorrigibility (which includes absolute claims be mitigated or said less affirmatively, “I am presented to chair-ly”) from the works of modern thinkers. As such, if a proposition does not meet these conditions then it is ipso facto not properly basic. It is these conditions that Plantinga claims the reformers reject. Instead, he notes that a “weak foundationalist is likely to hold that some properly basic beliefs are such that anyone who accepts them, knows them” regardless of their certainty. In short, they reject the concept that properly basic ideas (foundations of a noetic structure) can only include propositions that are self-evident or evident to the senses or incorrigible. Instead, belief in God could be included in the foundation as properly basic.
At this point Plantinga quotes from Bavinck again, noting that the theologian goes even further. First, Christians ought not to believe in God on the basis of other propositions, but instead “a proper and well formed Christian noetic structure will in fact have belief in God among its foundations.” Second, “One who takes belief in God as basic can nonetheless know that God exists.” Thus, for Bavinck, the proposition “God exists” is the rational starting point for knowledge in a well formed Christian, which leaves one asking: what role does natural theology and the proofs for God’s existence play within the life of the believer?
III. Throwing out the bathwater of Classical Foundationalism
Few today would contest the passing of Classical Foundationalism and many agree with Plantinga that weak foundationalism is promising especially by allowing for properly basic beliefs. Three benefits briefly outlined include:
The Reformers laid a philosophical foundation for having a child-like faith built upon properly basic beliefs. As a result, a reason can be given for why one does not need to consent to or understand a complex philosophical argument in order to express belief in God. The fact that a rational explanation exists is relief for churches everywhere in knowing that belief in God can be justifiably held by the smallest child, the elderly suffering from dementia, or even those unable to engage in high level reasoning due to time or ability.
In rejecting classical foundationalism, the Reformers effectively reset priorities for believers. While knowledge and human reason are blessed gifts from the Father, human tendency is to place too much trust in them or to misuse them altogether. The rejection may serve as a subtle warning that potentially trusting in arguments/reason alone (even for God’s existence) may be akin to the first sin of placing knowledge above God.
Finally, as reformed epistemologists are fond of pointing out today, it has been revealed that all ideologies (Christian, non-Christian, and atheist alike) have presuppositions. A completely unbiased and objective noetic structure is impossible and some form of perspectival understanding is necessary. As such, equal access is given to not only Christian beliefs, but those of any minority voice so long as stated presuppositions can overcome “defeaters” and pass the Great Pumpkin Test of proper basicality, arrived at “from below rather than above...not presented as obiter dicta, but argued to and tested by a relevant set of examples”.
IV. Rescuing the baby of Natural Theology
The question remains: do the benefits of being able to claim belief that God exists as a properly basic belief render Natural Theology unnecessary? It would seem so if the proofs are not necessary to rationally ascertain a knowledge of God, but this is not the same as rendering Natural Theology useless. It seems plausible to see the proofs in playing different beneficial, and potentially even necessary, roles for the theistic beliefs.
Looking outside theism, the proofs often help prepare unbelievers and skeptics in taking the next step towards arriving at a theistic belief. So while few hold today that the natural theology bus can take anyone all the way to true belief in God solely on the basis of arguments, it does seem that although the bus may not stop right outside Christ’s door, at a minimum it does drop people off at theism. From there, unbelievers and skeptics have to walk the rest of the way by faith (not by sight/reason), but they may not have made it this far without the aid of rational proofs.
Furthermore, flat out rejecting natural theology and rational arguments could be seen by the world as a denial of reason. While the Christian faith has come a long way in recent decades in gaining popular acceptance as a rational belief system (i.e., “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”), there are still many who see no role for philosophy for the Christian. Yet, those who find such a clear divide acceptable may be at risk of putting Christianity in danger of becoming isolationist. To do so does not necessarily entail an attitude of forget the rest of the world so long as we have the Truth or that God is irrational, but certainly seems to imply that the Christian community would fail to have any impact on the world. The philosophical landscape has changed since the time Plantinga wrote, “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”. What may have been a necessary defensive “circling of the wagons” then cannot be assumed to be an indefinite position. To do so would mean the wagons would never make progress toward their goal. Christian communities would stagnate and ultimately fail in their calling to be a light to the world.
Looking inside theism, Natural Theology can play a vital role in stemming the tide of believers abandoning theistic beliefs. This is to say, the arguments can help believers attain more confidence in their belief that God exists or at least that holding such a belief is not irrational. But does this not fly in the face of the Reformer’s objection? Not necessarily. If one were living in a house—the house of theism—in which the structural integrity were one day called into question by a visiting skeptic or an article reporting the collapse of a nearby home, there seem to be two ways in which natural theology can restore confidence in the fact that the house will not crash in on naïve inhabitants. The first sees the proofs as: if in doubt, add support beams! Shore up the foundation! Trust in these reinforcements! These rational improvements will help one sleep at night. The second sees the proofs as: inspect the house and see the architectural integrity implicit in its design. Understand the purpose for this load bearing wall. Behold the science ensuring joists support such weight. Revealing the strengths that have always been there will help one sleep at night. Surely, it is the first of these uses of natural theology—the “reinforcement” approach—that the Reformers rightly reject for trust has been shifted by placing belief in the proofs while the second—the “reassurance” approach—restores confidence in the designer by showing the rationality of belief in God.
Some might still object that if belief in God is properly basic, then there is no room for doubt and the proofs still serve no role in the life of the true believer. However, it is hard to see how such a position that one must be 100% certain 100% of the time in God’s existence can be maintained. To never doubt one’s belief in God seems to question the very humanity of the reformers themselves. Yet, this cannot be the case for it would invalidate the experience of spiritual giants such as C.S. Lewis, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and even Martin Luther who all experienced the infamous “dark night of the soul”. For if even the key reformer Luther suffered from what he termed anfechtungen, suffering from an inner voice asking, “Du bist allein Klug?” (“You alone know everything?”), then even the reformed objection has to reserve room for doubt and thereby a means to overcome it, such as the proofs from natural theology.
Plantinga shows that belief in God as properly basic frees theism and Christianity from classical foundationalism and allows even a child’s belief to be rational and justified. This clarifies the role of natural theology, for the proofs for God are not (and chance to say never will be) “compelling” in that they will compel someone to believe in God. However, this is not to render natural theology useless as Plantinga shows some reformed thinkers have held. Instead, natural theology is simply to play a different role, and as far as proofs are concerned, to show that belief in God as properly basic is valid and sound.
 Plantinga, Alvin C. 1982. "The Reformed objection to natural theology." Christian Scholar's Review 11, no. 3: 187-198.
 Boyle, Joseph M; Hubbard, J; Sullivan, Thomas D.. 1982. "The Reformed objection to natural theology: a Catholic Perspective." Christian Scholar's Review 11, no. 3: 201.
 Plantinga, Alvin C. “The Reformed objection to natural theology.” 187.
 Ibid., 188.
 Ibid., 189.
 Ibid., 188.
 Ibid., 190.
 Ibid., 190.
 Ibid., 191.
 Ibid., 191.
 Ibid., 192.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 195.
 Ibid., 197.
 Ibid., 197.
Brett Yardley: Warrior for Christ. Devoted Husband. Proud Father. Martial Artist. Hopeful Philosopher & Theologian. Aspiring Teacher & Writer.