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Reformed epistemology

In the philosophy of religion, reformed epistemology is a school of thought regarding the

epistemology of belief in God put forward by a group of Protestant Christian philosophers, most
notably, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff and
Michael C. Rea.
Central to reformed epistemology is the idea that belief in God is a "properly basic belief" and
does not need to be inferred from other truths in order to be reasonable. Since this view
represents a continuation of the thinking about the relationship between faith and reason that its
founders find in 16th-century Reformed theology, particularly in John Calvin's doctrine that God
has planted a sensus divinitatis in humans,[1] it has come to be known as "reformed
Reformed epistemology aims to demonstrate the failure of objections that theistic beliefand in
later works of the school, full-blown Christian beliefis unjustified, unreasonable, intellectually
sub-par or otherwise epistemically challenged in some way, even where one believes it without
supporting argument. By contrast, many modern foundationalists, and evidentialists claim that
theistic belief is rational only where one's so believing is inferentially based in propositional
and/or physical evidence, and a subset of these think further that no adequate evidence is
Reformed epistemology seeks to defend faith as rational by demonstrating that theistic belief can
be properly basic reasonable, though it is not held as an inference from other truths. Reformed
epistemology grew out of the parity argument presented by Alvin Plantinga in his book God and
Other Minds (1967): if believing in other minds is rational, though unsupported by argument, so
might believing in God be rational, even if similarly unsupported. Plantinga (2000a) would later
argue that theistic belief has "warrant". Roughly, in Plantinga's theory of knowledge, warrant is
that property of true beliefs that makes them knowledge. What this turns out to be, says
Plantinga, is the property of being "produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly (subject
to no malfunctioning) in a cognitive environment congenial for those faculties, according to a
design plan successfully aimed at truth"[2] Because there is an epistemically possible model
according to which theistic belief is properly basici.e. the one on which God has designed our
cognitive faculties such as to be disposed to form belief in Godtheistic belief is warranted
apart from theistic argument. 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-value of theism and its positive epistemic status suggests to some that the goal
of showing theistic belief to be externally rational or warranted requires reasons for supposing
that theism is true (Sudduth, 2000). It should be noted that, though Reformed epistemology
denies that theistic arguments are necessary to rational belief in God, many of its adherents see
theistic arguments of various sorts as providing that belief with additional warrant.

Faith as addressing issues beyond the scope of rationality

The position that faith addresses issues beyond the scope of rationality holds that faith
supplements rationality, because the scope of rational human knowledge is limited. In essence,
under this view, faith corresponds to beliefs that, although quite possibly true, cannot yet be fully
grasped by our reason.
John Calvin interpreted the following passages of the Bible as teaching this view of faith and
"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Hebrews 11:1
"For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall
I know even as also I am known." 1st Corinthians 13:12
Some have argued that strict rationalism to the exclusion of this type of faith erroneously
concludes that because rational thought is successful at explaining some things, knowledge that
comes from beyond the realm of rational thought is illegitimate. According to this line of
Our science-dominated culture has ruled out religious experience as a clue to reality; but on what
grounds? Science in the 1600s was so successful in understanding the physical dimension of
reality that people in the 1700s began to think that the physical may be the only dimension of
reality. But success in one area of inquiry does not invalidate other areas. The burden of proof is
on those who would exclude a particular kind of experience from being a source of knowledge.[3]
Under this view, faith is not static belief divorced from reason and experience, and is not
illegitimate as a source of knowledge. On the contrary, belief by faith starts with the things
known by reason, and extends to things that are true, although they cannot be understood, and is
therefore legitimate insofar as it answers questions that rational thought is incapable of
addressing. As such, beliefs held by this form of faith are seen dynamic and changing as one
grows in experience and knowledge; until one's "faith" becomes "sight." This sort of belief is
commonly found in mysticism.
Rationalist objection to theism
Reformed epistemology is to some extent a response to the rationalist objection to belief in God,
which can be formulated as an argument as follows:
1. It is irrational or unacceptable to accept theistic belief without sufficient or appropriate
evidence or reason.
2. There is not sufficient/appropriate evidence or reason for theistic belief.
3. Belief in God is irrational.[4]

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 (Kierkegaard) accept the
argument that belief in God is irrational, see that as a virtue and accept some sort of fideism.
Traditionally, many theists have denied the second premise of the argument, and have applied
natural theology to show that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God using premises
that all rational people should to acceptThomas Aquinas. (Another example of this aspiration is
Descartes' proof for the existence of God in his Meditations on First Philosophy.)
Reformed epistemologists, however, deny the first premise namely, that belief in God is
irrational unless supported by sufficient evidence, where evidence is construed as providing
propositions from which to infer God's existence. They contend that the requirement is unduly
strict, for there are many reasonable beliefs that one may accept without argument (for example,
belief in other minds, belief in an external world, and belief in the past). Moreover, many
perceptual beliefs are not formed by way of a rational argument: e.g. "I am being appeared too
'treely'. The way one appears, is the way things are; therefore: I am seeing a tree." Rather, upon
seeing a tree, one simply believes one sees a tree. We might say that the experience epistemically
"grounds" the belief without contributing to an argument on the basis of which one accepts it.
Such beliefs are properly basic and need no argument to substantiate them. Reformed
epistemology therefore rejects as arbitrary the rationalist requirement of an argument which
states that one must prove the existence of God, but not the existence of other persons, the truth
of propositions about past or the reality of the external world.