Blomberg on Plantinga

| | Comments (21)

Every once in a while I run into a theologian or biblical scholar discussing a philosopher, and I think it's nice the philosopher is getting the cross-disciplinary attention, but then I read what they have to say about the philosopher, and I wonder how they could possibly have gotten the philosopher so wrong. Alvin Plantinga seems to be on the receiving end of such treatment far too often. I've previously discussed D.A. Carson's criticisms of Plantinga that seem to attack a view nothing like Plantinga's. I've been reading through the second edition of Craig Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and he seems to me to make some similar mistakes about Plantinga. I don't mean any of the following as a criticism of Blomberg's book in general. Most of the book so far is very good. But I don't think he has an even passable grasp of Plantinga's philosophical views.

Here is how he describes Plantinga's view:

Traditionally, believers have argued for God's existence by means of various philosophical 'proofs', but many today, theologians included, believe that all such arguments have been shown to be faulty. Some feel that to try to prove that God exists is to deny faith its proper place as the foundation of religion, though it is not obvious why someone should continue to believe a given doctrine if all the evidence contradicted it. (p.107)

After the words "foundation of religion", Blomberg gives the following footnote:

See esp. Plantinga, 'Is Belief in God "Properly Basic"?', pp.189-202. Plantinga believes that certain propositions about God are 'basic' (givens that cannot be demonstrated) but not 'groundless' (without warrant).

That last sentence is entirely true. Plantinga does indeed believe that certain propositions about God are not in need of a philosophical argument. We can know them without any such argument. However, it's simply false that Plantinga can count as an example of the view that trying to prove God's existence denies faith its proper place. It's also wrong to think of him as someone who thinks the traditional arguments for God are faulty. Consider what he says in his online lecture notes called Two Dozen (or So) Theistic Arguments:

I've been arguing that theistic belief does not (in general) need argument either for deontological justification, or for positive epistemic status, (or for Foley rationality or Alstonian justification)); belief in God is properly basic. But doesn't follow, of course that there aren't any good arguments. Are there some? At least a couple of dozen or so.

Plantinga goes on to list a whole bunch of arguments that he thinks are good arguments for the existence of God. Before doing so, he says these aren't arguments of the sort that you'd be irrational not to accept their conclusion. He says they're probabilistic and "can bolster and confirm ... perhaps to convince". It's very clear from Plantinga's work that he doesn't think the traditional theistic arguments are bad. He defends them in print, on a number of different occasions.

Another example that comes to mind is Doug Groothuis, whose Ph.D. is even in philosophy, even though he teaches at a seminary and hasn't really been in a philosophy department. Groothuis reviewed Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief, concluding"

Plantinga's apologetic defends the right of Christians to believe in the basic way and shows the weaknesses of some of the attempts to defeat Christian belief. In the end, however, he claims that philosophy cannot cogently support Christian truth. For all our indebtedness to Professor Plantinga, some of us will demur at this point and seek out more positive resources within philosophy to argue that Christianity is not merely warranted, but true.

Why do theologians, apologists, and biblical scholars so often get him so wrong on this? It shouldn't take more than a quick look at some of his most important work to see that Plantinga does think there are more positive resources within philosophy to argue that Christianity is true. Reformed epistemology isn't about arguing for Christianity. It's about responding to a fallacious argument against Christianity. The argument doesn't hold up. That doesn't tell you one way or the other whether Christianity is true, but Plantinga isn't addressing that question. Why do so many choose to read him to be saying more than he says, as if he thinks the response to an argument against believing in God should involve giving positive arguments for God? Plantinga plainly thinks there are plenty such arguments. It's a mistake to take his approach to arguments against theism to require an argument for theism, and the lack of such an argument in this particular part of his work should certainly not be taken as an indication that he thinks there could be no good arguments of that sort.

So how are these scholars so consistently getting Plantinga so badly wrong? Are they just reading each other and perpetuating this misunderstanding without ever turning to Plantinga's own work to confirm that their secondary sources are correct? Is there something in Plantinga's presentation that makes such a mistake likely? If so, then it's in more than one of his works, because I've seen people making this mistake based on different works by Plantinga.


Thanks for the clarifications. Although Don Carson and Doug Groothuis are very close friends, I didn't get my views from them nor did they get their from me. I got my take on Plantinga from the article I cited. Precisely because I'm not a philosopher I haven't read more than a handful of Plantinga's (usually shorter) workers. So if an author holds certain things to be true that he or she has published elsewhere but doesn't give any indication of that fact in a given article, the non-specialist may never know about it.

I wonder if part of the problem is that philosophical articles tend to be very lightly documented/footnoted compared to most scholarly biblical studies articles. Maybe the traditions have arisen more in biblical studies to cite related materials that an author has written elsehwere than in philosophy? Other than that I don't have any good answers to your questions. But, again, thanks for instructing me, and doing so very cordially!


You are wrong on both counts.

First, Denver Seminary has had a fully accredited MA in Philosophy since 1981. I have served there since 1993. We have placed students in many good schools across the country. We have two full time professors with doctorates in philosophy in our department. So, your cheap shot fails.

Second. the last two papes of WCB clearly state that philosophy cannot show Christianity to be true. I am well aware of Plantinga's paper on theistic arguments, but that doesn't deny what he said in WCB, nor does it take away from his "diminishing probabilities" (also in WCB) argument against the historical case for the reliability of the NT. This argument has been refuted, I believe by both Swinburne and Timothy McGrew.

Another massacred attempt to criticize a philosophical view is in Beyond Foundationalism by Grenz, Stanley J. and John R. Franke.

It's one of the most frustrating things I've ever tried to read.

Doug, what my friend in your program told me is that it's a masters in Christian thought and that there isn't a degree specifically in philosophy. Sorry if I got that wrong.

My intent wasn't trying to minimize the program's significance, just to recognize that you're in a more interdisciplinary location than most philosophers in terms of your primary station in academia, and I still think that's mostly true. You rub shoulders with the group that I'm talking about. This isn't a "philosophers are better" hierarchy thing. It's an observation about theologians, biblical scholars, and apparently some philosophers in circles where a lot of theologians and biblical scholars travel. I'm not sure why it's a cheap shot to recognize your closer ties to the group I'm talking about as a potential explanation for why you say something that sounds like what they're saying. At worst, I was offering a potentially excusing factor for getting something wrong.

On the substance of the issue, if Plantinga really does say that, then it may not be a contradiction or a later change in his view compared with earlier views of his. Perhaps he just means that you can't prove the entirety of Christianity, something Aquinas insisted on when he distinguished between the truths we can know through natural philosophy and general revelation (e.g. God's existence and much of God's nature) and the truths we can know only through special revelation (e.g. the Trinity). Does he make that distinction? Because Plantinga does make positive arguments for the existence of God, even if he doesn't think Christianity can be proved. I do wonder if the way you said it can give someone an impression that probably isn't true. You did say that he doesn't think you can establish Christian truth by means of philosophy, and that just doesn't sound like Plantinga to me. Maybe he doesn't think you can establish the truth of Christianity, but that isn't what I think of when I hear that someone doesn't think you can establish Christian truth at all.

Perhaps it is that his philosophical papers are generally less accessible to non-philosophers. Especially in 'God and other minds' Plantinga writes in a very technical way.

I have to agree with Jeremy and in fact I agree with Plantinga.

If the years of 'discussions' I have had are any indication (or the thousand plus years of debate), there is no way to 'prove' Christianity true, in terms of 100% certainty or compelling argument. (There is always a possible alternative explanation) However, you can support Christianity as probabilistically true.

Is it perhaps that this somewhat hair splitting distinction which confuses?

Jeremy - You have a typo in the second last paragraph "It shouldn't take more than a quick look at some of his most important his work " - The last 5 words of this quote are muddled....

Plantinga talks a bit about arguments and the question of what makes a "good argument" in the recent book edited by Deane-Peter Baker, which has Plantinga's new preface before the official publication of "Two Dozen or So Arguments". I never actually got to reading this preface, though, but it may clear things up a bit on his most recent published view.

I haven't read all of the articles (McGrew/Swinburne), but if Plantinga is talking about warrant (as he probably is in WCB), remember that warrant is VERY hard to come by. (As many (but not all) readers will know, "warrant" is Plantinga's technical term for whatever precisely it is which makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief.) I don't even have warranted belief that I'm going to lose the lottery even if the probability is EXTREMELY high that I'm going to lose the lottery. The probability could be .99999999999999 that I am going to lose, but the belief won't have warrant (because the belief, if true, is not a case of knowledge).

However, an argument that gave you .999999999999999 probability that Christianity is true could certainly count as good, cogent argument, even though that evidence would not be sufficient for warrant.

(Sorry if my comment doesn't exactly fit what went on in the McGrew-Plantinga exchange. I guess my main point (relevant or not) is that one could have an extremely good argument for Christian belief, but that might not be sufficient for warrant. Warrant (or knowledge) takes more than reasoning from very high probabilities.)

Professor Blomberg,
I found your response to be very humble, and I think it is a good model for younger scholars like me who get impatient when blogging and don't like to be wrong. =)

If that's what the student told you, then (s)he's confused. We offer both an M.A. in Philosophy and and M.Div with a concentration in philosophy. The Philosophy Dept. is one of several that, for the purposes of organizing the seminary into division, falls under the Division of Christian Thought. But that label doesn't influence what is or isn't taught or the way that what is taught is taught in the department. (Sorry if that was clumsily phrased.) But you are right about rubbing shoulders; I consider it a privilege to have Doug as my next door office occupant and I have learned a lot from him over the years. I'm also glad to hear I wasn't quite as confused as you made me sound to be. When you referred to Warranted Christian Beliefs, I remembered having read a fair bit of it, but since I don't own it, I couldn't from home go back and check.

Just to clarify, my friend told me this before he arrived on campus, so he may have not understood, but I think he wasn't focusing on philosophy either, even though his undergraduate degree was in philosophy. But I was under the impression that he didn't think he could even do that. He certainly did do some philosophy when he was there, but a fairly large percentage of his courses were not in philosophy.

I don't own that Plantinga book either, so I can't look at it in context myself.

Here is the WCB quote in question:

"None of these, I argued, presents a serious challenge to the warrant Christian belief can enjoy if the model, and indeed Christian belief, is, in fact, true.

But is it true? This is the really important question. And here we pass beyond the competence of philosophy, whose main competence, in this area, is to clear away certain objections, impedances, and obstacles to Christian belief. Speaking for myself and of course not in the name of philosophy, I can say only that it does, indeed, seem to me to be true, and to be the maximally important truth." (499)

There is not much more of a context than this because he is just summarizing his argument of the book in the span of two pages and the preceding section just mentions defeaters.

That sounds more like he's making a parallel statement to his response to skepticism about the external world. The skeptic claims that we can't know the world we perceive is true. His reliabilist account shows that if his senses are reliable then he knows the world is there by using the reliable senses he has, but it doesn't show that his senses are reliable or that he knows anything about any possible external world. Reliabilism itself is a response to the skeptical argument, showing that it's unsuccessful, but it doesn't guarantee that the skeptic's worry is false. It doesn't show that we do know anything. Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology is just reliabilism applied to Christian belief, and all it shows is that the skeptical argument fails. The skeptic can't show that we don't know Christian truth. But Plantinga doesn't think his view is going to be able to show that Christian doctrine is true, just that it's possibly true for all we can show.

I'm not surprised that he wouldn't want to put more than that in the mouth of philosophy as a discipline. That doesn't in itself show that he thinks the arguments are bad, just that he doesn't think he can speak for philosophy in his acceptance of them. The good arguments who only part of the picture, and they're not all philosophical arguments anyway.

From what I can tell I don't think Plantinga has shifted on his view of theistic arguments from the online article that Jeremy cites.

In the more recent Knowledge of God, Platinga writes, "In addition to the transitional big three, there are a host of other theistic arguments [he lists a number of them]. None of these arguments, nor even all of them taken together, I think , can sensibly be called a proof, if a proof is an argument such that it isn't possible to reject it without irrationality. Of course that's not saying much; there aren't arguments of that level of stringency for much of anything in philosophy." (6)

He continues, "But believers in God haven't traditionally relied upon proofs or arguments for their belief in God; most of the world's believers, I suppose, have barely heard of these theistic arguments." (6)

Those comments seem in line with your comments from his online article. He doesn't think there are "proofs" in that stringent sense, but that doesn't mean that he thinks they provide no sort of philosophical support.

In light of the fact that he thinks the theistic arguments don't constitute "proofs" and that most believers don't believe on the basis of proofs or arguments, wouldn't this explain why it is not the "main" competence of philosophy to determine whether it is true? If true Christianity is true and something like his model is true, then most believers come to know whether Christianity is true apart from philosophical arguments. But I don't see that this entails that there can be no philosophical support. Just no "proofs" and that is just not the way most people come to know Christianity is true.

Today I was reading Alston's "On Knowing that we We Know." I also wonder if Plantinga has something like this in mind when he makes his comments. Alston seems to be saying that it is just the human epistemic situation and the situation of philosophy that we can't seem to escape a certain level of epistemic circularity and so it is the same with religious knowledge. He writes, "We can't get knowledge about our knowledge of the natural world without relying on a lot of what we take ourselves to know about the natural world. And so it is with our knowledge of God. If God has not already made it possible for us to get quite a bit of first-level knowledge of him, we have no chance to come to know that we have such knowledge. Such is the human condition, for which we should, as in all things, give thanks to God." (39)

Earlier this year I was reading Calvin on a lot of related issues. If I remember correct, he thought historical and philosophical arguments in support of the Christian faith are of no use prior to hvaing faith because faith requires certainty and the arguments only get you probability. However, he does think that philosophical arguments and historical arguments (including some that would be related to the reliability of Scripture) can be of use for a person once they have come to faith.

It seems to me that the Blomberg and Groothuis comments are not considering the amount of variations there could be on one's position as to the status of philosophical arguments and the Christian faith. To say that one thinks the "proofs" are "faulty" is not the whole story. It definitely doesn't entail that one is then affirming that one should believe even if all evidence contradicts. With the Groothuis comments the choice doesn't seem to be between the "proofs" working in the strict sense or "philosophy cannot cogently support Christian truth."

The various comments seem to speak in terms of all or nothing. Jeremey has suggested a possible distinction between truths from general revelation and truths from special revelation. Also Jeremey has pointed out that Plantinga clearly denies theistic arguments the role of "proof" in a stringent sense but he seems to think they do offer some philosophical support. There is also the possibility that one could take a view like Calvin where philosophical and historical arguments are of no use prior to coming to faith, but could then be used for those after they come to faith. So it seems to me there are at least three possibilities (and possibly more) where it does not have to be an all or nothing issue as to the role of philosophical arguments and the truth of the Christian faith. At the very least the second possibility seems to have good textual support and makes more sense of Plantinga's writings as a whole.

I don't know about Calvin himself, but I would suggest the following Calvinist position as preferable: arguments can't of themselves bring someone to faith, since that takes the work of the Holy Spirit, but arguments may well be part of the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring people to genuine faith. (It's in ignoring this possibility that presuppositionalists wrongly conclude that Calvinism implies the impossibility of using arguments to convince someone, not that presuppositionalists themselves avoid using arguments, since they just use the classical apologetical arguments disguised in transcendental form, but that's a story for another time.)

The sections in Calvin that I am thinking of are 7.4-5 (esp 5) and 8.1 and following all in Book I. You can read it for yourself. The issue does not seem to be God's sovereignty in salvation or human depravity, but the nature of faith, the nature of rational arguments themselves, and the authority of Scripture. So it is not just a matter of overlooking the fact that the Spirit uses means. Nor is it a claim that only a certain sort of arguments (i.e. transcendental) are a better kind. (I agree with your assessment about the transcendental form). Calvin's reasoning seems distinct from both of those issues. It is on another basis that he does not think arguments can bring one to faith but only have use after coming to faith.

In what sense are you calling your preferable option "Calvinist"?

Anyhow, I was not offering what I understand to be Calvin's position as necessarily the right answer, but only as one of the varied ways that one can think about philosophical support for the Christian faith beyond simply "proofs" in the stringent sense or no support at all.

As a side note, even on how I take Calvin in those sections cited, I still think one could say that philosophical arguments support the truth of the Christian faith. They are just of no use in bringing one to faith, but only after one comes to faith. I don't think there is anything incompatible in maintaining both of the above statements. In fact, that the arguments can be of use after coming to faith seems to me to imply that philosophical arguments do at least give some support for the truth of the Christian faith.

I'll have to see if any of those are in my Calvin anthology.

My point is that Calvinism is compatibilist and therefore allows for various explanations and processes that God uses to bring someone to belief. Arguments, emotional appeals, and motivations can be part of the process, even if they aren't themselves sufficient for regeneration. The process of coming to believe does involve an intellectual component, and the work of the Holy Spirit can involve the use of arguments to bring someone to propositional belief, just as it can involve the use of emotional appeals to bring someone to an affective state that is necessary for regeneration. Some people seem to be regenerated without anything like that. Suddenly they just find themselves believing. But that doesn't seem to be the case with everyone, and it seems to me to limit God if you remove the possibility of God's work in someone's mind from being part of the process of coming to the intellectual component of regenerated faith.

My reason for bringing it up isn't just to point out that Calvin's view as you present it (and I think Plantinga's take on Calvin is similar enough) is distinctly at odds with the compatibilism that Calvin endorses. I think it counts as yet another option in the list you gave.

You wrote, "My reason for bringing it up isn't just to point out that Calvin's view as you present it (and I think Plantinga's take on Calvin is similar enough) is distinctly at odds with the compatibilism that Calvin endorses."

I meant a previous point to address what you seem to be saying here. I wrote, "The issue does not seem to be God's sovereignty in salvation or human depravity, but the nature of faith, the nature of rational arguments themselves, and the authority of Scripture."
I specifically said that the issue, in the cited passages, does NOT seem to be God'sovereignty or human depravity but instead the nature of faith, the nature of rational arguments themselves, and the authority of Scripture.

I completely agree that if I was saying that Calvin thought that arguments are of no use on the basis of God's sovereignty in salvation then this would be at odds with the compatibilism that Calvin endorses which definitely emphasizes means. But this is NOT the basis for Calvin's rejection of the usefulness of arguments in coming to faith, as I see it in those passages.

So I completely agree with your point on the compatibility of a Calvinistic view of salvation with arguments as means, but that is just not the basis I see for Calvin's rejection of the usefulness of arguments.

According to those passages I don't think that Calvin would say that arguments could even be sufficient for bringing about the necessary intellectual component. Nor does it sound like Calvin would allow it to be part of the process best as I can tell from the passages. He does not address the issue specifically but there is a definite contrast between arguments vs. the authority of Scripture and contrast between the usefulness of arguments before and after coming to faith. If arguments can be useful but not sufficient for regeneration in the "before" then I am not sure what sort of contrast there would be with the "after."

You could always look at an online version to see the passages in Calvin. I am definitely no Calvin expert so I could definitely be wrong in my reading.

I did find those sections in my anthology. I had a chance to skim through all three sections and then read section 4 carefully. My wife is insistent that I can't finish this now because she needs the computer to pay the bills, so I'll have to look at the other sections more closely later, but here are my thoughts at this point.

He insists that reasons are insufficient. I'm not denying that. I'm not sure such a view requires that reasons aren't part of the process sometimes, though. I do think if you take this kind of argument as far as denying that, then you're minimizing the power of God in exactly the way that he wants to affirm it. He says there is a conviction that requires no reasons, but I don't see why it follows that it can't have reasons. In fact, he does say at one point that it's a knowledge with which the best reason agrees.

I do see a statement that the word won't dwell in someone's heart without the work of the Holy Spirit, but that's just the claim that someone won't have salvific faith without regeneration. It's not the claim that someone can't arrive at propositional belief in any of the truths that are necessary for salvation before regeneration occurs, and in fact he denies that claim when he says he could easily advance arguments to prove the existence of God and that the scriptures come from God.

He does say it's not right to subject the scripture to such examination, though, and it's not clear what he means. He could mean any of the following:

1. It's not right to look at what such arguments can show in themselves even if it's just for the sake of understanding what the reasoning abilities God has given us are capable of establishing.
2. It's not right for our apologetic to include these arguments as a component, even if we understand that arguments aren't sufficient and that a work of God is necessary in their hearts.
3. It's not right to try to ground our own faith, once it's established, in such arguments, since the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit is sufficient.

I do know he holds the third view, but it's not clear to me if he goes beyond that to the earlier ones. Maybe a closer look at the other sections will help with that.

One quibble with one thing I saw in the later sections: He says the apostles and prophets don't dwell on rational proofs, but that's false. Paul points to the loads of eyewitnesses, and the gospels highlight eyewitnesses as well, especially John, and it recurs in his epistles as well. That's exactly the sort of evidential argument that Calvin seems to be saying is wrong. Pointing to testimony is wrong on any of 1-3 above, since it points to something outside the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit upon reading or hearing scripture. So I think the scripture itself refutes his view, whichever interpretation is correct. The only difference with Blomberg-style arguments would be that different evidential issues occur for someone generations later. It's still of the same sort as what the apostles do, I would argue.

OK, so one reason to favor the third interpretation is that he contrasts "we" and "us" with others, who do not rest in scripture. He doesn't contrast "we" and "us" with believers who talk to unbelievers and look at evidence but with the unbelievers who do not have God's indwelling Spirit, and he describes it in terms of not needing proof, not in terms of the inability of proof. The problem with evidence is that it's not going to give the absolute certainty that Calvin thinks (contrary to all evidence) that the Spirit gives to believers (due to an exegetical error of his, which takes the metaphysical certainty of an infallible scripture as a sign of epistemological certainty among those who he assumes will therefore never have a single doubt).

It's interesting that 8.1 goes on to give an evidential argument, namely that the scriptures are so magnificent in a literary and aesthetic sense that their divine origin can't be denied. That's not the inner testimony of the Spirit but something that someone should be able to see. At least that's how it sounds from his description. Earlier on, he even describes the inability of most people, except the very obstinate and hardened, to deny this. It's not clear to me that he thinks these arguments have no value, just that they're not salvific without the Holy Spirit, and that's not inconsistent with what I'm saying. The part I'd disagree with is his infallibilism, which is his basis for 3 above. I'm not sure he's really saying 1 or 2, at least from these three sections.

You wrote, "He insists that reasons are insufficient. I'm not denying that. I'm not sure such a view requires that reasons aren't part of the process sometimes, though."

True, we are agree on that first point. Yes, in and of itself, the second point would not necessarily follow. Yet I think there is reason to think in these passages that he would deny the second point.

Your spelling out of three options is also helpful (as your listing of possibilities usually is). I definitely do not think he is affirming (1) and I agree that he is affirming at least something like (3). I do think he is affirming something like (2) or at least it is implicit in what he is saying. I say "like" (2) because I don't think he is saying it is "not right" (although I might be wrong) if this is a moral sense of "not right" but rather I think it is that it will do no good.

My main reason for thinking there is something like (2) is that he is CONTRASTING conviction on the basis of reasoning/arguments with the testimony of the Spirit/authority of Scripture. It is not that reasoning can get you so far, which then something else can get you the rest of the way there so at least the arguments move you along. It is more like reasoning and arguments can get you so far, but because they can't get you all the way there, instead you must take a completely different route. If this is the case then the Spirit/authority of Scripture is being offered as an alternative route not building on the reasoning and arguments. Nor is he saying that the reasoning/arguments can point you to the testimony of the Spirit/authority of Scripture. He seems to be giving contrasting/alternative routes.

Here are a few quotes:

"Hence, the highest proof of Scripture is uniformly taken from the character of him whose Word it is. The prophets and apostles boast not their own acuteness or any qualities which win credit to speakers, nor do they dwell on reasons; but they appeal to the sacred name of God, in order that the whole world may be compelled to submission."

[It seems that we have alternative routes here. They do not do the other things, BUT "they appeal..." It is not even that they dwell on reasons in the appeal. It seems to be contrasting alternatives.]

"It is true, indeed, that if we choose to proceed in the way of arguments it is easy to establish, by evidence of various kinds, that if there is a God in heaven, the Law, the Prophecies, and the Gospel, proceeded from him."

"... they will be compelled to confess that the Scripture exhibits clear evidence of its being spoken by God"

[These clearly support something like you are saying, but he goes on further.]

"Still, however, it is preposterous to attempt, by discussion, to rear up a full faith in Scripture."

[Now I agree this could just be saying that the arguments are not sufficient especially since he uses the phrase "full faith." I am not disputing that he thinks arguments can support the faith but they are not sufficient. To me the central question is whether then the Holy Spirit can build off of such arguments or whether the testimony of the Spirit/authority of Scripture is a wholly different route.]

"... desire and insist to have it proved by reason that Moses and the prophets were divinely inspired. But I answer, that the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit."

[Here he seems to be contrasting the testimony of the Spirit with even arguments trying to support divine inspiriation. This would seem to support seeing the testimony of the Spirit as a contrast rather than arguments being something that can get you part way with the Spirit getting the rest of the way or with the arguments pointing towards the testimony or the Spirit using as means.]

"... that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit."

[Here there seems to be a clear contrast between proofs/arguments and "its own evidence"/testimony of the Spirit.]

"Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own Judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God;"

[This also seems to continue the contrast as alternative ways and not the Spirit using the first way as a means or completing or anything along those lines. I know the phrase "on our own judgement" could be a bit unclear but in light of the context it seems he is referring to the arguments/proofs.]

"We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our Judgment, but we subject our intellect and Judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate."

[This to me seems to be one of the clearest contrasts as alternative ways between proofs vs. authority of Scripture/testimony of the Spirit.]

"On the other hand, when recognising its exemption from the common rule, we receive it reverently, and according to its dignity, those proofs which were not so strong as to produce and rivet a full conviction in our minds, become most appropriate helps."

[The key seems not the Spirit using the arguments as a means, but rather by the Spirit we recognize "its exemption from the common rule" and instead of on the basis of human judgement (arguments) "we receive it reverently, and according to its dignity." Only after taking this alternative route, can the proofs "become most appropriate helps." I do not see the idea that the arguments or proofs get you so far which the Spirit then gets you the rest of the way or the Spirit using those proofs as means. But rather I see proofs getting you so far but since they can't get you there all the way you must get there by a completely different route. Instead of human judgment it is by the Spirit/authority of Scripture itself, which is exempt from "the common rule" and having taken this route the other route can THEN become beneficial or "most appropriate helps."]

If this is the correct reading of Calvin, arguments would definitely support the truth of the Christian faith, but it is just that they are a contrasting means to conviction by the Spirit. Instead they must abandon human judgment in favor of testimony of the Spirit and Scripture's own character and only thereafter can the arguments be beneficial. If the Spirit uses human judgment as means then why would he contrast human judgment vs. recognition of Scripture's exemption and why would he say that they become "most appropriate helps" after. If the reading you are suggesting were correct (the "means" view), then they could be "most appropriate helps" even before coming to faith since they could be "means". But if he is contrasting human judgment with testimony of the Spirit and the authority of Scripture, then it makes sense of why they are only "most appropriate helps" after.

Another reason for my reading of Calvin this way is that he will use precisely the same argument against the Catholic church. Authority of the church can't get you to the full conviction that faith requires. The best way to read this is that the Spirit/authority of Scripture itself is an alternative way rather than seeing authority of the church as a "means" that the Spirit could use. Instead they represent opposing bases for accepting Scripture.

Of course all of this is only what it seems to me Calvin is saying. Whether he is right is, of course, a whole different matter. I am not sure that I want to commit myself to defending Calvin on this matter.

I have a further comment on something else you wrote. You said, " I do think if you take this kind of argument as far as denying that, then you're minimizing the power of God in exactly the way that he wants to affirm it."

I think the key here is that it is not just the testimony of the Spirit that is at issue, but it is also the authority of Scripture such that "it does not submit to proofs and arguments" and it is exempt from "the common rule." It would seem peculiar to me that the Spirit would use arguments and proofs as "means" (even if not sufficient means) in order to bring us to the recognition that Scripture does not submit to proofs or arguments or is exempt from the common rule. It would seem to me to be saying that the Spirit could use human judgment as means to seeing that Scripture is above human judgment. This is why I prefer my contrasting interpretation.

As far as the minimizing the power of God thing, I don't think Calvin is here displaying something similar to the freedom of God to use means idea. The testimony of the Spirit is tied to Scripture and he specifically counters the objection that this would then limit the Spirit. Elsewhere he says this is no limit since it was the Spirit that inspired Scripture in the first place so if anything it is the limiting of the Spirit by the Spirit. So in this case it seems to me the testimony of the Spirit is tied to full conviction in the authority of the Word of God which involves recognition that it is not subject to the common rule and does not submit to proofs. This is no limiting of the means of the Spirit since it is the means the Spirit chose in inspiring the Scripture in the first place.

The "it is not right" language comes directly from Calvin. He says "it is not right to subject it [the Bible] to proof and reasoning". His reason is that it's self-authenticating. It's hard for me to take that as simply that it will do no good. It sounds morally loaded to me. It sounds as if he's saying it impugns the certainty of scripture to try to supply reasons for thinking it's true. That's a fundamental confusion of metaphysics and epistemology if he means it as (2). If he only means it as (3), it's not. So (3) is the more charitable view. On the other hand, we do see the same confusion in his other discussions of the epistemological certainty of salvific faith, so attributing to him an uncharitable view that we know he holds isn't so grievous an interpretation.

The two alternative routes thing just seems like a false dichotomy to me, whether it's what Calvin is doing or not. Even if the other route, i.e. the work of the Holy Spirit in one's life, is required, why can't that work coincide with the work of the Holy Spirit to use someone's philosophical arguments to convince me of God's existence as part of the process of preparing me to accept that there might actually be a divine being behind the Bible whose words might be worth listening to?

I didn't have in mind the idea that the arguments get you so far and then the Holy Spirit completes it along the same path (without doing anything else). It's also not that the argument path is one way and the emotion path is another, while the scripture path (the one Calvin would seem to hold up against the other two) is a third. It's that they are all components of the process. The Holy Spirit can work in the intellectual realm by simply changing my mind, but he can also work in my mind by convincing me via the arguments someone presents.

This, again, is why I think Calvin is limiting the sovereignty of God if he takes the view you're attributing to him. He doesn't allow that something that is a part of the conversion process can be controlled by the Holy Spirit during conversion, according to your interpretation. Now it may be correct to object that Calvin doesn't see that as a real part of the conversion process, but I think he's demonstrably wrong. Some are converted precisely by a process involving philosophical arguments convincing them of some of the theological propositional belief required for salvific faith. Given that observable fact, it's limiting God to say that he can't use that to bring someone to such propositional belief as part of his work of regeneration.

I read the beginning of 8.1 as follows. Unless the work of the Holy Spirit is present in you to bring you to the conclusion that the scriptures are from God, arguments aren't going to accomplish much. (In terms of what? Presumably in terms of accomplishing much in bringing someone to faith.) But when it's present, it helps to have arguments to fortify one's conviction. I don't see how this requires denying the presence of arguments in bringing someone to faith, however, since the work of the Holy Spirit is present in bringing someone to faith in cases where arguments help convince someone of the truth. In short, I can't see anything in this section that tells me whether Calvin holds view 4 or 5:

4. Arguments cannot accomplish anything salvifically, but once someone is already saved the arguments can help in other ways.
5. Arguments are useless except in the case where the Holy Spirit is at work (being silent on whether that work is fully achieved by the time the arguments come into play).

As far as I can tell, what he says is consistent with 5. He does say that the certainty has to be present, but does that mean that the arguments have to have occurred chronologically after the certainty? It's not clear to me whether what he says allows the following possibility. I accept some proposition on the basis of an argument, a proposition (e.g. the existence of a divine creator) essential to believing the gospel. That does nothing for me ultimately if I don't have the work of the Holy Spirit regenerating me. Yet part of the means of regenerating me might be that God opened up my mind to the possibility of a creator through that argument. It wouldn't have benefited me apart from that regeneration, but its influence was part of God's work of regeneration. I don't see how any of what he says rules that out. He does talk of epistemological certainty as a foundation for what value the arguments can have, but I wonder if that's a relic of his odd view that every believer is epistemologically certain. It's really the metaphysical certainty of God's work that makes the argument of value.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and he couldn't tolerate such a possibility. If so, then it's not you who are ignoring it in interpreting him but him who's ignoring it in ruling it out when he wrote this passage. I think I'd be on stronger ground in that case in insisting that it's possible in order to refute his claim in this passage.

My translation doesn't say "it does not submit to proofs and arguments" but "it is not right to subject it to proofs and reasoning". Maybe some of this hangs on how it's translated. But I was taking that as referring to doubts of believers and not to the possibility of arguments playing a role in bringing someone to faith. The arguments in question wouldn't be human judgment in the latter case. They'd be a work of God.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04