Alvin Plantinga’s “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology” (Summary)

Alvin Plantinga is one of the world’s top Christian philosophers. In “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Plantinga explains the basics of Reformed epistemology. He argues that a belief in God can be rational without proofs of God’s existence. (I found Plantinga’s paper in Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger’s Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings (3rd ed), pp. 261-273.)

Natural theology, or “the attempt to prove or demonstrate the existence of God,” has a long history within the Christian philosophical tradition (261). Some Christians, especially in the Reformed or Calvinist traditions, have rejected natural theology. But why would believers reject attempts to prove God’s existence?


Plantinga summarizes the views of two Reformed theologians regarding natural theology: John Calvin and the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. Since this section is not essential to his argument, I will not spend much time on it. Instead I will list the four beliefs he highlights from Bavinck and Calvin.

  1. Arguments are not normally the source of a Christian’s faith.
  2. Arguments are not needed for a believer to be rationally justified in his or her belief.
  3. Each human has a “strong propensity or inclination toward belief” in God. So the unbeliever is in an “epistemically substandard position–rather like a man who doesn’t believe that his wife exists, or thinks she is like a cleverly constructed robot and has no thoughts, feelings, or consciousness.” (263)
  4. The believer should not base his belief in God on arguments, since his faith will be “unstable or wavering” (264)


Instead of going into great detail about Reformed thinkers’ rejection of natural theology, Plantinga tells us what he believes is the basis of their objections. He says:

“The reformers mean to say, fundamentally, that belief in God can properly be taken as basic. That is 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.” (265)

To hold this, the reformers were implicitly rejecting classical foundationalism. Plantinga spends several pages summarizing classical foundationalism. For brevity, I will summarize classical foundationalism briefly. For more in-depth discussions, refer to the discussion of classical foundationalism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Foundationalism has been the dominant epistemological view in the history of philosophy. It describes how a rational person’s beliefs should be structured. Foundationalists hold that some of the beliefs that a rational person holds will be grounded upon other beliefs. Belief A is based on belief B, and B is based on belief C. My belief that milk is in the fridge is based upon my belief that my wife went to the store to get milk, and that belief is based upon my belief that she told me she was going to the store, and so forth. You can see how it works.

But foundationalists hold that some beliefs are not based upon other beliefs. (If you think about it for a second, you can see that this has to be true if we are going to avoid an infinite regress or circular belief sets.) Some beliefs are not based upon other beliefs. They are foundational beliefs, or, as Plantinga calls them, basic beliefs. They are not based on other beliefs.

Not just any belief can be foundational, though. Foundationalism has criteria for what counts as a foundational belief. Foundationalism can be divided up into two camps according to how strong these criteria are: classical foundationalism and weak foundationalism.

Classical foundationalism has stringent demands for a belief to be able to be foundational. Some classical foundationalists require the belief to be self-evident or “evident to the senses” (Thomas Aquinas). Others require them to be certain or impossible to doubt (Descartes).

Weak foundationalism doesn’t place such demands upon foundational beliefs. The demands are weaker.

Some basic (or foundational) beliefs do not meet the criteria for basic beliefs. A basic belief that meets the criteria for basic beliefs is a properly basic belief. (Plantinga argues later that the belief in God can be a properly basic belief for Christians. For a the belief in God to be rational and be basic, it must be a properly basic belief.)


According to Plantinga, the best way to understand the Reformed thinkers’ rejection of natural theology is to see them as “rejecting classical foundationalism” (268). They do not reject weak foundationalism, but tend to accept it.

In rejecting classical foundationalism, Reformed thinkers are rejecting the need for a basic belief to be self-evident or beyond doubt.

The remaining piece in the Reformed rejection is the claim that one’s belief in God can be a properly basic belief. (Notice why classical foundationalism had to be rejected. If a foundational belief has to be self-evident or so certain it cannot be doubted, then belief in God cannot be foundational, since the belief in God does not seem to be self-evident or indubitable.)

This means that you can rationally belief in God without having proofs or arguments. Belief in God can actually be one’s “starting place” (269).

Calvin went further. Calvin held that a rational Christian should have his belief in God as a foundational belief. A Christian should not have supporting beliefs for their belief in God. This belief should be at the foundation.

Furthermore, Calvin believed that not only could a person be rational in believing in God without arguments or proof, but that this person actually knows God exists.

Plantinga concludes:

“Among the central contentions of these Reformed thinkers, therefore, are the claims that belief in God is properly basic, and the view that one who takes belief in God as basic can also know that God exists.” (269)


Plantinga agrees with the contentions of the Reformers. To end the article, he responds to a common objection to this position: if God can be a properly basic belief (that is, it can rationally be a foundational belief), then why can’t any belief be properly basic? Can the belief that the Great Pumpkin returns every Halloween be properly basic? What about voodoo? Astrology?

If any belief can be properly basic, then a person can hold seemingly irrational beliefs without any argument or proof and it still be considered a rational belief. But that doesn’t seem plausible. Surely it is not rational to believe in the Great Pumpkin without arguments or proofs.

So does the Reformed objection to natural theology justify any form of “irrationalism and superstition” (269)?

Plantinga answers “No.” The Reformers reject the more stringent demands that classical foundationalism requires of properly basic beliefs. But this does not mean that they allow any belief to be properly basic.

In other words, just because they reject a (overly) demanding criteria for a properly basic belief doesn’t meant they reject all criterion for that.

Maybe the opponents of Reformed epistemology object that it rejects classical foundationalism’s requirements for a properly basic belief without giving its own requirements. If this is the objection, then Plantinga thinks that this still has problems. Namely, this objection is based on an important misconception, and this misconception raises an important question.

The Important Misconception. Basically, Plantinga appeals to Roderick Chisholm’s work on the Problem of the Criterion. Chisholm showed that one way to decide if, for example, a belief is properly basic, is to start with the criteria for something to be properly basic. But we could also start with clear examples of properly basic beliefs and use these clear examples to develop a working criteria for a properly basic belief. Essentially, you can start with a criteria or you can start with the clear cases and develop a criteria from those.

The misconception that Plantinga’s opponent has is that we have to start with the criteria. But this isn’t true, as Chisholm showed. And their misconception raises an important question.

The Important Question. If there is some criteria for a belief to be proper basic (for example, the criteria given by the classical foundationalist), then how did you get the criteria? Is it self-evident? Clearly true? Is there evidence for it? Plantinga says that some of the usual criteria for proper basicality are neither obviously true nor self-evident. And none of the arguments for these criteria seem to work. In other words, Plantinga thinks we should reject starting with a criteria when trying to decide what beliefs can be properly basic.

Because of this, Plantinga thinks that the “proper way to arrive at such a criterion is, broadly speaking, inductive” (271). In other words, we should start with the cases of beliefs that are “obviously properly basic,” along with cases of beliefs that are obviously not properly basic. Then we work from these examples to develop a criteria that is consistent with the cases we have started with.

For example, in normal circumstances, it is rational to believe that the person you are talking to has a mind (rather than being a robot perfectly disguised as a human). Even without proofs for this belief, it is rational to believe it. Therefore, this believe is obviously properly basic.

You start with the examples of the obvious cases of a properly basic belief, and then you develop the criteria. You do not have to start with the criteria imposed upon you by classical foundationalism.

How does this help Christianity? Plantinga answers:

“But there is no reason to assume, in advance, that everyone will agree on the examples.  The Christian will of course suppose that belief in God is entirely roper and rational….Followers of Bertrand Russell and Madalyn Murray O’Hair may disagree, but how is that relevant?” (171)

So what about the Great Pumpkin? Doesn’t Plantinga’s position imply that the belief in the Great Pumpkin can be properly basic? Not necessarily. The Christian can hold that the belief in God is an example of a properly basic belief, and he can still maintain that the Great Pumpkin is an example of a belief that is not properly basic. He just has to show that there is a “relevant difference” between the two (171). So the Christian can hold that God is a properly basic belief, but still hold that the belief in the Great Pumpkin is not properly basic.


If it is legitimate to hold the the belief in God is properly basic, then a Christian’s belief in God can be rational without needing arguments or proofs that God exists. The Christian does not need to have a proof of God’s existence to be intellectually honest. This means that the Christian does not need natural theology. In fact, if the Reformed theologians are correct, the Christian shouldn’t need it.

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  1. God summary of a difficult subject. Chisholm, in “Theory of Knowledge,” suggest two ways to gain knowledge: a. particular set of knowledge items separated from non-knowledge items; b. A method that describes how to distinguish the two.

    Chisholm suggests that there exist a sort of deadly embrace between the two approaches. Namely, to have a particular set of beliefs that are justified to be true we need attributes that distinguish them from false beliefs (a criterion). To create a criterion we need a particular set of true beliefs that are separated from false beliefs. There is a bootstrapping problem here as each approach , Methodist and Particularist rely on the other approach as a starting point.

    As for belief in the Great Pumkin being properly basic, one could be justified in believing in the Great Pumkin, but what gives warrant, assuming all the believer’s faculties were properly functioning, is the objective probability of a beliefs being true is high.

    Now this last sentence is where natural theology gives warrant to properly basic belief in God as revealed by the Holy Spirit. God is the best explain action for the beginning of the universe (transcends space and time, is personal, is powerful and knowledgable to create same). Arguments from design, existence of Objective moral values, etc.

    It seems hard to even justify let alone warrant belief in the Great Pumkin. Other arguments have conjured up unicorns, and invisible gardeners. But why would we think these are foundational? We understand naturally that an infinite regress of causes is not possible. There must be a self-existent being that is uncaused. We don’t seem to have the same notion about pumpkins.

    In any case Chisholm’s problem of the criterion as well as Hume’s problem of induction would both be extremely destructive towards being CERTAIN our beliefs are true. And Sensus Divinitatis seems to be different in different individuals based on culture and in some cases (sociopaths) physiology. So treading carefully about knowledge claims may be both justified and warranted.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You seem to imply in your last paragraph that certainty is required for knowledge. I guess it depends on what you mean by certainty. But you could push a requirement for certainty so far (as Descartes does in his Meditations) that true knowledge of anything is impossible (or nearly impossible).

    I think you misunderstand Plantinga’s endeavor. In his view, natural theology isn’t needed to make the belief in God properly basic, though (as I understand him) he thinks that it might play a role when encountering defeators for that properly basic belief.

    It’s been about 5 years since I’ve studied Chisholm’s paper, but I didn’t think he thought that there was a “deadly embrace” (what, I ask, is being killed by the embrace?) between methodism and particularism. Nor do I remember there being a bootstrapping problem.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment.


    Here are two high-quality treatments of Chisolm’s The Problem of The Criterion, published in 1973.

    As to my comments about “Certainty” I meant to infer that Descartes (he got a lot of things right but certainty wasn’t one of them) got it wrong and that Hume and Chilsolm properly delete “Certainty” from their epistemic formula. We are not certain of an external world, other minds, or the reality of the past, yet we live our lives quite fully without that certainty.

    As to my comments on natural theology, my comments were not directed at Plantinga’s properly basic belief in God ( reformed epistemology). Alvin continued to produce much good work in natural theology for over two decades after he published his book series on reformed epistemology. And my personal belief if that Calvin was wrong about adding anything on top of Sensus Divinitatus. My comments about The Great Pumkin were my own natural theology response that work with skeptics not representing Alvin.

    Thanks for you thoughtful blog. I enjoy Christian who take the time to engage ideas deeply and digest those ideas making it easier for others to engage them. An impressive summary.

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