Don’t Criticize What You Can’t Understand

Recently, I found myself defending William Lane Craig’s reformed epistemology.   I was defending it NOT because I believe it to be true or correct, but because his views were being presented as ‘stupid’ and obviously false.  My impression was that those who were making these strong claims did NOT understand Craig’s views on epistemology, and therefore were objecting to a Straw Man.  There was little interest in my points about reformed epistemology–apparently philosophy is too boring and constitutes ‘mental masturbation’,  so I didn’t make much of a dent in the beliefs or attitudes of those who were making strong objections against WLC’s epistemology.

In my humble opinion, if you aren’t aware of the infinite regress problem in epistemology (from Aristotle), and if you aren’t aware of the problem of induction (from David Hume), and if you don’t know about foundationalism (from Rene Descartes) or properly basic beliefs  (from Plantinga), then you probably ought to keep your opinions about WLC’s reformed epistemology to yourself, at least until you learn some of the basic elements of epistemology.  In other words, if you find epistemology too boring to read about it, then you probably ought not to criticize the epistemology of a prominent Christian philosopher, at least not in a public forum (hence the title of this post).

WLC has said some things that sound a bit over the top, from a skeptical point of view, and one of those things concerns the relationship of faith and reason:

But what about the second point: the role of reason in knowing Christianity to be true?  We have already said that it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the ultimate assurance of  Christianity’s truth.  Therefore, the only role left for reason to play is a subsidiary role.  I think Martin Luther correctly distinguished between the magisterial and the ministerial use of reason.  The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it.  The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel.  Only the ministerial use of reason can be allowed.  Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.  Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding.  Should faith and reason conflict, it is reason that must submit to faith, not vice versa. (Apologetics: An Introduction, Moody Press, 1984, p.21)

In this passage, WLC appears to elevate faith over reason, and he appears to make the Christian’s belief in the truth of Christianity a matter of faith rather than of reason.  But this appearance is misleading.

I’m confident that this is NOT WLC’s view now, and I’m somewhat confident that this was not his view even back in 1984, when the above paragraph was published.  Rather, it seems to me that either (a) he held contradictory views about faith and reason in 1984 and later eliminated this contradiction from his thinking, or else (b) he expressed his views about faith and reason in an unclear and misleading way in the above passage,  creating a false impression that his view was that the Christian’s belief in the truth of Christianity was a matter of faith, when in fact he believed it to be a matter of reason.

The first thing to note about any interpretation of the above quoted passage, is that WLC does not provide a definition of either ‘faith’ or ‘reason’.   At least, I have not been able to locate such definitions in the Chapter that the above passage came from (“Faith and Reason: How do I know Christianity is True?”).  Because WLC does not define these key terms, he cannot express his own views clearly and unambiguously.  If there is anything ‘stupid’ about WLC’s views on faith and reason, it is the fact that he never bothers to provide a succinct definition or analysis of these terms.

But given the absence of clear definitions, one must be cautious about how one interprets the words ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ in the above quoted passage.  Of course, this is all very boring and some would say that careful definition of key terms is just ‘mental masturbation’.  In my humble opinion, however,  it is the ABSENCE of careful definition of terms that leads to ‘mental masturbation’.   Craig could be criticized with some justification for engaging in ‘mental masturbation’ in the above passage, precisely because he is using the vague and ambiguous words ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ as if everyone would know exactly what he meant by those words, when in fact that is clearly NOT the case.  The problem is not that WLC was being too philosophical here; the problem  was that WLC was failing to follow a basic principle of philosophy (and of critical thinking) : define your key terms.

In his textbook on philosophy (co-authored with J.P. Moreland), WLC points out an important ambiguity in the meaning of the word ‘rational’ (which relates to a similar ambiguity in the word ‘reason’)’:

In this section, we will look at different aspects of rationality, beginning with a list of three different notions often associated with the term.

First, there is what can be called Aristotelian rationality.  In this sense, Aristotle called man a rational animal.  Here, rational refers to a being with ratio–a Latin word referring to the ultimate capacity or power to form concepts, think, deliberate, reflect, have intentionality (mental states like thoughts, beliefs, sensations that are of or about things). …

A second sense of rational involves rationality as the deliverances of reason. Here, the faculty of reason is considered a source of certain items of knowledge and is contrasted with the sensory faculties. …

Finally, a third sense of rational is closely connected to justification or warrant.  In this sense, to say that a belief (or, better, an episode of believing) is rational for some person S at some time t is to say that the belief has justification or warrant for S at t.

(Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, IVP, 2003, p.85)

The word ‘reason’ has the same ambiguity as the word ‘rational’.  So, at the least, one needs to consider these three possible different meanings of the word ‘reason’ when interpreting the passage quoted above from WLC’s book Apologetics.  Since the word ‘Philosophical’ appears prominently in the title of the book with this point about the ambiguity of the word ‘rational’, some people probably had no interest in reading from this book, on the assumption that it would be filled with boring philosophical stuff, and lots of  ‘mental masturbation’.  So, some people might still be unaware of the ambiguity in the word ‘rational’ and the word ‘reason’, and thus see nothing problematic about interpreting the passage quoted from Apologetics.

So, ‘reason’ might refer to our capacity to think (including having sensations, dreams, and imaginings) , or to a priori knowledge (beliefs  known independently of experience), or to rational justification (needed for a belief to count as knowledge rather than just as an opinion).  A fourth meaning of ‘reason’ relates to the concept of ‘reasoning’ or logical inference.  When a belief is based on logical inference from some other belief, the belief that is inferred may be said to be based on ‘reasoning’, and thus based on ‘reason’.

I suggest that when WLC wrote “The only role left for reason to play is a subsidiary role.”  and also “Should faith and reason conflict, it is reason that must submit to faith…” he meant something like this: “The only role left for logical inference to play is a subsidiary role.” and like this: “Should faith and the conclusions derived by logical inferences from other beliefs conflict, it is the conclusions derived by logical inferences that must be rejected, not the properly basic beliefs concerning the truth of Christianity.”

In other words, Craig is not really contrasting faith with ‘reason’ in the sense of rational justification.  Rather, Craig is contrasting one sort of rational justification (properly basic beliefs) with a different sort of rational justification (beliefs based on logical inferences from other beliefs).  Craig, even back in 1984, viewed the Christian’s belief in the basic assumptions of Christianity (e.g. the existence of God) as being properly basic beliefs, which are beliefs that are rationally justified or warranted but NOT on the basis of logical inference from other beliefs.

In the paragraph just prior to the paragraph quoted above, WLC declares his agreement with the reformed epistemology of Plantinga that he had described earlier in the chapter:

Thus I would agree that belief in the God of the Bible is a properly basic belief, and emphasize that it is the ministry of the Holy Spirit that supplies the circumstance for its proper basicality. (Apologetics, p.20)

A few pages earlier in the same chapter, WLC described Plantinga’s epistemology of belief in God:

Plantinga wants to maintain that belief in God is rational wholly apart from any rational foundations for the belief.  (Apologetics, p.16)

In other words, Plantinga views the Christian’s belief in God as being rationally justified (i.e. based on REASON in the third sense outlined by WLC above) even though this belief is not a logical inference from another belief (i.e. it is not based on REASON in the fourth sense that I mentioned above).  WLC goes on to describe Plantinga’s views in terms of the concept of a properly basic belief:

 And in fact, Plantinga maintains, following Calvin, belief in God is properly basic. … Hence Plantinga insists that his epistemology is not fideistic; there are circumstances that make the belief in God a properly basic belief. … Hence one is perfectly rational to believe in God wholly apart from evidence. (Apologetics, p.17)

Thus, according to WLC, Plantinga’s view is that belief in God is NOT based on faith, but is based on REASON in the sense that it is “perfectly rational” to believe in God, i.e. this is a rationally justified belief.  But belief in God, though rationally justified is also NOT based on a logical inference from some other belief, i.e. belief in God is not based on evidence.  This implied distinction between a belief that is rationally justified  because it is a properly basic belief on the one hand and a belief that is rationally justified by means of a logical inference from another belief (i.e. it is based on evidence), occurs on page 17, just three pages before WLC declares that his own view is that the Christian’s belief in God “is a properly basic belief” and just four pages before WLC makes his unclear statement about the relationship of faith and reason.  Thus, there is good reason to make use of these distinctions in relation to the unclear  passage about faith and reason quoted above.

In stating that his view is that the Christian’s belief in God is a properly basic belief, it is clear that WLC agrees with Plantinga that this belief is (a) rationally justified (and thus based on REASON in that sense) and (b) NOT based on a logical inference from another belief (and thus NOT based on REASON in that sense).  Given this distinction, it seems fairly obvious that when WLC contrasts the Holy Spirit’s role of providing “the ultimate assurance of Christianity’s truth”  with the role of ‘reason’,  he does NOT mean to imply that the belief in Christianity’s truth (including belief in God) is based on something OTHER THAN reason.  The role of the Holy Spirit is to provide the circumstance under which the Christian’s belief in God (and other basic Christian assumptions) is a rationally justified belief, a belief that is in accordance with reason.  When WLC goes on to say that “the only role left for reason to play is a subsidiary role”, he is NOT talking about a subsidiary role for rational justification, but about a subsidiary role for logical inferences from other beliefs.

Finally, when WLC asserts that “Should faith and reason conflict, it is reason that must submit to faith”,  he is NOT asserting that rational justification must take a back seat to FAITH.  Rather, he is asserting that beliefs that are the conclusions of logical inferences from other beliefs must take a back seat in relation to the rationally justified properly basic beliefs that constitute the basic assumptions of Christianity (e.g. belief in the existence of God).

My proposed interpretation of the unclear passage quoted from p.21 of Apologetics  is further supported by the fact that in a later version of this book (in Reasonable Faith, published in 1994), WLC changes the wording of this passage (and others) clarifying that what he had in mind by the term ‘reason’ was indeed logical inference from other beliefs [EMPHASIS with capitals added]:

 But what about the second point: the role of ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE in knowing Christianity to be true?  We’ve already said that it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the ultimate assurance of Christianity’s truth. Therefore, the only role left for ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE to play is a subsidiary role.  I think Martin Luther correctly distinguished between what he called the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason.  The magisterial use of reason occurs when reason stands over and above the gospel like a magistrate and judges it on the basis of  ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE.  The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel.  Only the ministerial use of reason can be allowed.  Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.  Reason is a tool to help us better understand and defend our faith; as Anselm put it, ours is a faith that seeks understanding.  A person who knows Christianity is true on the basis of the witness of the Spirit may also have a sound apologetic which reinforces or confirms for him the Spirit’s witness, but it does not serve as the basis of his belief.  Should a conflict arise between THE WITNESS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and BELIEFS BASED ON ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.   (Reasonable Faith, p.36)

In the opening sentence of this paragraph, WLC has replaced the word ‘reason’ with the much clearer expression “ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE”.  In other words, he has removed the ambiguous term ‘reason’ and replaced it with just one of the various possible meanings of this word.  The expression “ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE” clearly relates to the sense of ‘reason’ meaning a logical inference from another belief.  All arguments involve a logical inference from one or more premises to the conclusion of the argument.  And the use of EVIDENCE always involves a logical inference, because one USES evidence in order to establish or support a claim or conclusion, and the relationship of the evidence to the conclusion is a logical inference (typically an inductive inference, but sometimes a deductive inference).  Thus “ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE” both refer to the idea of basing a belief on a logical inference from some other belief.

The formerly dramatic claim opposing faith against reason has been significantly revised.  The word ‘faith’ has been replaced with a reference to THE WITNESS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT and the word ‘reason’ has been replaced with a reference to ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE (i.e. to a logical inference from some other belief).  It is now very clear that WLC is NOT talking about making rational justification take a back seat to some sort of irrational or non-rational way of forming beliefs.  Rather he is comparing and contrasting two different sorts of beliefs which have a different sort of rational justification or warrant:

rationally justified properly basic belief in the fundamental truth of the Christian faith

vs.

contrary beliefs that are conclusions based upon logical inference from some other belief(s).

In Reasonable Faith, WLC also revised his description of Plantinga’s views, and the revisions point to the same interpretation of WLC’s views [EMPHASIS with capitals is added]:

Plantinga thus insists that his epistemology is not fideistic;  THE DELIVERANCES OF REASON INCLUDE not only inferred propositions, but also PROPERLY BASIC PROPOSITIONS.  God has so constructed us that we naturally form the belief in his existence under appropriate circumstances,  just as we do the belief in perceptual objects, the reality of the past, and so forth.  Hence, belief in God is among THE DELIVERANCES OF REASON, NOT FAITH.  (Reasonable Faith, p.29)

It is clear that WLC follows Plantinga’s epistemology in general, so unless WLC explicitly rejects this view that he attributes to Plantinga, then it is reasonable to infer that WLC agrees that the Christian’s belief in God is among THE DELIVERANCES OF REASON, NOT FAITH.  Since there is no such explicit rejection of this view by WLC, it is reasonable to infer that WLC agrees with Plantinga on this point.  WLC’s epistemology is NOT fideistic, and does NOT make the Christian’s belief in God based on faith rather than reason, but rather makes the Christian’s belief in God (and other basic assumptions of the Christian religion) based on reason, i.e.  these are rationally justified properly basic beliefs, according to WLC, and thus beliefs that are not based on logical inference from some other beliefs, i.e. these are beliefs that are based on REASON, but not on ARGUMENT and EVIDENCE.

I admit that the passage quoted from page 21 of Apologetics makes it seem like WLC elevates faith over reason, but there is good reason to believe that such an interpretation is mistaken.  In any case, in Reasonable Faith, published ten years after Apologetics, WLC either clarifies or revises the statement of his views on this subject, making it clear that he does not elevate faith over reason, at least not in the sense of elevating some non-rational belief-forming process over belief-forming processes that produce rationally justified beliefs.

So, if you want to object to WLC’s reformed epistemology, be my guest, but please (1) learn about the elements of epistemology before you call his epistemology ‘stupid’ or claim that it is obviously false, and (2)  carefully read what he actually says about faith and reason before raising objections to his views about faith and reason.  If you don’t follow this advice, then I’m afraid that your objections to WLC’s reformed epistemology will amount to nothing more than ‘mental masturbation’.

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