Plantinga and Barth: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

Plantinga and Barth: A Marriage Made in Heaven? October 10, 2015

Alvin Plantinga is widely viewed as one of the most consequential philosophers of our day.  Karl Barth is widely viewed as one the most consequential theologians of the twentieth-century.

The Enlightenment had a far-reaching impact on how reason, truth, and tradition are understood.  Talk of postmodernism upending altogether the Enlightenment Project’s influence now seems a bit naive.  How to answer the Enlightenment’s approach to understanding truth is no small matter.  One author believes there is much help to be found in a Barth/Plantinga’s combo.

The following interview with Alvin Plantinga revolves around two books: Plantinga’s own, Knowledge and Christian Belief  and Kevin Diller’s Theology’s Epistemological Dilemma.

David George Moore conducted the interview.  Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

Moore: You have written much longer books on the same topic.  Who is Knowledge and Christian Belief written for, and why did you write it?

Plantinga: Warranted Christian Belief is pretty long (more than 500 pages) and in spots fairly difficult.   Knowledge and Christian Belief is a shorter, easier version of the same material, and is designed for people who don’t have the time or inclination to plow through the longer book.  Still, Warranted Christian Belief is the fuller and more complete version, and goes into many related issues that are left out of Knowledge and Christian Belief.

Moore: When you read Kevin Diller’s book on various parallels between you and Barth, what were your initial impressions?

Plantinga: I was really surprised!  I hadn’t (to my shame) actually read a whole lot of Barth, and thought of Barth and myself as proceeding in very different ways and working at very different projects.  But Diller’s book convinced me that Barth’s work and mine are really pointing in very much the same direction, even if I am very much the junior partner in this partnership.

Moore: Calvin’s understanding of the internal witness of the Spirit looms large for you. Would you give us a brief definition of what the internal witness of the Spirit meant for Calvin, and how it has influenced your own understanding of the Christian life?

Plantinga: As I understand Calvin, he follows St. Paul in holding that the Holy Spirit confirms the message of the gospel to our hearts and minds. In this way God announces the good news to us human beings, and then also enables us to, helps us to, accept and believe it.  I believe that Calvin is right on this point, and that the witness of the Holy Spirit, even though it can be muffled and distorted by our sin, is essential to the Christian life.

Moore: I am a graduate of both Dallas Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  We read a bit about Barth (mainly to critique him), but not really much by him. There is much suspicion about Barth in American evangelical circles.  To what degree is that concern legitimate?

Plantinga: I realize that in evangelical circles (including in my own background) there has been a lot of criticism of Barth (for, for example, holding a somewhat nonstandard view of divine revelation).  I think this response to Barth is unfortunate.  Maybe he is wrong on some points, deviates from standard evangelicalism in some areas; but he is nonetheless a serious and influential Christian theologian who proclaims the main lines of the gospel.  The energy that some evangelicals have expended criticizing Barth could much better have been expended in, for example, defending the main lines of the Christian gospel against the various attacks leveled at it ever since the Enlightenment.  We have real enemies out there; we don’t need to attack each other.

Moore: Let’s say a budding Christian scholar is struggling with doubt over various claims of the Christian faith.  She struggles because various Christian beliefs seem far too narrow and harsh.  I know you would want to know a whole lot more about the contours of the struggle, but how would you counsel her to find confidence in the Christian faith.

Plantinga: Well, I’d have to hear a lot more here.  The Christian gospel, in my opinion, is very far from “narrow and harsh”.  We human beings have fallen into sin, and sin is a constant part of our lives.  God’s response is to undergo the pain and suffering involved in witnessing his only Son, Jesus Christ, suffering and dying so that we could one more be at peace with God, and can live with him eternally.  Narrow and harsh?  I don’t think so.

Moore: Observing “common” Christians living lives of faithfulness to God strengthened Barth’s Christian faith.  As you well know, it caused him to see God more involved in our lives than his previously held liberalism allowed.  Who and what have encouraged you in your own Christian pilgrimage?

Plantinga: First, the precept and example of my parents, Cornelius and Lettie Plantinga.  They were serious Christians, and Christians of an attractive sort and winsome sort.

Second, the example of my teachers (including my father) in college, and in particular the example of William Harry Jellema (who died some 30 years ago).  Like many others, I was what could only be described as intellectually arrogant as a college student; this somewhat inclined me to unbelief (if only to demonstrate my intellectual superiority).  But Harry Jellema, who was obviously a man of tremendous intellectual attainments (as well as the finest teacher I ever saw) was a serious Christian.  I nearly idolized him; and if he could take Christian belief seriously, who was I to demur?


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