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Warranted Christian Belief
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I. Preliminaries

According to the Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model, theistic belief (belief in God) has warrant, indeed, sufficient warrant for knowledge. The central feature of this model is the stipulation that God has created us human beings with a belief-producing process or source of belief, the sensus divinitatis; this source works under various conditions to produce beliefs about God, including, of course, beliefs that immediately entail his existence. Belief produced in this way, I said, can easily meet the conditions for warrant; given that it is true (and held sufficiently strongly), it would constitute knowledge.

So far, therefore, we have been thinking just about belief that there is such a person as God. But to go no further would be to give legitimate grounds for complaint:

First, the beliefs that really shape and determine Christian intellectual identity and existence are much more precise and specific than belief in God. They are constituted by profound convictions about the person of Christ, about the mysterious reality of the Holy Trinity, about the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. . . . It is these rather than some minimalist theism which really matters to the vast majority of religious believers. Yet until very recently these have received next to no attention on the part of philosophers interested in the rationality of religious belief. Somehow they are taken as secondary and peripheral.236236   William Abraham, “The Epistemological Significance of the Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit,” Faith and Philosophy (1990), p. 435. Abraham goes on to complain that the “reformed epistemologists” have so far said little about the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and haven’t made explicit the relation between “talk of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit and their epistemological proposals” (p. 446). This is true (and the present volume aims to help repair the deficiency), but what’s to prevent Abraham himself from lighting a candle (instead of cursing the darkness) and making some of these connections explicit?

Well, I doubt that these beliefs have been neglected because they were thought secondary and peripheral; there is a more plausible explanation. Christian philosophers have been for the most part responding to various kinds of attacks on the rational justifiability of religious belief. Those who mount such attacks typically do so by attacking belief in God, which is the heart and soul of Christian belief as well as of the other theistic religions. This is a sensible strategy: if the atheologian can show that this belief is relevantly objectionable, he won’t have to deal piecemeal with all those more specific beliefs; he can do for them all in one fell swoop. But then Christian responses to these objections, naturally enough, have dealt with animadversions on belief in God. Still, Abraham is quite right; we must indeed think about specifically Christian belief and inquire into its justification, rationality, and warrant. That is the task of the next four chapters; my aim is to extend the model of chapter 6 to include specifically Christian belief. The extended model will bear some of the earmarks of Reformed theology, but similar models can be constructed for other theological traditions. This model, incidentally, will essentially involve such theological notions as faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. Some may find it scandalous that theological ideas should be taken seriously in a book on philosophy; I find it no more scandalous than the ingression into philosophy of scientific ideas from (for example) quantum mechanics, cosmology, and evolutionary biology.

My aim is to show how it can be that Christians can be justified, rational (both internally and externally), and warranted in holding full-blooded Christian belief—not just ‘ignorant fundamentalists’, but sophisticated, aware, educated, turn-of-the-millennium people who have read their Freud and Nietzsche, their Hume and Mackie (their Dennett and Dawkins). Justification and internal rationality are easy enough: just as for theistic belief, I’ll argue that many or most Christians not only can be but also are both justified and internally rational in holding their characteristic beliefs. External rationality and warrant are harder. The only way I can see to argue that Christian belief has these virtues is to argue that Christian belief is, indeed, true. I don’t propose to offer such an argument. That is because I don’t know of an argument for Christian belief that seems very likely to convince one who doesn’t already accept its conclusion. That is nothing against Christian belief, however, and indeed I shall argue that if Christian beliefs are true, then the standard and most satisfactory way to hold them will not be as the conclusions of argument.

What I will do instead is extend the A/C model of chapter 6 to a model according to which specifically Christian belief (as well as theism) has both warrant and external rationality, and enough of the former to constitute knowledge. This model will include the main lines of ecumenical classic Christian belief. It also needs a certain amount of additional detail. This additional detail is broadly Reformed or Calvinist in inspiration, but I shall develop it in my own way. The point of the extended model is like the point of the A/C model itself. I shall use the model to argue three things. First, I will use it to argue that Christian belief can very well be both externally rational and warranted: there is a perfectly viable epistemological account of how it is that they should have these virtues, and no cogent objections to their having it. Second, I’ll argue (as in chapter 6 I did with respect to theistic belief) that if Christian belief is true, then it is probably both externally rational and warranted for most Christians. Thus I’ll be attacking again that stance I mentioned (above, p. x): the claim that of course we don’t know whether Christian belief is, in fact, true (that’s a pretty tall order, after all), but we do know that even if it happens to be true, it isn’t rational or warranted. Third, I’ll recommend the story or model I present as a good way, though not necessarily the only good way, for Christians to think about the epistemological status of Christian belief.

Now one important difference between bare theism and Christianity has to do essentially with sin and the divine remedy proposed for it; it is sin that occasions Incarnation and Atonement, redemption and renewal. The present chapter, therefore, will examine the nature of sin and its noetic effects. Chapters 8 and 9 will address faith, the Bible, and the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit; these, on the extended model, are together the central source of warrant for Christian belief. According to Calvin, whose thought I shall follow (even if at some distance), faith is “a firm and certain knowledge (cognitio) of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”237237   John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 [originally published in 1559]), III, ii, 7, p. 551. Subsequent page references to the Institutes are to this edition. Chapter 8 will show how Christian belief is revealed to our minds, thus enjoying warrant; chapter 9 will deal with its being sealed upon our hearts; it therefore addresses the question of religious affections and the will, asking, among other things, whether there are analogues of justification, rationality, and warrant for the affections; chapter 10 will examine actual and possible objections to the extended model.

An initial problem: the term ‘Christian belief’, like most useful terms, is vague. Does Tillich count as a Christian theologian? What about Mormon beliefs: are they Christian?238238   See, for example, Albert Howsepian’s “Are Mormons Theists?” Religious Studies 32 (September 1996), pp. 357ff.; for a reply, see Blake T. Ostler, “Worship-worthiness and the Mormon Conception of God,” Religious Studies 33 (September 1997), pp. 315ff. What about people who think Jesus was a great model and moral teacher, but doubt that he was God, rose from the dead, or atoned for our sins: are their beliefs Christian? What, precisely, must a set of beliefs be in order to be Christian—that is, to be properly denominated by that term?239239   Indeed, there is vagueness with respect to theism as well: what, precisely, must you believe to be a theist? That the Ultimate or the Real is personal? Or could you be a theist if (e.g., with Carl Sagan) you proposed that the laws of nature are somehow ultimate, should be called ‘God’, and should be worshiped? Could you be a theist if you thought that God is really a set—perhaps the Cartesian product of the sets of possibly good actions and true propositions? (Ignore the difficulty that there probably is no such thing as the set of true propositions—or, if you refuse to ignore it, see Patrick Grim and Alvin Plantinga, “Truth, Omniscience, and Cantorian Arguments: An Exchange,” Philosophical Studies 70 [August 1993].)

This isn’t a problem for my project. First, no doubt the term ‘Christian’ is vague; still, as Dr. Johnson once remarked, the existence of twilight is not a good argument against the distinction between day and night. There is such a thing as Christian belief, and there is also such a thing as non-Christian belief, even if it is difficult to say where the one begins and the other ends. Second, nothing in my project depends on a specific use of the term ‘Christian’. However we propose to use that term, my project is to inquire into the epistemological status of a certain set of beliefs: the ones embodied, say, in the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed. (Alternatively, we could identify the beliefs in question as belonging to the intersection of those expressed in the creeds of more specific Christian communities [the New Catholic Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Catechism, and so on].) Included are the affirmations that God created the heavens and the earth; that he created human beings in his own image; that human beings fell ruinously into sin, from which they require salvation; that in response God graciously sent Jesus Christ, the divine son of God, who took on our flesh (became incarnate), suffered, and died as an atonement for our sins, and rose from the dead, thus enabling us fallen human beings to have eternal life with God. These beliefs are ordinarily thought of as paradigmatically Christian and ordinarily referred to by the term ‘Christian’. Still, nothing depends on the use of that term: my project is that of inquiring into the epistemological status of those beliefs.


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