The Old New Reformed Epistemology

By K. Scott Oliphint

What are the epistemological implications of a Reformed apologetic? The question is more easily asked than answered. Any Reformed approach to apologetics must be itself grounded in Reformed theology. In order to answer the questions, then, it would be helpful to see the epistemological implications of a Reformed theology first, in order, second, to link those implications to a Reformed apologetic.

In his influential work, Reason and Belief in God,2 Alvin Plantinga began, in earnest, to argue for the proper basicality of theistic belief.3 His concern, generally, was that the evidential objectors (to belief in God) had unduly placed requirements on the rationality of that belief that they themselves did not, and do not, maintain. His more specific concern, up to the present day, is that the rationality of belief in God has been illegitimately rendered suspect. Those who demand evidential proof for such a belief relax those same demands when it comes to other, more popular, beliefs that they all hold. In the initial stages of this epistemological development, Plantinga referred to his approach as The New Reformed Epistemology.4

He has since replaced this specific label with a more generic one; he now refers to his own approach as a proper function epistemology which has as its key concern, not the notion of the justification of knowledge (which was his initial concern), but rather of warrant.5 In arguing more specifically for warranted Christian belief based on properly functioning cognitive faculties, Plantinga attempts to build what he calls the Aquinas/Calvin model. That model, as I see it, has within it the (we could say) theological bases upon which Plantinga attempts to place the rationality of Christian belief.

Without elaborating the details of Plantingas model, we would like to set forth a (significant?) modification of his model in order to show how Reformed theology might begin to inform our epistemology, and then to note the apologetic implications of such an epistemology.6 One caveat: this discussion should be seen as a beginning, an approximation that is open-ended. It is not meant to be the final (nor the first) word on the subject. Much more development is needed.

Theological Foundations

The first thing that should be noted in any theological discussion worth its epistemological salt is that our understanding of the world is essentially related to our being created as the image of God. That is, the age old epistemological conundrum of the subject/object relationship finds its resolution in the age older doctrine of creation; the Triune Gods creative and covenanting activity. When God determined to create man (male and female), he determined that they would have dominion over the creation:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."

This dominion includes (though it does not exhaust) the fact that there is a lordship relationship between man, as male and female, and the rest of creation. In order to understand just what this lordship relationship is, we look, in the first place, to God who is the Lord.

Two aspects of lordship should be highlighted here. (1) As Lord, God has committed himself, for eternity, to his creation. He has promised not to annihilate what he has made, but rather to keep it for himself forever. We call this commitment a covenant; it is a commitment of God the Lord to tie himself so inextricably to what he has made that creation, in being bound by God to God, will go on into and for eternity.7 (2) As Lord, the relationship that obtains is not one of equality. Because God has committed himself to us does not entail that he has become an equal partner in this relationship. He is and remains God and we are and will remain his creatures. He neither depends on us nor owes us anything (Rom 11:33f.). We owe him allegiance and worship, and we owe it to him for eternity. He rules over us - lovingly, sovereignly, wisely - and we submit to that rule (either now or in the future - cf. Phi. 2:9-11).

When God created man in his own image, he intended for us to be lords over everything else that he made. This lordship over creation carries the same two implications, noted above, of Gods lordship over us. (1) God has committed us to creation in such a way that we are inextricably linked to it.

It is instructive to notice that, in creating the animal world God used the same dust that he used in creating Adam. In creating Adam, notice, the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground (Gen 2:7). This is intended to show us, at least, that we, like the beasts, are children of dust (Gen 3:19). Adam (and, indirectly, Eve also since Eve came from Adam) came from the same stuff as the beasts (Gen 2:19).8 Thus we are linked with creation, in one sense, because we are taken from it; we are, quite literally, a part of it.

But there is a significant difference in the creation of Adam, a difference, we could say, that marks us off from everything else created: ...then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Gen 2:7). Of course, the beasts of the earth were living as well when God created them. But our living, that act of God that constituted man as a living soul,9 was a result of Gods own inbreathing. It was that inbreathing, the imparting of the very breath of God in us, that made us images of God.10

The point to be made here is that, in creating us as image, God bound us together, not only with himself, but with creation as well. There is a bond of humanity with (the rest of) creation such that, since creation, one will not, and cannot, exist without the other.

It is for this reason that Paul, in speaking of the problem of evil, can say confidently that, as a result of our sin, the whole creation groans and itself was subjected to futility (Rom 8:19-20). It does not groan because of its own inherent deficiencies, but because, in our sinning, we subjected it to futility (cf. Gen 3:16-19). Creation, in covenant with man, fell, because we fell.

Thus, there is a covenant bond between man and creation; a bond that cannot be broken. In our lordship over creation, we subjected it to futility when we ourselves chose futility over obedience. This has sweeping implications for epistemology.

(2) As in Gods Lordship over us, our lordship over creation is not one of equals. We were meant to rule over - lovingly and wisely - all that God made. Because of the entrance of sin, matters have become complicated (to say the least) and our ruling sometimes causes harm rather than good. The point to be made here, however, is that there is an inextricable link between ourselves and the world, a link that is both established by God and is intended to reflect his character. Because of that, we are people who are created to know, and to interact with, our world, all to the glory of the Triune God, our Creator. It is this crucial but (almost) universally neglected truth - that our connection with the world is initiated, constituted, orchestrated and sustained by the Triune God - that is the theological key to a Christian epistemology.

One other theological point must be underscored. Because God is who he is, all of his dealings with us and with creation presuppose his voluntary condescension. In John Calvins words:

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to lisp in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.11

In relating himself to us, the Triune God creates the means by which he condescends to us. He takes on human language, meaning, experience, even flesh in order to faithfully maintain his covenant with us; and he does all of this while yet remaining fully and completely God.12

It may seem, therefore, that a proper function epistemology would most closely align itself with these truths. If man was created in covenant with God (primarily) and with creation (secondarily), and if our covenant with creation just assumes an intrinsic connection between us and it, then an argument for the rationality of (at least some of) our beliefs based on the proper functioning of our cognitive faculties might seem to be the best way to formulate our epistemology.

Unfortunately, the story of creation is not the whole story. Something went wrong, terribly wrong. Gods fellowship with Adam and Eve that was a natural part of the created order was radically and decisively disrupted. The image of God as male and female, fully and completely revealed in the Garden prior to sin, became a source of shame after the fall (Gen 3:7). Though God graciously clothed Adam and Eve, the need itself for clothing, though necessary because of sin, was, nevertheless, fundamentally unnatural, not a part of the created design or order. What was true physically, was just as true spiritually; the image of God that Adam and Eve fully exhibited prior to sin, was now a source of shame, and was covered up because of sin.13

This, then, is the serious problem, even the terminal condition, that confronts us. After the fall, the image of God becomes a source of shame; our visceral reaction to who we are, as image (including the presence of God ever before us) is to hide and suppress whatever we can of that image (Gen 3:8-10).14

It would seem, then, that any notion of proper function with respect to our cognitive faculties would need to take account, in the first place, of the radical, pervasive and universal effects of sin on those faculties. Apart from sin, the presence of God would be a joy to us; we would be happily working in his world, walking with him in the cool of the day. We would acknowledge him and his gracious presence with every breath we took, and with everything we thought.

But our faculties no longer function that way. They have been damaged, fractured, broken, impeded, hindered, hampered, thwarted from doing what they were designed to do, since the effects of sin have enslaved and influenced them. Whereas we were designed to do all things to the glory of God, whether eating, drinking, thinking, knowing, etc., sin has constrained us so that, as enslaved to sin, we do all things to our own glory, or to the glory of something or someone other than God.

But his presence still remains. It is not only, as the hymn writer states, that he shines in all thats fair, but he shines in all thats foul as well. In all thats fair we see his goodness and his mercy; in all thats foul we see his wrath and his justice. The point, however, is that Gods presence was not removed from creation when sin entered into it. Rather, he continues to show himself to all of his creatures made in his image. And he does that through all that exists in the creation itself.

Epistemological Applications

Beneath Plantingas proper function epistemology is an epistemological structure he calls Reidian foundationalism. Without spelling out the details of this structure, it, like all foundationalisms, has at its root the distinction between beliefs that are basic, and properly so, and those that are inferred from basic beliefs. Because of this category of properly basic beliefs, a foundationalist structure of knowledge is easily merged with the Common Sense Realism of Thomas Reid and his followers.

As George Marsden has pointed out, however, it is just this common sense approach to knowledge that set the stage for the decline of Christianitys relationship to academia in the nineteenth century.15 In arguing that nineteenth century apologists and Christian academics were unable radically to challenge the Darwinism that sprang to life in their day, Marsden shows that, as a matter of fact, the common sense realism that was dominant during this time among evangelicals was ill-equipped for serious intellectual challenge. The reason it was ill-equipped, according to Marsden, was that "common sense could not settle a dispute over what was a matter of common sense."16 This is just to say that common sense beliefs, while perhaps useful for a generic analysis of human beliefs, are not able to carry the weight of a final rationale for belief itself. The best one can hope for with such a scenario is a kind of majority vote. Granted, if the vote is a vast majority, the weight such beliefs can carry is significantly increased. But given that their status depends on human behavior, it will never be possible to move toward anything more than probability with respect to the status of belief itself.17

What is needed, therefore, in order for the commonness of common sense realism to have roots is an epistemological structure that can support the why and wherefore of the knowledge situation. Because of Gods creative activity, because he has made us as his image, because all of this presupposes Gods revelatory activity to us, only revelation can provide such roots.18 But just what is a revelational epistemology? According to Van Til:

Primary and fundamental for revelational epistemology is the contention that man can have true knowledge of reality. No form of agnosticism is consistent with any form of Christianity. Oh yes, there have not been wanting those that have asserted the contrary, but they are not typical. Agnosticism is suicidal. Arguments from the possibility of error have amply demonstrated that we must choose between real knowledge or suicide. ...All that the argument of the possibility of true knowledge can and does mean is a negation of agnosticism. Then comes the following question, not to be identified with the former, whether the possibility of true knowledge, which in this case must also be an actuality, is attained and can be attained by theistic argument or is in itself historically a product of revelation. ...Suffice it here to state that all forms of revelational epistemology take their stand on the trustworthiness of the human consciousness in the most general sense of the term.19

Two elements of a revelational epistemology mentioned here by Van Til need some elaboration.

First, there is the affirmation that we can have knowledge of reality. This, of course, is what is maintained in common sense realism as well. Any belief thought to be basic, and properly so, is an affirmation that there is an intrinsic and intuitive connection between the subject and the object, at least in some cases. But that connection could only be asserted; it had to provide its own rationale which, as Marsden maintains, rendered it relatively useless. The reason that a revelational epistemology can provide an affirmation of knowledge is that our knowledge of the world is inextricably tied to our knowledge of God. And our knowledge of God is a necessary element of who we are as image of God.20 Since, as image, God has covenantally bound himself to us, we must, and do, necessarily know him. We know him because he makes himself known to us through all that he has made. Just as certainly as we know God, therefore, we know the world.21 Therefore, the trustworthiness of the human consciousness has its foundation in Gods revealing activity.22

Secondly, we should note that any idea of properly basic belief must find its ground in Gods revelation (his revealing activity).

This brings us back to the beginning of our discussion. Under the general rubric of a proper function epistemology, Plantingas Aquinas/Calvin model, designed to include the rationality of theistic belief, includes a capacity for the knowledge of God which Plantinga (using Calvins language here) labels the sensus divinitatis. For a number of reasons, however, a modification is needed.23

We should first notice that any general theistic belief, unless it necessarily entails Plantingas tripartite elements - Scripture, the work of the Holy Spirit and faith24 - is, ipso facto, irrational.25 Any epistemology that sees such belief as rational can only do so in the context of a deontological and internalist notion of justification. Given such a notion, however, any belief is rational provided one has done ones epistemic duties with respect to that belief. By the same token, Christian-theistic belief that entails the three elements mentioned above will necessarily be rational.

But what of beliefs that correspond to something in reality but which do not include or entail rational theistic belief? What are we to think of a persons belief, say, that she sees a tree (when, in fact, she does), but which excludes belief in God entirely from the noetic structure?

Two things should be noted here with respect to a revelational epistemology. First of all, it is the entrance of sin that has made the knowledge situation so complex. Because of this complexity, we will not be able to define precisely just where and when expressions of sin, combined with the image of God (in its noetic expression), will surface. We can, however, say that in general any persons belief that (1) corresponds to some aspect of reality and (2) excludes belief in God from the noetic structure is involved in a kind of rational/irrational dialectic.26 The belief, we could say, has a rational aspect to it since it does, in fact, correspond to something in creation. But that rational aspect is swallowed up in irrationality since the belief excludes the most essential component of the fact believed, i.e., that it is created and sustained by the Triune God. The dialectic, therefore, is, in reality, an antinomy which cannot be resolved apart from a persons conversion to Christ.27

In other words, given the entrance and effects of sin, it seems we cannot endorse, without significant modification, a notion of proper function with respect to our cognitive faculties. Adam and Eves faculties were functioning properly prior to the fall, but after the fall such was not the case. Given the complexity of the knowledge situation after the fall, perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of adequate28 function (generally speaking), rather than proper function.

Proper function seems to be exactly that which was lost at the fall.29 If every fact is such that it reveals God, we may take that fact and believe it to be what it is, but, since the fall, we believe such without acknowledging the God who is revealed in that fact. In every aspect of knowledge or belief, therefore, in which the effects of sin's enslavement are operating, our cognitive faculties fail to function as they were designed to function. There is, we could say, in every functioning of our cognitive faculties in which sin dominates, an element, perhaps a strong element, of self-deception. While we know God, the covenant Triune God, we hold down that knowledge in unrighteousness, and thus pretend that we can know the fact that is present to us, right before our very eyes, whether or not we know God.

Along with the implications of a revelational epistemology, we may, it seems, affirm that there are many beliefs that are, to use the language of foundationalism, properly basic. Our covenantal connection with the world (because, first of all, with God) ensures that we will always be a part of the created environment, and will be (in many cases intuitively) responding to it.30 Much of that response will, of course, not be that of inference or argument, but will be natural. The ground, however, of this natural reaction is precisely where apologetics has its focus.

Apologetic implications

Because, as Marsden reminds us, common sense realism was unable to account for its own commonality (and thus was rendered virtually useless apologetically), we should set firmly in our minds the truth that, whatever commonality there is in our beliefs, such commonality can only obtain because God is who he says he is and he has done what he says he has done. The apologetic import of commonality, therefore, is that it cannot be accounted for except on the truth of the Christian position.

The apologetic challenge to epistemology, therefore, is, in part, to ask for a justification of that which is thought to be common. It is to challenge those outside of Christ to bring the subject/object relationship together while maintaining the random character of the universe, as well as the brute factuality of that to which our beliefs refer. This will be an impossible task. It will be a task that will arbitrarily import elements of Christian truth (borrowed capital) in order to attempt to make some sense of it all. But foreign organs cannot be transplanted into bodies that are bent on a rejection of them. No matter how hard one may wish for such organs, a body built for rejection will never tolerate such foreign bodies.31

So, while we might affirm an adequate functioning of cognitive faculties, we will, at the same time, affirm that such adequacy itself depends on that which those same faculties will not have - an acknowledgment of the God who reveals himself, and who came to save his own in his Son.32

In a revelational epistemology, therefore, the structure of knowledge is two-fold, depending on ones covenant status. Those who remain covenant-breakers in Adam, nevertheless maintain a knowledge of God which comes to them, through the things that are made, by way of revelation. This knowledge of God expresses itself (generally speaking) in a connection to reality, to the world, all the while suppressing the truth that comes by way of the creation, the truth of God himself.33 Knowledge, therefore, in this covenant context is still, fundamentally and at every step, dependent on revelation.

For those who are, by grace, in Christ, the true knowledge that comes through Gods creation is joined together again with the true knowledge of God given in Scripture.34 The knowledge of God that is given in general revelation becomes a subjective acknowledgment of his rule and reign over us, and we are given, by virtue of the Holy Spirits work, true faith, in which, for the first time, we acknowledge God for who he is, and Jesus Christ his Son (cf. John 17:3).

When we are converted, therefore, the apologetic task begins. All of our properly basic beliefs are placed back in their proper context. We begin to understand Scripture so that we think Gods thoughts after him. Through argument and persuasion (Acts 19:8-9), therefore, we plead with others to come to Christ, not simply to complete their epistemological journey, but in order to glorify God and enjoy him forever.35

1 This chapter can be seen as a philosophical and epistemological development of the implications of Pauls discussion in Romans 1:18ff. It may prove more helpful, therefore, to read Chapter 000 before this one, since much of the material here will depend on the conclusions in that chapter.

2In Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, ed., Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 16-93.

3 This may not be completely accurate. Some would say that Plantinga began his argument in God and Other Minds. In any case, Reason and Belief in God was the beginning of a concerted effort toward the development of a new epistemological approach.

4 Note, just to cite two examples, Plantingas articles, "The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology," in Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 54 (1980), and "On Reformed Epistemology," in The Reformed Journal 32 (January 1981): 13-17.

5 There are numerous reasons for this change which do not directly affect our discussion here, so they will be left for another time.

6 For the details of Plantingas model see

7 Whether or not the new creation at Christs second coming is wholly new or is in some ways continuous with this creation, creation per se will continue.

8 Note that, in Gen 2:7 and 19, both Adam and the beasts are formed from the hm'd'a].

9 That is, hY")x; vp,n<l..

10 This should not be read dichotomistically, as if the image of God in us resides only in the spiritual, or soul-ish aspect of man. The point to be made in the text is that God constituted us, both body and soul, as image by virtue of his breathing into what was otherwise non-image.


12 This was, in large part, Gods message to Moses in Exodus 3, and was climactically revealed to us in the Person of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

13 The theological implications of this clothing after the fall cannot be explored here. We should note, however, that, according to Paul, the graciousness of Gods clothing Adam (which should be seen as both physical and spiritual) reaches its eschatological fulfillment at the eschaton (cf. 2 Cor 5:1-5).

14 This is just another way of explaining what Paul details in Romans 1:18ff. See Chapter 00 for an exegetical explanation of irrational behavior as a result of sin.

15 See George Marsden, "The Collapse of American Evangelical Academia," in Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, ed., Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 219-264.

16 Ibid., 244. At least one of the reasons for this seems obvious. If common sense beliefs function as presuppositions, then they take on the (religious) characteristic of authority, ultimacy, etc. But it is also "common" knowledge that common sense beliefs were only generally common and not absolutely so. Therefore, there was no criterion by which to determine which views are and which are not common sense. Or, to say it another way, there was no way to give a rationale for such common sense beliefs without, at the same time, appealing to that rationale, rather than those beliefs, as a presupposition.

17 This is not to say that epistemic probability is essentially deficient. Some of our beliefs must necessarily remain probable. It is only to say that, if the very foundation on which our beliefs are built cannot rise above the status of epistemic probability, then all of our beliefs must themselves be probable beliefs. In that case, just to use one example, the best that we could say, for example, is that God (most?) probably exists.

18 Here we must include general as well as special revelation. Just how these two relate cannot be detailed here. See

19 Van Til, Cornelius, The Works of Cornelius Van Til, (New York: Labels Army Co.) 1997.

20 There are differences, we should note here, between the knowledge of God that we have and the knowledge of the world that comes with it. The knowledge of God that comes by way of general revelation is incorrigible and infallible. Since God reveals himself such that his revelation always and everywhere gets through to us, we unavoidably and necessarily always have it. Because of sin, however, our knowledge of the world is neither incorrigible nor infallible.

21 In his explication of Van Tils epistemology, Hendrik Stoker argues for what he calls a phanerotic (revelational) investigation of reality. This, it seems to me, is fundamental to a revelational epistemology. See

22 This means, of course, that while we may trust our consciousness, generally speaking, just why we may trust it remains a mystery to those outside of Christ. They will do all within their power to attribute such trust to anything but the true God and his activity.

23 Further reasons for modification cannot be detailed here; see

24 See

25 Irrationality itself needs definition. For the sake of brevity, we can define it here as holding a belief to which nothing in reality corresponds. See Chapter 000.

26 Van Til talks of the rational/irrational dialectic with respect to unbelieving thought. He defines that dialectic, however, in the context of unbelieving thought itself, which is, of course, correct. In the way I am using this dialectic here, it has reference, not first of all to the unbelievers own attempted coherence, but to the tension that obtains by virtue of our (prior to conversion) enslavement to sin (and thus suppression of the truth), on the one hand, and remaining the image of God (thus maintaining a correspondence with the world) on the other.

27 In which, as Paul reminds us, we are renewed unto knowledge (Col. 3:10).

28 One of the classic definitions of truth is this: veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus. While not affirming a simple correspondence theory of truth, this definition does allow for a connection between belief and reality, without explaining the subjective situation with regard to the adaequatio.

29 Included in Plantingas explanation of properly functioning cognitive faculties are a congenial environment and a teleological truth function. It would seem that all of these elements would need modification since both the environment and the end result of our cognitive processes are radically affected by sin.

30 This will be the case, it should be noted, even in the new heavens and the new earth, and in hell.

31 It should be noted here that Robert C. Koons argues for a definition of proper function that allows for a certain dysfunction. With respect to proper function, he notes, Any organism will suffer from a certain degree of dysfunctionality. The standard is one of substantial harmony among functions, not ideal or optimal harmony. The problem with the noetic effects of sin, however, is not simply that part of our faculties function properly, but part of them malfunction; it is rather that the essential character of our cognitive faculties is radically damaged such that we exchange the truth given by God for a lie. This renders our faculties utterly disharmonious at root. See

32 It is encouraging that, at least formally, philosophers are arguing for the necessity of the ethical in any adequate analysis of human knowledge. While Christianity requires a necessary Christian-theistic component, it is nevertheless true that knowledge (as intellectual) is fundamentally ethically determined. See Linda T. Zagzebski, Virtues of the Mind: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Virtue and the Ethical Foundations of Knowledge, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1996.

33 And as Bavinck reminds us, we have, therefore, a certainty of faith:

In most earthly matters we can tolerate lesser or greater degrees of probability. But in religion, which in its deepest ground always concernsmans eternal salvations, total certainty is an indispensable requirement. The basis of our hope for eternity cannot be a human word, a result of scientific inquiry, an ideal shaped by our imagination, or a proposition built on human reasoning, for all these are shaky and fallible. The cannot support the building of our hope, for soon it would collapse into ruin. Faith - religious faith - can by its very nature rest only on a word, a promise from God, on something that proceeds from His mouth and is revealed to man either naturally or supernaturally.

See Herman Bavinck, The Certainty of Faith, (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), 1980, 51.

34 Thus, Scripture is the interpretive grid through which this general revelation is understood. Scripture is, as Calvin reminds us, the spectacles through which we see everything else. Says Calvin, Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God, Institutes I:6.1.

35 This does mean, it seems to me, that true theistic belief, in which one is converted to Christ, requires, at least to some extent, evidence (taken in the broad sense). What else could Paul mean when he reminds us that true belief comes by hearing the word of Christ (Rom 10:17)? Rational theistic belief (i.e., biblical faith) requires the persuasion or argument or evidence of the gospel.

This does not mean that one who has been convinced of the gospel must necessarily be able to provide sufficient evidence for such in every case. There is a distinction to be made between having epistemological justification and showing such justification. It only means that ones Christian belief must be founded on and grounded in a proclamation of the truth of the gospel.