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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

People You Should Know: Alvin Plantinga

The Greatest Living Philosopher: Alvin Plantinga

I sat down this morning to compose a list of the most influential, living Christian philosophers. I'm not sure who will end up in my top five, but I have no question about the first name on the list. No one has done more to rekindle and reshape Christian philosophy in recent years than the 2017 Templeton Prize winner, Alvin Plantinga.

My first encounter with Plantinga's work came when I read Where the Conflict Really Lies (2011). It was an assigned reading for a class, but instead of the long arduous journey I expected, I inhaled it, hungry for more. I found Plantinga to be an insightful critic of epistemological claims and a whimsical writer, my favorite sort. Enthralled, I started reading more books by Plantinga, journal articles by Plantinga, and even picking up books about Plantinga. Of the latter I can recommend: Theology's Epistemological Dilemma: How Karl Barth and Alvin Plantinga Provide a Unified Response by Kevin Diller (2014) and also the broader work Faith and Reason from Plato to Plantinga: And Introduction to Reformed Epistemology by Dewey Hoitenga Jr. (1991).

Plantinga's Most Important Work

Plantinga's gift is his inimitable ability to dissect the assumptions behind any truth claim and consider alternative premises. Nowhere is this more powerfully on display than in his seminal work, God & Other Minds (1967). After just over 50 years in print, the masterpiece holds up well. The first 111 pages might surprise you, as Plantinga turns his astute gaze toward one of my own favorite topics, the traditional Christian arguments for God's existence: Cosmological, Ontological, and Teleological. In each case, he demonstrates that these arguments do not hold up against his merciless demands for ironclad, logical proof. Each argument can be rejected by a rational mind if so desired. I'll admit I left this section of the book a little discouraged, but Plantinga wasn't finished.

Next, he considers the typical "atheological" arguments, notably the Problem of Evil. He demonstrates conclusively that this traditional juggernaut is ultimately hollow. How definitive was Plantinga's success? Compare these two quotes. In 1955, J.L. Mackie, perhaps that century's most prominent intellectual atheist, wrote, "Here it can be shown, not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational, that several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another." After reading God & Other Minds (1967), that same J.L. Mackie would wrote in 1982, "Since this defense is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question." I think we can all say that is fairly decisive.

However, the true force of Plantinga's work comes at the end of the book, where he creates an analogy between the criteria for knowledge of God and the criteria for the knowledge of other minds. As it turns out, even such basic assumptions as "other people feel pain like I do" cannot hold up to Plantinga's razor-like inspection. By definition, there can be no scientific, experiential, or phenomenological proof that the people I meet every day have minds like I do, or experience reality in the same way that I do. To know this for certain, I'd have to be them, which of course I am not.

Plantinga posits that instead of rejecting all of the things we think we know (i.e. other people have minds, the universe is older than five minutes, my own memory is trustworthy most of the time), we should lump all of these propositions into a category of rationally held but yet unproven beliefs. They can be held by any rational person without forfeiting their rationality, even without rigorous examination or formal proofs. He calls them properly basic beliefs. Belief in God can be considered just such a proposition and is equally rational.

This landmark book made theistic faith credible again in the philosophical world. It did not prove that God exists, but instead proved that a person who believes God exists can be rational in doing so. Christian philosophers can come out of hiding and participate in rigorous philosophical projects again without having to apologize for their faith. As a result of Plantinga's work, a Renaissance of intellectual Christian philosophy has begun and every one of us has benefited from it, even if you don't know his name.

So pour yourself a stout cup of coffee, cozy up in your favorite chair, and read a little Plantinga. I'd suggest Knowledge and Christian Belief as the best place to start. Your brain will hurt afterwards but your soul will be nourished! He is without question my unchallenged pick for the greatest living Christian philosopher.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Glenpool Church of Christ and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.

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