Jaco Gericke: Fundamentalism on Stilts: A Devastating Response to Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology

Being a philosopher of religion specializing in the analysis of ancient religions and a biblical scholar to boot, Dr. Gericke has written what can be considered a refutation of Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology. "The trouble with Craig and and Plantinga," he tells me, "is that their philosophy of religion conveniently ignores the problems posed for their views by the history of Israelite religion. They might as well try to prove Zeus exists. People sometimes forget 'God' used to be Yahweh and it is possible to prove from textual evidence that 'there ain't no such animal.'"

Dr. Gericke writes: "Not so long ago I was so irritated by a book of Alvin Plantinga's that I wrote a rebuttal from the perspective of a biblical scholar who happens to know what goes on in the philosophy of religion. It concerns the foundations of Plantinga's views and can be applied to Craig as well. Their philosophy may sound complex and formidable but if you know both the philosophy of religion and also the history of religion their smarts ain't nothing but Fundamentalism on Stilts."

[A summary of his important points and a link to his article are below]:
It is my conviction that while the philosophy of religion can and should be applied to biblical thought (something I do myself), it is hermeneutically problematic when one does this while at the same time failing to take seriously the philosophical implications of the history of (Israelite) religion.

However, up to now no Old Testament scholar that I am aware of has bothered to respond to the charges of [Reformed Epistemology], to the effect that their views are still considered intellectually respectable in many philosophical circles (in biblical scholarship the movement is mostly unknown). So, out of a concern to expose the fallacies of the sort of philosophy of religion one might call ‘fundamentalism on stilts’ (i.e. making outdated biblical-theological conceptions seem respectable with the aid of philosophical jargon) I have decided to accept the invitation of Stump (1985) and others and to devote this article to a discussion of why I believe some of [Reformed Epistemology’s] philosophy of religion is seriously damaged by a failure to appreciate the problems of Old Testament theology. I have no pains with the concept of a ‘Reformed’ epistemology per se but I do believe that in the writings of some philosophers of religion it really involves little more than a disguised attempt to sneak fundamentalist theology back into the academia.

What is relevant to the present discussion is the fact that past critiques of Plantinga have tended to focus almost exclusively on problems in the philosophical ‘superstructure’ of [Reformed Epistemology] with little real attention being paid to the biblical-theological ‘base structure’ of his arguments. And yet it cannot be disputed that the latter is ultimately foundational to the former – its raison d’être, if you will. But if this is indeed the case, it means that whatever the merits of Plantinga’s sophisticated philosophical rhetoric, if it can be shown that his biblical foundations are both mistaken and/or nothing of the sort, the entire modus operandi of [Reformed Epistemology] will have been fatally compromised.

Like most Protestant fundamentalists accusing the rest of the world of not being ‘biblical’ enough and constantly calling everyone to return [sic] to a ‘biblical’ view on just about every particular theological subject, Plantinga is neither as ‘biblical’ nor as ‘Reformed’ as he thinks. His philosophical arguments aimed at discrediting the work of biblical scholars engaging in historical-critical analysis are riddled with a number of glaring fallacies, stereotypically encountered in the writing of all fundamentalist philosophers of religion.

First of all, Plantinga claims that belief in God is properly basic and that the God with reference to whom belief is such is, conveniently for him, the God of the Bible (Plantinga 2000c:384). Yet Plantinga’s view of YHWH is radically anachronistic and conforms more to the proverbial ‘God of the Philosophers’ (Aquinas in particular) than to any version of YHWH as depicted in ancient Israelite religion. This means that the pre-philosophical ‘biblical’ conceptions of YHWH, the belief in whom is supposed to be properly basic, is not even believed by Plantinga himself. His lofty notions of God in terms of ‘Divine Simplicity’, ‘Maximal Greatness’ and ‘Perfect-Being Theology’ are utterly alien with reference to many of the characterizations of YHWH in biblical narrative (e.g. Gn 18).

The second problem follows from the first: What kind of God is it with reference to which Plantinga asserts belief to be properly basic? It is useless to say belief in God is properly basic unless one can specify what the contents of the beliefs about God are supposed to be. But in this Plantinga’s philosophy is radically undermined by his failure to take cognizance of the fact that he is committing the fallacy of essentialism. Like all fundamentalists he seems to know nothing (and want to know nothing) of the philosophical problems posed by conceptual pluralism in Old Testament theology or the diachronic variation in the beliefs about YHWH in the history of Israelite religion. In short, he seems blissfully unaware that there is no such thing as the ‘biblical’ perspective on God.

A third problem concerns another way in which Plantinga’s philosophy of religion brackets the history of religion....the fact is that it is wrong to assume, as Plantinga does, that the Old Testament is anti-evidentialist. On the contrary, there is ample reason to believe that a ‘soft’ evidentialism is in fact the default epistemology taken for granted in ancient Israelite religion given the nature of many of the pre-philosophical epistemological assumptions in the biblical narratives. The whole idea of miracles (signs) and revelation via theophany, audition, dreams, divination and history can be said to presuppose an evidentialist epistemology (see the oft-repeated formula ‘so that they may know…’). After all, of all the religious epistemologies that come to mind, it is difficult to imagine that the prophet Elijah in the narrative where he takes on the Baal Prophets on Carmel was endorsing anything remotely similar to ‘Reformed Epistemology’ (see 1 Ki 18). If that is not an instance of evidentialism in the Old Testament, what is?

A fourth biblical-theological shortcoming concerns Plantinga’s naïve-realist hermeneutics....Plantinga imagines himself to be loyal to and fighting for the Bible as such when in fact he is not so much defending the Bible for its own sake but struggling to place his own Reformed Fundamentalist view of the Bible beyond the possibility of critique.

The fifth problem – and this point follows from the previous one – Plantinga argues along typical fundamentalist apologetic lines that one either assumes beforehand that the Bible is the Word of God or merely fallible human superstition.... Plantinga’s own presuppositionalist hermeneutics show that he is more interested in safeguarding his own fundamentalist assumptions than allowing them to be modified should the nature of the biblical data require it. In wanting to prejudge the issue on inspiration, Plantinga conveniently forgets that the question of meaning precedes the question of truth (as analytic philosophy has taught us), and that without this insight no corrective from the Bible on dogmas are possible to begin with.

The sixth problem is that Plantinga claims that his own readings of the Bible follow a ‘traditional’ approach. However, not only is any appeal to tradition in itself a potential logical fallacy in the justification of truth claims in the philosophy of religion, but the problem is also that the concept of a singular ‘traditional’ reading is meaningless, for there never was a single way of reading the text anywhere in the history of interpretation.

A seventh and final matter for discussion concerns the non-sequitur involved in the ultimate objectives of [Reformed Epistemology] in the context of the discussion with biblical scholars and the critique of biblical criticism. Plantinga thinks that if he can discredit historical criticism and evolutionary theory, then his own fundamentalist and creationist hermeneutics win by default and can be taken seriously again (2000c:398). In this he seems to forget that proving historical criticism wrong is not the same as proving historical/grammatical hermeneutics correct – that is another task on its own. The same is the case with regard to his raging against evolution – even if Plantinga could somehow demonstrate a fatal problem in the theory, this does not vindicate creationism. The latter still needs to be justified as part of a separate project and imagining that it gets a second chance if evolution is someday left behind is as naïve as thinking that astrology gets another shot at it if a contemporary astronomical theory is discredited. It does not work that way – one has to go forwards, not backwards, and creationism and fundamentalism have had their day.

In the end...it eventually becomes readily apparent that Plantinga’s entire case is in fact little more than a huge demonstration of special pleading. Time and again it is implied that the main reason Plantinga cannot and will not accept a critical approach to the text is not because he really understood what biblical criticism is all about, but rather because of what he takes to be its implication – that he would have to take leave of his own cherished personal ‘properly basic’ dogmas about the text. This is why Plantinga will not be taken seriously by mainstream biblical theologians.

Plantinga has mistaken the philosophy of religion for fundamentalist Christian apologetics. In doing so, he turns out to be neither biblical nor Reformed (or even really ‘philosophical’) in his arguments. It hardly matters how sophisticated, coherent, interesting, orthodox, complex or convincing the philosophical and specifically epistemological arguments in justifying [Reformed Epistemology] in its current format might be or become. As long as the assumptions underlying the philosophical jargon are riddled with such biblical-theological fallacies as demonstrated above, Plantinga’s version of [Reformed Epistemology] will be considered by many to be no more than fundamentalism on stilts.

[pdf] Link.


Rob R said...

On the contrary, there is ample reason to believe that a ‘soft’ evidentialism is in fact the default epistemology taken for granted in ancient Israelite religion given the nature of many of the pre-philosophical epistemological assumptions in the biblical narratives. The whole idea of miracles (signs) and revelation via theophany, audition, dreams, divination and history can be said to presuppose an evidentialist epistemology (see the oft-repeated formula ‘so that they may know…’).

Of course there is evidentialism involved in scripture. And it isn't for the proposition that God or a greater power exists but rather what kind of greater power he is. I can't imagine Plantinga assuming that every Christian doctrine should arise from a properly basic belief in God. Maybe he does, but I seriously doubt it.

but the problem is also that the concept of a singular ‘traditional’ reading is meaningless,

Then so is every reference by Gericke of Plantinga as a fundamentalist. Can a tradition concievably have variety as well as malleability in it or not? If it can't, well, what is the point of speaking of fundamentalism at all since there are many views within Christianity and without that are considered fundamentalism. You have to believe that especially if you call an evolutionist like Plantinga a fundamentalist. Gericke can continue to refer to Plantinga as a fundamentalist if he wants, but it only invalidates many of his arguments that are based on the variety of belief that are alleged of the scriptures to insist that the variety is at odds with the idea of a common thread and central idea.

However, not only is any appeal to tradition in itself a potential logical fallacy in the justification of truth

How we come to believe things is often not deductively valid. Yet that path is still reasonable. And it is reasonable that if the God of all humanity has been working with us since the first humans (or first humans with immortal souls bearing the divine image), we should be concerned to find consonance with ancient beliefs, with a tradition.

Piratefish said...

Dr. Gericke demonstrates the philosophy of theology generated by Plantinga as Plantinga tries to fight off his cognitive dissonance and maintain his beliefs.

Rob R said...

one of those paths that is not deductively valid by the way is of course science itself.

Luke said...

Nice! What else has this guy written? I want more!

kiwi said...

Doesn't Plantinga admit that believing in another God than the Christian God could also be properly basic? If I'm right, then Reformed Epistemology is not refuted at all by Gericke.

If I recall correctly what Plantinga said in an interview, one of the main purpose of his work is to challenge the evidentialist claim that belief in a God is irrational if there is no evidence. Sure, Plantinga is a Christian, so obviously he'll try to defend the view that belief in the Christian God is properly basic, but the main purpose of Reformed Epistemology is not to be as specific.

It seems to me Gericke is missing a lot of the subtleties in Plantinga work as well. Could it be that he only read 1 or 2 books of him? I'm wondering just how much time he has invested studying Plantinga work.

John W. Loftus said...

kiwi, Gericke is a philosopher of religion. Tell me what books and articles you have read of him please.

Did you read the whole article I linked to?

Would you please tell me how Plantinga succeeds when it can be shown that Yahweh doesn't exist?

John W. Loftus said...

Luke I've posted a few things of his on the front page of DC recently. Also check out these articles.

openphilosopher said...

It seems to me that the god of the NT doesn't match the Messiah of the OT. The question then becomes which one is supposed to be properly basic? I wrote about this on my blog: http://humanitarium.wordpress.com/

I wrote that Jesus is not the Messiah in two entries. Anyway, keep up the good work John!

openphilosopher said...

Tell me what you think of my new blog:



Daniel said...

I think it strange to keep wanting to go back to what silly Greek or Hebrew people thought when we know that the "advanced revelation" within the KJV in 1611 sorted out forever what textual variances were right and those that weren't. Anyway, I think many of the problems with Plantinga would go back to him using modern, 'liberal' translations of Scripture. ;)

Eric said...

I think there are a few clues in this post that suggest that Gericke hasn't read Plantinga very carefully. He suggests that Plantinga speaks of God in terms of 'Divine Simplicity.' Plantinga has, of course, argued against the notion of divine simplicity. I'm also not aware of any place that Plantinga claims that the OT is anti-evidentialist (I'm not even sure what it would me to say that a collection of books is anti-evidentialist, but that's probably off-topic). I'm also not aware of where Plantinga "either assumes beforehand that the Bible is the Word of God or merely fallible human superstition." (References by Gericke would be nice.) Also, Plantinga nowhere suggests that if historical criticism is false, then his own hermeneutic is correct by default. Certainly not on the page that Gericke references. I'm also not aware of anywhere where Plantinga argues against evolution, as such. Also, Plantinga makes no references to proper basicality in his discussion of historical criticism.

Ultimately, Gericke's article is poorly written because he either fails to engage what Plantinga actually says or because he didn't properly reference his article.

John W. Loftus said...

Eric, I provided a link to his article. You read it right?

Eric said...


Anonymous said...

Eric, Plantinga is a waste of time considering parts of Genesis are variations of polytheistic myths which have nothing to do with Christianity. It's been game over for Christianity for a long time.