Alvin Plantinga is perhaps one of the most influential Christian philosophers in the West today. His achievements are staggering: He powerfully argued against the logical problem of evil, launched the renaissance of Christian philosophy, reinvigorated apologetics, and profoundly inspired many Christian scholars.
But what many in the West may not know is that Plantinga is also very well-received by academics in China.
His magnum opus, Warranted Christian Belief (hereafter WCB), was first published in English in 2000 and then translated into Chinese by a team of Chinese scholars, some of whom were atheist philosophers, and published in 2005 by Peking University (the “Chinese Harvard”). The launch of the Chinese edition of WCB was held at the university in celebration of Plantinga’s 70th birthday. I was astonished by the respect and admiration Chinese scholars had for this Dutch-American philosopher.
During the academic symposium following the book launch, an atheist philosopher was appointed to critically respond to Plantinga’s paper. He began his response by saying, “The organizer of this conference owes me no thanks. Alvin Plantinga is my intellectual idol.” Soon, Plantinga’s WCB became one of the best-selling academic books in China. Plantinga later said that his work was even more welcome in China than in the US!
Reformed epistemology benefits apologetics
Plantinga points out in WCB that arguments against the rationality of the Christian faith—which he calls “de jure objections”—are inseparable from arguments against the contents of the faith—which he calls “de facto objections.” This implies that any de jure objections to Christianity should first disprove the veracity of the Christian story, which is notoriously difficult to do.
In fact, the arguments for and against Christianity assume two distinct epistemological stories.
According to the Christian story, the prevalence of religious beliefs demonstrates the benevolent Creator’s desire for human beings to know him—as well as affirming humans’ cognitive mechanism, which God designed for that very purpose. This epistemological story can explain theistic beliefs coherently, and it does not violate any norms of rationality. Hence, Christians are warranted in holding to their beliefs until proven otherwise.
Plantinga’s so-called Reformed epistemology, which draws inspiration from John Calvin and Thomas Reid, is a philosophical elucidation of this epistemological story.
Reformed epistemology claims that belief in God and the gospel are basic, and thus their rationality depends on neither arguments nor proofs. Plantinga does not dismiss the use of theistic arguments, and, in fact, he endorses and develops some of them. But he argues that, the absence of bulletproof arguments notwithstanding, the strength of faith does not depend on the persuasiveness of arguments. Otherwise, most Christians, who are unaware of theistic arguments, would be irrational in their beliefs.
Hence, Reformed epistemology steers a middle way between the excesses of rationalism and fideism, which can respectively lead to elitism and close-mindedness.
Interestingly, Plantinga thinks that Karl Marx, arguably the most authoritative philosopher in China today, can help us see this idea more clearly. Marx believed that socioeconomic factors can render human cognitive faculties dysfunctional or cause them to fail in attaining their purpose. Here we can get the idea that types of beliefs are produced by their corresponding cognitive faculties. Therefore, it is the quality of the relevant cognitive faculties—not external proofs or reasons—that decides the rationality of beliefs.
In other words, so long as our beliefs come from properly functioning faculties, our beliefs are warranted, even though we may not be cognizant of the mechanisms governing those faculties.
Now, returning to the Christian story above, widespread beliefs in God come from an innate faculty (sensus divinitatis) that is sensitive to the knowledge of its creator, but original sin undermines the way this sense functions. Therefore, God—through special revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit—deals with original sin and forms a new faculty of faith, which cultivates belief in the great things of the gospel.
Analytic philosophy helps theological education
Next, I want to dwell more on Plantinga’s use of analytic philosophy in his works—which, I believe, has had a positive impact on theological education in China and in other Chinese communities.
Analytic philosophy lends theology an argumentative rigor, conceptual clarity, logical precision, and critical openness toward sciences. And analytic philosophers are trained to detect ambiguous or inadequate definitions, fallacious arguments, and inconsistent statements. The philosophy’s various tools can thus help believers effectively articulate difficult doctrines—such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement—to those both in the church and outside of it.
Plantinga’s translated works introduced the analytic approach of philosophy to Chinese seminaries in China and other parts of the world. In doing so, he initiated a renaissance of Christian analytic philosophy, which has generated Chinese-speaking analytic thinkers like Kwan Kai Man (关启文), Andrew Ter En Loke (骆德恩), and others whose work benefits Chinese churches and seminaries around the world.
Further, analytic philosophy can facilitate the more apologetic functions of theology, especially since scholars and students of engineering and natural sciences, who likely comprise the bulk of Chinese intellectuals, find the analytic method more intellectually compelling.
Relatively speaking, theological education in Chinese communities is still developing, and analytic tools can help seminarians develop a healthy critical mind that defuses fanaticism and anti-intellectualism. In this age of rampant misinformation and polarization, Chinese seminary educators have become increasingly aware of the importance of logic and critical thinking.
As in the West, Christian theology in the East has been heavily influenced by continental philosophy, and so learning from a different philosophical tradition can enrich theological works with a new perspective and fresh insights. For some years, I have introduced analytic philosophy to seminarians and pastors in Asia and found the analytic method useful—not only for systematic theology and apologetics, but also for more practical courses like hermeneutics, homiletics, and spiritual disciplines.
One basic tool of analytic philosophy is conceptual analysis, which aims to discover the precise meanings of the terms we use.
In his works, Plantinga provides perceptive analyses of several concepts—including God, free will, knowledge, and faith—which help readers see the rationality and appeal of Christian beliefs. Simply speaking, to analyze a concept x is basically to discover the basic components of x. According to his analysis in WCB, for instance, the concept of knowledge contains both the components of true belief and warrant. In other words, one can claim to know God if, and only if, one has a warranted true belief about God. And a belief has warrant if, and only if, it is produced by cognitive faculties that properly function in an appropriate environment.
Conceptual analysis is important, since we can often take our religious concepts for granted. These concepts can be overused and become cliché or even import foreign components and become easily manipulated for non-religious purposes. Those who teach and preach should realize that the scriptural concepts they use may not reflect the original meaning found in the Scriptures—or even if they do, they may not have meant the same thing to the original audience.
These gaps can lead to subtle errors that can increasingly distort Christian doctrine and practices. But armed with solid logic, conceptual analysis can become a disciplined practice of discernment. It can help address problems that vex Christians, such as how to differentiate faith from superstition, faithfulness from dogmatism, hope from wishful thinking, and love from sentimentalism. And by helping believers discover the implications of theological concepts, conceptual analysis can enrich their theological understanding.
According to Plantinga’s free will defense, having libertarian freedom logically entails the ability to do otherwise. Thus, God cannot choose to create a free Adam or Eve without the risk of falling into sin—divine omnipotence does not entail the ability to perform logically impossible actions (e.g., making 1+1=3). For example, God could create a flying human being, but God could not kill himself or commit sins, since doing such things would be impossible for God, as the most perfect being. God’s logic transcends human logic—but if God can violate logic, then God could contradict Godself, which is logically inconceivable.
We sometimes hear that, compared to the Western mind, the Chinese way of thinking is intuitive and non-analytical. But this narrative is challenged by the fact that Chinese philosophers, especially Mohists (Mojia) and the School of Names (Mingjia, “Logician”), were among the earliest proponents of logic and semantic theory in the world. Even Confucius, the most revered philosopher in China, advocated for the rectification of names or terms (zhengming), which can be understood as the examination of concepts. For, he said, “If the names are not rectified, then the words cannot make sense, but if the words do not make sense, then things cannot be established.”
As Wang Anshi, a Confucian from the Song Dynasty, writes: “What scholars debate is about the concepts and their referents; if one can achieve clear consistency between both, then the truth about the world can also be obtained!” While Chinese philosophy is more practically oriented than Western philosophy, the Mohists and the Confucians believe that correct practices are based on the examination and correction of our concepts. For this reason, using Plantinga’s analytical method is not only compatible with Chinese culture, but it can also facilitate the formation of contextual theology in Chinese churches.
Leonard Sidharta (Dai Yongfu) is an associate professor of theology at GETS Theological Seminary.