Subscribe to Christianity Today
Epistemology for Saints
Reviewing a prominent religious thinker's magnum opus is no easy task. Imagine a fourteenth-century reader entrusted with the job of reviewing the Summa Theologica for a bimonthly folio-review. Or a mid-twentieth century reviewer attempting to sum up the gist of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics in a page or two. It would be difficult, in either case, to convey the subtlety of argument, the depth of engagement with tradition, and the sheer intellectual scope of the project.
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that a reviewer of Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief faces a similar challenge. Plantinga's book isn't quite as long as Aquinas's or Barth's, but at just over 500 pages it brings to a hefty 1,000 the page-length of his Warrant trilogy (the first two volumes were published with Oxford in 1993). Like these other tomes, Warranted Christian Belief is the product of decades of effort, retraced steps, refined argumentation, prolonged meditation, and conversation with other philosophers and theologians. Moreover, like the Summa, Plantinga's book is meant to be accessible to the uninitiated (though there is some question whether Plantinga is any more successful than Aquinas was in this regard). And as in the Dogmatics, portions of Plantinga's book are published in small print; here the author addresses nitpicky questions that specialists might raise about the large-print points he makes for the general reader.
Unlike Barth or Aquinas, however, Plantinga has an eminently winsome writing style—down-to-business but also witty and at times playfully sarcastic. For example, Plantinga quips in the opening chapter on Kant that the apparent inconsistencies in Kant's writings are "all part of his charm," concludes that (despite Kant's protestations to the contrary) there is nothing in Kantian philosophy to prevent us from thinking that some of our concepts apply to God, and adds (for good measure) that "after all, it is not just a given of the intellectual life" that Kant ...