Reviewed by Todd Scacewater
The point of Mascord’s book is to assess the contribution of Alvin Plantinga’s work in the realm of apologetics and to make some slight adjustments to his epistemology to improve it for use in positive apologetics.
The first chapter gives a history of apologetics from Augustine through Aquinas, Calvin, Reid, Warfield, and Kuyper. He finds Plantinga to stem from Kuyper, who has an aversion to positive apologetics (i.e., arguing for the faith) (19). The second chapter gives background consideration to Plantinga’s negative apologetics (i.e., defending against objections to the faith). Mascord believes his contribution is “unsurpassed by any person in the latter part of the twentieth century” (21). He discusses Plantinga’s Reformed background, his challenges to faith at Harvard, and his spiritual experience that gave him a particularly overwhelming sense of the presence of God (24).
The next four chapters survey Plantinga’s work in various areas. Chapters 3-5 survey his work in negative apologetics, particularly on modern and postmodern challenges (ch. 3), evidentialist and de jure challenges to Christian belief (ch. 4), and evil and suffering (ch. 5). These chapters are a bit redundant to one who has read Plantinga, since they just summarize his work and add only a small bit of evaluation at the end of the chapter. Nevertheless, it is helpful to see Plantinga’s evolution of thought in some areas and the autobiographical details that lay behind his evolution of ideas is interesting. Regarding his free will defense of God’s co-existence with evil, he notes that the proposal has been accepted well by some non-Christian scholars, but that it depends on his suggestion of “transworld depravity” (88).
Chapter six provides a sort of apology for Plantinga’s lack of contribution to positive apologetics. He notes, first that Plantinga had no conscious intention to contribute. Second, he has had a “small, but significant change in attitude” toward positive apologetics (including a recent article about two-dozen [or so] good theistic arguments). Third, he has made some minor contributions even through his work in negative apologetics, for example, freeing up the positive apologist to focus on positive, rather than negative apologetics.
Chapters 7 and 8 provide critique and modification of Plantinga’s system so that, as Mascord believes, the theory will be more useful for apologetics. Chapter seven focuses on the nature of theistic belief, arguing that such belief is inferential, not properly basic. Plantinga believes people can behold nature and instantaneously get a sense of God through it. He believes the Holy Spirit repairs the sensus divinitatis and people then come to know God in a basic way. However, Mascord believes “Plantinga is simply wrong here” (130). When looking at nature, he believes there is an implicit form of the teleological argument in the background, even if not conscious. He believes that because people can give reasons why they believe in God (“because the earth is so beautiful, so God must have made it”), that must mean the reason is the cause of their believing (132).
He examines five different examples of people forming a belief of God in the basic way (God speaking to someone through the Bible, God disapproving of what one has done, God forgiving one upon confession, God protecting one in time of danger, believing God should be praised when life is good). He finds all these examples to involve an implicit inference. He makes a distinction between episodically inferential beliefs, which arise “from a process or episode of inferring, of explicitly drawing a conclusion from something one believes,” and structurally inferential beliefs, which “are based on still other beliefs, but which do not arise as a result of a conscious reasoning process” (130). He believes all of Plantinga’s examples to be instances of structurally inferential beliefs.
He also argues that other beliefs may have an impact on properly basic beliefs. A theist who believes God is speaking to him or her in Scripture will not overrule that belief based on other beliefs. But an atheist may use other beliefs as defeaters for that belief that God is speaking. Thus, warrant could come under threat through introspection and skeptical thinking (143). One major implication of this idea, if true, is that the idea of warranted Christian belief again comes under attack by evidentialists, but Mascord believes natural theology will then have to play much greater a role to combat evidentialists (144).
Chapter 8 establishes Mascord’s Warranted Trust model, which is built on testimony. He first argues that background beliefs play a key role when encountering the gospel (150-52). He prefers to see accepting the gospel as a kind of “inference to the best explanation” (153). He supports this idea by appealing to NT texts that give reasons to believe in the gospel, rather than simply claiming it. He believes, at face value, the NT writers “considered evidence for the truth of the gospel important” (158). He also believes they considered this evidence to be the basis for condemnation in unbelief. And here, I believe, is where Mascord really seeks to fix Plantinga, because Plantinga’s system makes it a bit more difficult to indict unbelievers. Mascord wants to give a foundation upon which to condemn unbelievers.
He then sets up his warranted trust model. He wants to build warrant upon the testimony of the apostles as enshrined in Scripture. They have evidence for their beliefs because they saw and heard them, and they made appropriate inferences about what they saw and heard to form warranted belief. We are warranted in believing their testimony if we are functioning properly and making proper inferences (160-61). He believes that the degree of warrant enjoyed by believing testimony depends on (1) the degree of warrant from the original source; (2) whether the person has independent grounds to believe or disbelieve the testimony; (3) the fulfillment of one’s epistemic duty to assess those reasons (167).
He must, however, defend his thesis against Plantinga’s argument for the dwindling probability of the conjunction of historical hypotheses. He argues, first, that historical evidence for the resurrection is high (169-71). He argues that, if Plantinga is right that the historical probability is low or inscrutable, there are bad implications for Christians, but that does not mean he is wrong. He then criticizes Plantinga’s calculus by noting inter-dependency on many propositions involved and the evidential witness of the NT apostles (172). It seems, at this point, that Mascord is confusing Plantinga’s project to answer the de jure question with the project to answer the de facto question. Evidence may be employed more effectively to argue that Christian belief is true, but evidence cannot guarantee warrant, and hence, not knowledge either, as Plantinga has shown in many examples. Moreover, Mascord’s view of a historian assessing the reliability of the NT is very academic, and hence unaccessible to the layman (e.g., even considering matters of “authorship and dating” are beyond laymen ).
Chapter nine rounds out the book with an evaluation of Plantinga’s significance. He notes that Plantinga is more in line with Aquinas than with Augustine, especially given his emerging interest in natural theology. He also notes that Plantinga may provide a point of reconciliation between presuppositionalists and evidentialists.
Overall, Mascord’s work is disappointing as a monograph. The amount of summarizing is disparaging to a reader who is already acquainted with Plantinga’s work and seems unnecessary, especially since many of the points of summary are not developed for any purpose. More problematic, however, is his two chapters of modification of Plantinga’s system. First, his argument for inferential beliefs is not very convincing. His argument amounts simply to claiming that people can give reasons for why they hold a belief, so those reasons must be the grounds of belief. But this doesn’t discount Plantinga’s contention that beliefs can be the occasion of belief rather than the grounds, nor is it necessarily a more satisfactory explanation.
Now, if the sensus divinitatis acts such that we all know God already, all the time, but we suppress it, then it would still hold that we know God basically through the sensus. So I do not see anything convincing in Mascord’s argument for beliefs being inferential. Even the belief that “God is speaking to me in Scripture” is something that usually comes through a certain kind of phenomenology that lacks inferential structures. It may be the case that Mascord could argue that sometimes these beliefs are inferential (as indeed they are), but in most cases, or in the case of perpetual beliefs (that God exists), there seems to be no inferential structure.
Secondly, his argument for the use of testimony, which is built on evidence, seems to miss Plantinga’s critiques completely.
(a) His model relies on persons making inferences, who then have warranted beliefs, who then transmit those warranted beliefs to other persons, who make inferences to believe such things. There are so many gaps and possibilities for cognitive malfunction along this chain (especially given the need to make correct inferences) that the view seems quite implausible as an argument for warranted belief.
(b) His reliance on evidence for the production of beliefs (through inferences) misses Plantinga’s sharp critiques that evidence is neither necessary nor sufficient for warrant. Plantinga gives the example of a man who knows he was hiking because he has the basic memory belief of hiking at a time of a robbery, but the police have mountains of evidence that suggest the man was there at the time of the robbery. Although all the evidence leads in one direction, it leads down the wrong path, for there are other sources of knowledge that are more basic and reliable than evidence.
(c) His use of evidence falls prey to Gettier problems, whereby evidence can lead to accidentally true beliefs, which would then not be knowledge.
(d) His argument against Plantinga’s argument for the dwindling probabilities of historical arguments is not attractive. His only real argument is that the argument for the resurrection is actually high, but what about all the other propositions that must be included? That Luke really wrote Acts; that Luke was functioning properly when he wrote it; that Luke make the correct inferences; that Jesus really did rise from the dead; that God really was vindicating Jesus through that (unlike in the case of some others in the Bible that were raised from the dead); etc. Even the case for the historicity of the resurrection is such that it still falls prey to Gettier situations under Mascord’s scheme, and thus cannot be construed as knowledge in the epistemological sense.
(e) Mascord seems to confuse the de jure and de facto questions. His evidentialist approach is more suited to the factuality of Christian belief (that it actually happened in history, and that correct inferences were made about those events). But his theory is entirely insufficient for warranted knowledge, which would answer the de jure question. Even with all the evidence for the events that one could mount, that does not mean that one would be rational in believing it.
Overall, Mascord’s work is an interesting experiment, but one that I think misses Plantinga’s major points of contribution to epistemology, including his counter examples that demonstrate serious problems with epistemological positions such as evidentialism.
Todd Scacewater is Assistant Editor here at Books At a Glance and a Teaching Fellow at Westminster Theological Seminary. He owns Exegetical Tools where he produces content for learning biblical languages. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Alvin Plantinga and Christian Apologetics