Beyond Plantinga and Improper Function: The Inexcusability of Unbelief

Why do I need redemption?  For what do I need to be forgiven?  From what do I need to be saved?  These questions posed to a Christian should elicit answers about sin, the punishment for sin, and the need for redemption.  Yet is this account fair?  Specifically, what is to be made of Reformed Epistemology and its well known advocate Alvin Plantinga?  Does Plantinga's account of proper function make sense of the need for redemption, and preserve necessary concepts such as inexcusability, clarity, and rationality?  In the following Plantinga's position will be described and then considered in light of the above questions.  The assertion here is that Plantinga's position does not make sense of sin, or the need for redemption through the death of Christ.  This is because on Plantinga’s view the unbeliever has an excuse for their unbelief, it is not clear that God exists, and human rationality is defective/not properly functioning.  For the purposes of this paper it can be granted that Plantinga has established that theists are within their epistemic rights.  This paper is not an argument against that aspect of Plantinga’s work, and some might say that that is all Plantinga was trying to do.  This paper is arguing the following:

The Christian claim that humans need redemption presupposes that humans are guilty of something.

Guilt presupposes inexcusability: if a person can be excused then they are not guilty and do not need redemption.

Inexcusability presupposes ability: if a person is inexcusable in their failure to know God then they must have been able to know God.

Ability presupposes clarity: the standard for which humans are held accountable must be clear or else humans have an excuse for not keeping it in that they were not able to know.

Clarity presupposes rationality: a clear standard must be a rational standard which in turn implies that the alternatives are not rational.  If the alternatives to knowing God are rational then humans have an excuse for not knowing God.

Consequently, if Christians maintain that humans need redemption Christians also must maintain that there is a clear, rational (and therefore knowable) standard that humans have failed to keep and are therefore inexcusable in their guilt.

Christianity has made this claim as is evidenced from the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism: “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable” (WCF 1.1).  “What is required in the first commandment?  The first commandment requireth us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly” (Question 46).

Plantinga’s Position:

Alvin Plantinga has spent a good part of his career showing that non-Christian objections to Christian belief are unfounded.  He says in his most recent book “My aim is to show how it can be that Christians can be justified, rational (both internally and externally), and warranted in holding full-blooded Christian belief” (Warranted 200).  This includes theistic belief.  Part of this work involves an explanation of what sin is.  His view of sin revolves around proper and improper function.  He defines original sin as “a cognitive limitation that first of all prevents its victim from proper knowledge of God and his beauty, glory, and love” (Warranted 207).  He also states that it is affective, turning our will to what is wrong (208).  He believes that “the most serious noetic effects of sin have to do with our knowledge of God. Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us as the presence of other minds, physical objects, and the past . . . Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired” (Warranted 214).  An analogy can be drawn to the act of sight.  When the eye does not function properly the owner of the eye does not see the world clearly.  The owner may not even realize this is the case.  But once glasses are used, the difference is obvious.  According to Plantinga it is a similar kind of state from which a person needs redemption.  The person is in the state of not properly functioning, and is therefore not able to understand as they should.  It is through the work of redemption that a person is restored to understanding the world as they should.  Redemption in Christ is where the justice of God is satisfied through the death of Christ and the redeemed person is made right before God; this also displays the mercy of God in giving his only Son.

Problems with the Definition of Sin:

In Plantinga’s view of proper function it is not clear if sin is not understanding the world as we should, or if it is what makes us not understand the world as we should.  If sin is due to improper function, then this is merely a part of our being and is outside our control; presumably Plantinga would not be willing to accept a situation where humans are created with deficiencies and held accountable for those deficiencies.  If sin is a predisposition, or a nasty will, then this still falls under improper function and one cannot be held accountable for that.  Being born with blurred vision is no fault of mine.  Plantinga says “the most important cognitive consequence of sin, therefore, is failure to know God” (Warranted 217).  It sounds like he means that the effect of sin is not knowing God, rather than sin is not knowing God.  This means that sin is the state of improper function, giving rise to various effects, none of which are in the control of the person with improper function.  While Plantinga speaks of how sin affects us so that we do not understand what is clear, he does not speak about God’s existence no longer being clear.  Perhaps we can make a distinction between what is objectively clear and what is subjectively clear.  A person may not understand what is objectively clear because they do not want to understand.  A person may not subjectively understand because they have denied what is objectively clear.  Sin involves accountability, whereas improper function outside of my control does not.  Sin is therefore not understanding what you should, not seeing what is clear.  If this is the result of something outside my control then I cannot be held accountable.

The Effects of Sin:

While the analogy of proper function is to that of seeing with the eye, in what sense can proper function affect a person's rationality?  Can a person be rational and yet not be able to understand that God exists?  Plantinga gives a very broad definition of "rationality" that includes a great deal of what perhaps should be called a person's "intuitions."  But what about a narrow definition of rationality?  Gary Gutting says “there’s a stronger sense of rationality in which a belief’s being rational entails that its denial is not rational.  Plantinga has not shown that belief in God is rational in this sense” (Gutting 237).  Can improper function keep a person from being rational in this sense?  If so, in what sense is that person accountable?  Because Plantinga only shows that Christian belief is rational in this broad sense his claim about the warrant of Christian belief becomes questionable.  The adherents of the various world religions are all rational in this broad sense of the term, yet Christianity claims that all of them are without excuse in their failure to know God.  It is because of this that, according to Christianity, all humans need redemption from a state of guilt (not merely a state of immaturity, lack of growth, etc.).

Three Objections to Plantinga:

The first objection presented here to Plantinga’s defense of Christian belief is that it does not preserve the idea that there is inexcusability for unbelief.  Plantinga's position appears to leave mankind with an excuse for their unbelief.  They could not believe because they were not properly functioning.  Even if they wanted to believe, the vision of their mind's eye has been blurred so that they cannot see.  This is contrary to the claim that inexcusability requires clarity.  For the purposes of this paper, a belief is clear if the opposite is not possible (for example, involves a self-contradiction).  If a belief is not clear in this sense, then a person has an excuse for rejecting it and is therefore not inexcusable.  There may be many cases in life where we do not have this kind of clarity, but in these situations we are also not held to the standard of inexcusability; improper function does not establish inexcusability. 

The second objection follows from this, and is that Plantinga’s position does not maintain that God’s existence is clear.  In order to be inexcusable that for which you are held accountable must be clear.  You are inexcusable when you do not understand what you should.  Or, to put it another way, if you want to know that God exists you can know that God exists.  Yet Plantinga asserts that while there might be some instances where the existence of God comes to us like an intuition, improper function blocks this.  Plantinga never endeavors to show that it is clear that God exists so that the opposite claim is not rational.  Improper function does not apply to this case because improper function does not affect the mind's ability to see that the claim “God does not exist” is not rational.  If it does, then it is unfair to hold humans accountable for what amounts to a natural deficiency that is unavoidable.  Sin requires inexcusability, and inexcusability requires clarity.

The third objection is that Plantinga’s position does not preserve the idea of rationality spoken of above.  Clarity requires rationality.  Rationality in this sense, the sense spoken of by Gutting, is that a belief is rational if the denial is not rational.  This is rationality in the sense of the law of non-contradiction.  Clarity requires that if “God exists” is true, then “it is not the case that God exists” is not true.  Plantinga speaks about rationality in a broad sense, where adherents from various worldviews are rational.  If multiple options are rational, then there is not clarity and thus no inexcusability.  Therefore, to uphold inexcusability one must uphold clarity and a definition of rationality that (upholding the law of non-contradiction) maintains that “God does not exist” is not true because “God exists” is true.  It can be said that God’s existence is clear if the denial is not rational (involves a self-contradiction).  And humans as rational beings can understand this.  While it might be true that accumulated denial of what is clear leaves a person in a place where subjectively they do understand as they should, nonetheless they are in that position because they have failed to know what they could and should have known.  It would be unfair to hold mankind accountable for knowing what is unclear if mankind is non-rational or irrational.  If improper function means we cannot use reason to know what is clear, then this is a natural deficiency and no fault of our own.

Possible Defeaters:

But what if we try a reconstruction of Christianity where there is no need for redemption, only growth, and Christ's death is an aid in that growth.  Perhaps the purpose of Christ’s death is only to show the love of God, there is no satisfaction of God's justice involved.  Of course, this is a reconstruction; it departs from historic Christianity, and so Plantinga would not want to endorse it.  He claims that his “model will include the main lines of ecumenical classic Christian belief” and that it is also Reformed or Calvinistic in detail (Warranted 201).  But even granting that point, this reconstruction is not helpful.  It is one thing to grow through a natural deficiency.  It is another to be punished and afflicted as you grow through a natural deficiency.  It is not just the case that we grow naturally, and Christ's death is an aid in that.  It is the case that we suffer greatly in this life.  How is this fair if what we are growing through is a natural deficiency?  Clearly this reconstruction must not only jettison the justice of God, but it must redefine redemption in ways that are unacceptable to Christianity.

Besides reconstructing Christianity, another option is to reconstruct reason.  Kelly James Clark offers three approaches to proof for God’s existence.  The first is the evidentialist approach, which agrees with the enlightenment that a belief should only be held upon adequate evidence.  This view says that there is adequate evidence for belief in God.  The second also agrees with the enlightenment, but believes that there is not adequate evidence for belief in God.  The third rejects the enlightenment claim, and argues instead that there are certain beliefs people hold without evidence, and that they are rational in doing so.  This last view Clark identifies with Plantinga.  Yet whichever of these a person goes with, the need for inexcusability is still present.  Inexcusability does not require that there be evidence, as evidence is not always agreed upon by everyone in the discussion.  Inexcusability requires that it be clear that God exists so that everyone participating in the argument is without excuse in not understanding.  Or, if there are certain beliefs that are held without evidence, then it is clear that a person should have these beliefs about God.  This leaves people without such beliefs as inexcusable.  An interesting shift has taken place in thinkers like Plantinga or Clark.  They are no longer arguing about whether it is true that God exists, but whether a person is within their “epistemic rights” to believe in God.  This is a statement about rights, and not a statement about God’s existence.  Perhaps the materialist must accept the theist as within his/her rights.  This does not prove that God exists.  This paper is concerned with the clarity of God’s existence, not about epistemic rights.  Therefore much of what Plantinga says about epistemic rights does not apply here.  This paper could, in principle, agree with him on that point and disagree that his view preserves inexcusability, clarity, and rationality.

Another common attempt to avoid showing that humans are inexcusable in not knowing God is the claim that reason is fallen.  This position asserts that human reason is fallen and cannot know God as it could before the fall.  Therefore, humans have an excuse in their failing to know God, and the Christian does not need to show the clarity of God’s existence.  There are two responses to this: first, reason itself cannot be fallen (as if the law of non-contradiction no longer holds true after the fall), but humans can fail to use reason as they should; second, even after the fall God's existence and nature are still clear to reason so that unbelief is without an excuse.  If the Christian assertion that humans need redemption is true, then this presupposes that humans are guilty of violating a rational standard: reason itself testifies to this standard and leaves humans inexcusable in their failure to know what they should.

A final defense against the present objection is that people just find themselves believing in God, and it should be left at that.  Plantinga and Clark both offer examples where, after seeing some wonder of nature, people conclude that God exists.  This is a kind of intuition, and of course different people get different intuitions from the same sight.  The Hindu will conclude that Plantinga is not properly functioning.  But why should a person have to prove their beliefs resulting from intuitions?  There are two problems with this objection.  First, it is again making the mistake of shifting from talk about what exists to talk about our epistemic rights.  In some loose sense such a person may be within their epistemic rights to form a belief based on their intuition.  But is it clear that God exists so that men are without excuse?  Or do the non-theists have an excuse, namely, that they were not appeared to in this fashion when looking at nature?  Second, this overlooks the reality that our experiences must be interpreted.  In the example where I go out and see nature, and feel that God exists, what does this mean?  Does it mean God exists, or Zeus exists, or Allah exists, or really smart aliens exist?  Or, perhaps only minds and their ideas exist, or my brain chemistry is acting up again because of what I ate for breakfast.  Which of these should I use to interpret my experience?  Experiences must be interpreted.  However, Plantinga and Clark speak as if there is no interpretation, or perhaps as if any interpretation is a valid interpretation.  Is the Hindu interpretation a valid interpretation?  If so, is Plantinga not properly functioning when he fails to have an intuition about Brahman?  When someone asks me why I interpreted my experience as I did, and tells me that they had a similar experience and they interpreted it to mean the opposite of what I interpreted it as, perhaps we are both within our epistemic rights in a loose sense, but not both of our interpretations can be true.  And if it is clear that God exists so that the person who interprets reality otherwise is without an excuse, then his interpretation must be clearly mistaken.

           Interestingly, many reconstructions or even rejections of Christianity seem to come at precisely this point: Christians claim that humanity needs redemption, but they have not shown that humanity has violated a clear, rational standard and is therefore inexcusable.  Instead, Christians appeal to special revelation or inner experience, and these do not establish a clear rational standard available to all.  Therefore Christianity is either rejected, or reconstructed so as not to include a strong claim about the need for redemption.

Plantinga’s Account Is Insufficient:

The three objections above show that Plantinga’s view of Christian belief is insufficient to preserve the ideas of sin and redemption.  If redemption is merely growth through a natural deficiency then the idea of accountability is not applicable.  One cannot be held accountable for natural deficiencies.  Instead, Christianity presents the situation as one of guilt.  Humans are guilty for not seeing what is clear, and therefore they have no excuse.  This inexcusability requires that if they had wanted to, they could have known God as they should have.  Their need for redemption speaks to the fact that they do not know God as they should have and are therefore guilty.  Plantinga's view empties inexcusability and clarity of their meaning, and in so doing leaves the need for redemption inexplicable.  The implication of this is that if Christianity is true then it is a moral obligation for a person to know that God exists and be able to show this.  This obligation would first rest with the Christians since they are making the claim, although all humans are without excuse in not seeing what is clear. Gutting’s complaint is that contemporary Christian philosophers have done nothing to support their beliefs.  “It’s remarkable, don’t you think, that, although Christians are a major presence in contemporary philosophy of religion, they haven’t produced any positive case for Christianity?  Someone who wants to know why Christian philosophers believe will find little or nothing to take seriously” (Gutting 237).  The concept of "improper function" and weak definitions of "rationality" do not support the ideas of sin and redemption necessary for Christianity.

Christian Obligation:

But does the Christian have this obligation?  Plantinga has often asserted that he does not, that belief in God is properly basic and therefore needs no argument or proof.  However, because Christianity includes the claim that humans ought to know that God exists, adherence to Christianity requires more than intuition, or tradition and custom.  For Christianity’s claim to be true, the existence of God must be clear to all humans, so that a person must reject what is clear in order to avoid believing in God.  Consider the following analogy: The chess club at a local university feels that it is looked down upon by other clubs.  The rugby club seems to think that it is the best club, and that anyone not in its club is not up to par.  Those in the chess club wish to show that their club is just as good for their members as the rugby club is for its members.  A particularly eloquent member of the chess club presents an argument to the effect that the chess club lives up to all the requirements of a club, its members fulfill the requirements placed on members of a club, and that members of the chess club are warranted in being members of this club (rather than some other club) because it meets all the requirements of a club.  On the face of it this seems fine, and with respect to clubs who could disagree?

           But now suppose that being part of the chess club involves believing the following:  Unless you believe as true the basic beliefs of the chess club you are in a state of guilt and need redemption.  Does this change the situation?  Certainly.  The chess club is making a claim that goes beyond the pursuit of hobbies, and is simply arbitrary.  Such an arbitrary claim is not fair.  Cashing out the metaphor, Plantinga presents Christianity as one worldview among many, and argues that the adherents of Christianity are warranted in their Christian belief.  Part of Christian belief is that humans are guilty for not knowing God as they should and that therefore they need redemption.  Humans should believe in Christ for their redemption.  However, Plantinga does not show why non-Christians should be Christians.  Terrence Tilley says “He [Plantinga] has not shown why his position is not arbitrary or making the mistake of presuming what is at issue” (Tilley 241).

This metaphor may have some weaknesses, for instance clubs and worldviews/religions are different.  Plantinga might say that membership to a club is not a properly basic belief.  However, what is similar with the point being made is that membership is apparently arbitrary (can be based on intuitions which differ from person to person), people are held responsible for their choice to be, or not to be, a member, and it is not clear that a person should be a member.  No argument has been given in this paper about whether or not belief in God is properly basic.  Whether or not people have an intuition about God’s existence they should be able to know that God exists.  This paper focuses on the Christian claims about sin and redemption.  If humans are inexcusable for failing to know God, then it must be clear that God exists.  If it is clear that God exists then human rationality is necessary to know this.  Therefore claims about proper/improper function cannot over-ride human rationality and the ability to know God.  The Christian should be able to show that God exists, in order to show that humans are without excuse in their unbelief.

Plantinga’s Use Of Scripture and the Holy Spirit:

In order to give some support to his worldview Plantinga sometimes makes an appeal to scripture, or the work of the Holy Spirit.  However, appeals to scripture become circular, and the operations of the Holy Spirit are not what humans are accountable for.  While a person may gain knowledge of the Gospel from scripture, why is the Gospel necessary?  Why do humans need to be forgiven by God?  According to the Apostle Paul, the sin for which all humans are guilty is the failure to know God (Romans 1:20).  The need to believe in Christ for forgiveness arises precisely because one needs to be forgiven, forgiven for not knowing God as one should and could have.  The scriptures are the account of God's redemption.  This means that the scriptures are necessary because humans have first failed to know God as they should, they are not the source of this knowledge of God.  Scripture claims that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19), and humans are responsible before God to know this.  Therefore appeals to the scripture as proof for the existence of God, or defending belief in God, beg the question.

           Plantinga makes a similar appeal to the Holy Spirit.  While it is true that the Reformed faith believes that the Holy Spirit is responsible for giving life to a person lost in the death of unbelief, this does not tell us about human responsibility.  Humans are responsible before God to know what is clearly revealed about God in the creation.  Humans are not responsible for the work of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore appeals to the Holy Spirit as proof do nothing to establish human responsibility before God (to say nothing of the fact that such appeals are implemented by competing worldviews).  Whether or not the Holy Spirit works in a person’s life, that person is responsible to know what is clear about God.


In conclusion, the Christian claim that humans need redemption from sin through the death of Christ makes sense only if that for which humans need redemption is a clear standard knowable to all human beings so that they are without excuse.  Inexcusability requires clarity, and clarity requires rationality.  Plantinga’s account of sin as improper function does not maintain this and makes claims about redemption appear empty.  The application of this is that on the Christian view there is a moral obligation to know that God exists, and therefore the Christian is obligated to show this.  This involves showing that the denial of belief in God is not rational.  However, Plantinga has not been willing to provide this.  As was noted above, Plantinga often switches to making statements about epistemic rights, rather than about the existence of God.  This paper’s concern is to establish the necessary connection between the need for redemption and inexcusability (if one has an excuse then one does not need redemption), between inexcusability and clarity, and between clarity and rationality.  As shown above the Christian claims of inexcusability, redemption, and punishment require that the truths of Christianity be clear.  Thus the Christian should be able to show what is clear.  We began with questions about redemption.  The Christian has answers that are by no means unfair: Humans need redemption because they have failed to know God as they should and could have; it is clear that God exists, so that human are without excuse in their unbelief; humans could use reason to know God if they so desired. 

Works Cited

Clark, Kelly James. Return to Reason. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids: 1990

Gutting, Gary. The Catholic and the Calvinist: A Dialogue On Faith and Reason. Faith and Philosophy. Vol 2, No 3, July 1985. 236-256.

Tilley, Terrence W. Reformed Epistemology and Religoius Fundamentalism: How Basic Are Our Basic Beliefs? Modern Theology. >6:3 April 1990. 237-257.

Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. Oxford University Press. Oxford: 2000.

---. Warrant: The Current Debate. Oxford University Press. Oxford: 1993.

---. Warrant and Proper Function. Oxford University Press. Oxford: 1993.

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