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Feature Book Review

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Selected Essays, Vol.1, Inquiring about God and

Vol. II, Practices of Belief, edited by Terence Cuneo. New York NY:
Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Brendan Sweetman
In these volumes Terence Cuneo brings together a collection of the papers of
Nicholas Wolterstorff on a variety of mostly interrelated topics that Wolterstorff
has covered during the course of his career, especially in the area of analytic philosophy of religion. Most of the essays have been previously published, though
many have been edited and revised, and several are new, especially in the second
volume, where Wolterstorff attempts to elaborate further some foundational ideas
in epistemology that had been presupposed in his earlier work. The themes of these
volumes range over the topics for which Wolterstorff is best known: Reformed
epistemology (on which I will focus primarily in this review essay); epistemology
in general; challenges to classical theism on topics such as Gods nature as simple,
God and suffering, and God and change; realism vs. anti-realism; and the epistemological theories of John Locke and Thomas Reid, philosophers on whose work
Wolterstorff has written books.
Cuneo has done a great job in bringing together such a wide-ranging set of essays
from an important contemporary philosopher. Even readers not especially sympathetic to the Reformed approach will find much of significance. Wolterstorff is an
insightful, engaging, and clever interlocutor whose ideas contribute much to our
understanding of some of the most difficultbut also the most fascinatingquestions in philosophy. Even those not interested in philosophy of religion will find
much in these volumes to whet their appetites. Fans of Reformed epistemology, and
those familiar with Wolterstorffs views, will not find much that is new here, though
they will surely welcome his extended discussion of the nature of God question as
well as having many of his influential contributions all in one place.
The analytic style of the volumes may be off-putting to some, and sometimes the
author is given to being prolix. Although there is some overlap and quite a bit of
repetition in some of the essays (especially in the second volume), there is no doubt
that what we have here is a wide-ranging, stimulating, and engaging set of reflections on an influential, though controversial, movement in contemporary philosophy
of religion. Overall, I find Wolterstorffs Reformed epistemology unsatisfactory,
and in this essay I will concentrate primarily on that influential movement. (Wolterstorff is one of its pioneers.) We will also focus more briefly on his views with
regard to the nature of God, for these views are often in contrast to those of the
classical tradition. It will prove convenient to concentrate on these central themes
International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 51, No. 3, Issue 203 (September 2011)


Brendan Sweetman

in Wolterstorffs philosophy by considering both volumes together in the discussion, rather than separately.
Reformed Epistemology
The movement of Reformed epistemology, as Wolterstorff acknowledges, takes
its root from the Dutch Reformed tradition, under the influence of the theological
approach of John Calvin. Calvin held that all human beings have a disposition to
believe in God, and so many forms of unbelief are due to the effects of sin (II:345).
Wolterstorff points out that since human beings are naturally religious, this means
that it is atheism that has to be explained wherever it crops up in humanity, and not
religious belief. From this background, Wolterstorff explains that his approach and
the approach of his fellow travelers in this movement, including Alvin Plantinga,
is based on a particular interpretation of St Augustines motto of faith seeking
understanding. He notes: What we were taught to understand by the motto is that
it is the calling of the Christian intellectual to conduct all of ones inquiries in the
light of faith ... [and] to develop history, sociology, philosophy, political theory,
and so forth, in the light of faith (II:336). This approach defines the fundamental
orientation of Reformed epistemologists: they begin with belief in God as given
in ones ordinary experiences, and move from that position to attempt a defense of
the rationality of religious belief. This defense is sometimes indirect, sometimes
direct, but often quite elusive; it is also controversial and faces several obvious
problems that many believe have never been satisfactorily resolved. Wolterstorff
tellingly notes in these essays that he developed this basic Reformed approach
to the question of the rationality of religious belief first, and then only later did
both he and Plantinga turn their attention to filling out the epistemological views
that their approach seemed to require, a move that they believed would further
strengthen their view. In developing their views, the influence of Locke (negatively)
and Reid (positively) is evident. Wolterstorff also emphasizes that, in opposition to
much contemporary thinking, he is developing his view as a metaphysical realist
(I:18) by holding that God really exists as a transcendent being beyond human
consciousness, and that God is not significantly modified or changed in the human
act of coming to know him (and so Wolterstorff is critical of various anti-realist
strands in contemporary philosophy of religion, including in the Wittgensteinian
approach of D. Z. Phillips).
Wolterstorff lays out the main claims of Reformed epistemology in several essays
over the course of these volumes. The basic argument is that religious beliefs are
or at least can be basic, or properly basic, as the Reformed epistemologists put it.
This means that religious beliefs do not have to measure up to the demand of the
doxastic ideal laid down by Locke and others, whereby one must give evidence
and argument to support ones beliefs before one accepts them. No, according to
Wolterstorff, religious believers in normal circumstances are perfectly rational in
accepting religious beliefs as basic; they are guilty of no epistemic deficiency or
impropriety. As long as these beliefs are formed by a reliable process, then one is
entitled to hold them, and it is rational for one to hold them. He prefers now to talk

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mainly of entitlement in epistemology, rather than justificationwhich is what

many think needs to be added to true belief to get knowledgeand even rather
than rationality, although he says that he often confused these three notions in his
earlier work (II:7).
Of course, Wolterstorff, Plantinga, and their followers, of whom there is now quite
an influential group, are philosophers and so this prompts the question as to whether
this new approach is trying to justify religious belief philosophically? Sometimes
Wolterstorff seems to be talking only of the ordinary believers justification rather
than of the philosophical defense of religious belief such as a philosopher of religion
might offer. In general, the Reformed epistemologists have not been as clear as
they might be on this point, and this has sometimes led to the accusation that their
view is deliberately vague. They seem to begin by suggesting that their approach
in philosophy of religion is designed to show how belief in God can be rational for
a particular religious believer on the basis of that believers religious experiences.
That is to say, an ordinary religious believer who comes to believe in God on the
basis of an ordinary religious experience is justified in believing in God on the basis
of that experience (or experiences) without appeal to any objective evidence that
might be available to others, including those who have not had the experiences.
On the other hand, Wolterstorff as a philosopher is trying to show that the ordinary
religious believer is so justified; so, indirectly this would also seem to function more
generally as a philosophical defense of religious belief. It sometimes sounds as if he
is arguing that the ordinary religious believer does not need any proof or argument
for her religious beliefs, that these beliefs are properly basic and need not measure
up to some Lockean doxastic ideal of objective evidence and argument. Nevertheless,
we have in fact a general argument after all for the rationality of religious belief,
namely, the one offered by Wolterstorff in these essays!
A New Approach to an Old Argument:
Virginias Religious Experience
It is for this reason that the Reformed approach does represent a genuinely new approach to an old argument: the argument from religious experience. The traditional
argument from religious experience for the existence of God, or for the rationality
of belief in God, starts from the premise of a particular persons religious experience and holds that it is rational for that person to conclude that God exists on the
basis of the experience. The argument is then generalized to the claim that many
people have had religious experiences and so we can conclude that the existence
of God is the cause of, or the best explanation for, or the best interpretation of,
these experiences (depending on the version of the argument being developed). The
key move in this understanding of the argument is that there is an inference from
ones experiences to the existence of God. Critics of the argument typically claim
that the inference is unjustified in some important sense, that people mistakenly
(for a variety of reasons) believe that their experiences are religious when they
really are not. It is precisely at the point of the inference, or the interpretation of
the experience, that critics attack the argument. The Reformed epistemologists,


Brendan Sweetman

on the other hand, argue that theirs is a different type of argument from religious
experience (though they do not seem to be denying the validity of the traditional
argument). But Wolterstorff argues that there is no inference involved in many
cases of religious experience, that one is somehow immediately or directly aware
of Gods presence in the experience.
This particular argument from religious experience is not so much concerned with
the truth of the matter, i.e., with whether the religious experience actually comes
from God, or with whether it is true that God causes the religious experience, or
whether it is true that the religious experience is best explained by the existence of
God, but more with what the religious believer is entitled to believe on the basis of
the experience. This is also partially relative to the contextual situation of the person
who has the experience. Wolterstorff holds that we should not ask in many situations
whether a belief is true but rather whether a person is entitled to hold the belief. He
further holds that this notion of entitlement is almost always situation-specific
(II:314). We cannot ask objectively whether a person is entitled to hold a belief, but
only whether in a certain context they are entitled to hold it, and this depends on a
careful examination of the context. In a new essay, On Being Entitled to Beliefs
about God, he gives us an instructive example to illustrate this epistemological
thesis and to show its application specifically in the area of religious belief. The
example is about an acquaintance of his, Virginia, who was on the faculty of a topflight American university at the time of her experiences and was clearly a member
of the contemporary Western intelligentsia.
Against the backdrop of difficulties and in-fighting in her parish, Virginia was
folding laundry one day when she had a certain knowledge that Bryon, a member of
her parish, was supposed to leave St. Pauls Church. She described the experience
this way: There was no external voice, but there was a brightening in the room
at the moment of revelation. The experience was so overwhelming (II:318). The
experience had such a profound effect on Virginia that later that day she started
sobbing; she had further experiences in which seven statements she needed to tell
Bryon were communicated to her. They were simple statements about his leaving
the church: that he was young, that his work at the church was done, that God would
take care of him, etc. She was awe-struck and terrified because nothing like this
had ever happened to her before or to anyone she knew. A few weeks later she had
several more messages from God during a night time thunderstorm (II:318). Later,
she reflected at length about the experiences, discussed them with others, including
her spiritual director, and also with a psychologist. But she concluded that she was
perfectly sane and that they were genuine experiences of the divine.
These are the kinds of experiences (and simpler experiences such as an experience
that God created all of nature or that God created the starry sky) that Wolterstorff has in mind when he argues that religious experiences can be properly basic.
The important question in Virginias case is not whether the experiences are true,
whether she really had an experience of God, whether God really did communicate
various messages to her. The question is whether she is entitled to believe that the
experiences are genuine religious experiences, entitled to believe that God was
talking to her in the experiences. And, by extension, what would follow from all of

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this about the rationality of religious belief in general. After initially arguing that
Virginia was entitled to believe that these experiences came from God because the
belief just flowed over her, and that there was no initial practice of inquiry that she
did not employ that she should have employed, Wolterstorffs interpretation of what
happened to Virginia is this: her experience had both presentational and conceptual
content. It was the experience of something; and that something was apprehended
by her under the concept of God speaking to her. The experience evoked in her the
belief that God was speaking to her ... immediately. She did not infer that God was
speaking to her from some other beliefs of hers. Or, if she did, she inferred it from
the belief that she was experiencing God speaking to her; and then that belief was
invoked in her immediately (II:319). He concludes that Virginia was entitled to
this belief at the time, but then asks an important question: was she entitled to it at
a later time, after she had reflected on it and gained some distance and perspective
on it? He argues that she was, even though she was already committed to the basic
tenets of Christianity and her possession of the conceptuality that goes with that
(II:320) as well as her belief that it is possible for God to speak to people. Unless
critics can show that all of these beliefs and practices are false, or that she was inattentive or otherwise remiss in forming her beliefs, the conclusion must be that she
is entitled to her belief. As Wolterstorff puts it: I fail to see any practice of inquiry
relevant to her belief that Virginia ought to have employed but failed to employ, or
failed to employ as well as she ought to have (II:322).
Obviously one cannot rule out this conclusion by definition by claiming sometime
like God does not exist and so cannot speak to people, or that no rational person
today should believe in an experience like this. Even if one is prepared to back
these claims up with the best arguments that one can find (and these arguments are
weak), the religious believer will argue just the opposite, of course, and so we are
back to the experience, and our understanding and interpretation of it. Wolterstorff
also carefully and astutely points out that experiences like these (and especially of
the simpler kind) are common in religious communitiesfar more common than
perhaps we realize (so claim the Reformed epistemologists)and that, contrary
to the views of those who are largely ignorant of religion, religious communities
have a whole host of practices for sorting through these kinds of claims, for trying
to discern whether they should regard such experiences as reliable or not. These
might include, for instance, that they ought to read different or additional texts,
they ought to use a different method for interpreting the texts already read, that
they ought to listen to different or additional leaders, that they ought to listen more
carefully to the promptings of their own heart, and so forth (II:323). The practices
may even be contested both inside and outside of the community, and so are like
practices of inquiry in general. So, Virginia then is entitled to her belief. This does
not mean that it is true, but it is not possible to decisively rule out that it is true. This
is where the skeptic overreaches, according to Wolterstorff, because the issue is not
what he would believe, but, rather: is she entitled to her belief? By extension, would
others with similar experiences be entitled to similar beliefs, and more generally, if
philosophers like Wolterstorff show that such beliefs are entitled, would this then
show that belief in God is rational? The answer to all of these questions is yes.


Brendan Sweetman

The Evidentialist Objection

and the Commonness of Religious Experiences
What are we to make of this analysis? Wolterstorff is aware that many will simply
conclude that Virginia is delusional, at least in this instance. Many will approach the
matter from the point of view of the Lockean evidentialist objection, an objection
founded in Lockes epistemological theory known as classical foundationalism.
This is the theory that there are two kinds of beliefs: (immediate) basic beliefs
and (mediate) inferred beliefs (II:12). Basic beliefs are beliefs that are known in
our immediate experience and that do not need any further justification, such as
perceptual beliefs, memory beliefs, etc. But the inferred beliefs are based on some
set of the basic beliefs, and these do require justification and linkage to the basic
beliefs by means of logical inference, rational argument, etc. This classical approach,
Wolterstorff notes, especially in its expression in Locke, holds that belief in God is
an inferred belief, not a basic belief, and so requires evidence to support it (Locke
was particularly vexed about enthusiastspeople claiming private revelations from
God without good evidence). A religious experience like Virginias would not count
as evidence on Lockes view, because of various problems it encounters.
Wolterstorff acknowledges that Locke, and many sympathetic to his epistemological approach, would demand of Virginia her evidence for believing in God on the
basis of her experience. They would not accept that God was somehow known to
her immediately in her experience, and they would reject Calvins view that we all
have a disposition to believe in God because it too would need justification. Locke
would have to be assured, Wolterstorff admits, that we do have such a disposition,
that it cannot be compromised by cultural influences, and that it produces reliable
experiences (II:326) before he would accept her experience as being reliable. He
notes that many would agree with Locke on this point despite the fact that many
philosophers are not foundationalists today (which is yet another instance of the
profession of philosophy insisting on a skeptical and relativistic approach to knowledge in general, but then inconsistently refusing to apply this standard in the area of
religion, and applying it selectively in science, not to mention ethics and politics).
So, to the objection that Virginia is not acting rationally, Wolterstorff argues that
she is acting rationally. First, she has had a genuine religious-type experience, and
second, she has been responsible in doing all she could do in terms of considering
whether she was entitled to trust her experience. It is also, I think, third, an important
part of the Reformed epistemologists view that the experience Virginia had, and
similar type experiences, are somewhat common. This means then that the ordinary believer is not totally overwhelmed by somehow suddenly (and shockingly)
tapping into the religious dimension of human experience. So, the philosopher can
argue that since these experiences are commonmany people will recognize what
Virginia has experienced, will have had a similar experience, or know someone who
hasthen one is entitled to trust them, unless one has good reason not to. It would
be different if we were talking about mystical or esoteric experiences. If these latter
were the only kind of religious experiences, their rarity would likely make us doubt
any experience that we might have that appeared to be in that category, at least in

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certain cases. It is worth noting also that the view that these experiences are common puts pressure on the Reformed epistemologists to offer good phenomenological
descriptions of these experiences, something that they have not generally done and
that must count as a significant lacunae in their work on this topic. These descriptions would be a further argument that such experiences are common, and even
more important from the philosophical point of view, they would also shed more
light on the question as to whether there is an inference involved in the experience
or whether God is indeed immediately revealed in the experience. An interesting
point about this particular example offered by Wolterstorff is that it is quite detailed
(unlike the vague, simpler experiences to which Reformed epistemologists usually
appeal), and so the problems with it are perhaps more obvious.
Wolterstorff does not emphasize as much as his fellow travelers, Plantinga and
William Alston, the comparison between perceptual experiences and religious
experiences as a way of defending the rationality of the latter. The argument here
is that religious experiences can be basic in the same way that our perceptual experiences are basic, and are therefore justified in the same way. We do not need to
have evidence or an argument that we now see a table before us, or to know that
we had breakfast this morning. We trust our perceptual and memory experiences in
normal circumstances, and so we should trust our religious experiences in normal
circumstances (Richard Swinburne calls this policy the principle of credulity)
and Virginia has done all of this. It is sometimes objected that the analogy with
perceptual experiences is problematic because, whereas everyone has perceptual
experiences, many do not have the religious experiences. In addition, the perceptual
experiences are public-type experiences, and the religious experiences are of a private
nature. Would these differences not invalidate the comparison and weaken the case
considerably for the rationality of believing in God on the basis of his (supposed)
immediate manifestation in an experience? But Wolterstorff can reply by appealing to the fact that religious experiences are common enough as to invalidate this
objection. That is to say, many people have the experience of the presence of God
at certain times, say, when experiencing the beauty of nature, or a sense that God
is speaking to us after having read the Bible, or a sense that God disapproves when
we have done something wrong (examples that Plantinga uses). So, when A has an
experience like these, he will know that many others have had them too; in addition,
many will recognize what A is taking about from his report. This gives a presumption to the experience, which, absent what John Hick has called countervailing
considerations, makes it rational to trust the experience.
The Epistemic Peers Test and the Problem of Relativism
Some philosophers, including Gary Gutting, have attempted to undermine Wolterstorffs view by arguing that if a substantial number of my epistemic peers doubt
my experience, or do not have the experience themselves, that this is enough to
undermine my conclusion that my belief is rational, so that the proper attitude to
adopt is to withhold judgment. But Wolterstorff is rightly not convinced by this
argument. He correctly points out (in his essay Once Again, EvidentialismThis


Brendan Sweetman

Time Social) that it is too difficult to specify general criteria that ones epistemic
peer has to satisfy and too difficult to know if a particular person actually satisfies
these criteria (II:27475). A religious believer might be sufficiently sure of his own
rationality and general common sense to trust his religious experiences and so would
not doubt them just because a large proper subset of a certain type of personnamely,
academic professors in a certain type of job and culturefail to have these experiences! After all, the Reformed epistemologists claim, many people will have these
experiences as well, and this fact will be a further confirmation of the reliability of
the experience for a particular individual. In addition, Wolterstorff knows, of course,
that the fact that many members of this proper subset of philosophers do not have the
experience might be because they have willfully closed themselves off in a kind of
permanent way from the whole realm of the transcendent. The theist may conclude
that his interlocutor is so determinedly opposed to acknowledging the existence of
the realm of the Spirit that he refuses to give any credence whatever to the intense
mysterious religious experience that ... the theist has had (II:282).
It may well be that the skeptic is rather arrogant, in willful denial, or blinded by
weakness to this realm of experience. He may be likened to a person who is tone
deaf to musical appreciation, perhaps because of bad experiences with music while at
school, etc. But it does not follow from this that musical properties do not exist and
that others cannot recognize, appreciate, and know them. Indeed, a particular person
might be tone deaf to the religious dimension of religious experience due to their
own background and choices: they may have no experience with religion (though
this would be hard to sustain in societies like ours and especially if the Reformed
epistemologist are right in general that human beings are naturally religious). They
may have rejected or repressed religion because they do not like religious morality, or
individual religious leaders, or the political implications of certain religious beliefs;
or they may have immersed themselves so much in the world of the secular that they
have effectively closed off the realm of the transcendent. I think that we have to
acknowledge that all of these things go onand indeed are quite typical of the subset
of academics from which the objection comesbut Wolterstorff is surely right that
the religious believer would be wrong to regard this kind of person as his epistemic
peer in this matter to such an extent that he would suspend or question his belief.
Yet, while we must be extremely cautious about taking seriously the objections
of epistemic peers who might fall into these categories, we must note that we surely
have people who fall into other more serious categories. One category would be
those who are sincere religious believers but who do not have these kinds of religious
experiences, and so honestly wonder if other religious believers, like Virginia, are
not perhaps delusional; another category would be those sincere skeptics and atheists who have not been blinded by cultural or other influences and yet who, despite
an honest effort, (perhaps) do not recognize the realm of the transcendent at all.
Yet the existence of even these categories of people would not be sufficient for a
believer who has various religious experiences to second-guess them. It does not
follow that everyone has to have these experiences in order for them to be regarded
as reliable by any particular individual; after all, the particular person has actually
had the experience.

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A more serious worry, however, about the Reformed approach is the problem of
relativism, a problem to which Reformed thinkers have not given enough attention,
though Wolterstorff does address it in these volumes. This is the problem that if we
allow an approach like this and agree that belief in God is justified on the basis of
an experience, it looks like belief in God is in fact groundless, and so this opens the
door to a relativism about religious beliefs. The objection is getting at the fact that it
looks like one could justify just about any belief using this method. All one would
have to do is to claim that the belief is properly basic, and if someone else does not
have the belief, or does not understand the belief, that is their problem. Could not
such an approach be used to justify all sorts of crazy beliefs such as those of Jim
Jones or David Koresh, or people of that sort, who claimed to have private religious
experiences that they then used to justify mass suicides and other evil acts? How do
the Reformed epistemologists respond to this strong criticism? The answer is: not
very well. Plantinga has been criticized for not giving us any criteria that we could
use to further judge a belief that a person is claiming is properly basic. Wolterstorff
approaches the matter from the point of view of the notion of entitlement. His response to this problem, therefore, is that the key question is whether a person in a
given situation is entitled to trust their experiences, in the sense discussed above. He
thinks that Virginia, for example, has done all she can to test whether her experience
is one she should trust, so she is being responsible.
Well, what if someone disagrees? I think that we have to acknowledge that there
may well be a social aspect to entitlement, not in the sense that Virginia must get a
consensus on whether her experience is reliable or not from her epistemic peers
for this just brings us back to appealing to subsets of people who may or may not
be reliable themselvesbut in the sense of probing whether we have been fully
responsible in determining the rationality of our beliefs. Seeking out the opinion
of others can be helpful here, especially others whom we trust. This social or communal test can help if others draw our attention to logical, common sense points
that any reasonable person should consider, for instance, that we did not consider
all explanations, that we overlooked the fact that we were taking particularly strong
pain killers, that we have been under a great deal of stress latelyall facts that might
cause us to reconsider our religious experience. But the communal test would not
allow as valid the objection that others, or in Virginias case even the (academic)
community, did not have the experience, or do not understand the realm of the
transcendent, etc. After all, Wolterstorff emphasizes that the person actually has the
experience, and the experience must count for something (II:323).
Now, suppose that Virginia does think that she is therefore entitled to trust her
experience of God, but that someone else does not think she is entitled. Wolterstorff
believes that this is just a typical dispute between people where one side thinks one
view is rational and the other thinks a different view is rational. Are both of them
entitled to their beliefs, in his sense of entitlement? He thinks they are, though this
itself is a contentious matter. But solving this dispute would require us to have
complete information, as well as knowing the objective truth, something that he
thinks we cannot obtain, and so we must just agree to disagree. Wolterstorff argues that the religious believer may be likened to a philosopher who presupposes


Brendan Sweetman

physicalism when working in the philosophy of mind: neither has made an attempt
to justify their starting point to all normal, rational people. The question about
each view is one of entitlement, and he thinks that they both could be entitled to
their different approaches (I:67). Gutting has suggested that it is arrogant for
religious believers to suggest that the disbelieving skeptic is not an epistemic peer
of the religious believer. But this is not the right way to put it: the objection is not
based on arrogance, but on an experience that a religious believer has, one that (so
Wolterstorff argues) he should not regard as unreliable just because others have
not had the experience.
It is worth recalling here John Hicks tests (in his An Interpretation of Religion)
for judging experiences of this kind: first, there must be no countervailing considerations when one has the experience (such as being drunk, or being on strong
medication); second, the experience must be consistent with the rest of our knowledge, scientific, moral, political, etc.; third, the experience would normally lead to
some change in a persons life for the better. These are obviously not perfect tests
(these philosophers often ask whether there are any perfect tests for the certainty
of any belief), but they would be sufficient in many cases to enable someone like
Virginia to conclude that she was not making obvious mistakes in judging that her
experience was real, and justifying belief in God on the basis of it. The fact that the
tests are not perfect reminds us of another feature of the Reformed strategy, clearly
exemplified in these essays by Wolterstorff. In rejecting classical foundationalism,
he is proposing that we must be somewhat skeptical and certainly provisional about
justification in general in epistemology; that nobody has the high ground, and so
the religious believer who appeals to experience is no worse off than anyone else
who appeals to some other mode of justification. So, the analogy to perceptual experiences is important: we trust perceptual experiences without argument, so why
should we not similarly trust religious experiences?
Hick has made the same point by saying that we accept the existence of the external
world without argumentas a natural response of the human mind to reality, as it
wereso, why not the existence of the transcendent realm, which is also a natural
response of the human mind to the spiritual dimension? And Plantinga has argued
(in his God and Other Minds) that belief in God and belief in other minds are in
the same epistemological boat; the arguments for both conclusions face similar
problems. If belief in the latter is justified (which it is), so is belief in the former.
This is part of the negative strategy of Reformed epistemologyto attack the notion of justification in general (a similar move in made by some postmodernists
working in philosophy of religion) to complement their positive strategy of arguing
for the reliability of the area of religious experience. They have never satisfactorily
addressed the problem of how their negative strategy must inevitably undermine
their positive strategy. The attack on foundationalism comes with a price that may
be too high to pay.
There are a few other objections that Wolterstorff also dismisses. One is the objection that the reason people have a religious experience of God is because they
are already religious believers. One might argue that they look at the world through
religious eyes as it were and so tend to interpret it in a religious way, even though

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they might not realize that this is what they are doing. This might explain the Virginia example as well as the other (vague) examples usually offered by Reformed
epistemologists, such as having the experience that God created this flower when
walking in the woods, or the experience that God created the stars when looking
at the sky. Wolterstorff dismisses the arguments that these experiences may be the
result of an antecedent commitment to a religious community on the grounds that
religious believers have taken all of these possibilities into account in their attempts
to be epistemically responsible.
Yet there is a problem here surely. We noted above that he said that Virginia apprehended her experience under the concept of God. What does this mean? This is
where the lack of a description is critical, for if one does not describe the experience
in more detail one could easily conclude that what happens is that one has some
vague experience of the otherness of nature or reality and one interprets it in a
religious way. Would this not be the most rational understanding of these types of
experience? By saying that we interpret the experience under the concept of God,
Wolterstorff seems to agree that our antecedent religious beliefs influence our
religious experiences in some way, but he never explains how this works. This may
be enough for most philosophers to conclude that the belief in God is not rational
if it is based solely on the experience. An extension of this critical point is that this
skeptical interpretation would explain why religious believers in different religious
traditions have different experiences (of the same phenomena?). A phenomenological description of religious experiences would be very helpful in addressing many
of these concerns.
Wolterstorff gives a similar response to the claim that there is a purely psychological cause of the experience, or even that Virginia might be faking the experience.
The social check will reveal the latter possibility (as it will reveal if she is delusional
or not), and she herself, given that she is a normal rational person, will check for
all of the other possible causes. But Wolterstorff thinks that it would be remiss of
her to forever postpone a judgment on the grounds either that her experience might
have a non-supernatural cause or that others do not have the experience. The former
is to slip, unwittingly perhaps, into naturalism, and the latter is to give too much
credence to a group who may not themselves be reliable!
The Evidentialist Challenge vs. Natural Theology
There has been some debate as to whether we can distinguish the evidentialist challenge, rejected by Reformed epistemologists, from traditional natural theology. The
Reformed approach raises the question as to whether Wolterstorff is also rejecting
natural theology and would repudiate the approach of someone like St. Thomas
Aquinas. Aquinas appears to accept the legitimacy of a Lockean-type challenge, but
would meet it with his arguments for Gods existence, his rational theology, and to
some extent his theory of natural law (an approach and response that Locke himself
fully embraces). Wolterstorff makes little mention of the traditional arguments in
these books, but we know that he and other Reformed thinkers do not accept these
arguments and see themselves as offering an alternative way of justifying belief in


Brendan Sweetman

God (although they are sometimes quite coy about where they stand with regard to
enterprise of natural theology). They have a kind of love/hate relationship with it,
on the one hand decrying the evidentialist challenge to which natural theology is
a response but on the other acknowledging the value of this approach as a reply to
contemporary naturalists, especially of the extreme kind, such as Dawkins, Dennett,
and Sagan. It would not be inconsistent for them to claim that their argument from
religious experience can find its place within traditional natural theology, both in
the specific sense of justifying an individuals belief and in the general sense of
justifying religious belief philosophically, in the sense explained above. But they do
not in fact make this case, as far as I am aware. Reformed epistemologists generally present their view in opposition to natural theology rather than as a form of it.
This brings us back to our original question. In two essays (The Migration of the
Theistic Arguments and Can Belief in God Be Rational If It Has No Foundations?)
Wolterstorff makes a valiant attempt to differentiate the Lockean evidentialist challenge from traditional natural theology. He thinks that what thinkers like Augustine,
Anselm, and Aquinas were doing is much closer to what he is doing than to what
Locke is doing. For they were in quest of faith seeking understanding, and the
usual interpretation of this motto is that one begins as a believer and then seeks to
further understand, clarify, and support ones beliefs philosophically. According to
The enterprise of natural theology, for Aquinas, occurs within the overlapping projects of
the development of science and the contemplation of God. It is not a response to concern
about the rationality of religious belief. Though Aquinas believes that theism is indigenous
to humanity, he never worries whether those who hold to that indigenous theism are
responsible (rational, justified) in so doing. And most emphatically his natural theology is
not a response to such a worry. Accordingly, whereas the evidentialist apologist presupposes that the religious believer may believe only on the basis of good arguments, Aquinas
nowhere suggests that the pursuit of natural theology is obligatory for all theists. (II:194)

One can see how someone might read Aquinas in this way. Since he does not spend
too long on the arguments for Gods existence and since he undoubtedly did regard belief in God as indigenous to human beings, one might suggest that in some
sense (perhaps) he did not think it necessary to justify belief in God in a discursive,
logical way.
However, Wolterstorffs general reading of Aquinas on these matters is surely
wrong, given that Aquinas was one of the first great thinkers of the West to attempt
a systematic discussion of the rationality of religious belief, and given his appeal
to the work of Aristotle to help him in this task, despite the fact that Aristotle was
a pagan philosopher. Moreover, we must distinguish between the claim that all
religious believers need to do some kind of natural theology in order to justify
their beliefs and the claim that some believersthe philosophers, theologians and
other intellectuals within a religious groupneed to show that what the group
believes has a rational basis. This is surely what Aquinas was doing, and what he
believed should be done. On this matter he would agree with Locke and not with

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the Reformed epistemologists, unless the latter present their approach as a part of
the general enterprise of natural theology, and not as a rejection of it. For I think
that Aquinas would accept their view that there is a religious dimension to human
experience, which may well be sufficient for justification in certain circumstances.
But he would be much more worried about the rationality of such an approach
than the Reformed epistemologists are. Despite Wolterstorff wondering about this
(II:200), Aquinas believes that we should accept the articles of faith on the basis
of the reliability of revelation, which is grounded in miracles and complemented
by the arguments of natural theology. This approach to the grounding of religious
belief is rational all the way through, thereby making Aquinas an evidentialist of
a most serious sort.
In a very interesting discussion of the various ways in which natural theology can
be understood in Aquinas, Wolterstorff comes out against this reading of Aquinas.
He thinks that Aquinas did do some natural theology as a polemical support for his
religious views, but that he mostly did it as a way of showing more clearly what the
believer already knows to be true (II:212ff). He argues that Aquinas and Calvin are
closer than either is to Locke because neither one attached foundationalist conditions to Christian faith nor indeed to theistic belief, but Locke did. According to
Wolterstorff, there was a change of mentality on these matters between Aquinas
and Lockes time. He thinks that even if the arguments for the existence of God
were to completely fail, that failure for Aquinas would imply nothing whatsoever
as to the acceptability of the believers faith (II:215). I find this hard to accept, and
surely it opens the door to irrationalism. It is one thing to say that all believers do
not need proof, or even that God, if he exists, will not care if we have a proof, but it
is another to say that this means religious beliefs do not have to be supported with
evidence, and, most importantly, that we (or somebody) in our religion has a duty to
try to show that they are rationally defensible, not just for reasons of pluralism but
also for the crucial objective of trying to discover what is true. This comes down to
the question of whether we can just believe without worrying about what we believe
is trueto the question of which is first, religion (and by extension theology), or
philosophy. Philosophy must be first in the area of human knowledge, and must be
prior to theological truth, even though in the order of objective truth, it could be the
other way around. I think that Aquinas accepted this view, but I acknowledge that
both readings of his work are possible. Yet I believe that he would side with Locke
and not Wolterstorff on the issue under dispute.
General Epistemology and the Attack on Foundationalism
These reflections bring us to perhaps the deepest problem of all with Reformed
epistemology, the general epistemological theory that is implied by their specifically
religious epistemology. Wolterstorff and Plantinga focused more in their later work
on an exploration of the epistemological theory that was assumed in the background
of their Reformed epistemology. But some may wonder if they are trying to close
the stable door after the horse has bolted! That is to say, are they trying to undermine
the general possibility of human beings being able to arrive at beliefs that reach


Brendan Sweetman

the status of objective knowledge (as opposed to beliefs that are person-relative or
group-relative in some epistemic manner) as a way of showing more particularly
that religious beliefs are in no worse an epistemological boat than other types of
beliefs? So, by undermining the notion of justification in general one indirectly
supports justification in religion (but, of course, at a price). Work in epistemology
is therefore part of a general strategy of indirectly defending religious belief philosophically. Wolterstorff does admit that his work on epistemology was written later
(even though in these essays it appears first), and also that Epistemology has been
important, but mainly as a polemical operation (I:34). He rejects foundationalism,
especially of the Lockean variety, and it has to be said that he is in good company
here since the general tendency of modern epistemology has been to do the same.
In his essay Reformed Epistemology, Wolterstorff acknowledges the significant
influence of Thomas Reid on his approach to the question of the rationality of religious belief. Reid was a critic of both Hume and Locke. He argued against Lockes
view that our knowledge of the external world is justified on the basis of inferences
from our sensations as given in perception. Reid held that though sensations are
indeed produced by the impact of the external world on us in perception, those sensations immediately evoke in us conceptions and beliefs about the external world
(II:344), and so perception, according to Reid, is not rationally grounded! It is still
rational for us to accept it based on common sense, and there is no non-circular
way of justifying it. Wolterstorff says that this picture of perception suggested to
Plantinga and myself ... a way of articulating John Calvins suggestion that all
humanity is naturally religious. ... One cannot understand Reformed epistemology ... without discerning its commitment to an anthropology of religion of this
Calvinistic sort (II:345).
While acknowledging the important differences between Reid and Locke, one
wonders if they are not overplayed here, for Wolterstorffs alternative epistemological approach raises all sorts of difficult questions. One question is whether
he is still really a foundationalist at heart. The only difference between him and
Locke seems to be that he wants to widen the foundations to include belief in God,
on the grounds that God can be known directly in experience (as already pointed
out earlier). And what does the difference between Locke and Reid on the justification of basic (especially perceptual) beliefs really amount to in the context of
the discussion about the rationality of religious beliefs, especially those beliefs
based on religious experiences? While there is clearly a difference between saying
that perceptual beliefs are somehow inferred from sensation (Locke) and known
immediately to be true (Reid), does it amount to much if one is considering the
rationality of belief in God, based, for instance, on the cosmological argument, or,
for instance, on a religious experience? Wolterstorffs suggestion is that Lockes
theory of perception would still leave open the question as to whether the objects
that lead to the sensations really exist (hence Lockes representational theory of
perception), but Reids would not. Reids approach can be developed in the way
Wolterstorff develops it: to show, not whether God really is the cause of the experience, but whether one is entitled to believe on the basis of the experience, with
less regard for the question of whether what we believe is true. But Reids general

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epistemology has been accused of circularity, not only in the attempt to justify the
reliability of perception but also in his argument that the judgments of common
sense seem to get their grounding in the existence of God. If we are constituted
this way by nature, this suggests that God created us this way.
Notwithstanding their commitment to a Reidian view and their rejection of a
Lockean epistemology, it could be claimed that the Reformed epistemologists are
foundationalist at heart, and that they only differ with Locke on two other points: first,
how the foundations are justified, and second, what is included in the foundations.
Wolterstorff strongly denies that Reformed epistemologists are foundationalists.
He holds that Plantingas general epistemology, for example in his trilogy on this
subject, argues that a belief has warrant if it is produced by faculties aimed at truth
that are functioning properly in situations for which those faculties were designed to
function thus (II:347), and they are functioning properly only if they are functioning
in the way God designed them to function. This, according to Wolterstorff, does
not accept the bipartite structure definitive of foundationalist accounts. It is a unified
account. Whether or not the belief under consideration is mediate or immediate the
relevant question is always and only whether it was produced by a faculty aimed at
truth that was functioning properly in a situation for which it was designed (II:347).
But many will find this an unsatisfactory way of arguing the matter, for surely it is
a secondary issue that this epistemological view does not have a bipartite structure
(basic and inferred beliefs), but is unified (one looks at how the belief was arrived
at). This is a secondary question because it downplays the actual manner in which
one claims to have warranted beliefs, which must come back to whether or not they
were formed by reliable processes and experiences, such as perceptual experiences
or religious experience (which, on the Reformed view, comes back to whether God
exists or not).
This central issue just brings us back to the problems that we have identified
above with the Reformed approach. For the only way that we can tell whether a
belief was formed correctly and is therefore rational to believe is if we can know
if our faculties are functioning the way they are supposed to function in certain
situations. But this will require us to know in advance whether our perceptions,
memories, and, in this case, religious experiences are reliable, which in the case of
Reformed epistemology requires us to know in advance whether God exists or not.
This appears to be a question-begging position. The alternative to this seems to be
some kind of coherentism (which they reject), or at least some type of relativism that
results from saying that the theist has his own experiences, and if God exists they
are justified. In the absence of settling this de facto question (which is not possible),
the theist is warranted in concluding that they are reliable. I think that Wolterstorff
might accept relativism understood in this sense, but deny it in its usual, much more
problematic, sense of saying that whether a belief is reliable is relative to the person
who has the belief. He thinks, as we have already noted, that this does not apply to
the types of religious belief that he is talking about because the religious believer
has the experience to begin with. Perhaps he has a point on this matter, and he has
certainly given us food for thought. The problem is whether this type of relativism
opens the door to irrationalism in respect of certain types of religious belief.


Brendan Sweetman

Questions about the Nature of God

Another prominent theme in these volumes is Wolterstorffs critical reflections on
the classical view of the nature of God. He is particularly interested in the traditional
view that Gods nature is simple, that God does not change, and that God cannot be
said to suffer. In a fascinating and sympathetic essay entitled Divine Simplicity,
Wolterstorff gently probes what is meant by these difficult claims of the classical view
(focusing on Aquinas), a view that many modern thinkers find baffling. The classical
view maintains that God is simple, thereby meaning that there is no composition
of any kind in God (this view was held by a great many thinkers). This is because
Gods essence is his existence; further, because God has no matter, he cannot have
parts (such as matter and form); in addition, if Gods essence and existence were
distinct, some outside cause would have to bring God into existence, and so God
could not be a necessary being. Therefore, Aquinas denies that God is distinct from
his essence, and also that God has properties distinct from his essence. Yet Aquinas
agrees the God is omnipotent and omniscient, and also triune. So, Wolterstorff
wonders if this is not a contradiction on its face, since omnipotence is not the same
thing as omniscience, and yet God has both but is supposed to be simple. How can
we make sense of this (I:93)?
He provides an interesting discussion of some recent work by Thomists in the
analytic tradition (such as Eleanor Stump and William Mann) but does not engage
with other distinguished Thomists (such as Brian Davies and Ralph McInerny).
Wolterstorff argues that some of the modern objections to the classical view of
divine simplicity arise because of two different approaches to ontology: the classical
view is a constituent ontology whereas the modern view is a relational ontology.
The classical view regards essences as real, concrete constituents of things. But the
moderns, Wolterstorff claims, regard essences as abstract entities. This is where
an object having an essence is understood to mean having an essence as one of its
properties (I:101), whereas the medievals regarded the essence as one of the constituents of the object. This is a useful distinction, subject to certain qualifications:
one is that it would be more accurate to say that, for the medievals, the essence is
the form of the object that makes the properties that are exemplified in the matter
the object they are. A second point is this: to say that an objects essence is one of
its properties seems to confuse the essential nature of an object with an accidental
property; otherwise one may not be able to avoid saying that a single property of
an object could be its essence. But, third, the main point is that the medievals hold
that, in the special case of God, there is one entity whose essence is his existence,
and if this is the case, then the doctrine of simplicity would follow (Wolterstorff
provides an excellent exposition of the classical view at I:10203), and so would
other attributes metaphysically linked to simplicity, such as immateriality, immutability, eternity, etc.
Are Wolterstorff (and Plantinga) not right to say though that the doctrine of
simplicity seems to imply that God is just a single property (since Gods properties
are identical with each other)? Thomistic thinkers (including Brian Davies) have
argued that we can talk meaningfully about God as being omnipotent, omniscient,

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omnibenevolent, etc., and these statements are all true of God, yet in Gods case
only the reality that makes them true is not an individual with different properties.
The real question concerning this view, Wolterstorff suggests, is whether the constituent ontology is the correct approach, and whether the classical understanding
of God can really be squared with what we ordinarily say and think about God in a
concrete sense, and not just in terms of the meaning that we might assign to certain
words and concepts. For instance, can we say that God creates, loves, forgives, and
redeems without contradicting the view that God is simple? On this key point, he
says I have my doubts (I:111).
He turns to one of these doubts in two essays devoted to the topic of whether
God is capable of suffering (Suffering Love and Is God Disturbed by What
Transpires in Human Affairs?). According to the classical view, God cannot suffer because this would mean that God would not be perfect; it might also imply
that God needs human beings and that this is why he created us, another way of
compromising his perfection. But the classical writers argued that the reason that
God is worthy of worship is that he is perfect, and also that a God who created
us but who did not have to is more loving than a God who created us because he
needed us. Proponents of the modern approach (including many process philosophers) often suggest that we would prefer a God of the second type, a God who
is vulnerable and in need like us. The classical view rejects this line of thinking
because it anthropomorphizes God in order to make us feel better but is nevertheless
a distortion of Gods nature. The contemporary view replies that the traditional
conception of God is too remote for us to relate to, that this kind of God is more
of idol than a loving God. Wolterstorff sides with the modern view in a qualified
way (another sub-theme in these volumes, and one well worth our attention, is his
perceptive critical analysis throughout of modern trends in theology). He provides
a detailed, sympathetic analysis of St. Augustines view by noting that Augustine
argued that nobody could think that God feels pity in the way that human beings
feel pity, or that God could be jealous in the way that we are jealous (an envy of
mind); no, what we should we saying (with Augustine) is that when God repents
he is not changed, but brings about change ... when he pities he does not grieve
but liberates, when he is jealous he is not pained but causes pain (I:203). This is
the best way to understand those passages in scripture that seem to attribute to God
human qualities. It was Aquinas, as Wolterstorff acknowledges, who later worked
out these points most profoundly.
But Wolterstorff thinks that it is still very hard to reconcile this view of God with
our modern sensibilities. It sounds as if God is related to the world by way of a being
who is doing his duty, and not because he has any concern for us. Most of us would
find this repugnant, and it is very hard to reconcile with the scriptures. Wolterstorff
holds that if one values the occurrence of a state of affairs in the world, whether
positively or negatively, then one is correspondingly delighted or disturbed, and
so since God values things, then he would be affected (moved) by them (I:219).
Many will regard this as a common sense view of things, though not all are going
to be convinced that it shows that the classical view needs to be rethought. It has
been replied to these worries that perhaps God could love us without being therefore


Brendan Sweetman

limited or moved himself, if we understand love to mean willing the good of others. Wolterstorff also points out that the view that God does not suffer seems very
much at odds with the view of God we get from Christian scripture. Yet the Bible
also has passages teaching that God is unchanging, and so appealing to scripture
does not appear to settle the matter.
Of course, these are very difficult questions to resolve, but Wolterstorffs discussion of them is fascinating, detailed, and fair to both sides. Indeed, he is often at
his best when doing philosophical theology. The volumes also include instructive,
absorbing essays on Gods relationship to time, and on the problem of evil. Although
we have concentrated on Reformed epistemology in this essay, Wolterstorff is well
worth reading on all of these topics. His insights clearly show us the importance
and richness of the whole enterprise of philosophical theology and also remind us
that we often neglect the importance of this topic in what is perhaps our obsession
with the question as to whether belief in God is justified
Whether or not one agrees with Wolterstorff on Reformed epistemology or with
his analysis of specific issues concerning Gods nature, one will benefit greatly from
engaging with his ideas. Anyone interested in the host of issues that arise in the
contemporary discussion of the rationality of religious belief (including the debate
with naturalism), in general epistemological questions, in insightful readings of
classical (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas), modern (Locke, Reid, Kant) and contemporary (Plantinga, Alston, Barth, Wittgenstein, D. Z. Phillips) writers, and in the
area of philosophical theology, cannot but benefit from the work of this formidable
contemporary thinker.