Philosopher Friday: Alvin Plantinga

In the spring of 1980, Time magazine reported that in a “quiet revolution in thought and arguments and hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback. Most intriguingly, this is happening not among theologians or ordinary believers… but in the crisp, intellectual circles of academic philosophers, where the consensus had long banished the Almighty from the fruitful discourse” [1]. This ‘quiet revolution’ was the consequence of logical empiricism’s (or positivism) verification principle self-destruction. American philosopher Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932) played a key role in that destruction.

Life of God’s Philosopher

Alvin Plantinga was born on November 15, 1932 to parents Cornelius and Lettie Plantinga. Cornelius was born in the Netherlands, though in the province of Friesland. Lettie on the other hand was born in the U.S., but her family was originally from the Netherlands in the province of Gelderland. Interestingly, Cornelius had a Ph.D. in philosophy and a Master’s degree in psychology from Duke University. He then later went on to South Dakota to teach philosophy at Huron College; and then to North Dakota where he taught Latin, Greek, philosophy and psychology at Jamestown College. There, in North Dakota, is where Alvin experienced philosophy for the first time.

The story of Plantinga’s study in philosophy is brief but interesting. Cornelius provided Alvin with some Latin and readings in Plato’s Dialogues into his high school curriculum. At age fourteen, Plantinga finally decided that he wanted to become a philosopher. Later, in terms of Plantinga’s conversion, not much can really be said on this matter. In the churches he attended with his parents, he came across the teachings of Calvinism where he struggled quite frequently with the doctrines of total depravity. He writes:

I spent a good deal of time as a child thinking about these doctrines, and a couple of years later, when I was ten or eleven or so, I got involved in many very enthusiastic but undirected discussions of human freedom, determinism (theological or otherwise), divine foreknowledge, predestination and allied topics. [2]

At the request of his father, Alvin skipped over his senior year in high school and attended Jamestown College where, shortly into the first semester, Cornelius was invited to join the psychology department at Calvin College. Alvin in a struggle made the move to Grand Rapids, Michigan. However, in a daring decision, Alvin decided to apply for a scholarship to Harvard whilst he was still attending Calvin. Surprisingly, Plantinga was awarded the scholarship and in the fall of 1950, he relocated to Massachusetts.

In his attending of Harvard, Plantinga came to realize the deep challenges he faced ‘in the flesh’ in terms of the non-Christian thought surrounding him. He writes:

My attitude gradually became one of a mixture of doubt and bravado. On the one hand I began to think it questionable that what I had been taught and had always believed could be right, given that there were all these others who thought so differently (and [who] were so much more intellectually accomplished than I). On the other hand, I thought to myself, what really is so great about these people? Why should I believe them?… [W]hat, precisely, is the substance of their objections to Christianity? Or to theism? Do these objections really have much by way of substance? And if, as I strongly suspected, not, why should their taking the views they did be relevant to what I thought? [3]

Plantinga later in life became one of the most influential figures in Christian Philosophy. Time even went so far as to recognize him as the “world’s leading Protestant philosopher of God” [4]. In Deane-Peter Baker’s biography of Plantinga, he writes that “being singled out in this way by arguably the world’s most foremost news magazine is made all the more remarkable by the fact that, at the time, Plantinga was a professor of philosophy at a small Calvinist college, whose most important work was yet to come” [5]. Plantinga’s main areas of contribution to philosophy has been characterized in such areas as (1) the metaphysics of modality, (2) epistemic theory, (3) pluralism and proper function, (4) the problem of evil, and many other subjects.

______________________

Bibliography:

  • [1] quoted by Philip Blosser, “God Among the Philosophers,” in New Oxford Review 66, no. 9 (October 1999), p. 39
  • [2] Plantinga, “A Christian Life Partly Lived,” p. 49
  • [3] Ibid., p. 51
  • [4] Blosser, 39
  • [5] Deane-Peter Baker “Alvin Plantinga” in Contemporary Philosophy in Focus (Cambridge University Press: 2007) p. 1
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2 responses to “Philosopher Friday: Alvin Plantinga

  1. I really enjoy reading Alvin Plantinga. As a philosophical layman, I appreciate how he tends to organize his books into large and small font sizes depending on whether the paragraph is meant for a basic or advanced audience. I keep going back and re-reading sections of Warranted Christian Belief as I think about various topics.

  2. Pingback: Books For Your Consideration | Hellenistic Christendom·

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