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The Extended Aquinas/Calvin Model: Revealed to Our Minds

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Romans 8:16

In chapter 6, I proposed a model—the Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model—according to which belief in God can have the three varieties of positive epistemic status with which we have been concerned: justification, rationality (in both its external and internal guises), and warrant. What about specifically Christian belief, belief, not just in God, but in trinity, incarnation, Christ’s resurrection, atonement, forgiveness of sins, salvation, regeneration, eternal life? The main business of this chapter is to extend the A/C model to cover these beliefs, to show how they, too, can have those varieties of positive epistemic status. In chapter 7, I gave an initial statement of this extended model. One element of the extended A/C model has to do with sin and its epistemic consequences; most of chapter 7 was devoted to a development of this feature of the model.

In this chapter, I turn to the central elements of the model: how can we think of the full panoply of Christian belief in all its particularity as enjoying justification, rationality in both its internal and external varieties, and warrant? How can we think of these beliefs—some of which, as David Hume loved to point out, go entirely contrary to ordinary human experience—as reasonable or rational, let alone warranted, let alone having warrant sufficient for knowledge? The materials for an answer lie close at hand. Actually, the materials have 242lain close at hand for several centuries—certainly since the publication of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections293293   Ed. John Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959 [first published 1746]). Subsequent page references to Religious Affections are to this edition. and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.294294   Ed. John T. McNeill and tr. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 [first published in 1559]). References to the Institutes are to this edition. As a matter of fact, they have lain close at hand for much longer than that: much of what Calvin says can be usefully seen as development of remarks of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura. Indeed, these materials go much further back yet, all the way back to the New Testament, in particular, the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul.

In this chapter, I shall develop those materials and propose a model—the extended A/C model—for warranted Christian belief: a model in which full-blooded Christian belief in all its particularity is justified, rational, and warranted.295295   Contemporary relatives and ancestors of this model can be found in Stephen Davis, Risen Indeed (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1993); William Abraham, “The Epistemological Significance of the Inner Witness of the Holy Spirit,” Faith and Philosophy 7, no. 4 (October 1990); C. Stephen Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996); my The Twin Pillars of Christian Scholarship (Grand Rapids: Calvin College, 1989); and my “Christian Philosophy at the End of the 20th Century,” in Christian Philosophy at the Close of the Twentieth Century, ed. Sander Griffioen and Bert Balk (Kampen: Kok, 1995), pp. 29–53. I shall argue further that Christian belief can be justified, rational, and warranted not just for ignorant fundamentalists or benighted medievals but for informed and educated twenty-first-century Christians who are entirely aware of all the artillery that has been rolled up against Christian belief since the Enlightenment. I shall argue that if Christian belief is true, then it is rational and warranted for most of those who accept it. I shall therefore be refuting the widespread idea that Christian belief is lacking in positive epistemic status, even if it happens, somehow, to be true. If I am right, the atheologian can’t sensibly take the attitude, “I don’t know whether Christian belief is true or not (who could know a thing like that?); still I do know that it isn’t rational (or warranted, or justified, or rationally justified, or intellectually respectable or . . . ).” For the sake of definiteness I shall be following one particular and traditional way of thinking about our knowledge of Christian truth. I believe that this account or something similar is, in fact, rather close to the sober truth; other models fitting other traditions can easily be constructed. My extended model will have one further feature: it will complete and deepen the previous account (chapter 6) of our knowledge of God. The central themes of this extended model are the Bible, the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, and faith. I’ll begin with a quick overview of the essential elements of the extended model.


According to the model (as we saw in chapter 7), we human beings were created in the image of God: we were created both with appropriate affections and with knowledge of God and his greatness and glory. Because of the greatest calamity to befall the human race, however, we fell into sin, a ruinous condition from which we require rescue and redemption. God proposed and instituted a plan of salvation: the life, atoning suffering and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the incarnate second person of the trinity. The result for us is the possibility of salvation from sin and renewed relationship with God. Now (and here we come to the specifically epistemological extension of the model) God needed a way to inform us—us human beings of many different times and places—of the scheme of salvation he has graciously made available.296296   It is no part of the model to suggest that explicit beliefs about Jesus Christ are a necessary condition of salvation: the Old Testament patriarchs, for example, are counted as heroes of faith in the New Testament (Hebrews 11), despite the fact that they presumably had no explicit beliefs about Jesus Christ. They trusted God to do whatever was necessary for their salvation and shalom, but they had no particular idea as to just what that might be. Furthermore, it is no part of the model to assert that all who believe these things have come to believe them by way of the processes proposed in the model: perhaps, for example, the apostles came to believe these truths in quite a different fashion. No doubt he could have done this in many different ways; in fact he chose to do so by way of a three-tiered cognitive process. First, he arranged for the production of Scripture, the Bible, a library of books or writings each of which has a human author, but each of which is also specially inspired by God in such a way that he himself is its principal author. Thus, the whole library has a single principal author: God himself. In this library, he proposes much for our belief and action, but there is a central theme and focus (and for this reason this collection of books is itself a book): the gospel, the stunning good news of the way of salvation God has graciously offered.297297   But hasn’t the historical-critical Scripture scholarship of the last two hundred years cast grave doubt on the reliability of the Bible and the claim that it is specially inspired by God? This suggestion is a proposed defeater for Christian belief and is the subject of chapter 12. Correlative with Scripture and necessary to its properly serving its purpose is the second element of this three-tiered cognitive process: the presence and action of the Holy Spirit promised by Christ himself before his death and resurrection,298298   E.g., John 14:26: “but the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” See also John 14:11 and 15:26: “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. . . .” and invoked and celebrated in the epistles of the apostle Paul.299299   E.g., Ephesians 1:17–19: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.” And 1 Corinthians 2:12–13: “We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit. . . .” By virtue of 244the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those to whom faith is given, the ravages of sin (including the cognitive damage) are repaired, gradually or suddenly, to a greater or lesser extent. Furthermore, it is by virtue of the activity of the Holy Spirit that Christians come to grasp, believe, accept, endorse, and rejoice in the truth of the great things of the gospel. It is thus by virtue of this activity that the Christian believes that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

According to John Calvin, the principal work of the Holy Spirit is the production (in the hearts of Christian believers) of the third element of the process, faith. Like the regeneration of which it is a part, faith is a gift; it is given to anyone who is willing to accept it. Faith, says Calvin, is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Institutes III, ii, 7, p. 551). Faith therefore involves an explicitly cognitive element; it is, says Calvin, knowledge—knowledge of the availability of redemption and salvation through the person and work of Jesus Christ—and it is revealed to our minds. To have faith, therefore, is to know and hence believe something or other. But (as we shall see in chapter 9) faith also involves the will: it is “sealed upon our hearts.” By virtue of this sealing, the believer not only knows about the scheme of salvation God has prepared (according to the book of James [2:19], the devils also know about that, and they shudder) but is also heartily grateful to the Lord for it, and loves him on this account. Sealing, furthermore, also involves the executive function of the will: believers accept the proffered gift and commit themselves to the Lord, to conforming their lives to his will, to living lives of gratitude.300300   Presented in this brief and undeveloped way, this model can seem unduly individualistic. But of course it doesn’t at all preclude the importance of the Christian community and the church to the belief of the individual Christian. It is the church or community that proclaims the gospel, guides the neophyte into it, and supports, instructs, encourages, and edifies believers of all sorts and conditions.

But isn’t all this just endorsing a wholly outmoded and discredited fundamentalism, that condition than which, according to many academics, none lesser can be conceived? I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of 245this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

It is therefore hard to take seriously the charge that the views I’m suggesting are fundamentalist; more exactly, it is hard to take it seriously as a charge. The alleged charge means only that these views are rather more conservative than those of the objector, together with the expression of a certain distaste for the views or those who hold them. But how is that an objection to anything, and why should it warrant the contempt and contumely that goes with the term? An argument of some kind against those conservative views would be of interest, but merely pointing out that they differ from the objector’s (even with the addition of that abusive emotive force) is not.

How does this model, with its excursion into theology, provide an answer to an epistemological question? How can it be a model for a way in which Christian belief has or could have justification, rationality, warrant? The answer is simplicity itself. These beliefs do not come to the Christian just by way of memory, perception, reason, testimony, the sensus divinitatis, or any other of the cognitive faculties with which we human beings were originally created; they come instead by way of the work of the Holy Spirit, who gets us to accept, causes us to believe, these great truths of the gospel. These beliefs don’t come just by way of the normal operation of our natural faculties; they are a supernatural gift. Still, the Christian who has received 246this gift of faith will of course be justified (in the basic sense of the term) in believing as he does; there will be nothing contrary to epistemic or other duty in so believing (indeed, once he has accepted the gift, it may not be within his power to withhold belief).

Given the model, however, the beliefs in question will typically (or at least often) have the other kinds of positive epistemic status we have been considering as well. First, they will be internally rational:301301   For the notion of internal rationality, see above, p. 110ff. they will be an appropriate doxastic response to what is given to the believer by way of her previous belief and current experience. That is, the believer’s response is such that a properly functioning person with the same current experience and antecedent beliefs could form the same or similar beliefs, without compromising proper function. But the beliefs in question will typically also have external rationality. There need be no cognitive malfunction downstream from experience (see above, p. 110), in believers, but there need be none upstream either: all of their cognitive faculties can be functioning properly. Finally, on the model, these beliefs will also have warrant for believers: they will be produced in them by a belief-producing process302302   Of course this belief-producing process isn’t exactly like the others—memory, perception, reason, and even the sensus divinitatis. That is because these others are all part of our original increated cognitive equipment, while (according to the model) the cognitive process here involves a special, supernatural activity on the part of the Holy Spirit. But this doesn’t so much as suggest that its deliverances can’t enjoy warrant, and warrant sufficient for knowledge. What it suggests, instead, is that the account of warrant of Warrant and Proper Function must be understood in such a way that a belief can have warrant even if it is produced by a belief-producing process of this special kind. True, such a process that consists in direct divine activity cannot fail to function properly; we may therefore say that it functions properly in a limiting sense of the term. that is functioning properly in an appropriate cognitive environment (the one for which they were designed), according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true beliefs.

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