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VII. Cognitive Renewal

According to Jesus Christ himself, “unless a person is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). And according to the apostle Paul, not as high an authority but still no slouch, a Christian believer becomes a new creature in Christ. The believer enters a process whereby she is regenerated, transformed, made into a new and better person. We might say she acquires a new and better nature. This new and better nature is also a renewal, a restoration of the nature with which humankind was originally created. Sin damaged our nature; regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit, is (among other things) a matter of setting right and repairing that damage. The ravages of sin were of two sorts. First, affective effects: sin induces a sort of madness of the will whereby we fail to love God above all; instead, we love ourselves above all. But the damage was also cognitive. Sin induces a blindness, dullness, stupidity, imperceptiveness, whereby we are blinded to God, cannot hear his voice, do not recognize his beauty and glory, may even go so far as to deny that he exists.

Regeneration heals the ravages of sin—embryonically in this life, and with ever greater fullness in the next. Just what are the cognitive benefits of regeneration? First, there is the repair of the sensus divinitatis, so that once again we can see God and be put in mind of him in the sorts of situations in which that belief-producing process is designed 281to work. The work of the Holy Spirit goes further. It gives us a much clearer view of the beauty, splendor, loveliness, attractiveness, glory of God. It enables us to see something of the spectacular depth of love revealed in the incarnation and atonement. Correlatively, it also gives me a much clearer view of the heinousness of sin, and of the degree and extent to which I am myself enmeshed in it. It gives me a better picture of my own place in the universe. Perhaps I will no longer see myself as the center of things, or see my wants, needs, and desires as more important and more worthy of fulfillment than anyone else’s. I may come to see that I fit in as one of God’s children, all of enormous value even if all vastly less important and valuable than God, and all equally important and valuable. There is also a certain reflexive benefit. Part of the model I am presenting is itself the main line of Christian belief, and it is part of the model that cognitive regeneration enables us to see that part of the model as indeed true.

John Calvin summarizes some of these cognitive benefits in his famous spectacles metaphor:

Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. (Institutes, p. 70)

Here Calvin is suggesting that what we learn from Scripture and by way of faith gathers, focuses, and clarifies what we learn by way of the sensus divinitatis, enabling us to see God and his love, glory, beauty, and the like with much higher resolution. He could have added that it also gives us a clearer view of our world: we now see what is most important about all the furniture of heaven and earth—namely, that it has been created by God. We can even come to see, if we reflect, what is most important about numbers, propositions, properties, states of affairs, and possible worlds: namely, that they really are divine thoughts or concepts.363363   See Thomas Morris and Christopher Menzel, “Absolute Creation,” American Philosophical Quarterly (October 1986) and Christopher Menzel, “Theism, Platonism, and the Metaphysics of Mathematics,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). This ‘theistic conceptualism’ is controversial, though certainly the majority opinion in the tradition of those theists who have thought about it.

Still further, it enables us to see what is most important about ourselves, and in so doing removes the defeater that is the Achilles’ heel of naturalism. As we saw in chapter 7, one of the most far-reaching of the noetic effects of sin is that it skews belief about our 282origins and the origins of our cognitive systems: it prevents us from seeing that we are the creatures of a just and loving God who has created us in his own image. We may come, instead, to think that God is terrible and to be feared rather than a good and loving Father, or distant and far off, or indifferent to us and our welfare; we may come to embrace some version of austere theism, or even agnosticism or naturalism. As we saw in chapter 7, the probability that our cognitive faculties are reliable, given any of these views of God, is low or inscrutable. Now consider anyone who accepts the view in question, and who sees the epistemic relation between that view and R, the proposition that his cognitive faculties are reliable. Such a person has a defeater for R—a defeater that can’t itself be defeated. And that means that he suffers from still another noetic deficiency: he has a defeater for any of his own beliefs and is therefore in an irrational condition. But the restoration and healing induced by the work of the Holy Spirit also counters this noetic effect of sin. It restores us to a position of seeing that we have been created in God’s image; in so doing, it removes that defeater.

A popular objection to the evolutionary argument against naturalism is a tu quoque—briefly, “the same to you, buddy.” Perhaps the most challenging version of this objection is by Keith Lehrer. Consider theism (and call it ‘T’)—not austere theism, but theism itself, including the proposition that we and our cognitive faculties have been created by a just and loving God and created in his image. What is P(R/T)? Well, maybe not as high as you think. The fact that God is just and loving doesn’t prevent all the ills we human beings are heir to—warfare, cruelty, starvation, earthquakes, flood, fire, and pestilence. Granted, God has his own good reasons for permitting these things; still, they do indeed occur, and so are clearly compatible with our having been created by a just and loving Father. So even if God created humankind, he might for his own good reasons permit us to suffer from cognitive malfunction of some sort, cognitive disease or disorder; and such cognitive disorder could inhibit the reliability of our cognitive faculties. Even if God is wholly good, he has or may have permitted Satan to introduce widespread natural evil into the world; but then might he not also permit Satan (that father of lies) to introduce widespread error into the world? (Indeed, hasn’t he done exactly that by permitting us to fall into sin?) Lehrer develops this thought:

Compare, finally,

S Satan and his cohorts produce incredible deceps of error


E Evolutionary processes produce incredible deceps of error.

I find little to choose between them. A naturalist wishing to assign a high probability to the conclusion that the proper 283functioning of our faculties yields truth because they are the result of evolution must assign a low probability to E, while a supernaturalist wishing to assign a high probability to the conclusion that the proper functioning of our faculties yields truth because they are designed by God must assign a low probability to S.364364   In his “Proper Function vs. Systematic Coherence,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology: Essays in Honor of Plantinga’s Theory of Knowledge, ed. Jonathan Kvanvig (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), pp. 29–30.

And as a matter of fact, of course, according to Christianity precisely this or something like it has happened: God has permitted us to fall into sin with its attendant noetic effects. So what is P(R/T)? Wouldn’t we have to say it is low or at any rate inscrutable, just like P(R/N&E)? So won’t the theist join the naturalist in having a defeater for any of his beliefs? Won’t he be in the very same leaky epistemic boat?

This is a formidable objection; there is a reply.365365   See my “Respondeo,” in Warrant in Contemporary Epistemology, pp. 333–38. For the Christian doesn’t accept just theism; she also accepts the rest of the Christian story, including fall (along with corruption of the image of God), redemption, regeneration, and the consequent repair and restoration of that image. She believes she knows these truths by way of divine revelation. But she also knows, so she thinks, the truth of theism by way of divine revelation. And this delivers her (or rather R) from defeat. Consider an analogy. Suppose you tell me that

(1) Feike is a very wealthy eccentric who loves to wear dilapidated old clothes from the local Goodwill.

Acting on the principle that it is always a good idea to acquire some new true beliefs, I infer

(2) Feike wears dilapidated old clothes.

I have also believed for some time that

(3) Feike is a millionaire.

But now I note that P((3)/(2)) is low (most people who wear dilapidated old clothes are not millionaires); I conclude in considerable puzzlement that (2) is a defeater, for me, of (3), and do my best to refrain from believing (3). My error is plain: (2) isn’t, in fact, a defeater for (3), for me. Why not? Well, for one thing, because I see that the warrant (2) has for me is derivative from the warrant (1) has for me, and obviously (1) is not, for me, a defeater for (3). But that means that (2) is not a defeater of (3). If you would like a principle, try:

(4) If (i) S believes A, B, and C, and (ii) S believes that the warrant B has for her is derivative from the warrant A has for her, and (3) 284S believes that A is not a defeater, for her, of C, then B is not a defeater, for S, of C. 366366   Here ‘derivative from’ must be construed narrowly, so that the paradigm case of the warrant of p’s being derivative, for me, from the warrant of q is (as in this case) where I infer p from q (explicitly or implicitly). In fact, (4) can be strengthened by weakening the antecedent in various ways.

This principle, as I say, delivers R from defeat, for the Christian theist (and also delivers the evolutionary argument against naturalism from defeat by that tu quoque). For the Christian theist believes that she knows the whole Christian story, or that at any rate it has some considerable warrant for her. Theism is part of that story, and the warrant theism has for her is derivative from the warrant had for her of the whole Christian story. Hence by (4) theism won’t be a defeater of R for her unless the whole Christian story is. But it isn’t. Therefore, theism isn’t a defeater of R, for her, and the objection crumbles.

To recount the essential features of the model, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit working in concord with God’s teaching in Scripture is a cognitive process or belief-producing mechanism that produces in us the beliefs constituting faith, as well as a host of other beliefs. These beliefs, of course, will seem to the believer to be true: that is part of what it is for them to be beliefs. They will have the internal features of belief, of seeming to be true; and they can have this to various degrees. Second, according to the model, these beliefs will be justified; they will also have at least two further kinds of virtues. In the first place, they are internally rational, in the sense that the believer’s response to the experience she has (given prior belief) is within the range permitted by rationality, that is, by proper function; there is nothing pathological there. And in the second place, the beliefs in question will have warrant: they will be produced by cognitive processes functioning properly in an appropriate environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at the production of true belief. To be sure, the process in question is not like the ordinary belief-producing mechanisms we have just by virtue of creation; it will be by a special work of the Holy Spirit. Recall Hume’s sarcastic gibe:

Upon the whole, we may conclude that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. . . . Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.367367   An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court Publishing, 1956), p. 145.


According to the testimonial model, Hume (sarcasm aside) is partly right: belief in the main lines of the gospel is produced in Christians by a special work of the Holy Spirit, not by the belief-producing faculties and processes with which we were originally created. Further, some of what Christians believe (e.g., that a human being was dead and then arose from the dead) is as Hume says, contrary to custom and experience: it seldom happens. Of course it doesn’t follow, contrary to Hume’s implicit suggestion, that there is anything irrational or contrary to reason in believing it, given the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit.

What I claim for this model is that there aren’t any successful philosophical objections to it (and in chapter 10 I’ll look into some objections); so far as philosophical considerations go, given the truth of Christian belief, this model, or something very much like it, could be no more than the sober truth. Of course there may be philosophical objections to the truth of Christian belief itself; I shall consider some of them in part IV under the guise of defeaters. But the point here is that if Christian belief is true, then it could very well have warrant in the way proposed here. If (as I claim) the fact is there are no good philosophical objections to the model, given the truth of Christian belief, then any successful objection to the model will also have to be a successful objection to the truth of Christian belief.

We can take the matter a step further. If Christian belief is true, then very likely it does have warrant—if not in the way proposed in the extended A/C model, then in some other similar way. For if it is true, then, indeed, there is such a person as God, who has created us in his image; we have fallen into sin and require salvation; and the means to such restoral and renewal have been provided in the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity. Furthermore, the typical way of appropriating this restoral is by way of faith, which, of course, involves belief in these things—that is, belief in the great things of the gospel. If so, however, God would intend that we be able to be aware of these truths. And if that is so, the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do indeed produce belief in the central elements of the Christian faith are aimed by their designer at producing that belief. But then these beliefs will have warrant.

Someone who has read his Gettier368368   See WPF, pp. 32ff. might object: “Isn’t it possible God has created a certain process p in us for coming to know the great things of the gospel; this process p usually malfunctions, producing no belief at all; while another process p* also (and serendipitously) malfunctions, in precisely such a way as to produce 286in us the very beliefs p would have produced, had it not malfunctioned? Then the Christian story would be true, but Christian belief would have no warrant.” No doubt this scenario is possible, even if a bit far-fetched. Even if it happened, however, it wouldn’t follow that Christian belief, thus produced, lacks warrant. Even if Christian belief was (improbably) produced by a process p* originally designed for some other purpose, it wouldn’t follow that Christian belief does not have warrant. For perhaps God has adopted p* and its new way of working as part of the design plan for human beings. Then, once more, Christian belief would have warrant, even if in a bit of a roundabout way.

Finally, I should like to ask how my project in this book compares with William Alston’s in his magisterial Perceiving God.369369   Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. Subsequent page references are to this book. See above, chapter 5. There is much similarity and overlap, but also important difference. First, the central thesis of Alston’s book is that “experiential awareness of God, or as I shall be saying, the perception of God, makes an important contribution to the grounds of religious belief” (p. 1). The religious beliefs in question are of two sorts: “beliefs to the effect that God is doing something currently vis-à-vis the subject—comforting, strengthening, guiding . . . —or to the effect that God has some (allegedly) perceivable property—goodness, power, lovingness” (p. 1). What kind of contribution does experiential awareness of God make to the grounds of such beliefs? “More specifically, a person can become justified in holding certain kinds of beliefs about God by virtue of perceiving God as being or doing so-and-so” (p. 1). Alston’s central claim, I think, is that this experiential awareness of God (i.e., what seems to the subject to be experiential awareness of God) makes it possible for the believer to be practically rational in the doxastic practices in question, and practically rational to take these practices to be a source of epistemic justification. (See chapter 4 above for my evaluation of the success of this claim.)

My project differs in three ways. First, I am concerned not primarily with beliefs of the two sorts Alston mentions, but rather with the central claims or beliefs of the Christian faith. I am not limiting my attention to beliefs about God’s (allegedly) perceptible properties or his current actions with respect to the believer. My aim, instead, is to examine the epistemic status of the great things of the gospel: that Jesus Christ is the second person of the trinity, that he became incarnate, suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and that by atoning for our sins he made it possible for us human beings to achieve a right relationship with God. Second, the epistemic property in which I am most interested is not justification, taken either deontologically or in the way in which Alston takes it, but warrant: does Christian belief have, can it have, the property enough of which is what distinguishes knowledge from mere 287true belief? And can it (if true) have enough of that property to constitute knowledge? Third, I don’t argue that these Christian beliefs have or can have warrant by way of perception or experiential awareness of God or of his presence or his properties, but by way of faith.

An Alston-like project in the neighborhood of my project would be an effort to argue that the kinds of beliefs he mentions—that God has some perceptible property, that he is acting a certain way vis-à-vis the believer—could have warrant by way of perception (there aren’t any successful philosophical objections to the claim that they do) and that from a Christian perspective the most satisfactory way of thinking of their warrant is in terms of perception of God and his properties: if Christian belief is, in fact, true, then (probably) these beliefs do have warrant in these ways. What about these suggestions? First, I take it Alston has adequately (and more than adequately) disposed of the main philosophical objections to the thought that we human beings can perceive God and perceive that he is amiable, delightful, powerful, glorious, loving, and the like. On this point, Alston is close to Jonathan Edwards, who is best construed, as I argued above, as holding that we do (not merely can) perceive God and perceive these things of him.

I have just one comment to make here. There is no doubt that human beings seem to experience God, and to experience him as being these things. To many, it has indeed seemed that God is present to their consciousness in something like the way in which any perceptible object can be present to my consciousness; it is equally clear that it has seemed to many that they experience God as having the properties in question. But are these really cases of seeming to perceive? On the one hand, they exhibit several salient differences from paradigm cases of perception, such as perception of trees, horses, other people: in particular, the phenomenology is quite different. (Of course the phenomenology of the various sensuous modalities of perception themselves also differ from each other.) On the other hand, there is the crucial similarity that, in this case as in the paradigm sensory cases, there is that sense of being in the presence of the object in question, the powerful impression that it is present or presented to one’s consciousness. The thing to say, I think, is that these cases of putative perception of God are such that the term ‘perception’ applies to them either perfectly straightforwardly, or else by way of close analogy. Which is it? Perhaps this is not a very important question. If it isn’t precisely perception, it is something closely and analogically related to it, and related in such a way that (if, in fact, things are as they seem to the believer) it too can perfectly well be a source of warranted belief. So I have a great deal of sympathy for this Alston-like project and would in fact be prepared to endorse it. Further, while I am not completely clear about Alston’s notion of practical rationality (see above, pp. 119ff.), I believe it is fairly close to my internal rationality; I would therefore concur with him in thinking that Christian belief does indeed enjoy these varieties of positive epistemic status.

Where my project differs from Alston’s, then, is that I am concerned not simply with those perceptual (or ‘perceptual’) beliefs Alston mentions. Further (and on this point I am not, so far as I know, disputing anything Alston says), I doubt that perception of God, in his sense, is the 288central way in which Christian belief is formed. First, as Alston says, it is only the fortunate few who perceive God with any regularity.370370   “The experiential awareness of God is a rare phenomenon except for a very few souls” (Perceiving God, p. 36). Second, the sorts of beliefs with which I am centrally concerned do not ordinarily seem to come to the believers in question by way of perception. This is so even when the occasions in question are not ordinary, garden-variety occasions for the formation and sustenance of Christian belief. Thus John Wesley’s famous experience:

In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.371371   John Wesley, ed. Albert Outler (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 66.

Here what Wesley comes to believe, or believe more profoundly, is just what the Heidelberg Catechism sees as the content of true faith: that the divine scheme of salvation applies to oneself personally. As far as one can tell, however, this wasn’t a matter of perceiving God. There was, indeed, sensuous phenomenology (“I felt my heart strangely warmed”) and an oft-noted kind of phenomenology; but it doesn’t seem to be perceptual. Indeed, it isn’t clear that it is possible to perceive, for example, that Christ has taken away my sins, or that he is the incarnate second person of the trinity or that he suffered and died, thereby enabling us to have life. Consider also the apostle Paul’s vision on the way to Damascus: no doubt he then did perceive Jesus, and furthermore perceived that he said that he was indeed the Christ. So it is certainly possible to perceive Jesus the Christ and perceive that he is saying that he is the Christ; still, can we perceive that Jesus actually is the Christ? That he actually is the second person of the trinity? I’m inclined to doubt it. And the more ordinary cases where someone’s belief in the great things of the gospel comes by way of faith (i.e., Scripture/internal instigation of the Holy Spirit/faith) seem even less properly thought of as cases of perception.

Accordingly, there is indeed such a thing as perceiving God; furthermore, perceiving God plays an important role in the religious and spiritual lives of many Christians, in particular, Christians who have been blessed with considerable progress in the spiritual life. Indeed, we might think, following Edwards, that perceiving God—perceiving that he is lovely, amiable, holy, glorious, and the like—is an essential element in the full-blown, well-rounded Christian life. I agree, furthermore, that these perceptual beliefs can have warrant. The central Christian beliefs, however, are not perceptual beliefs; they come, not by way of perception 289of God, but by way of faith. The warrant those beliefs have is not perceptual warrant; it comes rather by way of faith. In sum, perception of God is an important part of the mature Christian life, but maturity in the Christian life isn’t attained by most of us; and even for the fortunate few who do achieve maturity, the warrant their central Christian beliefs enjoy does not come by way of perception. I therefore see Alston’s project here as covering only part of the relevant epistemological territory—an important part, but only a part, and not the part by way of which the central beliefs of the Christian faith have warrant.

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