Good Theology at the University

Good, robust theology is so uncommon these days that it’s refreshing when one encounters it. Even more so when one encounters it in unlikely or unexpected places.

Here, then, is a dose of refreshment from Alvin Plantinga, a now-retired Notre Dame philosophy professor whose day job is to match wits on the field of ideas with prominent atheists like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. Such a cogent, concise, accessible summary of the gospel is rare in most churches, let alone in a volume of graduate-level academic philosophy!

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 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. No doubt he could have done this in many different ways; in fact he chose to do so by 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.

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, and invoked and celebrated in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. By virtue of the 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 Christina 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 toward 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). 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 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, 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.

– from Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 243-244.

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