Alvin Carl Plantinga was born on November 15, 1932, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the first of four sons of Cornelius, a professor and first-generation immigrant from the Netherlands, and Lettie Bossenbroek, a homemaker and second-generation Dutch American. Both came from strong backgrounds in Calvinism, also known as the Reformed tradition, a Protestant branch established in the mid-16th century. After his father received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Duke University, the family lived in Huron, Michigan and then in Jamestown, North Dakota, where Cornelius taught at Jamestown College.
His childhood was steeped in the teachings and practice of historic Calvinism through Sunday school and services, church meetings, and summer camp. His curiosity about “Total depravity” – that every important area of life is distorted and compromised by sin – fueled his lifelong inquiry on how to comprehend the existence of evil in a world where God is omnipotent and omniscient.
At 16, he enrolled at Jamestown College. A few months later the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cornelius began teaching at Calvin College, the Christian Reformed liberal arts institution, where he also enrolled. The next year, he applied for a scholarship to Harvard and was accepted. There, for the first time in his life, he encountered serious non-Christian thought and debate. While visiting his family over spring break, he attended a few classes at Calvin taught by philosopher William Harry Jellema. Specifically aiming to study philosophy with Professor Jellema, he returned to Calvin College in 1951. Plantinga graduated from Calvin College with a degree in philosophy in 1954. He received a Master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Michigan in 1955, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale in 1958.
In 1955 he married Kathleen DeBoer, who also came from a strong Dutch Christian Reformed background. They have four children: Carl (b. 1957), Jane (b. 1959), Harry (b. 1961), and Ann (b. 1968). After one year teaching at Yale, in 1958 he was appointed professor at Wayne State University, at the time one of the nation’s leading departments of analytic philosophy. Again, he often found himself as a lone voice in an academic environment of well-versed and sophisticated anti-theists. In 1963 he returned to Calvin College where he served as professor of philosophy for 19 years, with various sabbaticals to teach at Harvard, Balliol College at Oxford, and many other institutions.
“I am honored to receive the Templeton Prize...The field of philosophy has transformed over the course of my career. If my work played a role in this transformation, I would be very pleased. I hope the news of the Prize will encourage young philosophers, especially those who bring Christian and theistic perspectives to bear on their work, towards greater creativity, integrity, and boldness."
An early landmark in Plantinga’s career was his “free will defense” against the so-called “argument from evil,” the most widely cited argument against theistic belief, which posits that the existence of both God and evil are logically incompatible. Plantinga counters that in a world with free creatures, God cannot determine their behavior, so even an omnipotent God might not be able to create a world where all creatures will always freely choose to do good. Its final version in God, Freedom, and Evil(1974) is now almost universally recognized as having laid to rest the logical problem of evil against theism.
Plantinga further stoked controversy with his 1984 article, “Reason and Belief in God,” which disputes the “Classical Foundationalist account of knowledge” according to which beliefs are justified if and only if they can be justified by a chain of reasoning terminating in various types of self-evident beliefs. Plantinga contends that the set of foundational beliefs, what he calls “properly basic beliefs,” are much broader and include belief in the existence of God.
The Legacy of Alvin Plantinga
That article became the launching point for his magnum opus, the “Warrant Trilogy,” an examination of theistic belief, larger questions of knowledge and rational belief, and the notion of warrant, which he defines as that which distinguishes knowledge from true belief. Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function were published in 1993. In 2000, his Warranted Christian Belief looked at the role of warrant in theistic belief and whether it is rational, reasonable, justifiable, and warranted to accept Christian belief. Many consider it among the twentieth century’s most important philosophical treatises on religious belief.
As his international reputation grew in the 1980s, Plantinga became increasingly sought out for international speaking engagements. He has given more than 250 public lectures, including more than 30 named lectureships, throughout the United States and Europe as well as in China, Iran, Israel, and Russia.
One philosopher who nominated Plantinga for the Prize wrote: “Alvin Plantinga’s intellectual discoveries have initiated novel inquiry into spiritual dimensions. His precise and carefully developed insights have opened up intellectual-spiritual space. In the 1950s there was not a single published defense of religious belief by a prominent philosopher; by the 1990s there were literally hundreds of books and articles… defending and developing the spiritual dimension. The difference between 1950 and 1990 is, quite simply, Alvin Plantinga.”
Plantinga’s publications since 2000 have largely focused on the relationship – and compatibility – of scientific and religious belief. His positions draw upon his “Evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN),” formulated in 1993 and restated in Knowledge of God (2008). In contrast to the common claim that evolution is incompatible with theism, the EAAN asserts that evolution is incompatible with naturalism, the philosophical view that denies the existence of any spiritual reality. In 2011 he continued that line of reasoning in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism, boldly asserting that the conflict is not between science and religion but between theism and naturalism – theism supports science while naturalism undermines it.