Alvin Plantinga + Autism

About two years ago in the month of June, I was on a road-trip with my Dad and a few of our friends. On the way to and from our destination, I was finishing off Alvin Plantinga’s book, Warranted Christian Belief, and came across an interesting statement that Plantinga makes in his book. In fact, it’s not necessarily apart of the main narrative, but is rather just a footnote at the bottom of a page in the chapter entitled “Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences.” In this footnote, Plantinga writes

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Source: Amazon

It is no part of the [Aquinas/Calvin] model to say that damage to the sensus divinitatis (1) on the part of a person is due to sin on the part of the same person. Such damage is like other disease and handicaps: due ultimately to the ravages of sin, but not necessarily sin on the part of the person with the disease. In this connection, see Jesus’ remarks (John 9:1-3) about the man blind from birth (p. 214, fn. 22).

Now as someone who was diagnosed for high spectrum autism disorder when I was very young (2), this quote stuck out to me like a sore thumb when I first read it. I’ve always had a curiosity on the subject of those with special needs and their cognitive ability to know God, but this really gave me more of a drive to study it further. To think about it and see if someone with malfunctioning cognitive faculties (i.e. autism, mental retardation, etc.) can consciously choose to believe or not to believe in God.

There is a lot packed into this brief footnote, so let’s break it down in context. The footnote is attached to a section of the chapter where Plantinga is describing the worst effect that sin has on us and our sense of God. He adds

The most serious noetic effects of sin have to do with our knowledge of God. Were it not for sin and its effects, God’s presence and glory would be as obvious and uncontroversial to us all as the presence of other minds, physical objects, and the past. Like any cognitive process, however, the sensus divinitatis can malfunction; as a result of sin, it has indeed been damaged. Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork (p. 214-215).”

In other words, Plantinga argues that our knowledge of God is the most damaged aspect of our sensus divinitatis (sense of divinity). If our sense of God was not impaired, then we would be completely aware of God in everything. But because everyone has been born into sin, we all have a malfunctioning sense of God. Like a broken window, our view of God is distorted before we accept the Gospel. After we accept it, then our sense of God is restored to what it was always meant to be since the beginning.

Yet, we all don’t have malfunctioning cognitive faculties. Is this footnote indicating that some may have a harder time understanding the Gospel because there are more mental roadblocks that may inhibit their path to genuine belief in God? Not to say that our own sin directly causes this malfunction, but that sin itself has caused this malfunction in the cognitive faculties of some.

For example, no one is morally responsible for a person being born with a heart defect, but rather this defect is directly related to the natural consequences of the Fall of mankind. The unnatural breaking down of the human body as the world gets older and older. The original sin is the root of these malfunctions for the most part, not the individual sins of others. For more on that, let’s turn to the Gospel of John.

The passage of Scripture that Plantinga points out in the already mentioned footnote is John 9:1-3. In this passage, Jesus comes across a blind man who has been blind since birth. Inquiring to know why this man is born blind, the disciples ask Jesus whether it is due to the man’s own sin or that of his parents.

As if to say, whose sin caused this consequence? Who is responsible for this man’s poor condition of being blind from birth? Jesus succinctly replies “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” What does Jesus mean by this exactly?

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Source: Pulpit & Pen

John Piper of Desiring God (3), spoke on this very subject and makes an important point. “The explanation of the blindness lies not in the past causes but the future purposes,” says Piper. For this specific case, the blindness from birth was not a sinful consequence, but rather a predetermined act of God. This disability was given, so that God might have the glory in the healing of it. By healing a blind man from birth publicly, Jesus caused others to see things spiritually. Thus, leading to people naturally giving God the glory.

In Genesis 50:20, Joseph speaks about how God can take something evil like our physical ailments or malfunctioning cognitive faculties and turn them into something good. This can be seen when a family is closer to each other when compared to other families because of the attentive care necessary for one of their family members that may have special needs. If not for having a family member with special needs, there are many families that would probably be more distant to both each other and God. Like usual, God can answer a series of evils with one good thing.

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Source: Pexels

But that stills leaves our question unanswered: can people with malfunctioning cognitive faculties consciously accept or reject belief in God? Can they ever have a repaired sense of God? To put it simply, of course they can and a good portion of them do have genuine belief in God.

Even though someone may be at a mental state where they are equivalent to that of a small child or may have an IQ lower than normal, they still have the ability to receive the Gospel. In Mark 10:15, Jesus clearly states that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” If we base our faith in our own intelligence and knowledge, than we have not received the Gospel like a child and thus are not actually Christian.

We have made up our own God at that point because faith in the kingdom of God is childlike, not complicated and complex. Either we believe that Jesus is Lord and confess that God raised Him from the dead or we don’t. It’s as simple as that and for someone with malfunctioning cognitive faculties, they too have the ability to receive or reject belief in God on these grounds.

One last thing. Like anyone who comes to faith in God, the moment of salvation is completely by the power of the Holy Spirit. We cannot do this on our own. We cannot have our sense of God repaired and our souls redeemed, unless by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

So whether special needs or not, we need the Holy Spirit during this transformation from death to life. From disbelief to genuine belief in the one true, triune God. Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot be born again. But by the power of God the Father in Christ Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can all be born again. We can all be made alive in Christ. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless.

Footnotes

  1. Earlier in this chapter, Plantinga defines sensus divinitatis as “a disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity (p. 173).” This sense of divinity or this sense of God is the bedrock for which the A/C Model hinges on and is one of the main themes discussed in Warranted Christian Belief, along with the rest of Plantinga’s Warrant trilogy. The name sensus divinitatis was originally penned by a French theologian named John Calvin.
  2. It is possible that my original diagnosis of high spectrum autism disorder by Stanford University may have been a mistake. As Thomas Sowell argues, a number of cases in the past that were diagnosed as ADD, Autism, and so on could have been just children with what he dubs “Einstein Syndrome.” Also known as late-talkers, Einstein Syndrome is named after Albert Einstein due to a theory that he began to talk at a later age than usual due to certain portions of his brain developing faster than normal. If a child’s parents are extremely gifted in mathematics or music, then the child may be more likely to be a late-talker, according to Sowell. To learn more, click here.
  3. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/why-was-this-child-born-blind
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