First, some definitions (feel free to skip this part if you are already familiar with the concepts):

Reformed Epistemology

In the philosophy of religion, Reformed epistemology is a school of philosophical thought concerning the nature of knowledge (epistemology) as it applies to religious beliefs. The central proposition of Reformed epistemology is that beliefs can be justified by more than evidence alone, contrary to the positions of evidentialism, which argues that while non-evidential belief may be beneficial, it violates some epistemic duty. Central to Reformed epistemology is the proposition that belief in God may be "properly basic" and not need to be inferred from other truths to be rationally warranted. William Lane Craig describes Reformed epistemology as "One of the most significant developments in contemporary religious epistemology ... which directly assaults the evidentialist construal of rationality."

Reformed epistemology was so named because it represents a continuation of the 16th-century Reformed theology of John Calvin, who postulated a sensus divinitatis, an innate divine awareness of God's presence. More recent influences on Reformed epistemology are found in philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff's Reason within the Bounds of Religion, published in 1976, and Alvin Plantinga's "Reason and Belief in God", published in 1983.

Plantinga's Reformed epistemology

According to Reformed epistemology, belief in God can be rational and justified even without arguments or evidence for the existence of God. More specifically, Plantinga argues that belief in God is properly basic, and due to a religious externalist epistemology, he claims belief in God could be justified independently of evidence. His externalist epistemology, called "Proper functionalism", is a form of epistemological reliabilism.

Plantinga discusses his view of Reformed epistemology and proper functionalism in a three-volume series. In the first book of the trilogy, Warrant: The Current Debate, Plantinga introduces, analyzes, and criticizes 20th-century developments in analytic epistemology, particularly the works of Roderick Chisholm, Laurence BonJour, William Alston, and Alvin Goldman. Plantinga argues that the theories of what he calls "warrant"—what many others have called justification (Plantinga draws out a difference: justification is a matter of fulfilling one's epistemic duties, whereas warrant is what transforms true belief into knowledge)—put forth by these epistemologists have failed to capture in full what is required for knowledge.

In the second book, Warrant and Proper Function, he introduces the notion of warrant as an alternative to justification and discusses topics like self-knowledge, memories, perception, and probability. Plantinga's "proper function" account argues that as a necessary condition of having warrant, one's "belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers" are functioning properly—"working the way it ought to work".[16] Plantinga explains his argument for proper function with reference to a "design plan", as well as an environment in which one's cognitive equipment is optimal for use. Plantinga asserts that the design plan does not require a designer: "it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans", but the paradigm case of a design plan is like a technological product designed by a human being (like a radio or a wheel). Ultimately, Plantinga argues that epistemological naturalism- i.e. epistemology that holds that warrant is dependent on natural faculties – is best supported by supernaturalist metaphysics – in this case the belief in a creator God or in some designer who has laid out a design plan that includes cognitive faculties conducive to attaining knowledge.

According to Plantinga, a belief, B, is warranted if:

(1) the cognitive faculties involved in the production of B are functioning properly…; (2) your cognitive environment is sufficiently similar to the one for which your cognitive faculties are designed; (3) … the design plan governing the production of the belief in question involves, as purpose or function, the production of true beliefs…; and (4) the design plan is a good one: that is, there is a high statistical or objective probability that a belief produced in accordance with the relevant segment of the design plan in that sort of environment is true.

Plantinga seeks to defend this view of proper function against alternative views of proper function proposed by other philosophers which he groups together as "naturalistic", including the "functional generalization" view of John Pollock, the evolutionary/etiological account provided by Ruth Millikan, and a dispositional view held by John Bigelow and Robert Pargetter. Plantinga also discusses his evolutionary argument against naturalism in the later chapters of Warrant and Proper Function.

(Source: Reformed epistemology - Wikipedia)

Reformed epistemology is a thesis about the rationality of religious belief. A central claim made by the reformed epistemologist is that religious belief can be rational without any appeal to evidence or argument. There are, broadly speaking, two ways that reformed epistemologists support this claim. The first is to argue that there is no way to successfully formulate the charge that religious belief is in some way epistemically defective if it is lacking support by evidence or argument. The second way is to offer a description of what it means for a belief to be rational, and to suggest ways that religious beliefs might in fact be meeting these requirements. This has led reformed epistemologists to explore topics such as when a belief-forming mechanism confers warrant, the rationality of engaging in belief forming practices, and when we have an epistemic duty to revise our beliefs. As such, reformed epistemology offers an alternative to evidentialism (the view that religious belief must be supported by evidence in order to be rational) and fideism (the view that religious belief is not rational, but that we have non-epistemic reasons for believing).

Reformed epistemology was first clearly articulated in a collection of papers called Faith and Rationality edited by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff in 1983. However, the view owes a debt to many other thinkers.

(Source: Reformed Epistemology - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


Under the influence of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, philosophical interest in mysticism has heavily focused on distinctive, allegedly knowledge-granting “mystical experiences.” Philosophers have dealt with such topics as the classification of mystical experiences, their nature, to what extent mystical experiences are conditioned by a mystic’s language and culture, and whether mystical experiences furnish evidence for the truth of mystical claims. Some philosophers have recently questioned the emphasis on experience in favor of examining broader mystical phenomena. Indeed, “mysticism” is best thought of as a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined. But this entry will concentrate on the topics philosophers have discussed concerning mystical experiences.

A more inclusive definition of “mystical experience” is:

A purportedly nonsensory awareness or a nonstructured sensory experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of ordinary sense-perception structured by mental conceptions, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection. “Experience,” “consciousness,” and “awareness” are notoriously difficult to define and will be left unanalyzed here, but the other key terms in the definition can be understood as follows:

  1. “Purportedly” allows the definition to be accepted without necessarily accepting that mystics ever really do experience realities or states of affairs in the way they described.

  2. “Nonsenory awareness” includes content of a kind not appropriate to sense-perception, somatosensory modalities (including the means for sensing pain and body temperature, and internally sensing body, limb, organ, and visceral positions and states), or standard introspection. Some mystics have referred to a distinct “spiritual” means of knowing appropriate only to a non-physical realm (nous, intellectus, buddhi). A super sense-perceptual mode of experience may accompany sense-perception as in the cases of “nature mysticism” or “cosmic consciousness” (Bucke 1901), as when, for example, a person has an awareness of God while watching a setting sun.

  3. “Nonstructured sensory experience” consists of phenomenological sensory content but lacks the conceptualization normally structuring sense-perception.

  4. “Acquaintance” of realities in mystical experiences means the subject is putatively aware of one or more realities in a way that overcomes the normal subject/object duality: the “acquaintance” is “knowledge by participation” or “knowledge by identity” (Forman 1990, Introduction). Mystical experiences are allegedly “direct,” “unmediated” insights in that sense.

  5. “States of affairs” include the impermanence of all reality and that God is the ground of the self. “Acquaintance” of states of affairs comes in two forms. In one, a subject is aware of either (one or more) realities on which (one or more) states of affairs supervene. An example would be an awareness of God (a reality) affording an awareness of one’s utter dependence on God (a state of affairs). In its second form, acquaintance of states of affairs involves an insight directly, without supervening on acquaintance, of any reality. An example is coming to “see” the impermanence of all that exists in the phenomenal world.

Hereafter “mystical experience” will be used in the broader sense, unless otherwise noted, not merely for unitive experiences. Correspondingly, the term “mysticism” will refer to practices, discourse, texts, institutions, and traditions associated with these experiences. The definition excludes paranormal experiences such as visions, voices, out-of-body experiences, and powers such as telepathy. All of these are “dualistic” acquaintance of subjects with objects or qualities of a kind accessible to the senses or to ordinary introspection.

Various philosophers have defended the evidential value, to one degree or another, of some religious and mystical experiences, principally with regard to experiences of God (see Baillie 1939, Broad 1953, Davis 1989, Gellman 1997 and 2001a, Gutting 1982, Swinburne 1991 and 1996, Wainwright 1981, Yandell 1993). These philosophers have stressed the “perceptual” nature of experiences of God. This approach can be summarized as follows:

  1. Experiences of God have a subject/object structure with a phenomenological content allegedly representing the object of the experience. Subjects are also moved to make truth claims based on such experiences. Furthermore, there are mystical procedures for getting into position for a mystical experience of God (see Underhill 1911 [1945, 90–94]), and others can take up a suitable mystical path to try to check on the subject’s claims (see Bergson 1977, 210). In all these ways, experiences of God are perceptual in nature.

  2. Such experiences count as at least some evidence in favor of their own validity. That a person seems to experience some object is some reason to think he or she really does have experiential contact with it. Thus, experiences of God count as at least some evidence in favor of their own validity.

  3. Agreement between experiences of people in different places, times, and traditions enhances the evidence in favor of their validity (see Broad 1953). Hence, agreement about experiences of God in diverse circumstances enhances the evidence in their favor. (But see Section 9.6.)

  4. Further enhancement of the validity of a mystical experience can come from appropriate consequences in the life of the person who had the experience, such as increased saintliness (see Wainwright 1981, 83–88). William James proposed a pragmatic “fruit” test for determining true mystical doctrines (James 1958, 368): if a mystical experience produces positive results in how one leads one’s life, then the experience is authentic and the way of life one follows is vindicated, and so the teachings leading to the positive life are correct. In short, the “truth” of one’s beliefs are shown by one’s life as a whole. (But what is considered positive fruit in one mystical tradition may not be considered so in another.)

(1)–(4) yield initial evidence in favor of the validity of (some) experiences of God.

(Source: Mysticism - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


Alvin Plantinga describes belief in God as properly basic, rooted in an experience of God through a form of sensus divinitatis. This concept parallels our acceptance of the external world, which can be considered properly basic based on our experiences through the conventional five senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. William Lane Craig, following the ideas of Alvin Plantinga, further specifies that belief in God can be properly grounded in the experience of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (source 1, source 2).

By the way, subsequent works have endeavored to revise and enhance Alvin Plantinga's original formulation of Reformed Epistemology. For instance, in the paper Reforming reformed epistemology: a new take on the sensus divinitatis:

Abstract: Alvin Plantinga theorizes the existence of a sensus divinitatis—a special cognitive faculty or mechanism dedicated to the production and non-inferential justification of theistic belief. Following Chris Tucker, we offer an evidentialist-friendly model of the sensus divinitatis whereon it produces theistic seemings that non-inferentially justify theistic belief. We suggest that the sensus divinitatis produces these seemings by tacitly grasping support relations between the content of ordinary experiences (in conjunction with our background evidence) and propositions about God. Our model offers advantages such as eliminating the need for a sui generis religious faculty, harmonizing the sensus divinitatis with prominent theories in the cognitive science of religion, and providing a superior account of natural revelation.

Interestingly, the experiential nature of knowing God proposed by Reformed Epistemology bears resemblance to the knowledge-granting aspect of mystical experiences as described in mysticism. This intriguing similarity prompts me to ask the following questions:

  • Is there any overlap between Reformed Epistemology and Mysticism? Could the former be viewed as a special variant of the latter? Are they completely different and irreconcilable views?

  • Can the experience of God through the sensus divinitatis suggested by Reformed Epistemology be interpreted as a special kind of mystical experience?

  • According to Reformed Epistemology, does the sensus divinitatis play any role whatsoever in mystical experiences in general? If not, how does Reformed Epistemology account for mystical experiences? By resorting to "other spiritual senses" beyond the sensus divinitatis?

  • 3
    I do not think so. Plantinga and other theist rationalists do not imbue properly basic beliefs with the mysterium of mystical experiences that require achieving some enlightened state of mind. Sensus divinitatis is not much different from Descartes's lumen naturale and other old theories of innate ideas that are accessible to all without mystical exaltation. They would say that beliefs in logic and such are also "properly basic" since we cannot justify logic without using logic.
    – Conifold
    Feb 26 at 21:20
  • @Conifold Can you please unpack your comment a little bit more? Would you like to write an answer?
    – Mark
    Feb 26 at 22:15
  • it need not be, although I believe Plantinga may have originally cast it as such. For more, please see mcallister 2019 reforming reformed epistemology.
    – emesupap
    Feb 27 at 0:16
  • @Conifold I refined my questions. Hopefully this might motivate you to offer more details in an answer.
    – Mark
    Feb 27 at 16:09
  • 1
    @Mark -- The members of this community are mostly secular, and with a STEM orientation. Mysticism is not generally something either background creates familiarity with. And the details of a newly developed backwater in theist epistemology, will not be in almost anyone's experience base here. Hence basically all readers will need to carefully parse your definitions, and the question is super long for basically everyone. I am a mystic, and a theist with some interest in theology and I still had to carefully parse your definitions. But, I don't see any shorter way to ask your question.
    – Dcleve
    Feb 28 at 6:41

1 Answer 1



In epistemology, we have a variety of ways, at least in theory to acquire knowledge.

  1. Intuitive knowing
  2. Reasoning from first principles
  3. Direct realism -- we have immediate knowledge of something (this is empiricism, and empiricism can be first person subjective, or 3rd person intersubjective)
  4. Indirect Realism -- we make postulates, hypotheses, and theories about what our experiences tell us about an unreachable world. (this is empiricism, and empiricism can be first person subjective, or 3rd person intersubjective)

Science operates off indirect realism, and generally limits itself to the intersubjective. Informal empiricism generally operates off first person indirect realism.

There have been a lot of disputes about direct vs. indirect realism, but the development of modern physics (relativity and quantum mechanics, which is VERY non-intuitive) pretty much showed that our inclination to think we directly know the world is a self-delusion, and option 3 is not something we can use.

Prior to the rise of science in the 19th-21st centuries, much philosophy assumed we could derive the world from first principles, per option 2. This is, not widely accepted anymore. Our world is treated as logically contingent, and HOW it is among the infinities of logical possibilities, must be discovered empirically.

However, empiricism and science, option 4, are not self-derived. They are established through the philosophy of empiricism, and the only remaining option to gain the knowledge to justify empiricism comes from intuition. Hence option 1 is also a viable source of knowledge.

Option 1 based claims are often referred to as "supernatural", as they are not evidenced, nor reasoned.

What Plantinga is doing

Plantinga does not want to leave God experiences in the realm of supernatural epistemology. What he is proposing is that we can have option 3 experiences of God through first person direct realism. And that first person direct realism provides justification to accept the truth of something, hence it is rational.

There is nothing logically wrong with this claim. Plantinga is reviving a historical option within the spectrum of legitimate epistemology.

How to test direct first person empiricism, such that we can sort between immediate experiences we can trust, from those we can't, is something he would need to flesh out. Since he wrote 3 books on this subject, there is likely to be something in them addressing this challenge.

I do not trust Plantinga's reasoning fully, as I have seen his rationale that naturalists cannot justifiably trust reason, and it is a flawed argument. He presumes "logical truth" is needed for reason to be valid. And evolutionary processes can't deliver "logical truth" to us, only sufficiently close approximations to survive. But evolution, and the naturalist worldview as a whole, does NOT rely upon absolute truth, but only pragmatic truth. And per the standards of pragmatic truth, we CAN trust our evolved sense of reason. Plantinga argues against a straw man of naturalism, at least in that argument for naturalists having to distrust reason.

So DO we have a direct apprehension of God? Well, a lot of the world are atheists, and of the theists, for most of history monotheism was a small minority of theism. And of the monotheists, there are disputes between them about the nature of God. If we have a God-sense, and there is just one God, one would expect monotheism to have been the sole view throughout history, and relatively little dispute about the details of God. So, based on at least the initial tests I can think of, Plantinga's assumption, while possible, does not seem to actually be the case in our world.

What is mysticism saying

Mystics are of three minds about what they are doing. Some locate their activities in option 1, -- intuitive knowledge, bypassing reason. Others consider themselves to be gaining direct apprehension of the reality of the universe, including God, per option 3. Adn yet others place themselves in option 4, first person indirect realism where the nature of God and the non-material is gathered though a mystic sense, and one can apply questioning, hypothesis formation, etc. to what one senses.

Note the difference between imperfect direct realism, and indirect realism with a God-sensor, is not really absolute. It is instead a matter of degree to which one treats the trustworthiness of sensed data of the spirit realm.

Is there any overlap between Reformed Epistemology and Mysticism? Could the former be viewed as a special variant of the latter?

Like the mystics Plantinga also asserted a "God sensor". I suspect Plantinga admits that this sensor is imperfect, so Plantinga basically falls into the envelope of the mystics who hold by an imperfect option 3, blending into option 4.

Yes, these views overlap.

Can the experience of God through the sensus divinitatis suggested by Reformed Epistemology be interpreted as a special kind of mystical experience?

Again yes.

How does Reformed Epistemology account for mystical experiences?

I have not read Plantinga's 3 volumes.

In general, I find Plantinga to be BOTH one of the most substantive Christian philosophers of our current day, who authors interesting and philosophically useful ideas, AND an apologist, presenting some suspect rationalizations to try to settle the troubled minds of the faithful. Is this a question that would trouble the faithful? If so, he may have addressed it.

How do I account for other mystical experiences

As a spiritual dualist, I hold that we have a spiritual essence, and can sense the spirit realm. One can do this through entering a meditative state, and accepting as valid the impressions one gets that are not of our immediate physical surroundings.

The vast diversity of mystical experiences, I postulate come from the extreme diversity of the spiritual realm itself. The shamanic, New Age, Vedic, Pagan, and Abrahamic mysticisms all are from different aspects of this complex realm. The ability to tune one's reception of spiritual inputs is based on one's frame of mind while open.

The methodology I use is based on that of Ben Swett's Two Way Prayer. http://www.bswett.com/1990-03TwoWayPrayer.html

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