Revealed Truth

Just as committed to propositional revelation as the authors discussed in the previous section, but less concerned with divine discourse as such, is Richard Swinburne in his Revelation, the second of four books by this author on central Christian doctrines, a tetralogy that may be seen as a major example of the way in which analytic philosophy of religion has turned its attention, in recent decades, to the problems of theology. Swinburne's work deserves a section to itself precisely because of its concentration on what has allegedly been revealed rather than on God's alleged speech-acts through prophets and apostles. Certainly, for Swinburne, special revelation takes place through God's acts of Incarnation and Atonement, and through the verbal witness recorded in the scriptures. And of course the recorded words of Jesus, God incarnate, have a central role in this. But Swinburne's emphasis lies on the truths thereby revealed, truths expressed in the scriptures and creeds of the Church. This emphasis on objective truth means that, in a sense, revelation can, for Swinburne, be regarded and discussed apart from, and prior to, its acceptance by the believer. No longer is achieved communication internal to the very concept of divine revelation.

Swinburne's account of revelation may be summarized as follows: the prior probability that the God of developed theism would reveal truths of basic importance to human life is high. That such revelation reached its climax in the words and deeds of Jesus is authenticated first by his resurrection, and secondly by the Church's interpretation of the essence of that revelation. This came to be expressed in the Church's creeds, and in particular in the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and Atonement, doctrines whose rationale, in terms of their coherence, importance and power, is explored and defended by Swinburne in the first and third books of his tetralogy, to be discussed in subsequent chapters here. Swinburne also argues, along similar lines to Wolterstorff, that the Church's Bible may be regarded as the inspired witness to the events and words, whose essential import is summed up in the Church's creeds. We note that Swinburne's theory of meaning, to which he devotes the first part of his book, allows him to distinguish figurative elements in the biblical witness from the basic truths which they convey, and to extract the essential revelation from its time-conditioned and less permanent forms of expression. So again there is no fundamentalism here.

There is some ambiguity in Swinburne's treatment of the locus of revelation, that is, the primary vehicle or medium of revelation. Given his concern with propositional revelation, it is not surprising to find him characterizing as 'the original revelation' the divine teaching, which culminated in the teaching of Jesus Christ. But we also find him speaking of God's dealings with the Israelites and other nations, culminating in the Incarnation. If that were the primary emphasis, we should have to place Swinburne's work in the next section of this chapter, where we consider revelation as God's acts in history. But we also find Swinburne speaking of the creeds as expressing the essence of revelation and of Holy Scripture as its primary vehicle. And, in the light of much sophisticated treatment of inspiration, interpretation and development, Swinburne is even prepared to conclude his book with the words: 'the revelation spoken by and the deeds acted by Christ will be interpreted by human witnesses . . . under the guidance of the Spirit of God. The revelation goes on; it is their witness and yet their witness to an original source which forms the revelation.'26 If that were the primary emphasis, we should have to place Swinburne in an even later section of this chapter, where we consider revelation as tradition and interpretation.

We have yet to explore, as I say, Swinburne's account of the rationale of the content of revelation, the revealed truths expressed in the central doctrines of the creeds. But we should note that he does not restrict his apologetic to the rational defence of those doctrines. Swinburne, like Plantinga, also defends the rationality of appeals to authority. But whereas Plantinga puts the main emphasis on inspiration, the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, Swinburne puts the main emphasis here on external guarantees, in particular, the Resurrection.

One other feature of Swinburne's account deserves comment. The issue of other, indeed rival, revelation claims in other religious traditions than the Judaeo-Christian one, is hardly faced in Swinburne's book. This is the gravamen of Peter Byrne's long review article on Swinburne's book in the journal Religious Studies.27 Later in this chapter we shall consider two other philosophical theologians, Keith Ward and John Hick, who explicitly address this aspect of the problem.

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