Revelation as Divine Discourse

Analytic philosophers who have contributed to the debate on divine revelation in recent decades would, nearly all of them, agree with Mitchell rather than with Wiles. The main disagreement among the philosophers has not been over whether Christianity needs a revelation, but rather over the primary locus of special revelation, whether this is best thought of in terms of verbal communication, or in terms of manifestation (either through historical acts and events or through developing traditions), or through religious experience. I consider first those philosophers of religion who have stressed verbal communication and, in particular, the work of four scholars: George Mavrodes, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga and William J. Abraham.

In his little book, Revelation in Religious Belief, Mavrodes distinguishes three models of divine revelation: the causation model, the manifestation model and the communication model. On the first model, the causation model, God is thought of as simply bringing about, by direct fiat, a desired effect, such as belief or faith. On the second model, the manifestation model, God is thought of as making himself known through some particular feeling, perception or non-verbal experience, such as those cited and classified in William James's seminal book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.16 On the third model, the communication model, God is thought of as conveying his call or his will in ways much more akin to speech. This is the model given special prominence by Mavrodes. Hence my citing him here under the heading of'Revelation as Divine Discourse.'

Mavrodes, like Mitchell, does not suppose that God literally and directly 'speaks' to human beings (although he does note reports of'auditions' in the Bible and in the lives of the saints). Normally, God's 'word' is held to be mediated by some human word, say the word of scripture or the word of preaching, or indeed by some striking human life or concatenation of events. But even in these latter cases, the believer will probably hold that God has spoken to him or her through the life or the events in question. Mavrodes presses the question of what distinguishes a human word or event through which God speaks from a word or event with no such divine instrumental import. He suggests a twofold answer: on the one hand, God himself is held to have been especially active in and through the revealing word or event. On the other hand, the believer understands himself or herself to have been actually addressed by God in some challenging or demanding way by the scripture reading, preached word or event in question. Since this last experiential claim is a necessary condition for acceptance of the claim that God has in fact spoken, such claims are not open to independent proof. Indeed, it is an implication of Mavrodes's analysis that revelation only occurs where it is in fact acknowledged by its recipient. We shall see reason to question this view, at least up to a point, in what follows.

The philosopher who has done most to substantiate the verbal communication model is Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose book Divine Discourse is given the sub-title 'Philosophical reflections on the claim that God speaks'. But it should be noted straight away that Wolterstorff himself makes a sharp distinction between divine speech and divine revelation. He writes interestingly about revelation, differentiating 'assertoric' revelation (where new information is asserted) from 'non-assertoric' revelation (where something new is manifested by some act or event); but he insists that divine speech is more a matter of promises and commands (what J. L. Austin would call 'illocutionary acts' — that is, speech-acts through which something is actually done) than a matter of asserting things. Promises and commands, says Wolterstorff, are not revelations. The point does has some force, and certainly puts a question mark against Mitchell's reference to promising and forgiving as key factors requiring us to retain the idea of special revelation. But Wolterstorff surely exaggerates in concentrating his attention on such illocutionary acts. There are plenty of examples of divine speech in the Bible that do take the assertoric form: 'I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt' (Deuteronomy 5: 6); 'This is my beloved Son, on whom my favour rests' (Matthew 3: 17). And, in the Christian tradition, God is held to speak to men and women, not only in the modes of promise and command, but also in bringing home to them the great truths of the Gospel. Moreover, even where promising and commanding are concerned — and here we would be coming to Mitchell's defence — it could still be claimed that much is revealed about God through the promises he makes and the commands he gives. Admittedly Wolterstorff would want to classify these latter as cases of non-assertoric revelation. These truths are manifested through the illocutionary acts of promising and commanding. But, given the fact that these are not the only types of divine speech, we may not unreasonably consider Wolterstorffs remarks under the rubric of the verbal communication model of divine revelation.

Wolterstorffs book is the most sustained philosophical articulation and defence of the view that God speaks to us through the Bible. As is already becoming clear, the key issue for all the philosophers under scrutiny here is the question of the medium through which revelation occurs, or, in Wolterstorffs case, the medium through which God speaks. No more than Mitchell or Mavrodes does Wolterstorff suppose that God literally speaks. Nor does he suppose that God dictates the Bible. He is no fundamentalist. But the human words of the Bible do, he thinks, become the media of divine discourse to men and women down the ages and today. But it is interesting to note his lack of sympathy for Karl Barth's way of treating the Bible (and Christian preaching) as derivative forms of the Word of God. Barth, as is well known, distinguishes three forms of the Word of God. The first, the primary locus of divine revelation and address, is Jesus Christ himself, the incarnate Word. The second is the word of scripture, which Barth takes to be the human witness to the primary revelation. The third is the word of preaching, as the preacher interprets scripture in such a way as to bring home to people today the import of the primary revelation. Barth insists that scripture and preaching are not in themselves revelation. Only as God actually brings home to people the truths of the Gospel, through the reading of scripture, and through hearing the sermon, do the latter become God's Word to men and women here and now. Wolterstorffs comment is that, despite all his talk of God's Word, Barth does not in fact suppose that God speaks to us through scripture and preaching. Rather, God brings it about that we appreciate the meaning of the primary revelation and acknowledge it for ourselves. In other words, Wolterstorff seems to be suggesting that Barth's work belongs to the causation model of divine revelation rather than the verbal communication model.

Once again, I find Wolterstorffs position a somewhat exaggerated one. Granted that Barth's 'actualism' means that scripture and preaching, in themselves, are merely human words and only become God's Word as God acts through them here and now. But it surely forces the distinction between speech and action to suggest that such action cannot be thought of as God's speech, God's address to people here and now. Again, the fact that great emphasis is placed on response, on acknowledgement of God's action through scripture and the preaching, does not prevent one from regarding a word heard and appropriated as in itself divine address, whether it takes the form of assertion, claim, promise or command.

In fact, Wolterstorff s own detailed analysis of mediated divine speech is very close to Barth's, despite his questioning Barth's status as the great theologian of the Word of God. He too stresses divine agency in and through the words of scripture and their reception. He has an interesting section on 'double agency discourse', showing how someone with authority can act through a representative or a deputy, and suggesting that God might be thought of as 'appropriating' the words of the prophet or apostle, or indeed the Psalmist, in order to speak to men and women today. Wolter-storff does not mention the name of the philosophical theologian most closely associated with the idea of 'double agency', Austin Farrer, but clearly this idea is crucial for the understanding of mediated divine speech. We shall be returning to Farrer's work on 'double agency' in the final chapter of this book. Suffice it to say here that the problem with all the human parables of double agency offered by Wolterstorff and others in order to throw light on this key idea is that they, inevitably, tend to represent the divine agent acting through secondary agents as one agent among others operating at the same level. The great merit of Farrer's work was that he tried to do justice to the difference of level between divine action and human action, divine speech and human speech. It is because of the difference of level that there does not have to be any forcing or faking of the human story for it to become the vehicle of the divine address. But this point is not given sufficient prominence by Wolterstorff, or indeed, as we shall see, by many other philosophers working on theological topics today.

Be that as it may, Wolterstorff s analysis and defence of the way in which the discourse of the human authors of the Bible is appropriated by, and becomes the vehicle of, divine address has much to recommend it. We cannot go into all the details here, but some of his main points may be summarized. Wolterstorff brings out the way in which the Christian Church's regard for the Bible as God's Word requires serious consideration of the Bible as a whole, and commitment to principles of interpretation which enable the reader to appreciate the main point of a passage or text, to recognize, at times, its figurative nature and, above all, to let the Church's formed conviction of God's nature and purposes control specific interpretations. He also draws attention to the way in which more recent knowledge, say, scientific knowledge about the cosmos, and also changed and novel situations, are bound to affect the meaning found in particular biblical texts.

In Wolterstorff s hands, these remain principles by which the Christian continues to read the Bible as divine discourse. In other hands, as we shall see, traditions of interpretation themselves become the locus of divine address and revelation.

Remaining for the moment with revelation as divine discourse, I turn briefly to the treatment of revelation by Alvin Plantinga in his major study of religious epistemology, Warranted Christian Belief. In a footnote on p. 251, Plantinga explicitly endorses Wolterstorff s account of the way in which the Bible constitutes divine speech and divine communication (Plantinga, too, it seems, makes light of Wolterstorff s distinction between discourse and revelation). But he does so in the context of an epistemology of faith, taken over from Calvin, whereby it is the 'inward instigation of the Holy Spirit' which enables Christians to see the truth of what scripture says. When humans are functioning properly in accordance with God's design plan, this is how the great truths of the Gospel are revealed. Whether or not the Bible speaks to us, therefore, depends on whether or not we are receptive to this internal activity of God's Spirit. Wolterstorff himself stresses the importance of divine agency, of course, but Plantinga's more explicit emphasis raises the question whether the communication model preferred by Mavrodes can really be kept apart from the causation model. For are not all three philosophers committed to the view that faith in the truths of the Gospel is brought about by divine fiat? And despite what is said about the media or vehicles ofdivine discourse, does this not involve an over-literal, over-anthropomorphic view of divine agency as one cause among others? This may be deemed one of the principal difficulties with the communication model, as so far considered.

A more sensitive defence of both inspiration and revelation is to be found in the work of William J. Abraham. In the second of his two books on these topics,22 Abraham certainly concentrates on divine revelation through God's acts in history. We shall consider this aspect in a later section. But Abraham argues strongly against the view that talk of divine acts can replace talk of divine speech in theologies of revelation. Without the idea of God's Word, spoken through prophets and apostles, Christians, he claims, would be reduced to guessing God's intentions from experiences, events and alleged acts of God. To reject the notion of divine speech (however mediated) is to 'whittle away the analogy on which the concept of divine revelation is built',23 and to abandon revelation in the fully personal sense. Abraham is at pains to rescue the concept of propositional revelation from the fundamentalists and, like Wolterstorff, to deploy the performative theory of speech-acts in talk of divine revelation. Like Mitchell, but unlike Wolterstorff, Abraham includes God's speech-acts of forgiving, commanding and promising within the notion of special revelation.

This section will, among other things, have illustrated the way in which both theologians and philosophers have learned to be sensitive to issues of biblical interpretation ('hermeneutics', as this is called). As we saw in chapter 1, liberal theologians have been inclined to accuse philosophers of an over-literal conception of the Bible as the Word of God. But the philosophers considered in this section are perfectly well aware that God does not literally speak, or dictate the Bible. And, certainly, their analyses of the concept of divine discourse do not depend on any such literalism. The fact is that philosophers and theologians alike, for the most part, recognize scriptural hermeneutics to require serious consideration of the Bible as a whole, not the citation of isolated texts. This will become increasingly clear as we turn to other ways of thinking of special revelation and to further examples of philosophical theologians at work.

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