Distinguishing What is True and true: Toward a Postmodern Understanding of Revelation and Authority in Scripture

Theologians tend to encounter a great difficulty when speaking of the authority of Scripture. They have come to understand that the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in our apprehension of the Biblical text and that Scripture is illuminated for us through the work of the Spirit. That is, we must interpret Scripture through the power of the Spirit enabling us to do so. Coupled with this act is God’s act of revelation—His “divine act of self-disclosure which reveals ultimate truth, namely, the triune God himself.”[1] This revelation, along with tradition, is what informs our doctrine. It makes up part of the authority upon which we make theological and doctrinal claims. Yet, when theologians speak of the authority of Scripture, that tends to mean the authority of their particular understanding of Scripture, without recognizing it belongs to them and their context. There is a claim of objectivity—of direct connection to revelation without interpretation. However, since the time of the Enlightenment, this authority has been questioned, and now in contemporary theology, the critique of authority comes from someplace else: postmodern understandings of epistemology and the philosophy of language.

A number of developments, both in science and philosophy, have called into question the validity of a claim to be able to derive an ultimate truth or absolute authority from the pages of a text whose origins, opponents would claim, are dubious at best.[2] This raises a problem for theologians—not one of how to refute these objections directly, but of discovering how these objections actually inform our understanding of how we can derive a form of authority from the Bible. That is, they direct us toward a collection of truths coming in contact with Truth as opposed to attempt to discover Truth in its entirety. Certain objections have forced us not to examine whether or not we are wrong altogether, as the science of new atheism would like, but to reframe the objections as questions about our method with regard to the limits of our knowledge when it comes to God and his revelation through Scripture. Theologians must distinguish what they can know from what only God can know without sacrificing the validity and importance of rigorous theological investigation.

The purpose of this paper is to outline the modern theological problematic: an adherence to foundationalism and propositionalism and the claim to be able to access the absolute meaning of the Biblical text, thereby going from revelation to doctrine without acknowledging the step of interpretation. Second a case must be made for why a claim of access to whole Truth in scriptural revelation can actually hinder our ability to move closer to God’s truth. When we become caught up in problems of knowing absolute Truth, we tend to see all other competing claims of Truth as dangerous to our faith when they can in fact act as a supplement to it. Reading scripture in the way that I will argue here frees us to interpret revelation through scripture as moments of truth, which touch God’s Truth—that is, God is able to work through our incomplete understanding, transforming our lives without revealing everything to us. This understanding of the interpretation of revelation frees us from being drawn into debate with other, competing claims of truth, such as those of modern science and philosophy, because we are no longer committed to an absolute understanding of truth the way those disciplines tend to be. Thus, I argue that because our language is not fixed, because we have no need for a foundational conception of epistemology, and because God is, by definition infinite and mysterious, we need not conceive of revelation as revealing whole Truth (absolute understandings) to us because such a conception can actually limit our understanding of God and even lead to the idolatry of human, onto-theological[3] understandings.

1. Philosophical and Theological Problems

It will be important to first outline some key differences in how the disciplines of philosophy and theology each approach major problems within their traditions so that we can better understand the specific issue this paper addresses. Developments in 20th century philosophy have proven quite useful to theological study because they break us from certain assumptions that, although may have been helpful at one time, actually hinder our understanding of Scripture. There are two issues with contemporary theology that are intimately tied together. First, is the tendency to be unaware of the philosophical underpinnings of certain theological claims.[4] Second is the mistaken understanding of certain claims as nothing short of God-ordained. This second issue has to do with a misunderstanding of revelation, which will be addressed later in the paper.

Theology has often been concerned about being “too” connected to or influenced by philosophy, and indeed, there must be a distinction between the two. Rather, however, than attempt to shake off philosophy all together and attempt to proceed as if it had no influence on theological investigation, one must identify the connecting points and the ways in which philosophy can inform theology. This will help us to avoid the second problem mentioned above. Part of this second problem is that, unlike secular disciplines, which are not supposed to have any specific metaphysical, eschatological, or ideological commitments (though they certainly have and still sometimes do), theology must have those commitments. When a paradigm shift occurs in philosophy, there is nothing except perhaps one’s own stubborn ideology to chain oneself to an old paradigm. Many happily make the transition. However, because of the requirement of those commitments in theology, beliefs which once were contingent become “of God” once they are cemented in our tradition.[5] Revelation moves directly to doctrine without the recognition of the processes of illumination and interpretation. That is, when a paradigm shift occurs in theology, the violence of metaphysics[6] tends to erupt. Scholars are afraid to abandon old paradigms for fear that they are actually turning away from God’s specially revealed Truth, and will, therefore, identify what are actually interpretations as revelations of Scripture which support these paradigms as Truth descended from God. However, once we see that the philosophical underpinnings behind such a belief are actually false and in fact unnecessary, we will be free to move forward.

1.1 Against Foundationalism

The desire to ground doctrine in an all-revealing understanding of scriptural revelation that corresponds to Truth arises from an epistemological belief of the seventeenth century that we need an indubitable foundation on which we can build the system of knowledge. The majority of scholars trace the beginnings of foundationalism to René Descartes and his [in]famous Meditations on First Philosophy published in 1641. It is here that Descartes sets for himself a project of radical doubt in which he attempts to doubt everything that he previously had held to be true since he recognizes that, over time, his beliefs have changed—things he had held to be true in his youth may have turned out to be false once he had gained new evidence or further developed his reasoning ability. In his course of radical doubt, he sought a foundation, at least one thing he could know for certain was indubitable and universally known by all.

What his specific foundation selection was (that he is a thinking thing) is not important here. Rather, we must focus our attention on the metaphor of foundation as the beginning of knowledge. The wave that this metaphor has sent through every scholastic discipline is rather large and has put theology at odds with other disciplines, which claim to have found a different, provable indubitable foundation. Theologians, following Descartes, developed a sharp distinction between natural theology—“those beliefs that were seemingly demonstrable by reason”—and revealed theology—“the more particular doctrines taught by specific religious communities.”[7] As the grip of the Enlightenment grew, revealed theology was questioned more and more, and a reasoned approach to theology was taken up.

The problem with foundationalism is two-fold. First, it does not meet its own criteria. That is, foundationalism requires that foundations be indubitable and intuited a priori, yet foundationalism itself is neither of those; it is self-referentially refuting. Second, one cannot remove oneself from all context and knowledge and, as Descartes attempted to do, forget all one knows. If Descartes had actually forgotten everything, how did he know how to proceed from there in a line of questioning? The answer is that he actually could not doubt everything. Objectivity is not possible. Therefore, the project of making a case for why Scripture is the foundation of our faith is unnecessary since foundationalism does not in fact bring us closer to Truth.

1.2 Against Propositionalism

Some of the primary sources for the argument of revelation-to-doctrine theology are referential (known as propositional in theology) theories of the philosophy of language. These theories, most widely associated with Bertrand Russell and later A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, argue that language can be analyzed into its simplest parts and that individual atomic words and statements correspond directly to the reality they describe. In theology, “propositional theories of religious language assume that the primary function of religious language is to describe God and God’s relation to the world and to humankind; for example, the doctrine of creation is stating a fact about how the universe came into being, namely, that it was created by God.”[8] Therefore, the propositional approach to religious language attempts to remove the necessity of interpretation altogether, positing that once we have identified the facts that revelation refers to, there is nothing to interpret—they’re just there.

This may seem to work for some words, however, if we examine others, we find ourselves at a loss to see how they could possibly refer to one atomic fact. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the father of ordinary language philosophy, presents the following case:

If we study the grammar, say, of the words “wishing,” “thinking,” “understanding,” “meaning,” we shall not be dissatisfied when we have described various cases of wishing, thinking, etc. If someone said, “surely this is not all that one calls ‘wishing,’” we should answer, “certainly not, but you can build up more complicated cases if you like.” And after all, there is not one definite class of features which characterize all cases of wishing [. . .] If on the other hand you wish to give a definition of wishing, i.e., to draw a sharp boundary, then you are free to draw it as you like; and this boundary will never entirely coincide with the actual usage, as this usage has no sharp boundary.[9]

Wittgenstein’s point is that when it comes to these verbs, there is not one “inner act” which absolutely defines them. Rather, we have a number of scenarios which, to use an explicitly Biblical example, can be called “giving” that bear a family resemblance to the each other. This phenomenon points us to the necessity of interpretation, since the meaning of language is understood through its ostensive definitions—its use.

2. Onto-theology and the Mystery of God

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, writes: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known,”[10] suggesting that our understanding of Scripture and, for that matter, of God is somehow incomplete. As shown above, this uncertainty is unacceptable for foundationalist epistemology and propositional philosophy of language, which attempt to posit an absolute understanding of Scripture through revelation without interpretation. Apart from the philosophical arguments I have laid out which refute such approaches to Scripture, it is important to also describe, in a larger sense, what those projects manifested in theology are actually attempting to do and what the consequences of such projects are; namely, when one claims access to the absolute understanding of revelation without interpretation, one is attempting an onto-theological understanding of God and ignoring His mystery.

2.1 Onto-theology as Idolatry

The term onto-theology originally comes from Martin Heidegger and his critique of it in Identity and Difference. Heidegger is referring to the attempt on the part of philosophers to construct a god of which they could contain the idea of its being in their minds—a fully comprehensible god. Heidegger writes, “[W]e can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this god.” [11] Heidegger’s argument is valid when applied to our God as an object of theological study: If we claim to serve an infinite God, how can we claim absolute knowledge of His revelation without the mediation of our interpretations, which would render our knowledge finite because we are finite beings? It seems to Heidegger that such a claim would negate the possibility of God’s infinite nature—and that would not be a God worth worshipping any more than any human idol.

There is a danger, then, in any theological system that claims direct access to whole Truth through revelation without the aid of interpretation—an objective, complete understanding of a doctrine. In philosophical terms, this is called an ideology. In biblical terms, it is idolatry. However, we certainly must be very careful in using this word so as not to become judge and jury, delivering verdicts of idolatry upon particular theologies. Rather, we must understand what would make the adherence to a particular theological system idolatrous. Peter Rollins, speaking on this subject, writes that “the only significant difference between the aesthetic idol [the Golden Calf] and the conceptual idol lies in the fact that the former reduces God to a physical object while the latter reduces God to an intellectual object.”[12] It is important to remember that idolatry is not the identification of a problem with a particular object; rather, it is our response to and use of that object which will make it idolatrous or not. Onto-theological understandings of revelation can become idolatrous when they claim to represent God in His totality—to make God completely visible. That is the very definition of idolatry.

2.2 Revelation and Mystery

The mistaken understanding of revelation outlined above becomes idolatrous because it misses a central piece of the nature of God and His revelation. Stanley Grentz writes, “In Scripture, the term ‘revelation’ occurs primarily in the verb form and generally refers to the act of uncovering or unveiling what is hidden. Only secondarily does it mean what is uncovered in the act—the static deposit produced by the revelatory action.”[13] Grenz’s definition raises two important points about revelation: 1) There is discovery of the hidden and 2) What is discovered is not as important as the act itself. If we accept the latter point, then we are acknowledging that what is important to us is the fact that God reveals himself—a point that is illuminated by the first, which needs further definition.

Following Barth, we must understand that “even the revealed side of God is a mystery.”[14] It is in these two points that the arguments presented thus far converge: Because what God reveals to us is a mystery, because we cannot arrive at an indubitable foundation for our knowledge, because our language is defined by use not reference, because onto-theology is idolatry, the importance of revelation cannot lie in what is uncovered. What is uncovered is always rendered incomplete by our human interpretations. The importance of revelation lay in the act—that our infinite God would make his Truth incarnate for us in the Word both as Jesus Christ and Scripture. Revelation, rather than uncover the absolute Truth of God, reveals His infinite nature—His mystery. In other words, “[R]evelation ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown.”[15] Revelation shows that we can and do worship an infinite God.

Conclusion: Working Toward truth

Some valid objections are no doubt raised against such an understanding of scriptural revelation, most common, the fear of relativism. While it is certainly possible for the belief in the impossibility of an authoritative understanding of Scripture to lead to an “anything goes” sort of theology, the claims of such a belief will, fortunately, not allow for radical relativism. This is because Scripture still acts as the guiding light of theology. It is not as though this view were claiming that one may go anywhere outside of Scripture to any text or experience in order to discover God’s revelation. That is not to say that God does not reveal himself in ways outside of Scripture, but that outside revelations are always mediated against Scripture. Our particular communities also dictate what is acceptable and what is not. Grenz writes that we avoid relativism “as we remember that our declaration of the inspiration of the Bible asserts that this book is objectively divine Scripture; the Bible is Scripture regardless of whether or not we subjectively acknowledge this status.”[16] Therefore, rather than claiming access to Truth, theology must work toward the truths which connect to Truth. These are not fixed; they are highly contextual. Yet, they are chasing after God, constantly pursuing the mystery he has revealed.

Part of this journey requires, as I argued at the start of the paper, the careful examination of new developments not only in theology, but in other fields as well. Theology’s focus must remain the Christian faith; however, that does not necessitate the irrelevance of other disciplines to theology’s goals. As demonstrated, such developments can supplement theological study and help it move beyond some of the major problems it has encountered. If we run from such developments because of the possibility that they may destroy our current understanding, then we have turned that understanding into an idol and our God into a god.

by Joel Harrison

            [1]. Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994) 512.

            [2]. The specific reasons behind these objections such as seeing these claims as directly competing with scientific ones, etc. are not important for the purposes of this paper and will not be addressed here.

            [3]. I will revisit this term later in the paper. I am drawing upon Merold Westphal’s use of Martin Heidegger’s term, “onto-theology.” See Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001).

            [4]. Fergus Kerr makes an excellent case for this in the first chapter of Theology After Wittgenstein. See Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein (London, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 1997).

            [5]. The current debate surrounding hell provides a perfect example.

            [6]. This need not entail physical violence, although the slaughter of Anabaptists was certainly an example of the metaphysical violence I am describing. Verbal dogmatism would be another. We must be clear, however, that this certainly does not apply to all theologians and religious scholars. The ability for fruitful dialogue among differing views has been possible for quite sometime. This paper seeks to address those specific claims of special access to absolute Truth through scriptural revelation, whether they actually result in dogmatism or not.

            [7] Stanley J. Grenz and John R. Franke, Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 32-33.

            [8]. Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2007), 43.

            [9]. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1958), 19.

            [10]. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NRSV).

            [11]. Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1969).

            [12]. Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006), 12.

            [13]. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 512.

            [14]. Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, 18.

            [15]. Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, 17.

            [16]. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 506.


3 thoughts on “Distinguishing What is True and true: Toward a Postmodern Understanding of Revelation and Authority in Scripture

  1. […] Clearly, once he discovered that we were talking about new church movements, new theology, etc., he made his decision: That’s not the sort of “unboundness” he was looking for. Maybe he was thinking becoming unbound means freeing the church from outside influences: the media, secular philosophy, pop culture. Just the facts. Just the Word. […]

  2. […] Distinguishing What is True and true: Toward a Postmodern Understanding of Revelation and Authority … […]

  3. […] written many, many posts that deal with the sort of complaint that Olson is raising. In the first point, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: