Religion

Meaning of Revelation and Faith

Revelation and Faith

John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (3d edition), 1983.

THE LIMITS OF PROOF

We return now to our central question concerning the Judaic-Christian concept of God: what grounds are there for believing that any such being exists?

We saw in Chapters 2 and 3 that it is not possible to establish either the existence or the nonexistence of God by rational arguments proceeding from universally accepted premises. We saw also that arguments to the effect that theism is more probable than naturalism, or naturalism than theism, are basically defective, since the term “probable” lacks a precise meaning in this context.

In spite of the immense intellectual investment that has been going into the various attempts to demonstrate the existence of God, the conclusion which many have reached that this is indemonstrable agrees both with the contemporary philosophical understanding of the nature and limits of logical proof and with the biblical understanding of our knowledge of God.

Philosophy recognizes two ways in which human beings may come to know whatever there is to be known. One way (stressed by empiricism) is through experience, and the other (stressed by rationalism) is through reasoning. The limitation of the rationalist way is that the only truths capable of being strictly proved are analytic and ultimately tautological. We cannot by logic alone demonstrate any matters of fact and existence; these must be known through experience. That two and two equal four can be certified by strict proof; but that we live in a world of objects in space, and that there is this card table and that oak tree and those people, are facts that could never be known independently of sense perception. If nothing were given through experience in its various modes, we should never have anything to reason about. This is as true in religion as in other fields. If God exists, God is not an idea but a reality outside us; in order to be known to men and women, God must become manifest in some way within the experience.

This conclusion is in line with the contemporary revolt against the rationalist assumptions which have dominated much of western philosophy since the time of Descartes. Descartes held that we can properly be said to know only truths that are self-evident or that can be reached by logical inferences from self-evident premises. The still popular idea that to know means to be able to prove is a legacy of this tradition. Developing the implications of his starting point, Descartes regarded the reality of the physical world and of other people as matters that must be doubted until they have been established by strict demonstration. Perhaps, he suggested, all our sense experience is delusory. Perhaps, to go to the ultimate of doubt, there is an all-powerful malicious demon who not only deceives our senses but also tampers with our minds. In order to be sure that we are not being comprehensively deluded, we should therefore doubt everything that can without self-contradiction be doubted and in this way discover if anything remains immune to our skepticism. There is one such indubitable item, namely, the fact that I who am now doubting exist: cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). Building upon this immovable pinpoint of certainty, Descartes tried to establish, first the existence of God and then, through the argument that God would not allow us to be deceived, the veracity of our sense perceptions.1

One of Descartes’s proofs of the existence of God, the ontological argument, was discussed in Chapter 2 and found wanting. Indeed, even if that argument had seemed fully cogent, it would not have provided an escape from a self-imposed state of Cartesian doubt. For the possibility that the “malicious demon” exists and has power over our minds undermines all proofs, since that demon can (by tampering with our rnemories) make us believe an argument to be valid that is in fact not valid. Really radical and thorough doubts can never be reasoned away, since it includes even our. reasoning powers within its scope. The only way of escaping such doubt is to avoid falling into it in the first place. In the present century, under the influence of G. E. Moore (1873-1958) and others, the view has gained ground that Cartesian doubt, far from being the most rational of procedures, is actually perverse and irrational. It is, Moore protested, absurd to think that we need to prove the existence of the world in which we are living. Its reality is our paradigm of what we mean by “real.” We start out with a consciousness of the world and of other people, and this consciousness is neither capable nor in need of philosophical justification.2

It has also been argued that when doubt becomes universal in its scope, it becomes meaningless. To doubt whether some particular perceived object is real is to doubt whether it is as real as the other sensible objects that we experience. “Is that chair really there?” means “Is it there in the way in which the table and the other chairs are there?” But what does it mean to doubt whether there is really anything whatever there? Such “doubt” is meaningless. For if nothing is real. there is no longer any sense in which anything can be said to be unreal.

To put the same point slightly differently, if the word “real” has any meaning for us, we must acknowledge standard or paradigm cases of its correct use. We must be able to point to a clear and unproblematic instance of something’s being real. What can this be but some ordinary physical object perceived by the senses? But if tables and chairs and houses and people are accepted as paradigm cases of real objects, it becomes self-contradictory to suggest that the whole world of tables and chairs and houses and people may possibly be unreal. By definition, they are not unreal, for they are typical instances of what we mean by real objects.

To deny the validity of universal skepticism of the senses is not, however, to deny that there are illusions and hallucinations, or that there are many, and perhaps even inexhaustible, philosophical problems connected with sense perception. It is one thing to know that a number of sense reports are true and another thing to discover the correct philosophical analysis of those reports.

This empiricist reasoning is in agreement with the unformulated epistemological assumptions of the Bible. Philosophers of the rationalist tradition, holding that to know means to be able to prove, have been shocked to find that in the Bible, which is the basis of western religion, there is no attempt whatever to demonstrate the existence of God. Instead of professing to establish the reality of God by philosophical reasoning, the Bible takes God’s reality for granted. Indeed, to the biblical writers it would have seemed absurd to try to prove by logical argument that God exists, for they were convinced that they were already having to do with God, and God with them, in all the affairs of their lives. God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills — a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine, or the hatred of their enemies and the friendship of their neighbors. They thought of God as an experienced reality rather than as an inferred entity. The biblical writers were (sometimes, though doubtless not at all times) as vividly conscious of being in God’s presence as they were of living in a material environment. It is impossible to read their writings with any degree of sensitivity without realizing that to these people God was not a proposition completing a syllogism, or an abstract idea accepted by the mind, but the reality that gave meaning to their lives. Their pages resound and vibrate with the sense of God’s presence as a building might resound and vibrate from the tread of some great being walking through it. It would be as sensible for a husband to desire a philosophical proof of the existence of the wife and family who contribute so much to the meaning in his life as for the person of faith to seek a proof of the existence of the God within whose purpose one is conscious that one lives and moves and has one’s being.

It is clear, then, that from the point of view of a faith that is biblical in its orientation the traditional “theistic proofs” are irrelevant. Even if God could be validly inferred from universally accepted premises, this fact would be of merely academic interest to people who believe that they exist in personal relationship with God and already know God as a living presence. In order to consider the claims of those who worship, in Pascal’s words, the “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars,”3 we must investigate the claim that this God is manifested within the sphere of human experience. The theological name for such alleged divine self-disclosure is “revelation,” and for the human response to it “faith.”


1 Descartes, Discourse on Method and i>Meditations.

2 See G. E. Moore’s papers, “The Refutation of Idealism,” reprinted in Philosophical Studies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd and New York: Humanities Press, 1922), “A Defense of Common Sense,” reprinted in Philosophical Papers (New York: The Macmillan Company, and London: Allen & Unwin, 1959); and Some Mam Problems of Philosophy (New York: The Macmillan Company, and London: Allen & Unwin, 1953), Chap. 1.


THE PROPOSITIONAL VIEW OF REVELATION AND FAITH

Christian thought contains two very different understandings of the nature of revelation and, as a result, two different conceptions of faith (as the human reception of revelation), of the Bible (as a medium of revelation), and of theology (as discourse based upon revelation).

The view that dominates the medieval period and that is represented today by more traditional forms of Roman Catholicism (and also, in a curious meeting of opposites, by conservative Protestantism) can be called the “propositional” conception of revelation. According to this view, the content of revelatlon is a body of truths expressed in statements or propositions. Revelation is the imparting to people of divinely authenticated truths. In the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Revelation may be defined as the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature.”4

Corresponding to this conception of revelation is a view of faith as people’s obedient acceptance of these divinely revealed truths. Thus faith was defined by the Vatican Council of 1870 as “a supernatural virtue whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that the things that He has revealed are true.” Or again, a contemporary American Jesuit theologian writes, “To a Catholic, the word ‘faith’ conveys the notion of an intellectual assent to the content of revelation as true because of the witnessing authority of God the Revealer. . . Faith is the Catholic’s response to an intellectual message communicated by God.”5

These two interdependent conceptions of revelation as the divine promulgation of religious truths, and of faith as people’s obedient reception of these truths, are related to a view of the Bible as the place where those truths are authoritatively written down. They were first revealed through the prophets, then more fully and perfectly through Christ and the apostles, and are now recorded in the Scriptures. It is thus an essential element of this view that the Bible is not a merely human, and therefore fallible, book. The First Vatican Council formulated Roman Catholic belief for the modern period by saying of the books of the Bible that “. . . having been written by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author.” (One may compare with this statement the words of the Protestant evangelist, Dr. Billy Graham. “The Bible is a book written by God through thirty secretaries.”) It should be added, however, that in Catholic theology Scripture is set within the context of tradition. Thus, the Council of Trent (1546-1563) declared that “.. . with the same devotion and reverence with which it accepts and venerates all the books of the Old and New Testament, since one God is the author of both, it also accepts and venerates traditions concerned with faith and morals as having been received orally from Christ or inspired by the Holy Spirit and continuously preserved in the Catholic Church.” Protestantism on the other hand recognizes no such oral tradition possessing equal authority with the Bible and claims that through the Bible God speaks directly to the Church as a whole and to the mind and conscience of individual believers.

This same propositional conception of revelation as God’s imparting to men of certain truths that have been inscribed in the sacred Scriptures and are believed by faith leads also to a particular view of the nature and function of theology. The propositional theory of revelation has always been accompanied by the distinction between natural and revealed theology. This distinction has been almost universally accepted by Christian theologians of all traditions until the present century. Natural theology was held to consist of all those theological truths that can be worked out by the unaided human intellect. It was believed, for example, that the existence and attributes of God and the immortality of the soul can be proved by strict logical argument involving no appeal to revelation. Revealed theology on the other hand, was held to consist of those further truths that are not accessible to human reason and that can be known to us only if they are specially revealed by God. For example, it was held that although the human mind, by right reasoning, can attain the truth that God exists, it cannot arrive in the same way at the further truth that God is three Persons in one; thus the doctrine of the Trinity was considered to be an item of revealed theology, to be accepted by faith. (The truths of natural theology were believed to have been also revealed, for the benefit of those who lack the time or the mental equipment to arrive at them for themselves.)

Many modern philosophical treatments of religion, whether attacking or defending it, presuppose the propositional view of revelation and faith. For example, Walter Kaufmann, in his lively and provocative Critique of Religion and Philosophy, assumed that the religious person who appeals to revelation is referring to theological propositions that God is supposed to have declared to mankind.6 Indeed, probably the majority of recent philosophical critics of religion have in mind a definition of faith as the believing of propositions upon insufficient evidence.7

Many philosophical defenders of religion share the same assumption and propose various expedients to compensate for the lack of evidence to support their basic convictions. The most popular way of bridging the evidential gap is by an effort of the will. Thus, one recent religious philosopher says that “. . . faith is distinguished from the entertainment of a probable proposition by the fact that the latter can be a completely theoretic affair. Faith is a ‘yes’ of self-commitment, it does not turn probabilities into certainties; only a sufficient increase in the weight of evidence could do that. But it is a volitional response which takes us out of the theoretic attitude.”8

This emphasis upon the part played by the will in religious faith (an emphasis that goes back at least as far as Aquinas9) has provided the basis for a number of modern theories of the nature of faith, some of which will now be discussed.


3 The opening words of Pascal’s Memorial, dated November 23, 1654, a confession of faith which was found after his death written on parchment and sewn in the lining of his coat.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York Robert Appleton Co , 1912), XIII, 1

5 Gustave Weigel, Faith and Understanding m America (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959), p. 1. On the other hand, in some recent Catholic writings there is a growing tendency to recognize other aspects of faith in addition to the element of intellectual assent. See Karl Rahner, ed , Encyclopedia of Theology (London Burns & Oates and New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1975.

6 Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1958). For example, “Even if we grant, for the sake of the present argument, that God exists and sometimes reveals propositions to mankind. . .” (p. 89).

7 For example, “The general sense is belief, perhaps based on some evidence, but very firm, or at least more firm, or/and of more extensive content, than the evidence possessed by the believer rationally warrants.” C. J. Ducasse. A Philosophical Scrutiny of Religion (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1953), pp. 73-74. Copyright 1953 by The Ronald Press.

8 Dorothy Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (London: Macmillan & Company Ltd . 1945), p. 140.

Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, , Question 2, Art. 9.


VOLUNTARIST THEORIES OF FAITH

The classic treatments of religious faith as the acceptance of certain beliefs by a deliberate act of will are those of the seventeenth-century French thinker Blaise Pascal and the nineteenth-century American philosopher and psychologist William James.

Pascal’s “Wager” treats the question of divine existence as an enigma concerning which we can take up a position only on the basis of a calculation of risks. If we wager our lives that God exists, we stand to gain eternal salvation if we are right and to lose little if we are wrong. If, on the other hand, we wager our lives that there is no God, we stand to gain little if we are right but to lose eternal happiness if we are wrong. “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”10

If we ask whether it is possible to make oneself believe in God, Pascal answers that this is possible — not indeed instantaneously, but by a course of treatment. “You would like to attain faith, and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief, and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you. . . . Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”11

Given an anthropomorphic (and to many people very unattractive) conception of God, Pascal’s Wager amounts to a rational form of self-insurance. It assumes that God will be pleased by such a calculating and self-regarding attitude. This assumption has seemed profoundly irreligious to many religious believers, although it has also been seriously adopted by others.12

William, James (1842-1910), a founder of the pragmatist school of thought, argues in his famous essay “The Will to Believe” (1897) that the existence or nonexistence of God, of which there can be no conclusive evidence either way, is a matter of such momentous importance that anyone who so desires has the right to stake one’s life upon the God hypothesis. Indeed, we are obliged to bet our lives upon either this or the contrary possibility. “We cannot escape the issue by remaining skeptical and waiting for more light, because, although we do avoid error in that way if religion be untrue, we lose the good, if it be true, just as certainly as if we positively chose to disbelieve.” James continues:

Better risk loss of truth than chance of error — that is your faith-vetoer’s exact position. He is actively playing his stake as much as the believer is; he is backing the field against the religious hypothesis, just as the believer is backing the religious hypothesis against the field. To preach scepticism to us as a duty until “sufficient evidence” for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope. that it may be true. . . . Dupery for dupery, what proof is there that dupery through hope is so much worse than dupery through fear? I, for one, can see no proof; and I simply refuse obedience to the scientist’s command to imitate his kind of option, in a case where my own stake is important enough to give me the right to choose my own form of risk.13

Further, if there is a personal God, our unwillingness to proceed on the supposition that he is real may make it impossible for us ever to be accepted by him: “… just as a man who in a company of gentlemen made no advances, asked a warrant for every concession, and believed no one’s word without proof, would cut himself off by such churlishness from all the social rewards that a more trustworthy spirit would earn — so here, one who would shut himself up in snarling logicality and try to make the gods extort his recognition willy-nilly, or not get it at all, might cut himself off forever from his only opportunity of making the gods’ acquaintance.”14

The aspect of James’s thought that is likely to strike one first is its complete lack of the kind of living religious faith that finds expression in the Bible. There is, Santayana said, “. . . no sense of security, no joy, in James’s apology for personal religion. He did not really believe; he merely belieyed in the right of believing that you might be right if you believed.”15

The basic weakness of James’s position is that it constitutes an unrestricted license for wishful thinking. James, at one point, imagines the Mahdi to write to us saying, “I am the Expected One whom God has created in his effulgence. You shall be infinitely happy if you confess me; otherwise you shall be cut off from the light of the sun. Weigh, then, your infinite gain if I am genuine against your finite sacrifice if I am not!”16 The only reason that James could offer for not responding to this pressing invitation is that it did not rank as a “live option” in his mind. That is to say, it did not conform to the assumptions presently controlling his thinking. However, the fact that it was not a live option for James is an accidental circumstance that cannot affect the truth or falsity of the Mahdi’s assertions. An idea might be true, although it did not appeal to William James; but if the idea were true, James would never come to know it by his method, a method that could result only in everyone’s becoming more firmlyl entrenched in his or her current prejudices. A procedure having this effect can hardly claim to be designed for the discovery of truth. It amounts to an encouragement to us all to believe, at our own risk, whatever we like. However, if our aim is to believe what is true, and not necessarily what we like, James’s universal permissiveness will not help us.

Another philosophical theologian, F. R. Tennant, identifies faith with the element of willing venture in all discovery. He distinguishes faith from belief as follows:

Belief is more or less constrained by fact or Actuality that already is or will be, independently of any striving of ours, and which convinces us. Faith, on the other hand, reaches beyond the Actual or the given to the ideally possible, which in the first instance it creates, as the mathematician posits his entities, and then by practical activity may realize or bring into Actuality. Every machine of humaa invention has thus come to be. Again, faith may similarly lead to knowledge of Actuality which it in no sense creates, but which would have continued, in absence of the faith-venture, to be unknown: as in the discovery of America by Columbus.17

Tennant freely allows that there can be no general guarantee that faith will be justified. “Hopeful experimenting has not produced the machine capable of perpetual motion; and had Columbus steered with confidence for Utopia, he would not have found it.”18 Faith always involves risks: but it is only by such risks that human knowledge is extended. Science and religion are alike in requiring the venture of faith. “Science postulates what is requisite to make the world amenable to the kind of thought that conceives of the structure of the universe, and its orderedness according to quantitative law; theology, and sciences of valuation, postulate what is requisite to make the world amenable to the kind of thought that conceives of the why and wherefore, the meaning or ipurpose of the universe, and its orderedness according to teleological principles”19

Tennant’s bracketing together of rehgious faith and scientific “faith” is highly questionable. A scientist’s “faith” is significant only as a preliminary to experimental verification. It is often a necessary stage on the way to tested knowledge, and it has value only in relation to subsequent verification. In science, verification “. . . consists in finding that the postulate or theory is borne out by appeal to external facts and tallies with them.”20 But religious faith, according to Tennant, can hope for no such objective verification. It consists in the inwardly satisfying and spiritually fortifying effects of faith upon the believer. “Successful faith . . . is illustrated by numerous examples of the gaining of material and moral advantages, the surmounting of trials and afflictions, and the attainment of heroic life, by men of old who were inspired by faith. It is thus that faith is pragmatically ‘verified’ and that certitude as to the unseen is established.” However, even “this purely subjective verification is undermined by the inevitable concession that “… such verification is only for [subjective] certitude, not a proving of [objective] certainty as to external reality. The fruitfulness of a belief or of faith for the moral and religious life is one thing, and the reality or existence of what is ideated and assumed is another. There are instances in which a belief that is not true, in the sense of corresponding with fact, may inspire one with lofty ideals and stimulate one to strive to be a more worthy person.”21 This admission reduces religious faith, as Tennant conceives it, to an unverifiable hope, and thereby undermines his attempt to assimilate religious to scientific cognition.


10 Pascal, Pensees, tr. F. W. Trotter (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., and New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1932), No. 233, p. 67.

11 Ibid., p. 68.

12 Pascal’s Wager is used as an apologetic device by, for example, Edward J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948), pp. 357-59.

13 William James in The Will to Believe and Other Essays (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., Inc., 1897), pp. 26-27.

14 Ibid., p. 28.

15 George Santayana, Character and Opinion in the United States (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., Anchor Books, 1958), p. 47.

16 James, The Will to Believe, p. 7.

17 F. R Tennant, Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), I, 297. Tennant also expounded his theory in The Nature of Belief (London: The Centenary Press, 1943).

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., p. 299.

20 Tennant, The Nature of Belief, p. 70.

21 Ibid.


TILLICH’S CONCEPTION OF FAITH AS ULTIMATE CONCERN

Another conception of faith, differing from those so far mentioned, is that of Paul Tillich, who taught that “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.”22 Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being — not in the sense of our physical existence but in the sense of “. . . the reality, the structure, the meaning, and the aim of existence.”23 People are, in fact, ultimately concerned about many different things — for example, their nation, or their personal success and status; but these are properly only preliminary concerns, and the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy is idolatry. Tillich describes ultimate concern in an often-quoted passage:

Ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment: “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary. The ultimate concern is unconditional, independent of any conditions of character, desire, or circumstance. The unconditional concern is total: no part of ourselves or of our world is excluded from it; there is no “glace” to flee from it. The total concern is infinite: no moment of relaxation and rest is possible in the face of a religious concern which is ultimate, unconditional, total, and infinite.24

This passage well exhibits the ambiguity of the phrase “ultimate concern,” which may refer either to an attitude of concern or to the (real or imagined) object of that attitude. Does “ultimate concern” refer to a con- cerned stateoTmind or to a supposed object of this state of mind? Of the four adjectives that Tillich uses in this passage, “unconditional” suggests that it refers to an attjti^e of concern, “infinite” suggests that it refers to an . object of concern, and “ultimate” and “total” could perhaps apply to either, from the pages of his Systematic Theology, it is indeed impossible to tell which meaning Tillich intends or whether he has in mind both at once or sometimes one and sometimes the other.

In his later book, Dynamics of Faith, this ambiguity is resolved. Tillich explicitly adopts both of these two possible meanings by identifying the attitude of ultimate concern with the object of ultimate concern. “The ultimate of the act of faith and the ultimate that is meant in the act of faith are one and the same.” This means the “. . . disappearance of the ordinary subject-object scheme in the experience of the ultimate, the unconditional.”25 That is to say, ultimate concern is not a matter of the human subject adopting a certain attitude to a divine Object but is, in Tillichian language, a form of the human mind’s participation in the Ground of its own being. This notion of participation is fundamental to Tillich’s thought. He contrasts two types of philosophy of religion, which he describes as ontological and cosmological.26 The latter (which he associates with Aquinas) thinks of God as being “out there,” to be reached only at the end of a long and hazardous process of inference; to find him is to meet a Stranger. For the ontological approach, which Tillich espouses and which he associates with Augustine, God is already present to us as the Ground of our being, yet at the same time God infinitely transcends us. Our finite being is continuous with the infinity of Being; consequently, to know God means to overcome our estrangement from the Ground of our being. God is not Another, an Object which we may know or fail to know, but Being itself, in which we participate by the very fact of existing. To be ultimately concerned about God is to express our true relationship to Being.

As in the case of other elements in his system, Tillich’s definition of faith as ultimate concern is capable of being developed in different directions. Stressing the removal of the subject-object dichotomy, his definition of faith can be seen as pointing to humanity’s continuity or even identity with God as the Ground of one’s being. But it can also be seen as pointing in the opposite direction, toward so extreme a sundering of God and man that faith can operate as an autonomous function of the mind whether God be a reality or not. Tillich presents this view in the following passage:

“God” … is the name for that which concerns man ultimately. This does not mean that first there is a being called God and then the demand that man should be ultimately concerned about him. It means that whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and, conversely, it means that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him.27

Thus, with Tillich’s formula, one can define faith in terms of God, as one’s concern about the Ultimate, or define God in terms of faith, as that — whatever it may be — about which one is ultimately concerned. This permissiveness between supranaturalism and naturalism is regarded by Tillich as constituting a third and superior standpoint “beyond naturalism and supranaturalism.”28 Whether Tillich is justified in regarding it in this way is a question for the readers to consider for themselves.


22Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1957), p. 1.

23Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1951), I, 14. CopyrigW^ 1951 by the University of Chicago.

24 Idid., pp. 11-12.

25 Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 11.

26 “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion,” Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1959). Reprinted in John Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970).

27 Tillich, Systematic Theology, I, 211. ™Ibul., 5f.


A NONPROPOSITIONAL VIEW OF REVELATION AND FAITH

A different view of revelation, which can be called in contrast the “non- propositional” .view (or, if a technical term is desired, the heilsqeschichtliche view), has become widespread within Protestant Christianity during the present century. This view claims to have its roots in the thought of the Reformers of the sixteenth century (Luther and Calvin and their associates) and still further back in the New Testament and the early Church.29 Is According to this nonpropositional view, the content of revelation is not a body of truths about God, but God coming within the orbit of human experience by acting in history. From this point of view, theological propositions, as such, are not revealed but represent human attempts to understand the significance of revelatory events. This nonpropositional conception of revelation is connected with the modern renewed emphasis upon the personal character of God and the thought that the divine-human personal relationship consists of something more than the promulgation and reception of theological truths. Certain questions at once present themselves.

If it is God’s intention to confront men with God’s presence, as personal will and purpose, why has this not been done in an unambiguous manner, by some overwhelming manifestation of divine power and glory?

The answer that is generally given runs parallel to one of the considerations that occurred in connection with the problem of evil. If one is to have the freedom necessary for a relationship of love and trust, this freedom must extend to the basic and all-important matter of one’s consciousness of God. God (as conceived in the Judaic-Christian tradition) is such that to be aware of God is, in important respects, unlike being aware of a finite person. The existence of a fellow human being can be a matter of indifference to us. The obvious exception is that consciousness of another which is love. The peculiarly self-involving awareness of love thus bears a certain analogy to man’s awareness of God. In love, the existence of the beloved, far from being a matter of indifference, affects one’s whole being. God, the object of the religious consciousness, is such that it is impossible for a finite creature to be aware of God and yet remain unaffected by this awareness. God, according to the Judaic-Christian tradition, is the source and ground of our being. It is by God’s will that we exist. God’s purpose for us is so indelibly written into our nature that the fulfillment of this purpose is the basic condition of our own personal self-fulfillment and happiness. We are thus totally dependent upon God as the giver not only of our existence but also of our highest good. To become conscious of God is to see oneself as created, dependent creature receiving life and well-being from a higher source. In relation to this higher Being, self-disclosed to us as holy love, the only appropriate attitude is one of grateful worship and obedience. Thus, the process of becoming aware of God, if it is not to destroy the frail autonomy of the human personality, must involve the individual’s own freely responding insight and assent. Therefore, it is said, God does not become known to us as a reality of the same order as ourselves. If God were to do that the finite being would be swallowed by the infinite Being. Instead, God has created space-time as a sphere in which we may exist in relative independence, as spatiotemporal creatures. Within this sphere God is self-discovered in ways that allow us the fateful freedom to recognize or fail to recognize God’s presence. The divine actions always leave room for that uncompelled response that theology calls faith. It is this element in the awareness of God that preserves man’s cognitive freedom in relation to an infinitely greater and superior reality. Faith is thus the correlate of freedom: faith is related to cognition as free will to conation. As one of the early Church Fathers wrote. “And not merely in works, but also in faith, has God preserved the will of man free and under his own control.”30

Faith, conceived in this way as a voluntary recognition of God’s activity in hurnan history, consists of seeing, apperceiving, or interpreting events in a special way.

In ordinary nonreligious experience, there is something epistemologically similar to this in the phenomenon of “seeing as,” which was brought to the attention of philosophers by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) when he pointed out the epistemological interest of puzzle pictures.31 Consider, for example, the page covered with apparently random dots and lines, which, as one gazes at it, suddenly takes the form of a picture of (say) human beings standing in a grove of trees. The entire field of dots and lines is now seen as having this particular kind of significance and no longer as merely a haphazard array of marks.

We can develop this idea and add that in addition to such purely visual interpreting, there is also the more complex phenomenon of experiencing as, in which a whole situation is experienced as having some specific significance. A familiar example of a situation that is perceived with all the senses and has its own practical significance is that of driving an automobile along a highway. To be conscious of being in this particular kind of situation is to be aware that certain reactions (and dispositions to react) are appropriate and others inappropriate; an important part of our consciousness of the situation as having the particular character that it has consists in our readiness to act appropriately within it. Any individual would react in characteristically different ways in the midst of a battle and on a quiet Sunday afternoon stroll; he or she would do so in recognition of the differing characters of these two types of situation. Such awareness is a matter of “experiencing as.” The significance of a given situation for a given observer consists primarily of its bearing upon that person’s behavioral dispositions. Being an interpretative act, “experiencing as” can of course be mistaken, as — to mention an extreme case — when a lunatic feels that everyone poses a threat, and reacts accordingly.

Sometimes two different orders or levels of significance are experience within the same situation; this is what happens when the religious mind experiences events both as occuring within human history and as mediating the presence and activity of God. A religious significance is found superimposed upon the natural significance of the situation in the believer’s experience.

Thus, for example, the Old Testament prophets saw the events of their contemporary history both as inteaction between Israel and the surrounding nations and, at the same time, as God’s dealings with the people of Israel — leading, guiding, disciplining, and punishing them in order that they might be instruments of God’s purpose. In the prophetic interpretation of history embodied in the Old Testament records, events that would be described by a secular historian as the outcome of political, economic sociological, and geographical factors are seen as incidents in a dialogue that continues through the centuries between God and Israel. It is important to realize that the prophets were not formulating a philosophy of history in the sense of a hypothesis applied retrospectively to the facts; instead, they were reporting their actual experience of the events as they happened. They were conscious of living in the midst of Heiligeschichte, salvation-history. They saw God actively at work in the world around them. For example, a well-known commentary says of the time when the army was attacking Jerusalem, “Behind the serried ranks of the Chaldean army [Jeremiah] beheld the form of Jahweh fighting for them and through them against His own people.”32 The prophets experienced their contemporary situations as moments in which God was actively present.

The same epistemological pattern — the interpreting in a distinctive way of events that are in themselves capable of being construed either naturalisticallv or religiously — runs through the New Testament. Here again, in the story ot a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and a movement which arose in connection with him, there are ambiguous data. It is possible to see him simply as a self-appointed prophet who got mixed up in politics, clashed with the Jerusalem priesthood, and had to be eliminated. It is also possible, with the New Testament writers, to see him as the Messiah of God giving himself for the renewing of humankind. To see him in this way is to share the faith or the distinctive way of “experiencing as” which gave rise to the New Testament documents.33

This theme of God as deus absconditus, the hidden God, who comes to men in the incognito of a human life in order to preserve people’s freedom, is found in Martin Luther and is expressed with great clarity by Pascal:

It was not then right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him. He has willed to make Himself quite recognizable by those; and thus, willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contraryjdisposition.34

More broadly, religious apperception, within the Judaic-Christian tradition, experiences human life as a total situation in which people are at all times having to do with God and God with them. The ethic that is an inseparable aspect of this faith indicates the way in which it is appropriate to behave in such a situation.


29 For an account of the development from the propositional to the nonpropositional view in modern Protestant thought, see John Baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956).

30 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, Chap. 37, para 5.

31 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and New York!! Mott Ltd., 1953), Part II, Sec. xi.

32 John Skinner, Prophecy and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), p. 261.

33 This view of the nature of religious faith is presented more fully in John Hick, Faith and Knowledge, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, N.Y : Cornell University Press, 1966), Chaps. 5-6. This and many other topics in the epistemology of religion are illuminatingly discussed in Terence Penelhum, Problems of Religious Knowledge (London: Macmillan & Company Ltd., and New York: Herder & Herder, Inc., 1971).

34 Pensees, tr. W. F. Trotter (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., and New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1932), No. 430, p. 118.


A CORRESPONDING VIEW OF THE BIBLE AND THEOLOGICAL THINKING

The conception of revelation as occurring in the events of history — both world history and individual history — and the conception of faith as the experiencing of these events as God’s dealings with human creatures, also suggest a different conception of the Bible from that which accompanies the propositional theory. Within the propositional circle of ideas, the Bible is customarily referred to as “the Word of God.” This phrase is understood in practice as meaning “the words of God.” However, within the contrasting set of ideas associated with the nonpropositional view of revelation there is a tendency to return to the New Testament usage in which Christ, and only Christ, is called the divine Word (Logos). According to this view the Bible is not itself the Word of God but is rather the primary and indispensable witness to the Word. The New Testament is seen as the human record of the Incarnation, that is, of the “fact of faith” which is expressed in such statements as “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”35

On the one hand, the Bible is a book written by human beings as the record of God’s actions in history. It is, indeed, not so much one book as a library of books, produced during a period of about a thousand years and reflecting the various cultural situations within which its different sections were produced. In this sense it is a thoroughly human set of documents. On the other hand, the Bible is written from beginning to end from a standpoint of faith. Although it is the chronicle of a particular strand of world history that includes the settlement of a nomadic people in Canaan, the power struggle of kings, the rise and fall of dynasties and empires, and the changing patterns of economic and social life during some ten centuries, the Bible depicts these events as the scene of a continuing interaction between God and mankind. In the Bible, the chief agent upon the stage of history is not any human ruler, however powerful; it is the Lord who is invisible, yet ever present, never seen, yet never to be escaped, in one sense more remote than the farthest star but in another sense closer to one than one’s own secret thoughts. The faith of the Biblical writers, which is their consciousness of God at work within human experience, constitutes the inspiration by virtue of which their writings still have the .power to reveal the transcendent God to human consciousness. Paul Tillich summed up a similar conception of the Scriptures:

The documentary character of the Bible is identical with the fact that it contains the original witness of those who participated in the revealing events. Their participation was their response to the happenings which became revealing events through their response. The inspiration of the biblical writers is their receptive and creative response to potentially revelatory facts. The inspiration of the writers of the New Testament is their acceptance of Jesus as the Christ, and with him, of the New Being, of which they became witnesses. Since there is no revelation unless there is someone who receives it as revelation, the act of reception is a part of the event itself. The Bible is both original event and original document; it witnesses to that of which it is a part.36

The nature of the Bible, as it is understood from the standpoint that we are now considering, is defined by the principle underlying the canon — that is, the principle by which the Christian Church decided which writings to include in its sacred Scriptures and which to exclude. As far as the “Old Testament” was concerned there was no problem, for the present collection of documents was already established within Judaism and was simply taken over ready-made by Christianity. However, the creation of a New Testament out of the wealth of available material presented many problems. In addition to the contents of our present New Testament, there were in circulation a large number of writings, some now extant in full and others only in fragments, with such titles as The Gospel According to the HebrewsThe Gospel of PhilipThe Gospel of Peter, The Memoria of theApostlesThe Death of PilateThe Assumption of the VirginThe Martyrdom of Matthew.37 The series of practical discriminations and eventually of formal decisions by which the present canon of the New Testament was adopted have behind them a clear and significant principle. This is the principle of apostolic authority. The aim of the early Church was to gather, as far as possible, all the writings that had come from the original band of Jesus’ disciples, the twelve apostles, or the circles that later grew up around some of them in different centers of the early Church. These apostolic writings — consisting chiefly of four memoirs of Jesus and a number of letters from the apostles and accounts of their activities — constituted the original and most nearly contemporary documentation of the momentous series of events in which, as the Christian community was convinced, the salvation of the world had been accomplished. Later critical investigation has questioned the judgment of the early Church at some relatively peripheral points,38 but still the New Testament stands as essentially the original dossier of documents that were produced under the impact of the events out of which Christianity arose. It is through these writings that the revelatory events continue to make their impact upon mankind; these writings, together with the Hebrew Scriptures, constitute the given basis of Christian thought. Accordingly, it is not possible for Christian theology to go behind the scriptural data, taken in their totality.

It is clear, on this principle, why no later Christian writings, however profound, impressive, or uplifting, can ever rightly become included in the New Testament. For in the nature of the case, no later writings can be of apostolic origin. The only circumstance that could ever justify an enlargement of the canon to include books not now in it would be a discovery out of the sands and caves of the Middle East of ancient documents which, after the most careful scientific scrutiny, came to be accepted by the Church as authentic writings of the same category as the present contents of the New Testament — conceivably, for example, further letters by Saint Paul or the “lost ending” of Mark’s Gospel.39

The nonpropositional view of revelation also tends to be accompanied by a different conception of the function of theology from that operating in the propositional system of ideas. The strong emphasis upon God’s self- revelation in and through the stream of saving history (Heilsgeschichte) recorded in the Bible, and upon the necessity for man’s free response of faith, often leads to a rejection both of the distinction between natural and revealed theology and of the traditional conception of each member of this distinction. The notion of revealed theology is rejected on the ground that revelation means God’s self-disclosure in history (rather than the disclosure of a set of theological propositions) to mankind; natural theology is rejected as a series of attempts to establish without faith what can only be given to faith.

This modern theological rejection of natural theology is not necessarily motivated by an irrationalist distrust of reason. It may represent an empiricism which recognizes that human thought can deal only with material that has been given in experience. Just as our knowledge of the physical world is ultimately based upon sense perception, so any religious knowledge must ultimately be based upon aspects of human experience that are received as revelatory. Thus, reason can never replace experience, as the source of the basic religious data. Nevertheless, in its proper place and when allowed to fulfill its proper role, reason plays an important part in the religious life. Negatively, it can criticize naturalistic theories that are proposed as ruling out a rational belief in the reality of God; and in this way it may have the effect of removing blocks in the way of belief. Positively, it must seek to understand the implications of what is known by faith: in a famous phrase of Anselm’s, this is “faith seeking understanding.” Of course, reason is at work also in the systematic formulation of what is believed on the basis of faith.

These latter functions of reason cover the work of the theologian. He or she takes the firsthand expressions of religious apperception, or faith, as data for careful and systematic reflection. This material consists of the fundamental “facts of faith” which constitute the experiential basis of a given religion. In the case of Christianity, for example, the central “fact of faith” is that expressed in Peter’s words to Jesus, “You are the messiah, the son of the living God.”40 Once certain “facts of faith” are acknowledged or confessed by a religious community, the task of its theologians is to draw out their implications, relating them both to one another and to human knowledge in other fields. The resulting theological formulations (according to the view we are considering) have not been revealed by God, but represent human and therefore fallible attempts to understand the data of faith. The efforts of “faith seeking nnderstanding” are a continuing part of the life of the Church and have given rise to a rich variety of theological theories. In the endeavor to understand the “religious fact”
of God’s presence in and through Christ, for instance, many varieties of Christology have been and continue to be developed. There are divergent atonement theories to explain the reconciliation between man and God that is proclaimed in the Christian gospel; there are also several different kinds of trinitarian doctrine to account for the threefold awareness of God to which the New Testament witnesses.

It is important to distinguish between the assertion of “facts of faith” and the subsequent development of theological theories to explain them, for these fulfill distinct functions and have a different epistemological status. The “facts of faith” upon which a given religion is based define that religion and are (in intention at least) enshrined in its creeds. Theological theories, on the other hand, cannot claim the sanctity, within a particular religion, that is possessed by an affirmation of its basic “facts of faith.” Much mental confusion, as well as ecclesiastical division, has been caused by attempts to treat the theological theories of some particular school as though they were themselves the basic articles of faith that they seek to explain. This kind of confusion is not unknown even today, as when the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement is equated with the religious fact of man’s reconciliation with God; or when the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus is equated with the belief that “God was in Christ.”41


35John 1:14.

36 Tillich, Systematic Theology, I, 35.

37 These documents, together with many more in the same category, can be found in The Apocryphal New Testament, tr. M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).

38 For example, critical investigation has questioned the Church’s assumption that the Epistle to the Hebrews is by Saint Paul and that the Gospel of John is by the apostle Johnn. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not, of course, profess to be by apostles.

39 New Testament scholars are agreed that the present ending of Mark’s Gospel, Chap. 16:9-20, is not partof the original document, and they conjecture that there may be a missing original ending.

40 Matthew 16:16.

4I II Corinthians 5:19.


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