I recently read a book that I’d like to commend: Mats Wahlberg, Revelation as Testimony: A Philosophical-Theological Study (Eerdmans, 2014). Why? United Methodists need to have serious dialogue about how we view scripture as a whole (and what principles of interpretation we use) rather than continuing to fight about whether the Bible says A, B or C about topics like homosexuality. In other words, opponents need to expose and examine their assumptions about scripture to each other with the goal of understanding first, before trying to settle the argument.
Books like Revelation as Testimony help tremendously. The author’s key claims are (1) testimony is a form of knowledge, and (2) the scriptures stand as divine testimony. “God reveals by speaking and we acquire knowledge of God and divine things by believing what God says.” (2) In very clear prose, he explains why he thinks these claim are true.
Before getting to some of his major points, a word about epistemology, or the philosophy concerning knowledge. How do we know that we know what we think we know? A huge question. Philosophers generally identify the following as sources of knowledge. First is perception. I sit at the kitchen table looking at my laptop while I key in these words. I immediately perceive a computer (without having to think it through to a conclusion) and I trust that my senses are working properly (they can be deceived, but generally, we trust our senses). Second is memory. I think about a conversation I had with Joni yesterday and memories come to mind. (Again, memory can be faulty, but under normal conditions, we trust our memory beliefs, therefore we can say that we know what we remember.) Next is inference or induction. I want to determine what I know about the talks between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump. I read two or three news articles from a variety of slants. I work through logically to what I think are the best conclusions. Finally, testimony also is widely, though not universally, regarded as a source of knowledge. (See, for example, Robert Audi, Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction.)
Now back to the book. Wahlberg first criticizes what he calls the “manifestational” theory of revelation associated with a number of well known thinkers. That is, God does not speak, but reveals God’s nature only through historical events or through transcendental experience. Words may attend these experiences, but the words come from humans trying to make sense of the experience or event. Wahlberg takes on the likes of Immanuel Kant, Friederich Schleiermacher and, more recently, Gordon Kaufman. Their views, Wahlberg says, dismiss divine speaking such that we ultimately can know very little about God. Wahlberg has much to say about how and why he thinks their conclusions are weak.
Wahlberg then unpacks his view of testimony as knowledge. Much of our knowledge comes to us via testimony. What qualifies as testimony? One example: when a teacher summarizes a bit of historical background on some major personality or set of events, the teacher is effectively testifying to us, the listeners, from what she knows. We do not try to confirm independently everything the teacher claims. The same with textbooks we use in class. The content of the textbook is effectively the testimony of the author.
Second, Wahlberg uses Nicholas Wolterstorff’s work, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, and his use of speech act theory to get at how God speaks through human means. This part of the book is particularly important because it shows how one can hold to a propositional sense of divine revelation without lapsing into problems related to claims of inerrancy. Wahlberg concludes that the scriptures contain propositional content that results from and rely on divine speech. Many of us learned in seminary to be very wary about (no, frankly, we learned to dismiss pretty much out of hand) talk of propositional revelation. Wahlberg is no fundamentalist. He is, in fact, a Catholic philosopher/theologian making sophisticated, nuanced arguments.
This book is carefully and irenically written. In addition to his substantive claims, he discusses the morally important principle of “doxastic responsibility.” “Doxastic” is a term that refers to how we form knowledge beliefs (yes, it has connections to “__dox” in “orthodox). All of us form beliefs about God’s speech and activity and we need to form those beliefs carefully and responsibly.
Now, why do I bother bringing up what seems like an annoying, abstract, academic argument? Because I believe very strongly that theologically trained leaders of the church need to go back to school. We need to return to questions that seem long-answered and unnecessary to revisit, but in fact, we do need to revisit them.
As I said, we need to get our basic assumptions about scripture out in the open for our opponents to examine. If I have a “manifestational” view of revelation, I will read the texts as more or less exclusively human documents, as, at best, witnesses to divine revelation. I will be aware of their diversity and their timebound characteristics. If I believe the Bible is God’s Word, but I don’t really have a good way of understanding how divine and human speech work together in scripture, then I should be subject to the criticism that my view is simplistic and not fitting for good interpretation. I need to explain why and how I think the Bible is God’s revelation.
Perhaps more than anything – and here I show my true colors – I wish for those of you who think we evangelicals and “conservatives” are no more than fundamentalist wolves in sheep’s clothing, that you would realize we actually have good, strong reasons to think as we do. Our “high” view of scripture is not just mindless fideism, but carefully considered and compelling.
A lot of good work has been done in biblical studies as well as in philosophy of religion that supports an orthodox understanding of scripture and the Christian faith. On the topic of revelation, in addition to the two books I have mentioned, I add Billy Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Colin Gunton’s A Brief Theology of Revelation, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, William Alston’s Perceiving God, and Caroline Franks Davis’ The Evidential Force of Religious Experience. They are all scholars of the first rank.
I doubt that taking a step back to expose and examine our basic beliefs about scripture as a whole will change much in how votes go down at General Conference. But I do believe that we could once again look at each other as Christian brothers and sisters who have carefully thought-out beliefs. We might find some common ground, but if we don’t, then at least we can part from one another peaceably.