In thinking about the interplay of revelation through nature, miracles and Scripture, we discussed what it is that constitutes Scripture. Once again the question arose (see our earlier blog entries): before you are two books – let’s say the Bible and the Qu’ran – and you are asked, “Why this book, why not that book?” – the rules of engagement are that quoting from your book of choice to justify it over the other is not allowed (because then quoting from the other book to justify it over your book is fair game, and we just go round and round citing our own favorite text in the face of citations from someone else’s favorite text). This question is likely to surface over and over again unless we can address it in some reasonable way.
We discussed some of the terms that are often used to describe Scripture: inspired, infallible, authoritative, inerrant, and so on. It seems that claims such as inerrancy based upon “original autographs” aren’t especially helpful because any “original autographs” that might once have existed are no longer available to us and hence the claim of inerrancy can never be disputed if it is positioned this way.
We began to think about the different ways in which religious language has been understood over the years and how our understanding of language influences our reading of Scripture.
One position is to see religious language as moral discourse. Thus, language about God is really language about how people should behave towards each other. Here, the notion of God serves as a “regulative ideal” to grant validity to ethical imperatives. R. B. Braithwaite, Immanuel Kant, and Albrecht Ritschl all held this position.
Another position is to claim that language is equivocal. Human language cannot refer to the infinite. This route is taken by some mystics and is representative of the via negativa. St. John of the Cross is a good example of one who held this position.
Yet another position is that language is univocal. There is no problem with human language referencing God. Words which refer to God and to humanity have exactly the same meaning. Carl F. H. Henry holds this position.
Alternatively, language can be seen as analogical. One can postulate that there is an analogy between what a word means when it applies to humanity and when it applies to God [theory of analogical predication]. This use of language assumes that there is a “proper proportionality” to language describing God’s attributes and activities and human attributes and activities. St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest proponent of this perspective.
Some claim that metaphysical language is meaningless. Only propositions which can be empirically verified have meaning. This is the position of the Logical Positivists. A. J. Ayer and Rudolf Carnap held this position.
It has been claimed that all “language games” exist within particular “forms of life.” Wittgenstein argues that speaking a language is a kind of activity. As such, “meaning” is best understood as “use.” (Wittgenstein said “Words do not have meaning; they have usage.”) Thus speaking about God (in the context of a religious community or life) is as valid as any other activity. Paul Holmer and Paul van Buren hold this perspective.
Also, some say that all religious language is metaphorical and symbolic. Language contains helpful metaphors and symbols about God, but there is no way to substantiate them ontologically. This is the position of Paul Tillich. Tillich does not believe that we can talk about God as a “being” the same way that we are “beings.” Rather, for Tillich, God is the “ground of being.”
Some agree with the ontological distinction which is made by Tillich but deny the linguistic distinction. For them, religious language is a “mode of signification.” Reality can be signified by language, but not completely. (e.g., We can know that God loves, but we cannot know how God loves.) This is the position of William Alston.
To keep it simple, we might take the position that there are two types of language: Propositional language as used by theological conservatives with an emphasis on “factual nature”, “verbal inspiration”, being “literally true”, words which are “revealed by God”, and so on; and experiential-expressive language as used by theological liberals with an emphasis on “aptness” or “adequacy” of language to describe religious awareness where this aptness or adequacy is a matter of degree. [Note that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are just labels for convenience and not pejoratives!].
The philospher Mounce, writing on Wittgenstein, said, “What is of fundamental importance cannot be stated; it can only be shown. Therefore one must be silent before what is of fundamental importance”. Alister McGrath says something similar, “…the transcendent can never be wholly captured in finite language, so that we are obliged to rely upon images and models which elude precise definition”.
With reference to the statement “God is love”, McGrath asserts that: (i) it is not merely a declaration of allegiance to a community that affirms this statement regardless of what God might actually be like; (ii) it is not merely an affirmation of a personal attitude towards God regardless of what God might actually be like; but rather (iii) it is an affirmation that the statement is an “authentic and valid insight into the character of God” [McGrath allows for myth, metaphor, etc. as nonliteral forms of representation].
It seems we need to think more about what language is and does if we are to approach Scripture in ways that are appropriate. In general, we saw that reading Scripture in community may be a helpful approach, while attempting to determine the trajectory of Scripture and joining our lives into that narrative trajectory may be the way to best live into the narrative as Christians.
There is a lot to think about here!