God’s Revelation as Speech-act

I’ve argued before here that reality is fundamentally linguistic – God spoke the universe into existence. What never occurred to me, for some unknown reason (beyond my own thick-headedness) is that this is a speech-act, or rather, THE speech-act. Duh. Then I thought a bit farther – if Jesus is God’s self-revelation, the Word (or the ‘conversation’, my personal favourite translation of ‘logos’), made flesh, then in a sense, wouldn’t that make Jesus a speech-act as well? This was an odd thought, but a speech-act is an utterance which does what it says – it performs the action it proclaims. Discourse becomes concrete – and is there a better example of (divine) discourse becoming concrete reality?

So then I thought about when we talk about Jesus, or preach, or proclaim the gospel – would that then also fall under the speech-act category? Here it wasn’t so clear cut, at least at first. If the gospel is ‘God’s power to save’, then it would seem that the gospel, by which people are saved and God’s kingdom brought about on earth, is also speech-act. The spoken word becomes the concrete reality.

None of this has been thought through very far by me or systematized- it was something that occurred to me on my lunch break. But it seems to me to be plausible.

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History and Truth

Continuing still with the ‘eyes of faith’ theme, but going in a slightly different direction.

Kierkegaard makes some interesting points about the nature of truth in ‘Philosophical Fragments’. In a nutshell he says that in Jesus Christ, absolute truth descended into history and was made contingent – the transcendent absolute became historical fact. T.F. Torrance draws this out a bit more, but Kierkegaard’s basic point is that truth moved – therefore, movement is a property of truth – kinetic truth, as Torrance calls it. So we can’t think of truth as a sort of detached, frozen in time, out there kind of thing. We have to think in kinetic terms – I posted on this subject some time ago in relation to theological method. We have to know truth in a relation and dynamic, not detatched and frozen, kind of way.

History and Theology

Continuing with the ‘eyes of faith’ theme I’ve got going, let’s take a look at Bonhoeffers thought on seeing Christ in history:

‘The historical approach to the Jesus of history is not binding for the believer. Historical certainty is not a union with Jesus; that is no more than encounter with any other person from the past. We can have ‘Moments with Christ’ as we can with Goethe. It is not a mystical union either with some person in history, but rather a person who bears witness to himself…But it is the risen one who himself creates faith and thus knows the way to himself ‘in hitory’. When we have Christ witnessing to himself in the present, any historical confirmation is irrelevant. In faith, history is known, not from within nor from itself, but in the light of eternity. This is the direct approach of faith to history.’ (Bonhoeffer, ‘Christ the Center’, p. 72-73)

Lots going on here. My thought is that we can’t come to a true knowledge and union with Christ through the methods of historical inquiry alone – we must approach the living Word with an in faith, which is given to us by the word. Our faith is not in historical method – we don’t come to a true knowledge of Christ through really close study of history textbooks. Our faith is given to us *by* Christ – it is only through this faith that we can know Christ through history. Again, we won’t come to a knowledge of the Living God through good historical methodology but rather by faith.

You Are Accepted

‘Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.’ (Paul Tillich)

Thinking About Natural Theology

In the previous post I laid out the basic Barthian line of thought on natural theology – here is T.F. Torrance to break it down a bit further:

‘So it is with natural theology: brought within the embrace of positive theology and developed as a complex of rational structures arising in our actual knowledge of God it becomes “natural” in a new way, natural to its proper object, God in self-revealing interaction with us in space and time. Natural theolog then constitutes the epistemological “geometry” as it were, within the fabric of “revealed theology” as it apprehended and articulated within the objectivites and intelligibilites of the space-time medium through which God has made himself known to us. As such, however, natural theology has no independent status but is the pliant conceptual instrument which Christian theology uses in unfolding and expressing the concept of real knowledge of God through modes of human thought and speech hat are made rigorously appropriate to his self-revelation to mankind.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 39)

Right. So basically what Torrance is saying that natural theology, insofar as it will bring us to real, intimate, relational knowledge of the living God, has to be based in actual concrete Christian experience. Apart from actual communion with God, natural theology (in Torrance’s view) is both the product of and leads to a harmful deism. So, then, contrary to the bulk of natural theology as classically understood, natural theology isn’t a preamble to faith but depends on faith to be any kind of meaningful enterprise

Divine action and the Eyes of Faith

There’s a running theme in the New Testament – that to perceive God or God’s action one must have the eyes of faith – that is, unless one by God’s grace has faith God’s action cannot be seen, at least as divine action.

To take a Barthian line: God’s revelation of Himself can only be seen by faith (no natural theology). In a sense God is hidden, even in His revelation – because His revelation isn’t something that becomes ‘available’ for us to see and study and analyze apart from faith. Even in God’s self-revelation in history in the person of Jesus Christ God is hidden except to those with grace-healed eyes. Revelation is not generally available as one more thing in the world – the same with God’s actions in history and in the world.

Barth, for those unaware, pretty much negated natural theology and the analogis entis, which is what makes a conception of natural theology possible. His famous reply to Brunner of ‘NO!’, sums up his position on natural theology. Nutshell: no natural theology because we cannot perceive God without faith – i.e. we cannot arrive at God from nature or reason alone.

However, I think that a position like, say, Aquinas’s is less offensive to Barth than would suppose:

‘Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes- which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the real of created things – that it can at once create freedom and also assure tat no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Doors of the Sea’)

Barth, however, rejected the underlying metaphysics that led to conceiving of God in terms of causality – classical metaphysics. Classical metaphysics was one of the things Barth hated, because he thought it led to a picture of God that while philosophically consistent was not biblically accurate. While I don’t think that metaphysics as a whole needs to be thrown out, I do think that Barth was quite right in his ideas on revelation and divine action in the world. I don’t deny natural theology, so long as it’s properly qualified. T.F. Torrance really expounded the status of natural theology, which I’ll focus on next post.