Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Zoobie Review: Divine Discourse by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks by Nicholas Wolterstorff [Cambridge University Press, 1995; ISBN #0521475570 (paperback)]

It's pretty easy to comprehend why Wolterstorff, as a Reformed epistemologist, wrote this book, but what is more difficult is understanding how he thinks it will impact those of us who aren't. Not that there's anything wrong with Reformed epistemology, I suppose, if you want to believe that sort of thing. But given the numerous Christian alternatives, including the "sentient intelligence" that we Zoobies endorse, it seems to me that Reformed epistemology is almost entirely a defense mechanism for people who insist on the intellectual defensibility of being Reformed. I suppose that it is intellectually defensible at some level, but that's not really a reason to be Reformed, since there are plenty of intellectually defensible positions that are no better than their alternatives. Given the failure of the Reformed epistemologists' assault on natural theology, one wonders what relevance the movement will retain outside of providing an excuse for those who are already Reformed to stay Reformed. Indeed, preserving the Reformed epistemology in the context of Scripture appears to be precisely what Wolterstorff has in mind here.

Wolterstorff sets out to determine whether it is possible for God to have spoken in the sense of Austin's speech-action theory: viz., whether it is possible for God to take what speech-action theorists call illocutionary acts. To briefly and inadequately summarize speech-action theory, the notion is that speech is really a combination of locutionary acts, which are the actual physical acts of uttering sounds, making black squiggles on pieces of paper, and similar acts of producing language (NOTE: Wolterstorff's terminology here is slightly different that Austin's own defintion). But in themselves, these are not speech apart from illocutionary acts performed by way of locutionary acts, such as asking, asserting, commanding, promising, and the like. Wolterstorff notes that the tendency of many theologians has been to assume that because God does not (ordinarily, at least) perform locutionary acts that he does not perform illocutionary acts either. Wolterstorff's theory is that this has led theologians to dismiss what seems like an intuitive understanding that God speaks to human beings in favor of conceiving God's communication solely in terms of revelation rather than speaking.

Wolterstorff's difficulty with this conception appears to be twofold. First, it doesn't account for the vast number of Scriptural and later references to divine communication as God "speaking." Second, his implicit concern appears to be that this causes people to move away from authorial-discourse interpretation, which he views as a quite-tolerable view of God's communicative interaction with human beings (defending it explicitly in this work against the criticism of Derrida and Ricoeur). Wolterstorff criticizes the notion that God communicates solely by revelation by showing examples of speech that are not revelatory, thus motivating the claim that God might speak outside of revelation. In turning to the question of whether God might speak, he formulates the notion of illocutionary acts in terms of moral obligations within a societal context, so that the object of illocutionary action is to trigger moral obligations. Here, Wolterstorff is at his most perceptive, and he cites examples of how this allows speech acts even to be deputized to other human beings' locutionary actions (such as when an envoy is deputized to speak on behalf of the President or when someone endorses a statement by another). In this context, it becomes clear that God can speak in a non-revelatory way even without performing locutionary acts. Moreover, it justifies two separate senses in which we consider God to be "speaking" to us: in the context of public/social morality (public divine speech), and in the private context (private divine speech, an example of which is St. Augustine's conversion to Christianity after hearing a child say "Take, read," which he took as a command from God to read Scripture)

At the same time, it is exactly at this point that one wonders what Wolterstorff's point is. If his object is to motivate authorial-discourse interpretation as a sensible way to identify divinely-intended meaning in some sense, then I doubt he would have many objectors. But Wolterstorff seems to have a sense that there ought to be a univocal way of thinking about divine and mundane speech, and I think this misses exactly the objection that theologians are raising. Wolterstorff, quite rightly, cites Barth as a theologian of the Word of God par excellence and interacts quite extensively with Barth's view. But I think that he misses the fundamental theological point that only the Word of God can reveal God, and this is where Wolterstorff (confessedly, based on p. 73, FNs 10 and 11) doesn't grasp the metaphysical underpinning that it is the witness of God in the Church that gives Scripture "as distinct from all other words and signs, the dignity and validity of the Word of God" (Barth, Church Dogmatics 1/2,459; cited on p. 69). Barth's view is comparable to Zubiri's theory of revelation, that proceeds from the identification of that which is revealed with that which is proclaiming the revelation. But even in Wolterstorff's idiom, if he identified the social structure of the Church with the normative function of public/social morality in the interpretation of Scripture, he likely wouldn't have missed Barth's point here. The point is that it is the "faith community," not the historical horizons of the original author, that defines the normative status of Scripture, which is exactly why profane methods of authorial-discourse simply fail as a true interpretive method (Wolterstorff himself perceives the problem, as I will discuss later, but misses the implications). It is a special kind of speech having social normativity in the context of the Body of Christ.

Wolterstorff's observation that part of Barth's desire here was to overcome what he viewed as increasing difficulty with holding Scripture as "inerrant" in light of critical scholarship is probably correct, but I suspect that was only a corollary of the main point, in that "inerrantism" is not an adequate basis for a theory of revelation anyway (which Wolterstorff himself notes later). But Wolterstoff clearly doesn't grasp the significance of Barth's argument that limiting the Word of God to the kind of speech that Wolterstoff suggests would impugn the freedom of God. Wolterstorff says on pp. 73-74:

Secondly, Barth regarded the claim that God speaks by way of authoring Scripture as compromising the freedom of God. God and God alone speaks for God. "That the Bible is the Word of God cannot mean with other attributes the Bible has the attribute of being the Word of God. To say that would be to violate the Word of God which is God Himself -- to violate the freedom and sovereignty of God. God is not an attribute of something else, even if this something else is the Bible. God is the Subject, God is Lord. He is Lord even over the Bible and in the Bible. The statement that the Bible is the Word of God cannot therefore say that the Word of God is tied to the Bible. On the contrary, what it must say is that the Bible is tied to the Word of God. But that means that in this statement we contemplate a free decision of God" [Church Dogmatics] (1/2,513). If it is indeed a limitation on God's freedom that God would commission a human being to speak "in the name of" God, then perhaps we have to take seriously the possibility that God is willing on occasion to limit God's freedom in that way -- or alternatively, consider the possibility that we are working with an alien or inapplicable concept of freedom. But in the case of appropriation, it's hard to see how God's decision to appropriate certain human speech as the medium of divine speech is in any way a compromise of divine freedom! Probably Barth never even considered the appropriation model as a way of thinking of God as author!

With all due respect to Wolterstorff, I think that this last statement vastly underestimates Barth as a theologian. On the contrary, I think that Barth specifically considered exactly what Wolterstorff is proposing and rejected it as an entirely inferior concept of divine speech as compared to the much fuller theological concept of witnessing and proclamation that Barth endorses, which is effectively a speech above speech. Only this fuller concept, Barth argues, is befitting the name of the Word of God, and to limit Him from this fuller concept is exactly what Barth considers an assault on God's freedom. As I said earlier, Wolterstorff is committed to the notion of a univocal account of "speech" as the only way to properly respect the Biblical language, but I think Barth would actually reject that concept and even consider it denigrating to the idea of the Word of God.

Wolterstorff almost perceives the normativity problem, but misses it on p. 206:

There's a strand of radical Protestantism which would protest vigorously what I said above, that we do our interpreting for divine discourse with convictions in two hands -- in one, convictions as to the human discourse and meanings of the sentences used, in the other, convictions as to what God would and wouldn't have intended to say by appropriating this totality of discourse and locution. That strand would insist that interpretation for divine discourse must be interpretation with one hand: no convictions about God are to be employed in the practice of interpretation which do not themselves emerge from interpreting the human locution and discourse of the Bible. Perhaps the simplest and most decisive way of seeing this cannot be correct is the following: in our interpretations, we make use of the conviction that God speaks consistently. If we didn't, then even the fact that one's tentative interpretation of two parts of the biblical text has the implication that God's discourse was contradictory would be no reason for not adopting that interpretation. Indeed, so fundamental and persuasive is our use of this conviction in our practice of interpretation that we rarely notice we are using it. But if we didn't bring this conviction to the practice of interpretation, rather than waiting until it emerged from the practice, we couldn't take even the first steps in the practice of interpreting for divine discourse. For suppose we approached the text with a truly open mind as to whether God's discourse is contradictory, and then read in the text the sentence "I, God, do not contradict myself." How are we to interpret that very sentence? If we already believed that God does not contradict Godself, then we would interpret it literally, and rightly so -- unless something in the context indicated that the sentence was being used in an unusual fashion. But if we had no view on the matter of God's consistency, we would be without good reason to adopt either a literal or non-literal interpretation, say, an ironic interpretation. We couldn't adopt any interpretation; we would be stymied.

Wolterstorff then cites examples of such convictions from the past (notably St. Augustine and John Lockes) and then notes on p. 208 that the fear of bringing convictions to the practice of interpretation is primarily driven by the "wax nose anxiety," the fear that Scripture will simply be molded to whatever our conviction says. Wolterstoff dedicated Ch. 13 to the demonstration that the notion of "inerrantism" and taking presuppositions from the text is not adequate to alleviate this anxiety. On p. 236, he says:

I conclude that there is no way to avoid employing our convictions as to what is true and loving in the process of interpreting for divine discourse -- no way to circumvent doing that which evokes the wax-nose anxiety, the anxiety, namely, that the convictions with which we approach the process of interpretation may lead us to miss discerning what God said and to conclude that God said what God did not say. The anxiety is appropriate, eminently appropriate, and will always be appropriate. Only with awe and apprehension, sometimes even fear and trembling, and only after prayer and fasting, is it appropriate to interpret a text so as to discern what God said and is saying thereby. The risks cannot be evaded.

Thus far, Wolterstorff is doing well. But when he advances suggestions for how to minimize the risk, he runs directly afoul of Barth's criticism. First, Wolterstorff suggests that we ought to stick to authorial-discourse interpretation absent a "good reason" to the contrary, but here he fails to account for Barth's conviction that the appropriation model of divine discourse is simply inadequate for the Word of God, and the critical importance of "witnesses" as the interpretive community for the Word of God. In other words, he has simply substituted his own convictions for others' in absence of an argument in their favor. Second, he suggests that convictions need to be humbly revisable, but he can't possibly mean that, for if it were true, then the convictions in question would not survive the objection he raises in the first place. He seems to be somewhat inconsistently arguing in favor of the "epistemic principle of charity" suggested by Davidson with regard to one's convictions, but if that is the case, I think that the subject is much better covered by then-ELCA member and current Catholic Bruce Marshall in Trinity and Truth, which argues quite convincingly that Christian epistemic convinctions must be grounded in Christ Himself (a natural stance for a Barthian, as indicated by the objections above, and a Catholic as well). Third, he argues that we need to account for epistemically reliable findings of the sciences (social and physical), but one must question how authorial-discourse interpretation somehow escapes the self-criticality that other sciences must face to ensure their reliability, becoming a divinely preferred model of interpretation by default.

Thus, while I think Wolterstorff does well to locate speech-action theory in terms of normative obligation, I think his argument for authorial-discourse interpretation as a "preferred" method of interpretation limps in light of the Barthian objection, which Wolterstorff doesn't appear to understand, and even fails in the face of his own requirement for a normative community to give moral meaning to illocutionary acts. Moreover, had he paid a bit more attention to the role of the Church in St. Augustine's own hermeneutical theory, which he cites on p. 207, I think he would have realized that Augustine's conviction that the child saying "Tolle, lege" was God speaking to him was not all that different from his conviction that the Church provides the public normative context for interpretation by way of its authority. I suspect the fact that he bypassed both Barth's and Augustine's positions regarding the interpretive community so breezily is probably due to Wolterstorff's admitted acceptance of the divine command theory of obligation (pp. 97-103), a voluntarist paradigm that I doubt can be reconciled with traditional Christianity in any sense (even St. Augustine's relatively will-centered theology) or any metaphysical account of the Church as the Body of Christ. So in a sense, we come full circle to the problem that I cited above: the failure of Reformed epistemology to answer natural theology leaves one with little reason to follow the Reformed epistemologists in the direction they wish to go.

On a metaphysical rigor scale of -5 to 5, I give Wolterstorff three-and-a-half Zoobs.