“Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy” by Richard Swinburne is one of those rare books which forces one to think about and analyze every argument it contains, whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions. It addresses claims of revelation. Can it be true that a religion’s books or creeds contain truth?
The book starts off with a section on “Meaning” which analyzes terminology, presupposition, analogy and metaphor, and genre in turn. This section is fantastic reading for the philosopher of religion as it takes some higher notions found in philosophy of language and applies them to religious studies. The chapter on presupposition was the first part I found particularly striking. It is here that Swinburne first begins to lay the groundwork for his overarching argument about the Christian Revelation and Scripture. He argues that presuppositions are not contained in the message conveyed in spoken or written word. He writes, “In order to separate statement from presupposition, we must ask, whatever the speaker’s actual beliefs, are there any common beliefs of the clture presupposed in the utterance which can be siphoned off, leaving what the culture would naturally suppose to be its message intact?” (30). This “siphoning” of meaning is necessary because “[a]lthough speakers may use declarative sentences for many different purposes… the paradigm job of such sentences is to convey information, to ad to the hearer’s stock of beliefs” (29). Swinburne offers the following example to demonstrate his argument. Suppose a Roman historian wrote that “The divine Augustus traveled to Brindisi.” This sentence is not intended to convey the information that Augustus is divine. That Augustus is divine is presupposed by the author of the sentence. Rather, the sentence is intended to tell the reader that Augustus traveled to Brindisi (29). Swinburne also outlines and describes various genres and how they can relate to a religious revelation.
The next part of the book argues for four possible tests to determine whether a divine revelation has occurred. These tests are 1) whether the content is the “kind of thing which God would have chosen to reveal to humans” 2) “whether the method of expression is one to be expected of God, 3) whether “the church has developed the original revelation in a way which plausibly brings out what was involved in it …”, and 4) “whether the interpretations provide the sort of teaching which God would have chosen to give to humans” (107-108). He argues convincingly for each of these tests applying to the Christian Revelation.
The third part of “Revelation” examines the Christian Revelation specifically. Swinburne argues that Jesus and His message were the “original revelation” provided to believers (145ff). It is in his discussion of the Church and the Bible, however, wherein he forwards his most controversial claims.
The Church, argues Swinburne, is responsible for more than simply establishing the canon of Scripture. He argues that the Church has a central place alongside Scripture in the Christian Revelation, for without the church, interpretation could not happen. The creedal statements central to Christian faith may not have been derived had it not been for the Church (see page 189ff). Further, the Church acts as a method for assessing “rival interpretations” of various Scriptural truths (200). It is undeniable that Swinburne advocates the Church as a high authority–perhaps even on a higher level than Scripture, for he argues that many conflicting interpretations of Scripture can receive almost equal footing on Scripture alone, so the Church is required to determine which of these should be approved (again see p. 200 for an example of this). Swinburne’s view of the Church is one of the most important things in this book, in my opinion, for the Christian to read and digest, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees. For one’s view of the authority of a church body is vastly important with regards to how one views other doctrines. As Swinburne writes, “Which doctrines are to count as central Christian doctrines… depend[s] very much on which ecclesial bodies we judge to be part of the Church. The wider our Church, the fewer such doctrines there will be” (214). This is undoubtedly true, for if one takes only the Roman Catholic Church, for example, as a valid ecclesial body, then one’s net of central Christian doctrines can include everything sanctioned by the Roman Catholics. But let us say that one takes both the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic church to be authoritative, or perhaps they take the Orthodox, Roman, and Reformed churches as authoritative. Well then it seems that only those doctrines which all these bodies agree on can be regarded as central, or essential to, true faith. For if one church contains a doctrine which the others do not, it cannot be regarded as absolutely essential if the other churches are still legitimate. If it were essential and the other bodies disagreed, then those other bodies would not be legitimate, by the criterion of not agreeing on an essential Christian doctrine.
This then provides a valuable springboard for thought about central Christian teaching and what doctrines and ecclesial bodies one regards as valid or central. Swinburne’s discussion on this topic cannot be downplayed. He goes into various criteria which can be used to determine whether a Church body is legitimate. These arguments are incredibly in-depth and interesting. His arguments force the reader to consider his ideas.
The Bible is the final major topic Swinburne addresses in “Revelation.” Here we see all the groundwork laid in Part 1 come into play. What do genre, presuppositions, etc. tell us about the meaning and interpretation of Scripture? This section is another which the Christian would do well to ponder. Swinburne argues that we must take Scripture as being entirely true, but he qualifies this claim by arguing we must also realize what Scripture is–a collection of books written with divine approval but by human hands. Thus, he argues, we should take great care to realize the difference between presupposition and message, history and allegory, etc. While I do not agree with Swinburne on every point, I find his insights particularly interesting. He notes that “[t]he falsity of the presuppositions does not, therefore… affect the truth-value of a sentence which uses them” (244). This kind of argument can be of direct worth to the apologist, for example. He utilizes Genesis 8:2(“The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained” ESV) as an example: “The sky has no windows out of which the rain comes, but the quoted sentence is just the author’s way of saying, within the presuppositions of his culture, that the rain ceased” (244-245). This is a different approach apologetically than the one I would tend to favor, which would argue that the word “window” is used here in a metaphorical or analogous way.
Swinburne’s high view of the church is necessary alongside his view of Scripture. Swinburne writes that “The slogan of Protestant confessions , ‘the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself’, is quite hopeless” (255). For it is the Church which determines acceptable interpretations of Scripture. He writes that “Scripture belongs to the Church” (256). Reading and interpreting Scripture requires a guide. This guide “…is the Church’s theological definitions and other central teaching, its tradition of the proper way to interpret the Bible, and its tradition of how particular passages should be interpreted” (256).
Swinburne’s final chapter seeks to discuss and interpret moral teaching found in Scripture.
Swinburne’s central argument is strong. God has given us a Revelation and has given us the tools to discover what it means. This Revelation is found in Scripture and historically in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It is the nuances of Swinburne’s argument which make the book so wonderfully useful. I found myself at times nodding, agreeing with everything Swinburne wrote. At other times I shook my head, jotting rebuttals alongside his text. But the vast majority of the book found me engaged on a new level with topics I thought I had addressed and laid to rest. While I disagree with details of Swinburne’s argument (i.e. he accepts the JEDP view of Scripture, denies the historicity of the person of Jonah, etc.), I found his core arguments compelling. We do need to remember the genre(s) we read as we read Scripture. We need to realize that the ultimate author of Scripture is God, but that Scripture was written within a set of presuppositions distinct from our own.
Swinburne’s analysis of the authority of the church was equally compelling. While he holds a higher view of church authority than I do, his view intertwines the Church with Scripture in compelling ways which absolutely must be considered.
It has been over a month since I finished this work by Swinburne, yet I have found myself consistently turning back to it, and even while writing this review, I found myself contemplating his arguments and drawing truths from him while still disagreeing with him on other areas. I reiterate that I find this work absolutely essential reading for the Christian philosopher. It will challenge and reward the reader in ways that may be entirely unexpected.
Swinburne, Richard. Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. 2nd Edition. Oxford. 2007.
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