Philosophy and science are often described as being the products of natural human reason—as opposed to “revelation,” which is said to be knowledge gained directly from God by miraculous means. But in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I argued that if we want to truly understand the Hebrew Bible, we are going to have to do away with this dichotomy between reason and revelation, learning to see the world as it appeared to the prophets of Israel, long before this distinction was invented. In the book I promised to return to this subject, seeking a clearer picture of how God’s word to man can be understood as something that is not opposed to human reason. In this essay, I’m going to do just that, suggesting that the prophets in fact understood God’s word as coming into the world through the vehicle of human reason—and that we should think of God as acting in this way as well.
Since the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the tora at Sinai, is almost upon us, I would like to add one disclaimer. The revelation at Sinai is different in character from every other instance of God’s speech in the Bible. This is a subject that requires an essay of its own, and I hope to write something on this soon. For now, I will begin by focusing on the subject of God’s speech when it is addressed to an individual: What is being described when God speaks to Moses or Jeremiah?
Quite a few readers have asked me the following question: What’s so difficult about overcoming the dichotomy between natural human reason and God’s revelation? Isn’t the project of “overcoming” this distinction already central to the thought of many of the most important philosophers of the Middle Ages? Bible scholar Christina Brinks apparently speaks for many when she writes that she herself does not see “any problem whatsoever with thinking that God revealed something to Jeremiah by way of Jeremiah’s human reason, experience and observation.” She then goes on to suggest that this view might not have been so unappealing to many of the most significant Christian philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Alvin Plantinga, who have historically sought to reconcile reason and revelation. A similar suggestion could easily be also be made with regard to many Jewish philosophers as well, beginning with Sa’adia Gaon.
But this suggestion is mistaken. True, there are some early Christian thinkers (Justin Martyr and Origen are candidates) for whom the prospect of dispensing with the distinction between reason and revelation altogether might not have seemed so problematic. Nevertheless, the Western tradition as it has come down to us revolves around this distinction to a rather extraordinary degree. This is not just a peripheral view endorsed by radicals such as Tertullian and Kierkegaard, plus assorted uneducated persons (“Billy Sundays,” in Brinks’ winsome phrase). Aquinas, Calvin and Plantinga are no less clear in distinguishing the products of human reason from those of God’s revelation. They differ from Tertullian in that they do not deny the value of reason, and their aim is to make these sources of knowledge play nicely together. But there is no doubt in their minds that reason and revelation are two entirely different sources of knowledge that can and must be distinguished if we are to get our view of the world right.
As an example, consider Alvin Plantinga’s views on this subject. In Warranted Christian Belief, he proposes an absolute distinction between Scripture, as the product of revelation, and works of human reason, as follows:
Scripture itself is taken to be a wholly authoritative and trustworthy guide to faith and morals; it is authoritative and trustworthy because it is a revelation from God, a matter of God’s speaking to us. Once it is clear, therefore, what the teaching of a given bit of Scripture is, the question of the truth and acceptability of that teaching is settled. In a commentary on Plato, we might decide that what Plato really meant to say was XYZ; we might then go on to consider and evaluate XYZ in various ways, asking whether it is true, or close to the truth, or true in principle, or superseded by things we have learned since Plato wrote…. These questions are out of place in the kind of [Christian] scripture scholarship under consideration.
In this passage, Plantinga draws precisely the distinction between works of revelation and works of reason that I describe in my book. He classifies Scripture as revelation, and contrasts this with philosophical or scientific writings, which are a product of human reason. Because the Bible is revelation, its content is accepted on faith, whereas anything Plato wrote is properly subject to evaluation, questioning, and discussion that is rooted in human insights and arguments drawn from experience. Having made this distinction, Plantinga proceeds to elaborate upon it, suggesting that as revelation, the Bible must also be read and understood in a manner that is utterly different from the way we would read any text produced by human reason. As he writes:
[T]he principal author of the Bible—the entire Bible—is God himself. Of course each of the books of the Bible has a human author as well; still, the principal author is God. This impels us to treat the whole more like a unified communication than a miscellany of ancient books…. [T]he fact that the principal author of the Bible is God himself means that one can’t always determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind…. [W]e can’t just assume that what the Lord intends to teach is identical with what the human author had in mind; the latter may not so much as have thought of what is, in fact, the teaching of the passage in question.
Plantinga thus moves from the identification of Scripture as revelation—that is, as a communication from God—to the view that the entire corpus of biblical works, both Jewish and Christian, are to be viewed as essentially a “unified communication” since they have only one “principal author,” which is God himself. The fact that the different works in the biblical corpus were written over a period of many centuries, often arguing with one another and seeking to advance points of view that are at odds even on central issues, is not something that Plantinga is unaware of. But he deals with this problem by proposing that what the biblical authors—Moses or Jeremiah, say—believed to be God’s word to them is not always “in fact, the teaching of the passage in question.” Indeed, the “meaning of a given passage,” which is “what the Lord intends to teach,” may well be something that Moses or Jeremiah “may not have so much as thought of.” For this reason, we may be seeking in vain for the biblical teaching if we are trying to “determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind.”
I do not know whether Christian theology really needs to be committed to this highly problematic distinction between what Jeremiah intended when presenting God’s word; and what God “in fact” meant to teach us through the vehicle of Jeremiah’s words. But Plantinga clearly believes that in offering this account of what it means for the Bible to be revelation, he is speaking for much of the Christian intellectual tradition, including Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth. Whether this is exactly right or not, we can safely say he speaks for a powerful stream within past and present Christian thought. And this stream definitely regards the Bible as providing knowledge of a radically different kind from anything produced by human reason, not only in terms of its provenance, but also in terms of the way we are supposed to derive it from the texts before us and incorporate it into our understanding of reality.
Now, this view—and similar views that one finds among Jewish writers—works systematically to undermine the possibility of what I have been calling the philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. For on the view that I have proposed, what should be of interest to us when we take up the study of the Bible is precisely “what the human author had in mind” (or, if this is deemed impossible, then what the human final editor had in mind) in creating the text that we now have before us. Indeed, the whole aim of my book was to persuade readers that we should be at least as concerned to reconstruct what Isaiah or Jeremiah “had in mind” as we are to reconstruct what Parmenides or Plato “had in mind.” This, I suggest, is because Isaiah and Jeremiah were towering figures in the history of ideas, whose works deserve our respect and consideration. We should wish to recapture the unique ways in which they understood God, man’s nature, and the moral and political realm. We should wish to properly assess the impact and influence of their ideas, and to seek the relevance of their insights to our own lives and world today. And we should desire this not a whit less than in the case of the early Greek philosophers who came centuries after them, upon whom academic scholarship has lavished such a prodigious intellectual effort.
But this enterprise of learning what Isaiah or Jeremiah had to teach us melts into air the moment one determines to read their writings through the lens of something like the Plantinga-style concept of “revelation.” For such a concept of revelation is specifically designed to allow us to look past the actual content of these human beings’ thoughts, and to turn their individual personalities and works into an instrument given for teaching later generations something that, so far as it is possible for us to tell, in fact never crossed their minds; and that they themselves had no intention of teaching to anyone. Of course, one may propose that we could do both: We could learn to read Isaiah or Jeremiah as individual thinkers whose unique perspective is of interest to us; and then we could set that aside and read them, in addition, as unwitting spokesmen for a view presented more fully by other writers centuries later. But I am skeptical. Historically, the hermeneutic that Plantinga describes seems to have worked consistently, over many centuries, toward the suppression of the individual philosophies of the Israelite prophets.
What will happen when we stop suppressing their individual prophetic personalities, and the ideas for which they stood as unique individuals within the context of the Israelite or Jewish tradition? When we allow them to speak for themselves, and for their God, not only in their own words, but also with the aim of genuinely opening ourselves to God’s speech as it appeared in their minds? In my experience, the impact can be searing, astonishing, devastating. Through it, we expose ourselves to “a consuming fire, to a hammer that shatters rock.” Once the protective filters are removed, and one is faced with the full fury of what a man such as Jeremiah had to teach mankind, and of the life he lived in the service of this teaching, any role that he may be made to play in a later drama five or six centuries hence may come to appear quite tangential.
The eminent Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne proposes the following definition or account of revelation:
Knowledge which [God] communicates directly only to certain individuals, and which they communicate to the rest of the world, when the adequate grounds for believing these items of knowledge available to the first recipients are not available to the rest of the world, but the latter [i.e., the rest of the world] have adequate grounds for believing them, in the traditional phrase, “upon the credit of the proposer, as coming from God in some extraordinary way of communication.” Knowledge of God and his purposes, obtained by this route, is the concern of revealed theology, as opposed to natural theology, which is knowledge of God and his purposes available from the study of publicly available evidence of the natural world.
Among other features of this understanding of revelation, I would emphasize three points as being central:
First, this view supposes that God “communicates” various items of knowledge “directly only to certain individuals.” This is a view that asks us to understand God as speaking to human beings in much the way that one human being speaks to another. This does not mean that the means of communication between God and man is literally speech. But it is analogous to human communication in that there is something that is in God’s mind, as it were, and therefore external to the mind of the individual receiving it; and which is then transmitted into the mind of the prophet “in some extraordinary way.”
Second, this view supposes that those others who later hear this revelation from the prophet or his followers, or who read it in Scripture, have no real means of testing the truth of what they hear. They must accept it on faith due to the credibility or authority of the prophet and those who have transmitted his word to us.
Third, these characteristics of revelation together give rise to a clear distinction between knowledge that has been “revealed” in this sense, which cannot be tested; and knowledge that comes to us by way of “nature,” which is available to everyone, and so can be tested by anyone. This distinction between revelation and what is known by nature yields the distinction between works of revelation and works of human reason such as those encountered in philosophy and science.
Swinburne’s account of revelation reflects a common view of what is taking place when an Israelite prophet tells us he is speaking words that have been taught to him by God. But I believe this view is mistaken as an interpretation of what is meant by God’s speech in Hebrew Scripture. One obvious indication that there is something wrong with this interpretation is the fact that the biblical prophets explicitly reject the second plank of Swinburne’s account, namely, the supposition that the prophet’s words have to be taken on authority or faith because their truth cannot be tested by those that hear it. Indeed, Moses himself is presented as rejecting Swinburne’s position in what is perhaps the most significant passage concerning the nature of prophecy in all of Scripture, the law of the prophet in Deuteronomy:
I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren… and put my words in his mouth…. And if you say in your mind, “How will we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?” Know that if a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and the thing is not, nor does it come, that is a thing that the Lord has not spoken, but the prophet has spoken it out of presumption, so do not fear what is from him.
In this passage, Moses hands down God’s law respecting the recognition of prophets by the broader public. Earlier, Moses has already rejected appeals to signs or miracles as being a legitimate means of authenticating the prophet’s message. Here he tells the people that if they wish to distinguish God’s word from what has been spoken presumptuously, the test is whether the things that are spoken really come to pass: If “the thing is not, nor does it come,” then anyone can know that what has been said in God’s name “is a thing that the Lord has not spoken.” Nor is Moses alone in proposing such an empirical test for determining what is God’s word. Much the same test appears in the name of the prophet Michayehu in the book of Kings, and again in the writings of Jeremiah. Moreover, there are numerous additional passages that suggest that the wisdom in God’s teaching can in principle be recognized by anyone, from any nation; and that the people of Jerusalem would be able to distinguish right teaching from wrong if only they would make a careful comparison using their own senses and judgment. Together, these passages suggest that in Hebrew Scripture—or at the very least, in some of its most prominent texts—God’s word is not at all something that must be accepted on faith due to the credibility or authority of the prophet. On the contrary, the prophet bearing a teaching that is truly God’s word is supposed to be recognizable by anyone, using conventional human experience as the basis for judgment.
If this is right, then a reasonable account of God’s word as it appears in Hebrew Scripture will not be able to include Swinburne’s third plank either, which calls for a sharp distinction between knowledge that has been “revealed,” and the products of philosophy and science that are derived from conventional human experience. As the empiricism of the Mosaic test of the prophet’s message suggests, Israelite prophecy was a forerunner and family relation of what later generations knew as philosophy and science. The Israelite prophets are involved in an enterprise of attempting to recognize and predict the consequences of human actions, doing so in an effort to understand which of the choices available to human beings are for the good, and which are for evil. Unlike diviners in neighboring Mesopotamia and Egypt, they do not seek answers to their questions by examining the entrails of animals, nor from reading the patterns in their drink. They direct their questions to God, at times striving for weeks until an answer comes to them. And although they believe the truth of this answer when it comes, they recognize that if the consequences they have foreseen do not come to pass, then the appropriate conclusion will be that these answers are not from God, but of their own minds.
This brings us to the first plank of Swinburne’s account of revelation, which proposes that God’s word is a “communication” of certain items of knowledge to the mind of the prophet “in some extraordinary way.” This picture of God’s speech assumes a familiar, but nonetheless rather peculiar, picture of the human mind: One in which the mind is understood as if it were a bounded receptacle that can have knowledge “in” it or “outside of it.” By the same token, the mind is also thought to have perceptions, beliefs and memories in it; and if one is reasoning about something or imagining something, then these operations are likewise supposed to be taking place “in the mind.”
However, as has been said many times, the supposition that there is a natural and fixed boundary that divides those things that are in the mind from those that are outside of it is deeply problematic. It seems much more likely that the location of this boundary, and perhaps even the character and existence of such a boundary, is a cultural artifict, and that it varies significantly from one culture to the next, from one individual to the next, and even from one moment to the next. This does not mean we have to endorse every proposal that has been made concerning the differences between our conception of the mind and those of our forebears in antiquity. But we should proceed with caution when arguing for an interpretation of Scripture that leans heavily on a particular conception of the human mind, considering well whether this conception is not being read back into biblical texts whose assumptions are quite different.
This, I believe, is the case here. We are all familiar with the invocation of the Muse, or another god, by Homer and Socrates, Parmenides and Empedocles, as they set out to engage in poetry or philosophy. Why request assistance from the gods in something that is so clearly under the control of the individual human mind as is poetry or philosophy? The reason for this request for assistance appears to be that these individuals and the cultures from which they sprang were keenly aware of the lack of control that individuals ultimately exercise over difficult creative endeavors. We should be able to appreciate their sensibilities on this point: We all feel that the movements of our limbs are under our own control, as is the manner in which we perform routine mental operations such as solving simple problems in arithmetic. And we also know that our control over the creation of a new book or song or institution is nothing like our control over carrying out multiplication problems or driving to work in the morning. The latter can be performed reliably virtually every time. We have no doubt whatsoever of our success—that is, unless an “act of God” such as a flat tire or a pressing phone call interrupts our work. The former, on the other hand, is frightening, an adventure, a journey. The truth is that its successful completion depends on things that are experienced as being entirely beyond our control. How many times in the composition of a book will I encounter a knotty problem that threatens to wreck the entire enterprise? How man times will I have to attack such a problem with all my energies, turning it over and over, wrestling it and being thrown by it; until finally I feel a tremor in my frame, I feel the earth move, I see the skies open, and I have the answer like a flash, like a thunderclap, from I know not where?
The answer, of course, is that no great work will come into being without our having such experiences time and again. And so its existence depends on factors that are not experienced as being in our control at all. The Greeks appealed to their gods because they felt that if they were to achieve such things, it would be thanks to assistance external to their own minds. The same is true in Hebrew Scripture, where the accomplishment of great things in terms of wisdom, politics, and art is potrayed as the result of “a wind from God” that guides the work to its extraordinary and successful conclusion.
Compare this with our present perspective on this matter. Few of us think of insight and inspiration as coming from beyond ourselves. When I write a book or a song, I suppose that that the performance is entirely my own, not less than if I had copied over last week’s grocery list. Insight and inspiration are now considered to be a part of our conventional intellectual endowment—just things that happen “in the mind” like the mental operations that permit us to perform multiplication problems or to drive the car to work in the morning. In other words, we have naturalized insight and inspiration.
My inclination is to think that this placement of insight and inspiration entirely within the boundaries of the self or mind is a mistake. We can grant that there is a natural human capacity for insight or inspiration. But we should also suppose that this capacity is the psychological basis for revelation. Believing that we possess such a capacity, we may decide to embark on one great effort or another, seeking understanding, illumination, the revealing of the true nature of things. Still, it is only God’s gifts that permit its successful completion.
This does not mean that every genuine experience of human insight must be considered the revelation of God’s word. On the contrary, it is possible for the experience of revelation to be perfectly genuine, and yet for the contents of this revelation to be mistaken. Recognition of this fact will allow us to set aside our incredulity when we examine the works of a philosopher such as Parmenides, who presents his philosophy as having been revealed to him by a goddess. The revelatory quality of his thought is not a mere convention, nor is it a hallucination or a lie. He does not present his thought as revelation because this was “the thing to do if one wanted [one’s] ideas to be taken seriously.” Rather, we should be prepared to consider Parmenedes’ account as the record of a genuine human experience of revelation, and we can do so without automatically having to accept that what he experienced the goddess to be teaching him was in fact the truth.
So to be clear: We can distinguish, as Scripture does, between true and false revelation, only the first of which is properly described as God’s word. In the Bible, when the things spoken by the prophets cannot be relied upon, they are called nevuot sheker, “unreliable prophecy.” Thus Jeremiah has God saying: “The prophets prophesy unreliable things in my name…. An unreliable vision, and divination, and worthlessness, and the deception of their own minds are these that they prophesy to you.” Note that the false prophets of whom Jeremiah speaks here are not accused of intentionally lying. Rather, they speak the “deception of their own minds.” As Ezekiel puts it, they have “set up idols in their minds,” deceiving themselves so they cannot see what is before them. This is, in my view, the best way of understanding the revelation of Parmenides, which is a misleading and unreliable revelation, and so should properly be attributed to a false god, or to the deception of his own mind, these two things being in my view just different ways of referring to the same thing.
I believe the revelation of Parmenides was a false revelation. And yet I would not say that it is entirely false. Perhaps a better way of thinking about this would be to say as follows: All human insight or revelation, even if we are right to judge it as false, nonetheless touches on some aspect of the truth. This is a view that is proposed in the Talmud, and I have discussed it elsewhere, so I will only mention it here. Because the human mind is unable to encompass all aspects of what it surveys, the revelation or insight of a human being is always partial. This was true of Moses, the greatest of the prophets, as the tora tells us, and it is so with respect to all others as well. This means that revelation is always from a given perspective. However, some of these perspectives are truer than others. They are more true because they encompass a broader view of the reality they survey, or because they grasp what they survey from a better point of vantage, and so they are more to be relied upon. The revelations to Moses and to the prophets of Israel are considered, in Jewish tradition, to be greater than all others. Having studied the philosophy of the nations my whole life, and having come to greatly admire some gentile philosophers, I nevertheless always find myself returning to this same conclusion.
With this in mind, let’s consider again Swinburne’s account of revelation, which proposes that God’s word is a “communication” of items of knowledge that are in God’s mind to mind of the prophet “in some extraordinary way.” This description seems to me to miss the mark in a few ways. First, the supposition that God’s word is received “in some extraordinary way” looks to me to be misleading. In The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I offer examples of biblical texts from which it is clear that Isaiah and Jeremiah equate the attainment of wisdom with the speech of God to man.
Moreover, in Scripture we find that every event that takes place in the world is described as being the result of God’s speech; revelation refers only to those rare moments in which this constant speech of God penetrates the darkness of the human mind. Such true human insight is indeed precious and rare, and it deserves to be recognized for the miracle that it is. But we go too far if we mean by this that there are certain routes to knowledge that are natural, while others, which are to be sharply distinguished from them, are “extraordinary” routes to knowledge that deserve to be considered an entirely distinctive phenomenon and described as “super-natural.” There is no evidence that the prophets and scholars who composed the Bible were aware of a distinction between what is “natural” and what is “supernatural,” and indeed, such a distinction is entirely superfluous for a complete account of true revelation. The actions of the human mind, when these, on rare occasion, rise to the heights of true insight, are sufficient as a vehicle for God to present his word to the world. In any case it is God, and not the prophet, who chooses when God will speak.
In the same way, we should avoid placing too much weight on the metaphor of God’s “communication” to man. Although this metaphor is certainly authentic to the Hebrew Bible, it is also insufficient as a general view of revelation as presented in Scripture, since many texts suggest that man’s relationship with God’s word is quite different from this. In Exodus, for example, God tells Moses that he is going to “teach you what to say” in speaking with Pharaoh; and in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that whenever God sends them a prophet, “I will put my words in his mouth.” Similarly, he tells Isaiah and Jeremiah “I have put my words in your mouth.” This metaphor of God placing his words in the mouth of the prophet is not one of communicating knowledge that, as the result of a certain communication, moves from the mind of God to that of the prophet. A more straightforward understanding of these texts is that God has given his prophets the ability to know what to say themselves. Again, God’s word appears as coming into the world through the abilities and intellectual endowment of the individual prophet.
This is not a communication at all, but rather God speaking his word through the mind of the prophet—so that the intentions that are “in the mind” of the prophet are themselves God’s word. Those who are concerned to determine the message that God has in fact spoken, should therefore seek it in the intended teaching of the prophet, and not elsewhere.