“Revelation and Inspiration” by Stephen T. Davis
Dr. Davis is Emeritus Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy in the Religious Studies department at Claremont McKenna College. His expertise is in Analytic Theology, Christian Thought, Metaphysics, and Philosophy of Religion.
In this article, Dr. Davis examines what Christians mean, and what they can mean, by the concepts of revelation and inspiration. I really appreciate how he starts with a clear laying out of his assumptions, those he says he does not intend to defend: “(1) God exists; (2) there is divine revelation; and (3) the Bible plays a crucial role in revelation” (30). Acknowledging undefended assumptions is SO helpful to a “critical and charitable” reader, because now I know where he is starting from and can meet him there. Dear rest of OHPT writers: please be more like Dr. Davis.
Here is my attempt to reconstruct his argument:
1. God is active in revealing Herself to the world. (Assumption of theological position)
2. In order for humans to receive inspiration from God, they have to be similar to Her in some way. (Premise)
3. God and humans are both persons. (Undefended Premise 1/Definition)
4. Therefore, humans are able to receive revelation from God.
5. In order to trust in the truth of a claim, we need to trust (in) the speaker. (Premise)
6. The Bible is the claims of God. (Definition)
7. Therefore, in order to trust in the truth of biblical claims, we need to trust (in) God.
8. The Bible was written and canonized by human beings. (Premise)
9. Human beings are imperfect. (Premise)
10. The truth of a claim is only as trustworthy as the speaker. (Premise)
11. Therefore, if humans alone wrote the Bible, we cannot believe the Bible to be perfectly true.
12. In order to believe the Bible is perfectly true, its creation must be superintended by a perfectly trustworthy Being. (Premise)
13. A perfectly trustworthy Being exists, in the person of God. (Assumption and Slightly undefended Premise/Definition)
14. In order for humans to be superintended by God, they must be able to receive revelation and inspiration. (Premise)
15. Humans are able to receive revelation and inspiration from God. (4) (Est. Premise)
16. Therefore, it is possible that God inspired and revealed the Bible such that it is perfectly true.
17. Based on (12) and (16), in order to believe in the perfect truth of the Bible, one must believe that God superintended the writing and canonizing of the Bible.
The way I’ve laid out the conclusion is probably a little less strong than what Davis would want. I think he would want to say that we can believe that the Bible is true, not just that the belief that the Bible is true (whether reasonable or not) requires believing God superintended the writing and canonizing of the Bible. However, I don’t think he has proven that, or argued well for that strong of a conclusion. There are still too many assumptions and “undefended premises/definitions” that bear a lot of the logical weight of the arguments, and that’s with me trying to reconstruct the best argument I can. However, I think the one I recreated above is perfectly fine, as long as we recognize and accept that what Davis has done is not prove the truth of anything, but argued for a coherent system of belief concerning the truth of the Bible. If one is already inclined to believe the Bible is perfectly true, that requires a belief in God’s supervening/superintending of the process in order to make the inclined belief reasonable. (It requires internal justification of a belief relying on another belief! LOOK HOW I LEARN AND INTEGRATE. Though I think even that doesn’t quite apply because internal justification is about even more basic beliefs…. oh well. It was a valiant attempt at integration and application.)
In other words, this is a coherent belief system if one is able/willing to accede to all the assumptions, definitions, and undefended premises.
There is another big argument in the article, and it is how Davis is defending the contradictory claims within the Bible. Specifically, the violence of the Old Testament God and the pacifism of the New Testament God. I tried to reconstruct Davis’ argument here:
1. Human beings can receive revelation. (Assumption and Premise)
2. Humans beings are imperfect and cannot do anything perfectly. (Premise)
3. Therefore, humans beings can only receive revelation imperfectly.
4. God knows human beings and what they will respond to. (Assumption and Premise)
5. God tailors Her revelations to the needs and responsiveness of imperfect human beings. (Assumption and Premise)
6. God wants to preserve free will. (Assumption and Premise)
7. In order to preserve free will, humans need to be able to freely choose. (Premise)
8. Free choice means the right choice cannot be overwhelmingly compelling or persuasive. (Definition and Premise)
9. If humans had all information, the right choice would be too obvious and compelling. (Premise)
10. Based on (8), if (9) were true, then humans would not be free. (Conclusion and Premise)
11. Therefore, God intentionally withholds some truth in order to preserve the free will of human beings.
12. The Bible is perfectly true. (Assumption and Premise)
13. The Bible contains ethically and theologically conflicting claims. (Premise)
14. This apparent contradiction is a result of God revealing partially and does not negate the truth of any of the revelations.
A couple notes: first, I’m not terribly happy with how I’ve reconstructed the argument. I think there are several premises embedded within my premises that need to be fleshed out. But also, there are a LOT of assumptions about the nature of God in this argument, specifically assumptions about God’s mind: Her desires (6) and Her intentions (11). I also think the idea that God withholds truth to be an ethically damning claim, if eternal damnation is on the line. I am smack dab in the middle of reading David Bentley Hart’s argument for universalism, and am enjoying it in part because it is the position I absolutely endorse if one wants to believe in the Christian afterlife. I don’t say this lightly, but to believe in eternal hell is a truly horrific, irrational, morally corrupt stance.
But anyway, the thing that is most intriguing, philosophically, about this argument, is its reliance on the claim that freedom means the ability to do otherwise. It ascribes to the Principle of Alternate Possibilities stance. Frankfurt and his counterexamples show why this is not a cut-and-dried given. But I don’t have time to go into that here, only to note that again, the philosophy part of the philosophical theology is wanting if this position, a clearly philosophical position, is not explicitly defended.
Overall, I’m not sure if I’m being too critical with this paper. I kind of ripped it apart, and I am really thinking through whether or not my criticisms were all fair. I think they were, but I’m open to other thoughts. I’m a bit of a broken record, but there were still so many unacknowledged assumptions. I realize the focus is on theology, but I wish a little more attention had been paid to making it good philosophy, as well, considering the purported field is philosophical theology. I do think Davis’s main point, that to believe in the truth of the Bible requires a believe in God superintending the process of Bible creation (from writing to selection), is true, but maybe not on the basis of his argument. Does it matter that the nature of the necessary inspiration is still so murky? (See notes below.) I’m not sure. Yes, it matters in a philosophical sense. No, it doesn’t matter in a theological sense? An answer to the question has already been accepted (“God superintended the process, which included inspiration of some kind”) so the mechanics seem to be irrelevant or superfluous. This seems to be problematic, but I need to think through it some more.
On a final note (before leaving dedicated readers to my notes below), this article really is helping me see some of the big differences between philosophy and theology, and is making me question the viability of there even being a “philosophical” theology. But I’ll collect those thoughts and save them for a final post on the book as a whole.
Actions are sometimes more impressive, powerful, gripping, and graphic than words. Just saying that you love your spouse or child is typically less convincing than showing it. Yet the problem with revelatory actions is that they seem more readily susceptible to being misinterpreted, changed in the retelling of them, and (unless they are written down) forgotten over time. Perhaps words are often less powerful than deeds; but revelatory words are valuable because they are not quite so easily misinterpreted, are easier to preserve and pass on, and once preserved are not quite so easily forgotten.
General notes on the article, for those looking for a looooooong read:
Davis begins by contrasting the Deism belief in God, recently come back into vogue, with the Christian belief in God: Deists believe God created the world and then stopped intervening, Christians believe God still intervenes today. The kind of “revelation” Deists believe in is the perception of “God” observed in the patterns and developments of history, culture, reason, and science. Christian theism claims that God is still actively involved in the world, directly revealing Herself to people here through the Bible, the proclamations of the apostolic church, and to individuals.
Davis makes an odd claim that Acts 16:30, the Phillipian jailer’s query, is a question that does not need to be a question from religion, but from an inherent, inborn religious curiosity, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” “Saved” has such strong Christian connotations — I don’t see someone immersed in a secular world with only secular concerns asking about being “saved”. Questions about how to live a good life, yes. How to avoid trouble, sure. But “saved” implies much more specific theology than one would even get from a general religious or spiritual feeling. It’s the kind of question that could only come out of a culture already influenced by religion and already embedded with general “religious thinking.” I think Davis wants to claim this is an example of God revealing Herself to humans as an inborn, innate religious sense, but I’m not sure we need that.
This point is important because Davis makes a lot of claims as to how other religious answers and practices follow from this question if God had not revealed Herself: legalism, ritualism, relativism, or nihilism. He (obviously) believes these are all false ideas (though he gives no defense of this other than his defense of theism, which is not mutually exclusive), and says without God the “world sets the intellectual and religious agenda” (32). I agree with him completely. I just find it rather amusing that such could actually be the case even with or without the existence of God — the Christian answers he defends to this question could very well be the answer the “world” has provided to existential questions! WHAT IF THE CHURCH IS DANGEROUS “WORLD.” I truly am not trying to be snarky, it’s just clear the “church” is as fallible, greedy, cruel, and lost as the rest of the secular world. BUT Davis was clear about his assumptions at the beginning (at least some of them….), so I will meet him there. Yes. Without God revealing Herself to us, the world sets the intellectual and religious agenda.
Then Davis says without God directly revealing Herself, as opposed to through nature/history/culture/etc., there would be no answer to the Phillipian jailer. (ALSO, this highlights that Davis is neglecting to list one of his HUGE assumptions — he is assuming the existence of the Christian God. We can infer this, of course, but I’m feeling like being a stickler about making assumptions clear.)
Section II. This is where I feel it starts to go off the rails a bit. Davis asks and answers: “What is the purpose of divine revelation? It is to achieve God’s aims in creation. Pre-eminently, God desires that human beings freely love, worship, and obey God, and […] ‘enjoy [her] forever” (32). I would love for Davis to talk more about why he thinks this is the purpose of divine revelation. Is this what God has revealed, a sort of meta-revelation? (I think I remember Bible verses to this effect, but don’t quote me on that.) He quotes the Westminster Shorter Catechism, so he’s definitely drawing on the authority of the apostolic body (a la Swinburne) — another assumption that is understandable, but needs to be made clear.
He goes into more detail, saying revelation is the way God crosses three gaps between Herself and humans: the ontological gap, the epistemological gap, and the moral gap. These gaps, between human imperfection and God’s perfection (AGAIN SO MANY ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THIS GOD BEFORE DEFENDING THE TRUTH OF THE BIBLE), mean that humans know little about God without Her crossing that gap. Crossing that gap enables humans to have a relationship with God, which is the ultimate purpose of revelation.
Ugh, THEN Davis says that in order for humans to receive revelation from God, we need to be similar to Her in some way, BUT that that similarity is that God and humans are both “persons” (33). So God is a person?! Considering the varied ways even the church has characterized or defined the Christian God, this is a big claim that is convenient for his argument, but doesn’t stand on its own, especially because Davis hasn’t made it clear this is one of his assumptions.
Then Davis says that “God has made us to be receivers of revelation” (33). Again, why does he make this claim? What is his defense of this? It requires not just a belief in the existence of God, but a belief in or knowledge of a particular kind of God, and Davis hasn’t given enough defense of these requirements to be able to make such a claim. Davis also assumes he knows God’s mind (aka, God’s intent in creating). If Davis were to defend this claim with biblical passages, then it would be more acceptable as an argument because at least he has already let us know that he is assuming the revelatory truth of the Bible. But we don’t get that, so I can’t accept this claim of his on the basis of the existing argument he’s building.
Good grief, I need to be briefer, since we have 7 sections to go! Davis says “believing the truth of a proposition is inextricably tied to trusting a person in those cases where the person trusted takes responsibility for the proposition, e.g. by saying or writing it” (35). Unless I’m reading this incorrectly, I just don’t think this needs to be the case. Someone I do not trust intellectually can say something that I can believe to be right based on other things I know and how that statement accords with other things I believe to be true. The truth value of a statement doesn’t rely on the trustworthiness of the person stating it (obviously), so I don’t think my belief in the truth of a statement needs to be tied inextricably to my trust in the person.
However, if Davis is arguing that believing the truth of a proposition is inextricably tied to trusting a person in those cases where the person is the justification for the truth, aka, we could not verify the truth any other way but to trust the word of the person saying it, then yes. I agree with that. We do this all the time, and it’s an important part of knowing the world (at least, initial knowing of the world). Davis goes on to argue in Section IV that God mentored and guided the collection and interpretation of Scripture, so I will (a bit charitably) grant him this interpretation of his claim, because he needs this point to make that case. (Though, in the case of the Bible, we would need to believe not just in the trustworthiness of God, but also believe that She is acting to advance truthful propositions in the Word. It’s the belief that God was acting to advance truth, by interceding in the process of writing and compiling the biblical texts, that makes the Bible believably true, not just the belief in the trustworthiness of God. Am I making sense?!)
Strap in, folks. This one raised my hackles. Davis addresses the concern that in the Old Testament God reveals things that She seems to contradict in later revelations in the New Testament. OT revelations that “seem crude and even immoral when compared with later ones” (39). His answer to this is that “All revelation must meet us where we are. […] all revelation is partial” (39). While on one hand I appreciate the nod to audience-focused communication, it sure seems like Davis is arguing that God would essentially be sinning, or instructing the Israelites to sin, simply because the Israelites were themselves too “crude and even immoral” to receive the “real” revelation. I mean, this could be true if the revelations bore any resemblance to one another (one being a development of the earlier one, for instance), but in cases where the ethical or moral claim directly contradicts the previous one? Yikes. I think this leaves us only able to assume either that God changes (and Her moral law changes) or that one of the two revelations was wrong and wrongly attributed to God’s direction. Davis is unwilling to accept either of those, so this line of argument doesn’t hold water.
This is a fascinating claim: “If God (as I believe) wants us to be free rationally to say yes or no to God, then God’s revelatory acts cannot be so convincing that no sensible person could reject them” (40, emphasis mine). OMG. Davis is saying that God withholds truth from humans specifically to give them intellectual space to reject him with sense, with reason. How is this a picture of a loving and fair God?! And how does this make eternal damnation (which, to be fair, I don’t know Davis endorses, but certainly most Christians do) at ALL fair?! My blood pressure just skyrocketed. So freedom, for Christians, is the withholding of truth so someone can sensibly choose, without knowing she is choosing (MORE TRUTH WITHHOLDING) eternal damnation. Ok, Dr. Davis, please tell me how that squares with a God, the Christian God, who is Love. (RAGE STROKE)
Taking a breath…
In this section he talks about the different kinds of inspiration and how they do or do not help us read the Bible that has factual and theological inconsistencies. This was more exposition than argument, but it was interesting. He does claim the Bible was “inspired” by God, he just also admits that the nature of that inspiration (both in type and in who received it) is complex and no answer has been widely accepted so far.
Sections VII and VIII deal with two theories on inspiration: Kern Robert Trembath who argues that the Bible is the means for inspiration rather than being empirically inspired, and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s view of “divine appropriated discourse” where writers of books of the Bible were basically like assistants writing a letter that the boss then signs as her own. The Bible has God’s stamp of approval after the fact, basically. Davis and Wolterstorff both acknowledge that W’s theory still needs a clear account of inspiration (for the words to be worthy of being God-approved), so while this is an interesting theory, it’s not complete as an answer to the question of how the Bible got to be the bearer of all truth.
I do like Davis’s definition of biblical inspiration: “that influence of the Holy Spirit on the writing of the Bible that ensures that the words of its various texts are appropriate both for the role that they play in Scripture and for the overall salvific purpose of Scripture itself” (48). Scripture is both revealed and revelatory. He hasn’t defined the nature of that inspiration (see previous sections), but I do like this definition. He goes on to say that to believe the Bible is true requires a belief that God “superintended” the whole process of the creation of the book. I agree — I think believing in the truth of the Bible does rest on that belief of God’s superintendence, of holy intervention. This doesn’t seem to be a climax to the article (unless I’m missing how all the pieces have come together), but it’s what Davis is ultimately arguing and I agree he makes his point (with all his initial claims assumed).
Section X recognizes the importance of authority and gives a shout-out to Swinburne noting the importance of acknowledging, believing, and acceding to the authority of the apostolic church. Look how well these philosophical theologians play together. (I’m being silly, but I actually do love seeing that kind of intellectual intertwining.)