Objection 1: A common objection to viewing Scripture as propositional revelation is that it ends up treating the Bible as a sort of theological concordance, irrespective of the original context of the passage.
Now I agree with that, but that’s not what we’re talking about. Propositional revelation does not necessarily involve treating the Bible as a theological concordance.
Objection 2: The propriety of associating the ineffable God with human linguistic forms.
Some scholars balk at the idea that God could employ what they consider to be the culture-bound norms of human language. To these kinds of people the very thought of propositional truth is archaic nonsense; all propositions are up for grabs as our knowledge moves forward. So relativism and subjectivism comes in (this can be seen in George Lindbeck’s work The Nature of Doctrine, especially pages 119 and 120). People like this believe that God’s incomprehensibility makes him completely unknowable objectively, and that He is only subjectively knowable. He reveals himself to the subject through some kind of existential declaration or disclosure.
Of course, that is not what we should mean when we speak about the incomprehensibility of God. That doctrine is that God is utterly unknowable unless and to the degree to which He reveals himself to us; and He has revealed himself to us in the Holy Scripture. But the Holy Scripture can only be a proper and sufficient revelation of God if it has the capability of being propositional. These scholars who speak about the “ineffable and infinite God” employing indefinite symbols of language to communicate to us, are not taking a theistic-biblical view of language. Therefore, they cannot be taking a biblical view of God either.
The book Evangelicalism Divided by Ian H. Murray, includes a chapter (ch. 7) called “Intellectual Respectability and Scripture.” Murray opens the chapter by speaking about the transference of leadership from preachers and pastors to intellectuals and academia and he locates this first in the setting up of Fuller Theological Seminary. [You can read about that in George Marsden’s very interesting book Reforming Fundamentalism]
Then (on page 196), Murray cites Alister McGrath’s book A Passion for Truth, where McGrath complains about Charles Hodge. He claims that Hodge thought that “today’s reader of Scripture can be assured of encountering the very words, thoughts, and intentions of God himself.” Yet, says McGrath, this metaphysical idea has been borrowed, along with others of equally questionable theological parentage, from the Enlightenment. So “Hodge’s analysis of the authority of Scripture is ultimately grounded in an unacknowledged and implicit theory of the nature of language, deriving from and reflecting the Enlightenment agenda.”
This is a repeated complaint against those who hold to propositionalism. We are always told that this is an Enlightenment project, this is rationalism, this is the old inductivism, tied with Cartesianism or Cartesian Foundationalism.
Iain Murray’s response to what McGrath wrote about Charles Hodge is worth quoting:
If this criticism is just, then it is not only verbal inspiration which must fall, evangelicalism is wrong all along the line, for McGrath proceeds to argue that we must not identify truth with ‘the propositional correctness of Christian doctrine’.
Again, Frequently connected with this supposedly rationalistic approach adopted by former-evangelicals, McGrath thinks it is,
a spiritual embargo on any kind of emotional involvement with Scripture. This has had a devastating impact on evangelical spirituality and placed it at a serious disadvantage in relation to the spirituality of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Enlightenment forced evangelicalism into adopting approaches to spirituality which have resulted in rather cool, detached, and rational approaches to Scripture – Murray citing A Passion for Truth, 197
Murray then comments:
This thesis rests on a fallacious definition. The use of the mind is not rationalism; it all depends on whether that use is right or wrong. Rationalism is a use of the mind which trusts in its own ability to arrive at truth about God without his aid and apart from revelation; it treats the mind as a source of knowledge rather than as a channel. The Enlightenment was a classic demonstration of innate human pride in the exultation of the human intellect; to equate that spirit with the teaching of the Princeton men who believed that it is the grace of God alone which sets men free to understand, is to stand truth on its head.
Yes, the Princeton men, Hodge and Warfield, did borrow from the Enlightenment as far as their view of the scientific method is concerned. But at the same time what Murray says about us simply using our minds is true. Just using our minds is not rationalism, it is actually acting in the way that God wants us to act providing that we’re using our minds under the authority of God’s revelation. That’s the important caveat.
For conservative Christians doctrine must go before our experience. We must know what God says and conform our feelings to His words, not the other way around. To put it another way, the objective external witness of revelation is prior to its internal reception. Also, the external principle of knowledge (the principium cognoscendi externum) in the Holy Scriptures, comes before the internal principle of knowledge associated with the Holy Spirit’s illumination of His word to the individual heart and mind.
There are many who do not see this. Silva puts the objection well (though he doesn’t share it):
It is sometimes argued that what really matters in our relationship with God is the personal element rather than the propositional and that consequently when evangelicals insist that revelation conveys information, and infallible information no less, they are not only misconstruing the nature of revelation, they are also committing bibliolatry by putting the Bible where God belongs. – Moises Silva, God, Language, and Scripture, included in, Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, edited by Moises Silva and V. Philips Long, 215
The only way that opponents of this teaching can avoid the more conservative conclusion is to separate God’s revelation from the words and propositions in Scripture.
So, for the more liberal scholars the best that the Bible can be said to be is a fallible account of the divine disclosure vouchsafed to a few chosen individuals whose lives are only known to us by the writings of mostly anonymous authors. As Karl Barth would say, “the Bible is a sign of a sign and should be never mistaken for the actual revelation of God to men”.
This sort of argument is heard more frequently today within the broader evangelical community. For example,
The Law and the Gospel cannot be equated with objective propositions either in the creeds of the church or in Holy Scripture. They indicate the divinely-given meaning of these propositions; a meaning that is never at the disposal of natural reason. To be sure, the divine promise and the divine command come to us through objective statements and words, but they always connote much more than a surface understanding of the text in question. These objective statements are not themselves revelation, but the vehicle and outcome of revelation. – Donald G. Bloesch, Holy Scripture, 52
What Bloesch is saying is that although the words and propositions we read in the Bible are objective, God’s revelation transcends what is written on the page. He also declares: “The word of God is not to be reduced to objective rational statements – it is God in action, God speaking, and humans hearing.” (Ibid, 48)
That sounds very good, but of course if there is no propositional content in God’s speaking then what we’re hearing is not really God’s truth, and even if it were, we would have no touchstone to test that truth by.
Bloesch’s distinction between the words of the Bible and the words of God, although not easy to grasp, is perhaps captured best when he states:
I heartily agree with Carl Henry that God reveals himself not only in acts, but in words. But does God reveal words and statements, and if so are they identical with the biblical words? Is there a qualitative difference between the speech of God and the writings of humans? – Ibid, 67
On page 68 Bloesch recommends that evangelicals look upon the Bible as, “the document of the revelation of God’s word.” Rather convoluted isn’t it?
We need to address these concerns, but we also need to note what appears to be a driving impulse in the author who produced them. Bloesch believes that evangelicals are held in what he calls the ‘epistemic bondage’ of the Enlightenment, as well as the cultural bondage of what he dubs patriarchalism and capitalism. He regrets that there are still people who will not allow any divergence between what Scripture and science say about the world and advises evangelicals to, “recognize that not everything reported in the Bible may be in exact correspondence with historical and scientific fact as we know it today.” (Ibid, 37).
And right there I think we begin to see the real issue!