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Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks
By Nicholas Wolterstorff
Cambridge University Press, 326 pages, $18.95

One of the most significant features of our humanity is our addressability . Indeed, the fact that human beings can be addressed and, especially, that we can be aware of being addressed is integral to our becoming full-fledged persons , to our becoming agents who not only believe, desire, and feel but who can step away from our beliefs and desires and feelings to ask whether we ought to be believing or desiring or feeling those ways.

Two-year-old Rebekah sees her friend Caleb playing with his nice new red ball and decides she wants to play with it. So she starts toward him only to hear her mother say, “Rebekah, that’s Caleb’s!” In divining her intent and then addressing her so, Rebekah’s mother is trying to get her to reconsider her aim. Rebekah’s mother hopes that a lot of these little interventions will eventuate in Rebekah’s becoming a person who, when she desires something, will think twice before trying to get it.

A large part of what it means to be a person involves learning to “think twice” like this. The “socialization process” aims at getting us to do so by addressing us in various ways. When it succeeds, we become more or less self-regulating; we become persons, in other words, who know they should honor certain norms, and who thus become capable of acting in socially acceptable ways.

In philosophers’ jargon, when Rebekah’s mother addresses her, she performs an illocutionary act . Illocutionary acts are acts such as asking, asserting, commanding, promising, reminding, cautioning, rebuking, and so on. We usually perform them by performing locutionary acts , by saying or writing certain words. Rebekah’s mother, by saying “Rebekah, that’s Caleb’s!”, means to caution her about how she is about to behave. She means to appeal to Rebekah’s sense that some things ought not to be done, and thus to train her not to violate a norm that (among other things) makes for social peace.

If Rebekah’s mother is Jewish or Christian or Muslim, then her belief that there are norms that ought not to be violated is probably grounded in a belief that God has said that we ought to govern our beliefs and desires and feelings in specific ways. As an adherent of one of the three “religions of the Book,” she probably believes she has a religious duty to address Rebekah because she believes that the God of that Book commands her to teach her children his ways. Her assumption that Rebekah senses that some things ought not to be done is almost surely tied to a belief that God guarantees it by Himself telling Rebekah through her conscience how things should be. If she is fairly sophisticated theologically, then Rebekah’s mother may believe that our becoming fully fledged persons depends on God’s addressing us, on God’s calling us into being as persons by speaking to us in various ways. Indeed, she may believe that a main way in which God speaks to her children is through her speaking to them.

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse reflects philosophically and theologically on the claim that the Maker and Sustainer of the universe addresses human beings. It explores the possibility that contemporary speech-action theory opens up “a whole new way of thinking about God speaking,” a way that claims that “the attribution of speech to God by Jews, Christians, and Muslims should be understood as the attribution to God of illocutionary actions ,” of specific acts of “commanding, promising, blessing, forgiving, exhorting, assuring, asserting, and so forth,” and that God performs these acts especially through the words of sacred Scripture.

The claim that God speaks to human beings is quite different from the claim that God reveals various sorts of things. When “people of the Book” have thought about revelation, they have usually thought of God dispelling our ignorance by disclosing what would otherwise remain hidden”as, for example, disclosing that He has made provision for the forgiveness of our sins. God may do this by deputizing His prophets to make the appropriate claims. So God may reveal things to us through the assertions of those who speak for Him. Yet most illocutionary acts do more than just disclose or reveal hidden truths: specific acts of promising or commanding, for instance, inform us that the promiser or commander is taking on duties toward us or requiring things of us. By them, the promiser or commander becomes personally involved with us in definite ways. So Wolterstorff’s topic is both wider and richer than the well-canvassed topic of divine revelation.

It is also more provocative, since it implies certain things about God, language, and the world with which many will disagree. Speech-act theory implies that speakers are accountable for what they say. Promising , for instance, is an activity that even God shouldn’t engage in if He does not intend to do what He says. Those who subscribe to divine-command theories of moral obligation will probably balk at the notion that God can be obliged to do anything. So Wolterstorff spends a chapter arguing that God’s speaking is compatible with such theories.

There is also the problem of specifying how God, since he has no lips and larynx, can speak. Wolterstorff devotes several chapters to analyzing how God can speak through human speakers, to arguing that God’s speaking in “anything like the range and diversity claimed in the scriptures and traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam almost certainly requires direct intervention by God in the affairs of human history; and contemporary science provides us no good reason for thinking that such intervention does not occur,” and to developing the proper principles for interpreting the divine discourse that comes to us through human speech.

Because speech-act theory rises or falls with the credibility of interpreting locutionary acts in terms of the discourser’s illocutionary intentions, Wolterstorff also devotes chapters to arguing against Paul Ricoeur’s and Jacques Derrida’s discourse theories, which deny that we should see texts as instruments of “authorial discourse.” Once all this ground-clearing is done, he addresses the more specifically religious issues of the actual illocutionary stance of Scripture. How much of the Gospels, for instance, should we take as asserting that things actually happened as they relate? (Here Hans Frei’s claim that only a primarily sensus literalis interpretation of the Gospels honors their authors’ intentions gets close scrutiny.) He also asks whether we are ever entitled to believe that God has actually spoken to us, either through Scripture or in other ways.

Some of what Wolterstorff says can and should be challenged from various philosophical and theological quarters. Yet this rich book gives substance to the ancient Jewish conviction that God has not left us to ourselves but “speaks to us on our way,” and that, accordingly, our special calling is to listen to that speech in order to hear the threats and promises, the commands and blessings, the exhortations and assertions, that God is addressing to human beings.

Mark R. Talbot is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College.