Revelation as Testimony
by mats wahlberg
eerdmans, 256 pages, $20
wentieth-century theologians across a great spectrum—Catholic and Protestant, conservative and progressive—were critical of theories of divine revelation based exclusively on propositional truth. They were united not in their beliefs, but in their allergy to scholasticism. Instead of saying “in the New Testament God reveals the divinity of Christ” or “Christians must believe by faith that God is a Holy Trinity,” there was a move toward the notion of encounter: Revelation occurs when Christ manifests himself personally to us as Lord, or when we realize that God is personally addressing us as the Holy Trinity. This was the more traditional version, which emphasized the interpersonal and existential dimensions of faith.
On the other end of the spectrum, revisionists like Paul Tillich and Hans Küng claimed that dogmas and propositions are expressions of religious experiences or spiritual intuitions, alerting us to an encounter with God that goes beyond all formulas or man-made intellectual systems. These trends were united by a common feature: a notion of revelation that is less cognitive and truth-based, more intuitive and emotional.
Mats Wahlberg, a young Swedish theologian and recent convert to Catholicism, has written a devastating critique of these modern theologies, one conducted with elegant argumentation and which seeks to vindicate more traditional approaches. To begin with, Wahlberg shows that we need not posit any opposition between propositional accounts of revelation and what he terms the “manifestational” models that are typical of the moderns. On the contrary, in order to have a personal encounter with the Holy Trinity, or a mystical experience of the Absolute, we must be able in some measure to know and understand who and what we encounter. Human knowledge and public communication have a linguistic and propositional form. If God can be revealed and encountered personally, or discussed in common at all, then the truths about who God is must assume propositional form.
his first idea is a doorway into a second and much more central theme: that human beings typically learn much or most of what they know from the testimony of others. Wahlberg gives the example of high school students who learn propositional truths of modern physics from textbooks. Do they first verify that their source is reliable or do they take its authority on faith? Clearly the latter is the case. But should we say that they actually learn about reality through faith in the testimony of others? Of course we should. Even in the most empirical of sciences, we find that there is a significant role for trust. In fact, most of what we know is learned through this medium, from the state of the stock market in Japan to the likelihood it will rain this afternoon.
It was St. Augustine who first saw the theoretical significance of our everyday reliance on trust. In his disputes with skepticism, Augustine noted that two extremes should be avoided. One is the intellectual sterility of excessive doubt. I might believe that the woman who claims to be my mother is in fact my aunt, or that my physics textbook is a conspiracy of lies written by heliocentrists, or that the sense experiences I have are illusions created by an evil demon. For the most part, this kind of doubt is entirely unwarranted.
On the other extreme is credulousness. There are people in Nigeria who email me and want to give me money that they have inherited from a dead aunt. All I have to do is send them my bank information! A nineteenth-century adolescent in upstate New York had supernatural visions of sixth-century B.C. Hebrews who traveled on boats to South America and built pyramids there. Belief in these propositions might or might not be warranted. It would be credulous, however, and thus intellectually and morally irresponsible, to believe this kind of testimony without critical investigation. Ordinary natural human faith is a mean between these extremes. We should trust our physics professors regarding the theories of Galileo and Newton, our mothers regarding our birth date, and the news others tell us (“Jim is getting married”) if it comes from trustworthy sources.
For Augustine, the grace of supernatural faith is much like this balanced, natural form of trust, but it differs in two key respects. First, when we believe in divine revelation, the primary person whose testimony we accept is God himself, who is the truth and who cannot err. In other words, unlike the sobering war memories of a very elderly grandfather, or the account of a playground incident told to us by a child, divine revelation is testimony without flaw. Second, the act of supernatural faith is a grace that allows us to accept divine testimony with an unfailing certitude, by an act of the will moved by charity, the love for God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Supernatural faith is stronger, therefore, than any human trust, even trust that one has in a parent or a spouse.
Reasonable objections can be posed to this kind of account, and Wahlberg does not hesitate to engage with them. Why, for example, is it more reasonable to believe in the teachings of orthodox Christianity than it is to believe in the claims of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon? After all, each religion claims that its revelation is accompanied by “signs of credibility.” In the case of Islam and Mormonism, these arguments center upon the character of the inspired text in question, as something dictated directly by God (through angelic mediation) and itself miraculous or as encompassed by miracles.
f course many people find this argument to be dubious. Can one really demonstrate that the Arabic of the Qur’an is so beautiful as to be necessarily of divine origin? Readers of Virgil’s Latin might take exception to such an argument. Wahlberg follows suit. He argues that the credibility of traditional Christianity is based not on the fact that the divine text is preserved from human mediations but from the contrary fact. The Bible is unique because it suggests as no other book can that God has engaged in history with living human beings, who were inspired to convey their knowledge of God to others, actively expressing themselves in their given historical epochs and cultures. The fact that God teaches us through the personal testimony of creative human beings does not make the Bible less credible but shows us that Christian revelation is about the human race having a shared human life with God in real historical time.
The witness of the New Testament to definitive revelation given in Christ also concerns miracles: those performed by Jesus and by the apostles. Most important, Wahlberg argues, is the unique case of the physical Resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his subsequent appearance to his earliest followers. As he rightly notes (following N. T. Wright), it is difficult to explain the historical genesis of early Christianity without appeal to the event of the Resurrection. But if that event truly took place, then God has revealed himself to the world definitively through Christ and the apostolic witnesses, coming to us in the New Testament writings. Therefore, strange as the analogy may seem, the knowledge of God transmitted by the New Testament is not entirely unlike the truths enunciated in the textbooks of modern physicists. It is true knowledge about reality (in this case ultimate reality), given to us through the trustworthy testimony of others.
Wahlberg’s argument here is not that we can prove the historical authenticity of Christian revelation, as we might recreate a science experiment to prove that a given textbook theorem is true. His claim is more modest. Based on the historical shape of Christian revelation and its appeal to the Resurrection, we can reasonably place our trust in the witnesses of the New Testament. Furthermore, what we receive from the teaching of the apostles can be considered true knowledge of God. Consequently, our acceptance of supernatural faith (by grace alone) is in harmony with modern historical reasoning and philosophical reflection on the ordinary human transmission of knowledge.
nter here, however, a second objection: Why should we believe in accounts of miracles, let alone one as amazing as that of the Resurrection? After all, as David Hume coyly argued, we rarely, if ever, experience such events ourselves, so why should we think that they ever happen? Is it not simpler to explain these stories of miracles psychologically as tales recounted by those who wanted to redress their religious and political disenfranchisement? The problem with Hume’s argument, as Wahlberg points out, is that it is based upon a presupposition that is neither proven nor defensible: that miracles cannot happen because if they did, they would violate the regular patterns we observe in nature. So what? The fact that miracles are rare is not an objection to them but an essential feature of them. They manifest to us something beyond the ordinary or predictable so as to draw our attention to what is extraordinary and transcendent. If we scan the horizon of world history looking for indications that God had definitively revealed himself, why should we not expect to find signs of the miraculous?
Truth be told, even if we presuppose the truth of atheism, the problem with Hume’s argument is that it does not allow us to explain why stories or miracles are invented, as presumably is the case with Islam or Mormonism, as well as many pious legends of the medieval Church. The cause is not always psychopathological (though this is of course sometimes the case). Behind appeals to miracles there is an implicit philosophical claim. Miracles are widely understood to be the unmistakable trace of the sacred: the definitive sign of the God of monotheism. Only God can perform miracles that transcend the order of nature, because only God causes the natural order to exist, such that it depends upon him for its very being. If that is the core intuition behind the appeal to miracles, then the key question they raise is not whether miracles are rare or common, but simply of whether it is possible that God exists. If it is possible, probable, or even demonstrable that God the creator does exist, then instances of miracles are at least possible, or even likely, if one thinks that God wishes to communicate knowledge of his identity and presence to the world.
ntelligent people can disagree about whether there are any religious answers to life’s questions. Wahlberg rightly notes that people can give credence to non-Christian viewpoints without violating the laws of “doxastic responsibility.” Furthermore, even among believers there is debate. Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants can honestly disagree about the true form that revelation takes—what is deserving of credence, and what is not. It is the case, however, that faith and trust are central to the way we learn things. We constantly gain real knowledge about the world from the testimony of others, in every facet of our life, throughout our life, and so we are basically dependent upon one another as a community of learners and believers. Since grace does not destroy nature, this structure of dependency is carried over into the Church: We learn to interpret the Gospel through the tradition of the Church and a shared life with other Christians.
Wahlberg’s book has many riches. On the most general level, it signals a theme that one can perceive among younger Christian theologians in recent years: the return to tradition. We now see a trend toward the recovery of traditional ideas from the fathers and scholastics in order to represent them anew in our contemporary age. Because of its eloquence and rationality, this work is a particular sign of promise and hope. As Christianity becomes more culturally marginal, it must return to its intellectual and moral roots, and do so with grit and wisdom. Walhberg’s book is yet another sign in our own historical moment of the integrity of the classical Christian theological tradition. This is a saying you can depend on.
Thomas Joseph White, O.P., is director of the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.