Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy

RevelationRichard Swinburne, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 373pp. Pbk.

Richard Swinburne offers what may be his tour de force in Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. It is one of those rare books which forces one to think about and analyze every argument it contains. The work addresses claims of divine revelation.

The book starts off with a section on “Meaning” which analyzes terminology, presupposition, analogy and metaphor, and genre. He argues that presuppositions are not contained in the message conveyed in spoken or written word. He writes, “In order to separate statement from presupposition, we must ask, whatever the speaker’s actual beliefs, are there any common beliefs of the culture presupposed in the utterance which can be siphoned off, leaving what the culture would naturally suppose to be its message intact?” (p. 30). This “siphoning” of meaning is necessary because “[a]lthough speakers may use declarative sentences for many different purposes… the paradigm job of such sentences is to convey information, to add to the hearer’s stock of beliefs” (p. 29). Swinburne offers an example: suppose a Roman historian wrote that “The divine Augustus traveled to Brindisi.” This sentence is not intended to convey the information that Augustus is divine. That Augustus is divine is presupposed by the author of the sentence. Rather, the sentence is intended to tell the reader that Augustus traveled to Brindisi (p. 29).

The next part of the book argues for four possible tests to determine whether a divine revelation has occurred. These tests are 1) whether the content is the “kind of thing which God would have chosen to reveal to humans” 2) “whether the method of expression is one to be expected of God, 3) whether “the church has developed the original revelation in a way which plausibly brings out what was involved in it …”, and 4) “whether the interpretations provide the sort of teaching which God would have chosen to give to humans” (pp. 107-108). He argues convincingly for each of these tests applying to the Christian Revelation. Thus, this section will be useful to the Christian apologist who wishes to demonstrate that Christianity interacts with the divine.

The third part of “Revelation” examines the Christian Revelation specifically. Swinburne argues that Jesus and His message were the “original revelation” provided to believers (pp. 145ff). This “original revelation” contained the teachings of Jesus, which Swinburne divides into five parts. These teachings are that Jesus is divine (pp. 145ff), that His death is a sacrifice for sin (pp. 150ff), His founding of the Church pp. 151ff), that God loves His people and His people should “forgive each other and show unlimited love to each other” (pp. 154ff), and that the world would come to an end, at which point God would judge the world (pp. 156ff). These teachings are essential to Christianity, and Swinburne’s discussions are valuable. It is in his interpretations of the meanings of the Church and the Bible, however, wherein Swinburne forwards his most controversial claims.

Swinburne argues that the Church has a central place alongside Scripture in Christianity. The creedal statements central to Christian faith may not have been derived had it not been for the Church (pp. 189ff). Further, the Church acts as a method for assessing “rival interpretations” of various Scriptural truths (p. 200). It is undeniable that Swinburne advocates the Church as a high authority–perhaps even on a higher level than Scripture, for he argues that many conflicting interpretations of Scripture can receive almost equal footing on Scripture alone, so the Church is required to determine which of these should be approved. Swinburne’s view of the Church is one of the most important things in Revelation for the Christian to read and digest, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees. This is because one’s view of the authority of a church body is vastly important with regards to how one views other doctrines. As Swinburne writes, “Which doctrines are to count as central Christian doctrines… depend[s] very much on which ecclesial bodies we judge to be part of the Church. The wider our Church, the fewer such doctrines there will be” (p. 214). If one takes only the Roman Catholic Church, for example, as a valid ecclesial body, then one’s net of central Christian doctrines can include everything sanctioned by the Roman Catholics. But let us say they take the Orthodox, Roman, and Lutheran churches as authoritative. Then only those doctrines on which all these bodies agree can be regarded as central, or essential to, true faith, for if one church contains a doctrine which the others do not, it cannot be regarded as absolutely essential if the other churches are still legitimate. If it were essential and the other bodies disagreed, then those other bodies would not be legitimate, by the criterion of not agreeing on an essential Christian doctrine.

The Bible is the final major topic Swinburne addresses in “Revelation.” What do genre, presuppositions, etc. tell us about the meaning and interpretation of Scripture? Swinburne argues that we must take Scripture as being entirely true, but he qualifies this claim by arguing we must also realize what Scripture is–a collection of books written with divine approval but by human hands. Thus, he argues, we should take great care to realize the difference between presupposition and message, history and allegory, etc. While I do not agree with Swinburne on every point, I find his insights particularly interesting. He notes that “[t]he falsity of the presuppositions does not, therefore… affect the truth-value of a sentence which uses them” (p. 244). This kind of argument can be of direct worth to the apologist. For example, Swinburne utilizes Genesis 8:2 (“The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained” ESV) as an example: “The sky has no windows out of which the rain comes, but the quoted sentence is just the author’s way of saying, within the presuppositions of his culture, that the rain ceased” (pp. 244-245). This is a different approach apologetically than the one this reviewer would tend to favor, which would argue that the word “window” is used here in a metaphorical or analogous way.

Swinburne’s high view of the church is necessary alongside his view of Scripture. Swinburne writes that “The slogan of Protestant confessions, ‘the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself’, is quite hopeless” (p. 255). For it is the Church which determines acceptable interpretations of Scripture.  He writes that “Scripture belongs to the Church” (p. 256). Reading and interpreting Scripture requires a guide. This guide “…is the Church’s theological definitions and other central teaching, its tradition of the proper way to interpret the Bible, and its tradition of how particular passages should be interpreted” (p. 256). Regardless of whether readers agree with Swinburne here, he raises valuable points of discussion.

Revelation is undoubtedly a work that is vital for the Christian philosopher of religion. The issues Swinburne addresses are necessary to the Christian faith and the answers he gives, while sometimes controversial, are thought-provoking. The ideas are complex enough that the work should be considered readable only for those with some background in philosophy, but for those Christians who have such a background, Revelation is essential reading.

J.W. Wartick




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