A Better Way (Horton)

Horton, Michael.  A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002.

The main problem with the so-called worship wars is that both sides at best are ignorant of what they are doing; more likely, they are idolatrous.  Traditional worship can be just as man-made as praise bands.  Contemporary worship, while often ditzy and shallow, will often sing primarily the psalms (or refrains of them).  This technically gives them the moniker of “more biblical.”  But is there more to worship?  Does the way we worship tell what we believe about God?  Anchoring his discussion in the logic of Romans 10, Michael Horton cogently argues that the method and the message are correlative.

In such a book it would be easy to attack modern contemporary music nonsense.  There is certainly a place for that.  Here is the problem: on Horton’s reading of Romans 10, many traditional services and sermons are just as guilty.  When you hear a sermon, is it a lecture or an announcement from a herald?  What does it come across as?  Even worse, given American pragmatism, one should always ask the question, “Did Jesus need to die in order for this sermon to be true?”

Romans 10, echoing Deuteronomy, says we do not need to ask who will go up to heaven to bring Christ down, nor down to the abyss to bring him up.  In other words, we do not need to ascend some mystical ladder of being or descend within ourselves in introspection.  Christ, rather, takes the initiative to meet us. God is the primary actor in worship.

The logic of preaching reflects the logic of grace.  As grace is a passive response on our part (receiving and resting), so is preaching.  Our ear, not our eye, is primary.  We receive the message as we receive grace.

Drama is the key word in this book.  By drama Horton does not mean doing plays in worship.  Drama is the story of redemption. Our worship style reflects God’s sovereignty in the story of redemption.  

Is worship a covenant renewal ceremony?  Horton wrote this book before the “Federal Vision” wars.  For him “covenant renewal” means something different than is used by CREC churches. Drawing rather upon historical sources than liturgical imagination, Horton reminds us that a covenant involves at least three things: a historical prologue, a list of commands, and a list of sanctions (Horton 20).  Our worship involves more than this, but this is the theological or dramatic foundation.

In a covenant renewal ceremony “God summons us and acts in word and deed for our good” (29).

A Dramatic Script

The logic of grace is God’s script. As noted above, “the ears are organs of reception, not attainment” (39). Therefore, we need a mode of delivery that matches the message of salvation.”

Casting New Characters

The (post)modern self (not soul) is fluid. It struggles to find a lasting identity as it competes with various narratives. One of the chief means of “constructing self-identity is chiefly community-shaping stories” (52). The herald who announces God’s kingdom reminds the hearer that he is no longer anchored in the flux of marketing. As Horton so wonderfully puts it, “In Adam, ‘change’ means endless choice made in random freedom. In Christ, ‘change’ means growth in Christ as we are transformed through perpetual immersion in Scripture as the story for our life” (57).

Preaching and Speech-Acts

Preaching is “an announcement of something that has been accomplished by God, rather than an incentive to get sinners to save themselves” (65). God accomplishes threats and promises contained in preaching.  Drawing upon speech-act theory, Horton notes that preaching has “an illocutionary act.”  When I say one thing, it does another (think of wedding vows). This happens because there is a connection between Word and Spirit.

Concluding Analysis

Space demands I skip over much of the center of the book, though it is well-worth a careful study. Horton covers how the two-ages shape Christian worship. He also explains the Reformed view of the sacraments. Of importance is the chapter “Is Style Neutral?” If the medium is the message, then the answer is “no.” For the most part Horton avoids saying what style your church should embody.  (Even an exclusive psalmody church might have different tunes from what is normally expected.)

The problem is not “liberalism” or “speaking to the common man.”  It is marketing.  Pop culture, as distinct from genuine folk culture, is a mix of “marketing/advertising, the triumph of the therapeutic, and entertainment as stimulation rather than refinement” (183).  It also usually (though not always) lacks a meaningful narrative.  As applied to the church, “pop” Christian music was detached from the church.

The book is somewhat dated.  As it was written in 2002, it was somewhat before Rick Warren achieved the status he did.  There is also the occasional, albeit charming, reference to “Walkmans.”  The content, though, is outstanding.


Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Horton)

Horton, Michael.   The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

In Tolkien’s Two Towers Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas attack a while-clad old man, thinking him Saruman. Realizing their error, they apologize to Gandalf saying, “We thought you were Saruman.” Gandalf says, “I am Saruman, or rather Saruman as he should have been.”  We may say with this work that Michael Horton is Karl Barth (or NT Wright; insert your favorite villain) as he should have been.

Horton has given us the first presentation of a systematic theology derived along dramatic categories.  Other treatises capture the drama of Scripture or its historical unfolding, but Horton sees the historical unfolding of God’s plan as a drama.   Narrative and systematics need each other. The narrative keeps theology from becoming abstract, and systematics shows “crucial implications of that plot and the inner connections between its various sequences” (Horton 21).  

The narrative structure also helps one’s epistemology.  Horton skillfully interacts with recent postmodern challenges and notes that many of the challenges simply miss the Christian story.   With Jean-Francois Lyotard, we agree that metanarratives are dangerous.  Horton simply denies the Christian story is a metanarrative in the sense that modernity is.

Horton’s section on ontology is quite fine.   He gives a summary of his “Overcoming Estrangement” essays and suggests that one’s epistemology follows one’s ontology.  If one sees the body as simply a prison of the soul, then epistemology will be a kind of “seeing the Forms” or “getting beyond sense experience” (47).  But if one holds to an ontology of covenantal embodiment or finitude as a divine gift, pace Plato, then the primary metaphors for knowledge will be “oral/aural” (49).  This is the real strength of Horton’s project.  He is able to show (with admirable skill) how non-Reformed and non-covenantal views simply default to a pagan metaphysics.

Horton is consistent in applying the speech-act theory.  God’s speech-acts, understood in a Trinitarian manner, rooted in Triadology, ground our understanding of inspiration.  The Father’s speaking is the locutionary act; the Son is the content or illocutionary act that is performed by the speaking, and the Spirit’s work is the perlocutionary effect (157).  As Horton notes, this keeps the model from being too “”mechanical (simply the Father’s speaking) or a canon-within-a-canon (as some Christomonic models intimitate) or enthusiam per hyper-Spirit models. 

Horton gives us a brilliant review of Christology.  He takes the key gains from Wright et al and reworks them around a Reformed covenantal approach–all the while maintaining the Chalcedonian and Nicene values. His review of historical Christology is good, though he didn’t address all of the tensions created by Chalcedon.  He (and I) rightly affirm Chalcedon, but Chalcedon’s other commitments to deification-soteriology and substance-metaphysics would prove troublesome for later thinkers.  I refer to Bruce McCormack’s fine essay on this point.

Criticisms and Concerns

To his credit, Horton is aware of Barth’s challenge to the term “person” in the modern world.  If person means something like “center of reflective self-consciousness” (which is usually how people today, Christian or otherwise, use the term), then it is obvious we cannot apply it to God.  In God, so reasons classical theism, there is one mind, will, and unity of operation.  The modern usage of the word “person” would imply at least three minds.  That is polytheism.  

Horton says we can save the term person by using it analogically of God (295ff).  This is certainly true.  The Father-Son relationship is the model from which we conceive of earthly father-son relationships.  But still, it is not clear how far analogical predication helps on the definition of person.  Even if we grant there is not a univocal relationship between the idea as it applies to God and man, it is still true that the definition as it applies to God (whatever it is, it cannot mean three centers of self-consciousness) and man (a center of self-consciousness) is, quite frankly, different.

On the other hand, despite Barth’s earlier usage of “huparchos tropos” in CD I/1 (which itself has a respectable Patristic pedigree and does not have the same problems as “person”), in later volumes he seems to have no problem using “Person” as it is used in traditional dogmatics (CD II/1: 284).

Horton’s most problematic area is where he thinks he is using the Eastern Essence/energies distinction.   On surface level it sounds good:  we can’t know God in his essence but only in his energies (operations towards us).  Fair enough.  He also says this is what the East believed.  Well, it depends on which Eastern father at which time.  As it metastaized in Gregory Palamas, the energies of God were the only way God could interact with the world.  For the post-Palamas East, nature and persons were hyper-ousia.  This means, among other things, that you can’t have a personal relationship with Jesus because he is beyond being; this is the precise critique that Orthodox writer Vladimir Moss made of John Romanides).

Horton is using “energies” as God’s covenantal speech-acts.  I like that.  It is really good.  It is simply the opposite of what the East means by it.  As Orthodox philosopher David Bradshaw points out, the energies are the peri ton theon, things around God.   And contrary to Horton’s earlier (and good) criticisms, you approach these peri ton theon by means of apophatic negation and the ascent of the mind (shades of Origen!).   Eastern monks, as documented by John Meyendorrf, are very clear on this point.


Criticisms aside, this book is magnificent.  While it cannot replace Berkhof, Horton admirably deals with current challenges to traditional protestantism.  Few Reformed folk can really go toe-to-toe with neo-Hegelians like John Milbank.  Horton meets him head on and wins.  Horton also responds to recent Roman (Ratzinger), Eastern (Zizioulas), and Anabaptist (Volf) models with much skill.   His true value, however, is using Vosian covenantal insights to structure systematic theology.  

Is there a Meaning in this Text (Vanhoozer)

 Kevin Vanhoozer focuses on the metaphysical implications of “meaning.”  His work surveys the collapse of foundationalisms, their postmodern alternatives, and his own speech-act hermeneutics that paves the way forward from the postmodern morass, albeit sympathetic to some of Jacques Derrida’s criticisms.  

Risking some oversimplification, Vanhoozer sees the three eras as the Age of the Author (we can know the author’s meaning in a text), the Age of the Text (e.g., late Modernity; we can’t know the author’s psychological intentions, but we can find meaning by focusing on the structure of the text), and the Age of the Reader (there is no transcendent meaning in the text; we create meaning).

Vanhoozer characterizes postmoderns as either “Undoers” (Derrida, deconstruction) or “Users” (Rorty, pragmatism).  Vanhoozer goes to great pains to understand postmodernism, even if he doesn’t affirm it.  Derrida is correct there is no pure realm of meaning and presence of which we have hermetic access.  All such knowings and readings are situated knowings and readings.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t know.  Derrida himself admits he is not a relativist.  He simply says if all meanings are situated meanings and that there is no Transcendental Signifier, what privileges one reading over another?

Vanhoozer’s answer is along the lines of the Trinity.  God is first and foremost a communicative agent. Being and Speech is not reduced to a monad.  It is indeed deferred.  There is differance (though not ontological difference) but not violence in the Trinity.  His very being is a self-communicative act.  Trinitarian hermeneutics affirms both the One and the Many.  There is meaning and unity in the text, but arrived by a plurality of literary methods.

With Paul Ricouer Vanhoozer agrees that metaphor is not simply literary window-dressing.  It has ontological significance.  The goal of Matthew is not to get to Romans.  Metaphors can actually “break” deconstruction: they are determinate enough to convey stable meaning without being exhaustively specifiable (130).  With Derrida we agree that all language is ultimately metaphorical (and thus problematic for metaphysics). But with Ricoeur and against Derrida, we believe that metaphors are meaningful and do communicate truth, even if they don’t exhaust the truth.


This book is magnificent.  I sing its praises.  Aside from the brilliant crash course in continental philosophy, Vanhoozer introduces readers to speech-act philosophy. He has a sensitive reading of sola scriptura which nicely rebuts communitarian claims.


Many of the chapters were excessively long (several were 300+ endnotes).  

Derrida and Deconstruction

  1. Derrida is a good example of the relation of literary theory to theology (Death of God = Death of Author).  
  2. Derrida tries to “un-loose” (gr.  analusis; analyze) the structures, usually those made of binary oppositions (hot/cold, good/evil).
    1. Logocentrism:  a preoccupation with meaning, rationality, and truth. Privileging presence (speech) over absence (writing).
      1. pharmakon: poison or cure.  Writing is both poison and cure.  It is poison because it threatens presence,  but is necessary for the transmission of thought.
    2. nihilism: nothing real in the world.  Only human creations.  No real correspondence.  Only immanence.  
  3. Signs: for Derrida signs are sideways.  It is not a link between a thing and a name, but between a concept and sound patterns.
    1. differance.  signs acquire meaning only in difference to other signs.  
    2. Deferral: meaning is only deferred.  The play of signs goes all the way down
      1. Defers presence.
      2. Metaphysics is the science of presence.  Derrida, argues, by contrast, that that presence is always already mediated by the play of signs.  Thus, there is no pure presence.

Masters of Suspicion: The Turn from the Subject

  1. Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche all argue that the human subject is neither self-conscious nor self-present
    1. our “self” is subject to numerous social and psychological factors outside our control.
    2. The self does not stand behind language but in the thick of it (Lacan).  
  2. Lessening the suspicious blow:  against totalizing
    1. totalizing is trying to achieve a unified perspective.  Reducing difference to the One.

Towards a Christian Response

  1. Jesus is God’s Sign of God’s Being and Presence.  

Undoing Metaphysics

  1. Demeaning Meaning
    1. Aristotle saw words as signs that point to a determinate reference beyond themselves.  A true idea is when the form is present to the mind’s eye.
  2. Grammatology:  writing is the site of differance.
    1. Textuality means that there is no knowledge that is not mediated by some signifying system.
    2. To affirm textuality is to affirm the text as incomplete in itself. 
  3. Ricoeur and Metaphor (129).
    1. Metaphors are not window dressings to the real truth that is propositions.
    2. Metaphors are irreducible.
    3. Metaphors can actually “break” deconstruction: they are determinate enough to convey stable meaning without being exhaustively specifiable (130).
      1. With Derrida we agree that all language is ultimately metaphorical (and thus problematic for metaphysics).
      2. But with Ricoeur and against Derrida, we believe that metaphors are meaningful.
    4. Metaphors are intertextual.
      1. this (Israel’s history) means that (Jesus’s history).
      2. This means texts are open.
  4. Levinas and the Other
    1. “other” :  that which the self encounters.  
    2. Ethics should resist the attempt to reduce the Other to the Same. 
    3. Transcendence and Immanence:

The Text as Communicative Action

The text moves in terms of parole, not langue.  

God’s Word is something God says, something God does, Something God Is.

Austin and Serle on Speech acts

Locutionary (The speaker)

Illocutionary (what is spoken)

Perlocutionary (the effects of the speech)

This triad collapses Rortian pragmatism.  Texts aren’t just something we operate on, but rather are themselves acts which have continuing effects. 

Paul Ricouer says texts create a world.  Discourse refers to the World of the Text.  

A formula (226)

M = F(p) 

Meaning = Illocutionary Force AND proposition

M = F(p) + x

x = author’s ulterior purpose.

A text is a communicatory act with matter (propositional content), energy (illocutionary force), and purpose (perlocutionary effect), 228).

“meaning”–like mind–is an emergent property.

  • a property that characterizes a higher-order phenomenon (like the brain) that has attained such a level of organizational complexity that it displays new properties (e.g., consciousness, mental rather than physical) and requires new categories (e.g., mind) to explain them (249).  
  • There is some level of discontinuity between meaning and text (though not total).
  • meaning supervenes on the written marks. 

“I believe in the reality of the author’s intention, for without it I cannot explain the emergence of meaning, that is to say, how meaning supervenes on written marks” (249). 

Sola Scriptura

  • textual meaning is independent of our interpretive schemes and independent of our communities.
  • If the community is what gives meaning to a text, then how can the community ever err in interpreting the text?  Who is to challenge them?  By definition, any such individual challenge will be wrong, even sinful.  
  • The canon functions as an instrument of ideological critique and a check against totalizing communities.  

Trinitarian Hermeneutics

Do texts have singular or plural meanings?

  • Monists: Only one meaning
  • Pluralists: many meanings
    • plurality of authorial intentions
    • plurality on the level of the text
    • plurality of readers and readers’ contexts
    • plurality of reading methods

God is first and foremost a communicative agent.  His very being is a self-communicative act.  Trinitarian hermeneutics affirms both the One and the Many.  There is meaning and unity in the text, but arrived by a plurality of literary methods.

The God We Worship (Wolterstorff)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

I usually get nervous when I read new books about liturgical theology.  The experience reminds me of the old prayer, “Protect us from other people’s good ideas.” Fortunately, this is not Nicholas Wolterstorff’s aim.  He isn’t “renovating” traditional liturgies.  Rather, by bringing all of his philosophical acumen to bear, he explores what we mean by our conceptual statements within worship. 

Wolterstorff defines liturgical theology as “the site where the church, by means of the work of its theologians and philosophers, arrives at a self-understanding of the theology implicit and explicit in its liturgy.”  There is more in this claim than is apparent on its surface. This plays directly not only in the type of God we worship (e.g., his attributes and properties) but in what we are able to say about this God.

God’s excellence: What “grounds” God’s excellence? Wolterstorff suggests it is God’s glory, a theme common in the Psalms.

God’s holiness: for Jonathan Edwards God’s holiness is altogether attractive.  It is “beauty and sweetness.”  It’s certainly that, but when you look at Isaiah 6 that’s not really the picture we see.  No doubt Isaiah thought God beautiful and sweet; nevertheless, in the passage he recoiled.  Barth, on the other hand, says God’s holiness is in the judging actions of God’s love.  Again, that might be true but that’s not what is evident in Isaiah.

Isaiah, by contrast, felt unclean.  God’s holiness is God’s space.

The next chapter is titled “The God Who is Vulnerable.”  This seems like we are already off to a bad start.  Is Wolterstorff denying impassibility?  Is he saying God can suffer?  No.  He isn’t saying God is vulnerable to passions, but that God is vulnerable to being wronged.  Can we wrong God?  Certainly.  Does this mean he is suffering?  I don’t think so. If we are duty-bound to God praise and glory to God, and we refuse to do so, are we not wronging God?

When we praise and speak to God, we are entering into the realm of speech-acts (and also raising the sometimes uncomfortable issue of whether God can respond).  Wolterstorff makes the following claim:

(1) In our liturgy we are addressing God as one who is a listener.

Here we are starting to cut hard against a traditional type of theology, an extreme form of divine simplicity seen in Maimonides and some medieval Christians, that views God as a purely simple essence who can’t listen (or speak) because he already knows all possibilities. If God is the ground of being or the Unconditioned Condition why would he bother responding?  Indeed, it’s doubtful he could speak.

We will return to Maimonides’ bad theology.  For now, we should reflect on what it means to speak.   In speech act theory we have several terms:

Locutionary act: It is raining.  A locutionary act is the sentence.

Illocutionary act: My act of asserting “it is raining.” 

The point is this: my locutionary act, as Wolterstorff points out is perceptible.  You can hear me utter the sentence “It is raining” (or you can see me write it, etc). It functions akin to a universal. My act of making this, my illocutionary act, it’s imperceptible.  What I think Wolterstoff is saying is that my illocutionary act is tied to intentionality.  I am intending to make this statement (and I, in fact, do).  You can’t see my intentionality.  

The relationship between locutionary act and illocutionary act is not causal.  One act doesn’t cause another.  Wolterstorff suggests that the act is a “counting-as” act. “My performance of that locutionary act counts as my illocutionary act.”  This will make more sense when we get to prayer and preaching.

Maimonides, having reduced almost all of the biblical statements about God to anthropomorphisms, had to address the problem of whether God could even hear us.  This is related to but not identical with the Calvinist problem of why pray.  Since God is immaterial and doesn’t have eardrums, can he “hear” our vocal vibrations in the air?  We would say, “He doesn’t need to, since he can see our thoughts.”  True enough, but then why pray aloud at all?

Speech-act theory offers a way of dealing with this issue.  “To speak is not to express some mental state but to perform some illocutionary act,” so Wolterstorff says.  Yes, most of the time the illocutionary act reveals my mental states, but the two aren’t identical.  Strictly speaking whether God can hear my vocal words is irrelevant to the nature of speech, if speech is understood as an illocutionary act. The aim of these acts is that “God will attend to them, grasp them, and respond favorably.”

Pace Maimonides, they aren’t bodily actions.  We perform them by doing something with our bodies.  It doesn’t matter that God doesn’t have ears.  Not even humans can bodily perceive illocutionary acts.  If we say that God listens, we mean that “God attends to and understands imperceptible particulars of a certain sort, namely, illocutionary acts.”

If we say that God listens to our prayer, do we expect him to perform some speech act in response?  Wolterstorff goes on to describe the distinction between analogical predication and analogical extension.  As I understand him, analogical extension is when we use a predicate, “is f,” of something when we use it to say of something that “it possesses the property of either being f or something a good deal like it.”

If I say “My dog is a gem,” I am speaking analogically, meaning my dog is precious. He has little in common with the properties of “gem-ness.” Analogical extension is a bit stronger.  This is what we mean when we say that God “attends to” or “grasps” our prayers.

Having successfully dispatched Maimonides’ first objection, Maimonides (or the tradition he represents) would respond, “Yeah, but does God speak to you?  He doesn’t have vocal cords.” Further, would not God’s speaking (and hence acting in miracle) violate the causal order?

Wolterstorff dodges these questions.  He responds with a fine exposition of the Lord’s Prayer but never really deals with Maimonides.  He does deal with something like it.  God speaks to us in the liturgy via the preaching of the word and the proclamation that our sins are forgiven.  I suppose that deals with one angle of Maimonides’ objection, though it doesn’t address the claim of miracles and the causal order.

Without entering into the cessationist vs. continuationist debate, one line of response would be found in 1 Cor. 12-14 in terms of prophets’ hearing God speak. Of course, Wolterstorff in contrast to Barth deals with Old Testament prophets speaking on behalf of God (this would be similar to a “counting-as” relation).   Further, given what Wolterstorff said earlier about illocutionary acts not being causal, would that not provide a line of response to Maimonides?

Notwithstanding the above observation, this is a fine and unique book on liturgical theology.

How to do things with words (Austin)

Austin, J. L. How to do Things with Words.

This is a primer in speech-act theory. Austin highlights the possibility of a category of speech in which statements are neither true, nor false, but performative. Some statements do things; more specifically, when spoken they create a new situation.

In order to qualify as a performative, a statement must meet certain conditions (pp. 12ff; a statement must be made in good faith by someone who has the authority to make it, etc.) and must be made within a horizon of convention: for example, we understand that a minister or a justice of the peace has the authority to create a married-status and not just any old person off of the street.

One of Austin’s strengths in this book is he is able to return to the main argument and sum up lines of thought (the weakness is his continuous getting off of topic. Here are three basic definitions which are crucial to his project.

Locutionary Act: Uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference; equivalent to meaning (109).
Perlocutionary Act: consequences of the act performed
Illocution: the act performed; has a conventional force (109).


So far, so good. Speech-act theory is rather simple in the broad contours, but as Austin demonstrates, it suffers the risk of a thousand qualifications. He then gets technical on how a promise/performative may be void, illicit, etc., and this runs for about 6 chapters.

Speech-Act theory is a useful way of describing events in our world. As such, I hold to it. If one tries to make it an architectonic theory, then it spins out of control, as Austin himself demonstrated (probably against his intentions). The main drawback with this book, as others have pointed out, is that Austin can’t stay on topic for more than two paragraphs

First Theology (Vanhoozer)

Vanhoozer, Kevin. First Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress.

Kevin Vanhoozer (KV) bases this prolegomena off of speech-act theory.   He is working from several methodological presuppositions, all of which I think are sound:  our understanding of God and our understanding of Scripture presuppose one another (or are correlates). This is helpful because it alleviates the problem of whether we need to start with God or Scripture.

His book has three parts:  God, Scripture, and (Cultural) Hermeneutics.


KV raises the problem of whether the Trinity belongs in a philosophy of religions.  He advances the standard claims against pluralism: whenever a pluralist defines a “core” of all religious beliefs, that core is inevitably exclusivistic–it excludes other categories (57).

Drawing from themes by Robert W. Jenson, KV places God’s identity in his self-identifying acts as the God of Israel.   Before that he notes the problem of the term “identity.”  Does it mean ontological sameness or self-constancy in the case of God?  According to Paul Ricoeur, the God of the Philosophers is the God of idem-identity (bare essence; ground of being, the ineffable One swallowing the Many).  This makes differentiation of any sorts (persons, relations) a movement towards non-being. By contrast, the God of Israel is the God of ipse-identity (constancy, covenantal fidelity).  God identifies himself as Israel’s God and ties his name to a promise.  This is not the god of the philosophers.  Very fine section.

Effectual Call as Case Study

KV perceptively notes that the doctrine of effectual call is simply an example of the problem of the God-world nexus. Does God operate on the world in a causal manner merely, or is the relation one of calling, speech?  As Descartes noted, the God-world nexus is seen in the following problem:  how does the mental (God, mind, spiritual, etc) have any effect on the physical?

KV proposes we see this relationship in communicative categories.  If there is a God-world nexus, the “calling” is the “communicative joint” (118).  The Word that summons has both content and illocutionary force (energy).

Speech Act Terminology

Before continuing it will be helpful to explain key speech-act terms.  A perlocution is what one brings about by one’s speech act (120).  Locution is the speaking (154).  Illocution is the content and intent of the Locution.

Scripture as Speech-Act

KV proposes that speech-act theory allows us to transcend the debate between revelation as content and revelation as act, since Speech-Act includes both (130).

He has some good responses to high-church readings of Scripture and tradition:  “I see no reason that cognitive malfunction could not be corporate as well as individual” (223).   He notes the Anabaptist claim to “read in community” is not that materially different from the Trad Cathodox claim that the Church reads the Bible.

This claim to “self-referentiality is artificial; it disconnects the text from the extratextual world and from the process of reading…[quoting Francis Watson] To regard the church as a self-sufficient sphere closed of from the world is ecclesiological docetism” (Vanhoozer 216).

Indeed, such a position reduces to “interpretive might makes right.  One may very well question the grounds of such optimism: the believing community in Scripture is too often portraryed as unbelieving or confused, and subsequent church history has not been reassurring either” (219)

And Vanhoozer asks the most painful and unanswerable of questions:  how can we guard against the possible misuse of Scripture?  If we have to read the Bible with the church, we have to posit the corollary:  the church’s interpretation is what counts.  But what are the criteria so we know the church interpreted it correctly?


The book is mostly magnificent.  The final sections on Cultural Hermeneutics have promise, but only if you are already interested in that topic.

Approaching Philosophy of Religion (Thiselton)

Thiselton, Anthony C. Approaching Philosophy of Religion

This is the best intro to philosophy of religion. While it can never replace primary sources (and so, anthologies), it is far more useful to the beginner. Something to note: in many places Thiselton is simply explaining positions (e.g., feminism). The lack of an immediate critique and discernment-blogger expose should not be taken as an endorsement.

Eastern Philosophy

Hinduism: supreme being is both antagonistic to evil but also undifferentiated consciousness. Possible tension there.

Medieval Philosophy

Ibn Sinna changed the terminology of the cosmological argument from uncaused/cause to necessary/contingent. Even if the argument itself is limited, this is a better change.


We tend to see the big divide in philosophy as between analytic and continental. That wasn’t always so. Before Hegel it was rational vs. empiricism. Hegel broke that divide with his introduction of “historical reason.” For Hegel the absolute unfolded itself in a historical and dialectical process, taking up and sublating previous movements.

The Hegelian D.F. Strauss took this idea and said that myth could tell truth if in the form of a narrative. Enter, modern liberal Christianity.

Marx replaced Hegel’s “Spirit” with “matter.”

Part 1: Approaches

Analytic Philosophy. Began with GE Moore and focused on linguistic precision at the expense of metaphysics and consciousness. Facts are analyzed as atomistic states of affairs, which are then reduced to propositions. Russell’s work did offer new insights into logic, such as the existential quantifier.

Traditional statement: a round square does not exist.

This does not mean there is such an entity as a round square to which we deny “existence.” Rather, it means,

For every x, x does not exist.

A number of schools emerged from the analytic method: Logical Positivism, Oxford School, and Speech-Act school.

Continental Philosophy

It’s easier to explain continental philosophy by its different subdivisions.

Existentialism: the importance of human decision and will; temporality of all actions; truth through subjectivity. Subjectivity, however, means something more than “truth for me.” It is inner transformation.

Phenomenology: We describe objects as they are immediately given to us. Husserl began by rejecting “psychologism,” that reducing of objects to mental states. Instead, Husserl argues for intentionality, which is consciousness about other states or objects.

Husserl on Signs: every sign is a sign for something, but not every sign has meaning. For Husserl “pure consciousness,” or a directed consciousness towards both immanental and actual objects.

Hermeneutics: The Continental school focused more on hermeneutics than did the analytic school. This has a bigger overlap with Christian theology. With Schleiermacher hermeneutics moved from “rules of interpretation” to “art of interpretation.” The unity of the whole is grasped and then viewed in the various sections. We have a provisional grasp of the whole that is seen in our “pre-understanding.”

Heidegger— Verstehen is bound up with interpreting Dasein’s possibilities of existence. Understanding is prior to cognition. Understanding is more of a projection.

Critical Theory– praxis as theory-laden action. Power and knowledge entail each other. Capitalism generates false needs (Marcuse).

Feminism. More nuanced than what might expect. Feminism is more than just NPR propaganda. It draws upon a specifically Marxist critique that the male, enforced by binary rationality and logocentrism, “commodifies” the female.

Personalism. Critiques of personalism are difficult to manage. On one hand, it does stem from a rejection of classical theism following Hegel and Kant. However, Hegel’s and Kant’s construction of the doctrine of God is anything but personal.

Pragmatism and Rorty: we speak of justification rather than truth. Truth is what is successful to the community. Problem: Which community? Rorty prefers that of liberal democracy.

Concepts and Issues

Design argument: Today the defense doesn’t rely as much on particular minutiae but on structured orderedness.

Divine action: Can God act in the universe? There are two parts to the problem: a) how can a spiritual being act in the physical word? b) Does God’s acting again constitute a problem in the first place? If he were perfect, and had acted once, why does he need to act again? Thiselton draws upon speech-act theory to shed some light on the faulty presupposition. A single utterance, for example, can have multiple effects.

Speech acts: our speech acts depend on accepted conventions. We can’t just say, “I baptize this dog” or “I baptize this child 2704.” A promise is an interesting example of a speech-act. It cannot be done vicariously. Think about it: I can’t promise for somebody else. Also, if I say “I do” at the altar, it has perlocutionary force. If I am already married, it does not. Thiselton even goes further and links covenant with “speech act.” Covenants imply promise, and promise is a speech-act. Thiselton mentions that Tyndale identified 14 types of promise in the Bible, including “blessing, acquittal, appointment, etc.”

Part 3: Key Terms

Alienation: Marxists use the term to describe capitalism’s alleged reduction of humans to property.

Dialectic: originally referred to dialogue. It’s technical meaning refers to a logical process that sublates lower-order conclusions.

Essence: the permanent and fixed property of an entity. Wittgenstein rejected talk of essences as distracting from the particular cases of language

Divine Discourse (Wolterstorff)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the claim that God speaks.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wolterstorff takes the findings in current speech-act theory and applies them to the claim that God speaks.  He insists that his project is not another treatment on theological revelation, but that discourse is different from revelation.  For revelation to occur, not only must must the actor speak, but the actee must receive the propositional content of the speech (29).  However, promises and commands are not (primarily) intended to reveal the unknown to us, but to show us our duties, etc.

This leads to the basics of speech-act theory.  The locution is a meaningful sentence uttered. Moreover, as Wolterstorff notes, “Acts of asserting, commanding, promising, and asking…are all illocutionary acts; by contrast, acts of communicating knowledge, when brought about by illocutionary acts, are all perlocutionary acts” (32; emphasis original).

The Rules of the Speaking Game

Speaking, especially speaking one between another, assumes certain rules that are “given.”  Thus, there is a new relation between the speakers. This relationship has “built-in” rules. Wolterstorff explains, “If I say ‘I saw Jim drive off with your car’…I have not simply transmitted information” (84).  He goes on to say that if you understood what I said–assuming I am not lying–you are now obligated to take me at my word.

It is not that the words themselves are binding, but the conditions attached to them.  The conditions yield consequences of the words being uttered or not uttered (87).  

Can God Speak?

Nota Bene:  Illocutionary acts are related to locutionary acts by way of the counting as relation; perlocutionary acts are related to illocutionary acts by causality.

NB, 2:  Could the conditions attending the “Rules of the Speaking Game” shed light on the nature of imputation in justification?  I think so. If God declares me just on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, is it a legal fiction? The Reformed can answer no on two counts:

  1. If God says something it’s probably best that we not argue with him on that point.
  2. But assuming with the objection that God’s words aren’t good enough, we can go a step further: God’s speech-act “You are righteous on account of Christ” is a real phenomenon because it met real conditions in speech-act theory.  The relations that govern the laws of discourse are real, not legal fictions. God himself is the author of all reality. When I speak in mundane affairs I can create a new relation (I pronounce you man and wife; you’re fired, etc).  If this is true and easy for me to do, why is it suddenly hard for God to do? Because of his speech I have a new relation to him: loving Father. (see p. 97 for more technical details)

Discussions of Barth and Derrida

NW gives the standard criticisms of Barth.  He gives a very careful and clear discussion of what Barth means by Jesus being the Word-as-Revelation of God.  For Barth, Jesus is the medium of God’s revelation, but it is important to note that Barth does not see any revelation of God as being “speech.”  God does not speak, per Barth. NW hovers around the main criticism of Barth but never delivers it: Barth cannot see God as speaking because God, being wholly other, cannot enter the realm of the phenomenal.  In short, Barth is an Origenist. (The only theologian to really make this observation was the fellow-gnostic Hans urs von Balthasar).

I enjoyed the section on Derrida.  NW rightly points out that not everything Derrida said is wrong.  While we must appreciate (and employ!) Derrida’s criticisms of Plato, at the end of the day we must part with Derrida.  If everything is a “trace” of something else, “and meaning is not anterior to signification, but a creature of ‘our’ signification,” then the Bible as God’s speech has no original meaning (Wolterstorff 161).  We must destroy Plato to the hilt, but this is too high a price to pay, pace Derrida.

Towards an Ethics of Belief

At the end of the book Wolterstorff hints towards a future project:  the ethics of belief. Considering that God can speak, are Christians warranted in holding that God speaks?  Yes. It seems a rather simple question, but Wolterstorff uses it to explain how epistemology can work.

Many times true beliefs are formed by “doxastic practice” (269).  

Criticisms and Evaluation

As Reformed Christians we should rejoice in any work that champions God’s word as speech, as speech-act.  Many chapters in this volume are pure gold. The section on John Locke at the end of the book is almost worth the price of the book.

I have some criticisms, though.   This book is not as clear as later works (Horton, Vanhoozer) on the differences between locutions, illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts.  Further, and as is often the case with analytic philosophy, some pages tend to go on without any clear purpose.  

NB 3: Token-type language ontology:  in straight-forward language (Common Sense Realism?) words can be “tokened,” some enduring and some perishing in character (135ff).   

NB 4: “Performance interpretation” is analogous to Frei/Lindbeck school.

Covenant and Echatology (Horton)

Horton, Michael. Covenant and Eschatology.  Westminster/John Knox Press.

Instead of giving us Plato’s Two Worlds, Horton shows us Paul’s Two Ages. It is this which structure the rest of theological prolegomena. Horton is not giving us a systematic theology, but showing what theology would look like using the Covenant.

Eschatology after Nietszsche

Horton does not shrink from the challenges offered by Feuerbach, Nietzsche, and Derrida. In fact, he mostly agrees with them! If we see Christian theology–particularly Christian eschatology–as dualistic, then it is hard to jump over Lessing’s Ditch. The theology of the cross demands “deferral” against all theologies of glory, of any subsuming the many/now into the One/not yet (24).

It is with the Apostle Paul and the Two Ages that we are able to overcome these dualities without reducing identity and difference into one another. Horton points out that “above and below” are analogical terms, not ontological ones (and while he doesn’t make this conclusion, this allows Christianity to avoid the magical connotations of the Satanic “as above so below” formula; covenant is always a war to the death with magic religions).

The Platonic Vision

Further developed in this contrast between is the difference (!) between covenantal hearing and Platonic (Greek) vision.

A theology of glory corresponds to vision (the direct sight of the One into one’s nous) rather than hearing (God’s mighty acts mediated in historical and material ways…Both crass identification of God with a human artifact (idolatry) and the craving for a direct sight of God in majesty spring from the same source: the desire to see–without mediation–and not to hear; to possess everything now and avoid the cross” (35).
A Pauline Eschatology is able embrace both arrival and differance: the age to come arrives in the first fruits in Christ’s resurrection, yet it is deferred until the consummation of the ages. Horton further notes,

The Platonic paradigm of vision is based on the notion that this realm of appearance is a mirror or copy of the realm of eternal ideas…The Platonizing tendency also created a dichotomy between theoria and praxis, the former linked to the contemplation of the eternal forms, the latter to action in the real world (252, 253). In the covenantal approach, what dominates is the ear, not the eye; God’s addressing us, not our vision of God (134)


Drawing upon Vanhoozer, Ricoeur, and Wolterstorff, Horton outlines the basics of Speech-Act theory. He proposes (correctly, I think) this model as fitting with the covenantal drama he outline earlier. He hints at how speech-act is able to overcome challenges from postmodernism: “But unlike deconstruction, speech-act theory locates the activity in actors (say-ers) and not in signs (the said) (126).

Horton ends with suggesting how a covenantal, speech-act hermeneutics would be lived out within the church. This book truly was a bombshell. If Horton’s arguments stand, the biblical covenantal religion is the only option for man. Conversely, those traditions built upon Platonic and Hellenic frameworks must fall

Alston: A Realist Conception of Truth

  1. Thesis: alethic realism; sees truth in the sense of a statement is true iff what is said to be the case actually is the case (Alston 5).  Interestingly, Alston contrasts his model with epistemic accounts of truth–those accounts that see truth has needing internal access or justification.  Is alethic realism then a form of externalism?
    1. Truth Propositions
      1. Our concept of a propositions is a concept of the content of a belief (2).
      2. Our basic grip on propositions is by way of their furnishing content for illocutionary acts and propositional attributes (Alston 20).
    2. Minimalist account of truth: inchoate correspondence theory; makes a distinction between the concept of a thing and the property of a thing, the latter of which can have many features.  A property of something may have many features which are not reflected in the concept of truth.  
    3. Deflationary accts of truth: mistake to suppose there is a property of truth that one attributes to statements.
      1. speech-act theory:  claims that when we make an apparent truth-statement, we are not attributing truth to anything, but only engaging in a speech-act (43). 
        1. But is this true of all speech-act theories?  This would not apply to realists like Wolterstorff.
  2. Alethic realism and metaphysical realism
    1. Metaphysical Antirealism (Flat denials)
      1. extreme version denies existence of propositions, facts, God, etc.
        1. Zeno, Parmenides
        2. Are they denying facts or just properties?  A property on this view could exist without any connection to ultimate reality.
        3. Quine: 
    2. Metaphysical Antirealism: Reductions
      1. Simply saying all Xs are Ys.
      2. Denies connections between things.  More common version of nominalism.
    3. Realism and Idealism
      1. idealism reduces nonmental to the mental.
        1. the kind of idealism that is incompatible with realism is constitutive dependence: space, substances, etc. are constituted by their dependance on mind.  
          1. Does not deny the reality of the external world; only says that they are mental in nature.
        2. Kant: partial dependance.  
    4. Boundary between flat denials and reduction
    5. Logical relations of metaphysical realism and alethic realism
  3. An epistemological objection to alethic realism
    1. “We can never get ‘outside’ our thought and scrutinize reality itself” (86).
      1. But:  even if this is true, it doesn’t affect the theory itself.  Only the knower.
      2. But:  Must we claim a pure, unmediated perspective?
      3. Perception is a direct mode of awareness of facts.  
  4. Verificationism
    1. “Doesn’t the notion of verification presuppose a notion of truth, one that is independent of verifiability, independent in the sense of not being definable by verifiability, since verifiability, on the contrary has to be defined (partly) by truth” (125)?
  5. Hilary Putnam’s Internalist Realism
    1. Seems like a form of idealism/coherentism.
    2. Alston insists that alethic realism stands or false independent of any critique of metaphysical realism.  I suppose, but metaphysical realism is the best way to rebut Putnam.
    3. Alston’s position:  “The real, independently existing world, the nature of which makes our statements true or false, is one with which we are in contact already through our experience, thought, and discourse” (148).
  6. Putnam, contd.
    1. Holds to a particular sort of mind-dependence.  Every fact is a fact within a conceptual scheme, to which there are acceptable alternatives.
    2. However:  we maintain that truth is evidence-transcendent.  
  7. Epistemic Alternatives
    1. idealization of rational acceptability
    2. Alston’s use of the term justification:  any positive epistemic status that constitutes truth (190).  
    3. ideal epistemic conditions:  a belief to be true would be justifiable in all situations where relevant evidence is available.
  8. A Survey of Justification Options
    1. Problems with deontology
  9. Post-script terms
      1. Notae Bene
        1. emotivism: evaluative utterances are not intended to be assertions of fact or truth, but only of the utteree’s dispositional attitude.
        2. indexicals: token reflexives
        3. sentence types: ordinarily what we call a sentence.
        4. sentence tokens: an utterance or inscription of a sentence type
        5. maker: person who utters propositions.
        6. sense-datum: nonphysical direct object of sensory awareness
        7. Mereological terms: entities whose identity-conditions are given completely by what their constituents are.


Alston begins on a promising note: defend the reality of truth as corresponding to an extra-mental state of affairs.  His Thesis: alethic realism; sees truth in the sense of a statement is true iff what is said to be the case actually is the case (Alston 5).  Interestingly, Alston contrasts his model with epistemic accounts of truth–those accounts that see truth has needing internal access or justification.

Does he deliver?  Kind of. Some chapters are quite complex (convoluted?) and I am not entirely sure what is going on (more on that below).  Other chapters, such as the ones on justification and metaphysical realism, are quite fascinating, but even then there is a problem: Alston will then say the conclusion to the previous discussion isn’t necessary to alethic realism.   Not surprisingly, this is a disappointment to the reader.

Alston’s two sub-theses:

  • Our concept of a propositions is a concept of the content of a belief (2).
  • Our basic grip on propositions is by way of their furnishing content for illocutionary acts and propositional attributes (Alston 20).

Alston calls this position an “inchoate correspondence theory,”  and I think he is correct in where he takes it. From here he examines alternative models offered by Quine, Putnam and others.  To be honest, I am not entirely sure what those discussions were about.


My confusion over the book’s “flow” is not unique to me.  Alston mentions another review who admitted the same thing (quoted on p. 263).  I agree with a mild form of epistemological realism, and I even agree with a moderate metaphysical realism.  I simply think Alston could have established his thesis in only 150 pages, if that.