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.


Figuring the Sacred (Paul Ricoeur)

I am not going to do a chapter by chapter analysis of Figuring the Sacred. Not every chapter was equally good. Some of his musings on Heidegger and Kant were interesting but not germane to narrative theology.

I read this in 2014.  I was big into the Hebrew vs. Greek contrast.  I no longer think that is valid.  Nonetheless, Ricoeur’s comments on narrative are interesting.
“Philosophy and Religious Language”

“Not just any theology whatsoever can be tied to narrative form, but only a theology that proclaims Yahweh to be the grand actor of a history of deliverance. Without a doubt it is this point that forms the greatest contrast between the God of Israel and the God of Greek Philosophy” (40).

Manifestation and Proclamation

This is the most important essay in the book and the one that causes much offense. Ricoeur opposes a philosophy of manifestation (ontotheology) with a philosophy of proclamation (Yahweh speaks).


The “numinous” element of the sacred has nothing to do with language (49). Another key element is theophany–not moments in the biblical narrative, but anything by which the sacred shows itself (icons, relics, holy places). This means that reality is something other than itself while remaining itself.

There is a correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm (54). This brings to mind the Luciferian “as above, so below” dictum. In short, ontologies of manifestation always focus on “reality/grace/etc” emanating from the thing or the place.


There is a rupture–violent in the case of the prophets’ war against Baalism–between manifestation and proclamation. The word outweighs the numinous (56). Israel’s whole theology–and identity–was formed around discourses.

Per idols and icons: “We may say that within the Hebraic domain they (hierophanies) withdraw to the extent that instruction through Torah overcomes any manifestation through an image. A Theology of the Name is opposed to any hierophany of an idol…Hearing the word has taken the place of vision of signs” (56). God’s pesel is the Ten Words. It is the only pesel he commanded.

Communal Readings

In “The ‘Sacred’ Text and the Community” Ricoeur gives a neat deconstruction of the concept “sacred,” especially when applied with a book.

For us, manifestation is not be necessity linked to language. The word ‘sacred’ belongs to the side of manifestation, not to the side of proclamation, because many things may be sacred without being a text (71)

Ricoeur the Hermeneut

His reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a is interesting, but more for the method than the conclusions. His essay on the Imagination is quite valuable in showing what “goes on” in a narrative. Many narratives in the Bible, particularly Jesus’s parables, employ intertextuality which always forces an expansion of meaning from the text. In other words, it is “an object with surplus value” (152). Assuming that the Holy Spirit didn’t write chaotically and randomly, isolated texts are now seen in a pattern and signify something else, something more (161).

Ricoeur then moves to a section on biblical time, which is useful for meditation. He summarizes von Rad, Cullman, and others. I won’t belabor the point.

His essay “Interpretive Narrative” offers his famous distinction between “idem” identity (the god of sameness, the god of Greek metaphysics) and ipse identity (the God who is constant to the Covenant). He expands this motif in “Naming God.”


While magnificent, it is in many ways a difficult read. He assumes a familiarity with Continental Philosophy (itself a daunting task) and even then some essays don’t seem to have a point. But when he unloads on narrative he truly delivers.

Heidegger on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Image result for heidegger hegel phenomenology of spirit pdf

This was a helpful book. It is Heidegger’s running commentary on key passages in the Phenomenology of Spirit. It illuminates Hegel and provides a entry point to Heidegger’s larger work.

In this post I will briefly give an overview of the book and then show how Hegel (and Heidegger) are fully within the Greek, Hellenic position.

Heidegger reads Hegel as arguing that being is being-present. It is the manifestation of a thing. Being is always being Par-Ousia–manifestation. From there we see an interplay between Being as the real and the Absolute as the real. If the Absolute is the real, and our knowledge is not yet at the absolute, it is then relative to the absolute.

Knowledge is relative to a thing.

Like a good Greek Hegel/Heidegger privileges sight over hearing as sees knowledge as manifestation (Heidegger 57). The ultimate goal, though Heidegger never clearly states it as such, is unmediated knowledge–the Absolute which has fully come into being [arrival?] as Absolute.

The book contains some useful observations on reflection and the subject-object distinction. What I found helpful is how the book easily lends itself as a foil to Revelational thought. Revelational thought (what I have elsewhere called Hebraic Christianity) is verbal. Reality is verbal. God speaks and a thing is. For onto-theo-logy, reality is manifestation and appearance. It seeks to transcend mediation.

**For a useful introduction to Heidegger and modern Continental Philosophy, see Gayatri Spivak’s preface to Derrida’s of Grammatology

Review: Thinking in Tongues

This is from James KA Smith’s earlier days, before he became NPR’s token Christian thinker.  This book is actually good, which pains me to say.  Smith seems unbalanced in many ways since writing this book.  I think it is Trumpphobia or something.

Thesis: Pentecostal worldview offers a distinct way of being-in-the-world (Smith 25). Embodied practices carry within them a “tacit understanding” (27).

Is a Pentecostal Philosophy Possible?

Much of the chapter deals with the relationship between theology and philosophy.   The difference is one of field, not “faith basis” (Smith 4).  Smith gives us Five Aspects of a Pentecostal Philosophy:

  1. radical openness to God, or God’s doing something fresh.  
  2. An “enchanted” theology of creation and culture.   Smith means that we see reality not as self-enclosed monads, but realizing that principalities and powers are often behind these.  this entails spiritual warfare.  I cringe at terms like “enchanted” because it’s more postmodern non-speak, but Smith (likely inadvertently) connected “enchanted” with demons, which is correct.
  3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and spirituality.  Smith defines “dualism” as not denigrating materiality.   Fewer and fewer Christians today do this, so I am not sure whom his target is.  Even chain-of-being communions like Rome that officially denigrate embodiment say they really don’t mean it.
  4. Affective, narrative epistemology.   
  5. Eschatological orientation towards mission and justice.

God’s Surprise

Some hermeneutics: Smith rightly notes that “The Last Days” (per Acts 2) is connected with “today” ( 22; we accept this model in eschatology but abandon it in pneumatology).  Smith wryly notes that Acts 2:13 is the first proto-Daniel Dennett hermeneutics:  offering a naturalistic explanation for inexplicable phenomena (23).   

Following Martin Heidegger, Smith suggests two kinds of knowing: wissen and verstehen, justified, true belief and understanding.  The latter is tacit and is at the edges of conscious action.

Per the dis-enchanted cosmos, Smith astutely points out that “There is a deep sense that multiple modes of oppression–from illness to poverty–are in some way the work of forces that are not just natural” (41).  In other words, spiritual warfare assumes a specific, non-reductionist cosmology.

Promising Suggestions

“What characterizes narrative knowledge?” (65)  

  1. a connection between narrative and emotions
    1. Narratives work in an affective manner
    2. The emotions worked are themselves already construals of the world
  2. There is a “fit” between narrative and emotion

There is a good section on Pauline-pneumatological accounts of knowing (68ff).  Anticipating Dooyeweerd, Paul critiques the pretended autonomy of theoretical thought (Rom. 1:21-31; 1 Cor. 1:18-2:16) and that the Spirit grants access to the message as “true.”  

While I found his chapter on epistemology inadequate, he does say that we know from the “heart” as embodied, rational beings (58).  This isn’t new to postmodernism, but is standard Patristic epistemology.  

A Pentecostal Ontology

This section could have been interesting.  Smith wants to argue that pentecostalism sees an open ontology that allows the Spirit to move from within nature, rather than a miracle that is “tacked on” to nature from the outside.  He makes this argument because he wants pentecostalism to line up with the insights from Radical Orthodoxy.

I have between 50-75 pentecostal relatives who “embody pentecostal spirituality.”  I promise you that none of them think like this or are even capable of thinking like that.  I do not disparge them, simply because I am not to sure Smith’s project at this point is really coherent.  He wants to reject methodological naturalism (rightly) but argues for his own version of supernatural naturalism.

If Smith is successful, then he can show that pentecostalism lines up with quantum mechanics.  Okay.  Thus, nature is “en-Spirited” (103).  While I have problems with his “suspended materiality” ontology, Smith makes some interesting points: miracles are not “add-ons.”  They are not anti-nature, since “nature is not a discrete, autonomous entity” (104).  

That’s good.  I like it.

Tongues as speech-act.

We are considering “tongue-speech” as a liminal case in the philosophy of language (122).  Exegetical discussions are important (and ultimately determinative), but we can’t enter them here.  Smith wants to argue that tongues (T₁) resists our current categories of language and emerges as resistance to cultural norms.  I think there is something to that.

 T₁ as Phenomenology

There is a difference between signs as expression (Ausdruck) and those that do not mean anything (indications, Anzeigen).  Ausdruck is important as it means something, whereas Anzeigen serves as a pointer (127, Smith is following E. Husserl).  Husserl even notes that there can be signs that are not Ausdrucken nor Anzeigen.  This turns on the question: can signs which do not express anything nor point to anything be modes of communication?  

As many critics of Husserl note, his account of speech links communication with intention, so he has to answer “no” to the above question.  Or maybe so.  What kind of speech can there be that is not bound up with inter-subjective indication?  Husserl (and Augustine!) suggest the interior mental life.  Thus, signs in this case would not point to what is absent.  

Tongues as Speech-Act Attack

Utterances (of any sort) are performative.  While such utterance-acts do convey thoughts, sometimes their intent is far more. Let’s take tongues-speak as ecstatic, private language.  What does the pray-er mean to do?  We can easily point to an illocutionary act of praying in groans too deep for words.  We can also see a perlocutionary act: God should act in response.

Tongues as Politics

Oh boy.  Smith wants to say that tongues is a speech-act against the powers that be.  I like that.  I really do.  I just fear that Smith is going to mislocate the powers.  He begins by drawing upon neo-Marxist insights (147). However, without kowtowing fully to Marx, he does point out that Marx has yielded the historical stage to the Holy Ghost.

Tongues-speech begins as “the language of the dispossessed” (149).  This, too, is a valid sociological insight.  The chapter ends without Smith endorsing Marxism, which I expected him to do.  While we are on a charismatic high, I will exercise my spiritual gift of Discerning the Spirits.”  The reason that many 3rd World Pentecostals are “dispossessed” is because they are in countries whose leaders serve the demonic principality of Marxist-Socialism.  Let’s attack that first before we get on the fashionable anti-capitalism bandwagon.

(No, am not a capitalist.  At least not in the sense that Smith uses the word)

*Smith, as is usual with most postmodernists, gets on the “narrative” bandwagon.  There’s a place for that, but I think narrative is asked to carry more than it can bear.  In any case, it is undeniable that Pentecostals are good storytellers.  Smith wants to tie this in with epistemology, but he omits any discussion from Thomas Reid concerning testimony as basic belief, which would have strengthened his case.

Possible Criticisms

Smith (rightly) applauds J. P. Moreland’s recent embrace of kingdom power, but accuses Moreland of still being a “rationalist” (6 n14, 13n26).  Precisely how is Moreland wrong and what is the concrete alternative?  Smith criticizes the rationalist project as “‘thinking’ on a narrow register of calculation and deduction” (54).  Whom is he criticizing: Christians or non-Christians?  It’s not clear, and in any case Moreland has come under fire for saying there are extra-biblical, non-empirical sources of knowledge and reality (angels, demons, etc).  

Smith then argues that all rationalities are em-bodied rationalities.  That’s fine.  I don’t think this threatens a Reidian/Warrant view of knowledge.  Perhaps it does threaten K=JTB.  I don’t know, since Smith doesn’t actually make the argument.  Smith makes a good argument on the “heart’s role” in knowing, yet Moreland himself has a whole chapter on knowing and healing from the heart in The Lost Virtue of Happiness (Moreland 2006).

Smith elsewhere identifies aspects of rationality as the logics of “power, scarcity, and consumption,” (84) but I can’t think of a serious philosopher who actually espouses this.

Elsewhere, Smith says Christian philosophy should be “Incarnational” and not simply theistic (11).  What does that even mean?  Does it simply mean “Begin with Jesus”?  Does it mean undergirding ontology with the Incarnation, per Col. 1:17?  That’s actually quite promising, but I don’t think Smith means that, either.  So what does he mean?

Is Smith a coherentist?  I think he is.  He hints at good criticisms of secularism, but points out “that the practices and plausibility structures that sustain pentecostal (or Reformed or Catholic or Baptist or Moonie–JBA) have their own sort of ‘logic’,” a logic that allows Christians to play, too (35).  But even if coherentism holds–and I grant that Smith’s account is likely true, it doesn’t prove coherentism is true.  All coherentism can prove is doxastic relations among internal beliefs, but not whether these beliefs are true.  Of course, Smith would probably say I am a rationalist.

In his desire to affirm materiality, Smith seems to say that any religious materiality is a good materiality.  Smith approvingly notes of Felicite’s clinging to feasts and relics (36).  It’s hard to see how any one “Materiality” could be bad on Smith’s account.  But this bad account is juxtaposed with some good observations on the book of Acts (38) and tries to connect the two.

*Smith says that “postmodernism takes race, class, and gender seriously” because it takes the body seriously (60).  This is 100% false.  If facebook is a true incarnation (!) of postmodernity, may I ask how many “gender/sexual preference” options facebook has?  I rest my case.

*Smith waxes eloquently on the Pentecostal “aesthetic” (80ff), which is basically a repeat of his other works, but one must ask, “How does faith come per Romans 10?”

*Smith doesn’t miss an opportunity to criticize “rationalism” for separating beliefs and faith/practice, yet Smith himself seems mighty critical of those who focus on “beliefs” in their philosophy of religion (111).  Sure, most post-Descartes philosophy of religion is overy intellectual, but I do think the Reidian/Plantingian Epistemology model, integrates belief and faith-practice.