God and Biblical Language: Transcendence and Immanence

by John M. Frame

This article was originally published in John W. Montgomery, ed., God’s Inerrant Word (Minneapolis, Bethany Fellowship, 1974). Used by permission of Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group. http://bakerbooks.comhttp://www.BakerPublishingGroup.com.


One of the most persuasive and frequent contemporary objections to the orthodox view of biblical authority goes like this: the Bible cannot be the word of God because no human language can be the word of God. On this view, not only the Bible, but human language in general is an unfit vehicle-unfit to convey infallibly a message from God to man.

This objection takes various forms, three of which I shall discuss:

1.    Some linguists and philosophers of language have suggested that language is never completely true – that the undeniable discrepancy which always exists between symbol and reality (the word “desk” is not a desk, for instance) injects falsehood into every utterance.  This contention is sometimes buttressed by the further assertion that all language is metaphorical, figurative – and thus can never convey the “literal” truth. There is, however, something odd about any view which attributes falsehood to all language.  For one thing, the assertion that “all sentences are false” is self-refuting if taken literally; and if we don’t take it literally, what does it mean?  Perhaps the real point is that language never conveys the “whole truth” – that it never conveys the truth with absolute precision or absolute comprehensiveness.  But consider: (a) Some sentences are, in one sense, perfectly precise and comprehensive.  Take “Washington is the capitol of the United States”: could that fact be stated more precisely?  more comprehensively? (b) Of course, even the aforementioned sentence is not comprehensive in the sense of “saying everything there is to say” about Washington and the U.S. But no human being ever tries to say all that, at least if he has any sense at all!  Nor does the Bible claim to say “everything” about God.  The claim to infallibility does not entail a claim to comprehensiveness in this sense.  And where no claim to comprehensiveness is made, lack of comprehensiveness does not refute infallibility. (c) Nor is imprecision necessarily a fault.  “Pittsburgh is about 300 miles from Philadelphia” is imprecise in a sense, but it is a perfectly good sentence and is in no usual sense untrue.  An “infallible” book might contain many imprecise-but-true statements of this sort.  Granting, then, that there is a sense in which language never conveys the “whole truth,” we need not renounce on that account any element of the orthodox view of biblical authority.

More might be said about this first form of the objection we are discussing – its reliance upon the discredited referential theory of meaning, its strangely generalized concept of “metaphor,” its dubious presuppositions about the origin and development of language, its ultimate theological roots.  These topics, however, have been adequately discussed elsewhere,1 and my own interests and aptitudes demand that I press on immediately to other aspects of the problem.  The following discussion will raise some basic issues which I trust will shed further light on this first area of concern.

2.    If the first form of our objection was raised primarily by linguists, philosophers of language and their entourage, the second form (though similarly focused on language) arises out of broader epistemological and metaphysical concerns.  In the 1920s and 30s, the philosophy of logical positivism attempted to divide all philosophically important language into three categories: (a) tautologies (“A book is a book,” “Either it is raining or it is not raining”), (b) contradictions (“It is raining and it is not raining.” “The table is square and it is not square”), and (c) assertions of empirical fact (“There is a bird on the roof,” “The President has put price controls on beef”).  Tautologies, on this view, were said to be true purely by virtue of the meanings of the terms, and contradictions false on the same account.  Empirical assertions could be either true or false, and their truth or falsity was said to be ascertainable by something like the methods of natural science.  When someone claims to state a fact, but upon examination it turns out that this “fact” cannot be verified or falsified by such methods, then, said the positivists, this utterance is not a statement of fact at all; it is not an “empirical assertion”; it is neither true nor false.  Such an unverifiable utterance may have a use as poetry, expression of feeling or the like, but it does not state any fact about the world; it is (to use the positivists’ technical term) “cognitively meaningless,” it does not measure up to the “verification criterion of meaning.” On such grounds, the positivists dismissed metaphysical statements (“Mind is the absolute coming to self-consciousness”) and theological statements (“God is love”) as cognitively meaningless.  Ethical statements (“Stealing is wrong”) also were seen, not as statements of fact, but as expressions of attitude, commands, or some other non-informative type of language.2

As a general theory of meaningfulness, logical positivism was too crude to last very long.  Disputes quickly arose over what methods of verification were to be tolerated, how conclusive the verification or falsification must be and other matters too technical to discuss here.  Many felt that the whole project was to some extent a rationalization of prejudice – not an objective analysis of what constitutes “meaningfulness,” but an attempt to get rid of language distasteful to various philosophers by constructing a “principle” arbitrarily designed for that purpose.3

No thinker of any consequence today subscribes to the “verification principle” as a general criterion of meaningfulness.  One aspect of the positivists I concern, however, is very much with us.  Although we do not buy the whole logical positivist theory, many of us are quite impressed with the basic notion that a fact ought to make a difference.  This concern is vividly presented in the oft-quoted parable of Antony Flew:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle.  In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds.  One explorer says, ‘Some gardener must tend this plot.’ So they pitch their tents and set a watch.  No gardener is ever seen.  ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up a barbed-wire fence.  They electrify it.  They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Wells’sThe Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock.  No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry.  Yet still the Believer is not convinced.  ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’ At last the Sceptic despairs, ‘But what remains of your original assertion?  Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?’4

If there is no difference between “invisible gardener” and “no gardener,” then surely the dispute between Believer and Sceptic is not about facts.  If there is no difference, then talk of an “invisible gardener” may be a useful way of expressing an attitude toward the world, but it cannot make any empirical assertion about the world.  Flew is not asking the Believer to verify his view in some quasi-scientific way (although one suspects that is what would make him most happy); he is simply asking him to state what difference his belief makes.

As we might suspect, Flew thinks that much language about God makes “no difference.”  Believers say that “God is love” even though the world is full of cruelty and hatred.  How does such a God differ from a devil, or from no God at all?  And if “God is love” makes no difference, how can it be a fact? How can it be, as the positivists liked to say, “cognitively meaningful”?

Flew does not suggest that all religious language succumbs to this difficulty, or even that all language about God is in jeopardy.  He seems to be thinking mainly of what “often” happens in the thought of “sophisticated religious people.”5  Still, his knife cuts deep.  Can any Christian believer offer a straightforward answer to Flew’s concluding question, “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”6  Our first impulse is to say with the apostle Paul, “If Christ hath not been raised, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”7  The Resurrection shows that God does make a difference!  Disprove the Resurrection, and you disprove God.  The Resurrection (but of course not only the Resurrection!) demonstrates the great difference between God and no-God.  But push the argument back another step: What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the Resurrection?  Do we have a clear idea of how the Resurrection may be falsified?  Paul appeals to witnesses,8 but the witnesses are dead.  What if a collection of manuscripts were unearthed containing refutations of the Christian message by first century Palestinian Jews?  And what if these manuscripts contained elaborate critiques of the Pauline claim in I Cor. 15, critiques backed up with massive documentation, interviews with alleged witnesses, etc.  And then: what if the twenty-five most important New Testament scholars claimed on the basis of this discovery that belief in the physical Resurrection of Christ was untenable!?  Would that be sufficient to destroy our faith in the Resurrection?  It would be hard to imagine any stronger sort of “falsification” for any event of past history.  And I don’t doubt that many would be swayed by it.  But many would not be.  I for one would entertain all sorts of questions about the biases of these documents and those of the scholars who interpreted them.  I would want to check out the whole question myself before conceding the point of doctrine.  And what if I did check it out and found no way of refuting the anti-Resurrection position?  Would that constitute a disproof?  Not for me, and I think not for very many professing Christians.  We all know how abstruse scholarly argument can be; there are so many things that can go wrong!  In such a situation, it is not difficult to say “Well, I can’t prove the scholars wrong, but they may be wrong nonetheless.” And if the love of Christ has become precious to me, and if I have been strongly convinced that the Bible is his word, I am more likely to believe what he says in I Cor. 15 than to believe what a lot of scholars say on the basis of extra-biblical evidence.  Could we ever be persuaded that the Resurrection was a hoax? Perhaps; but such a change would be more than a change in opinion; it would be a loss of faith.  In terms of Scripture, such a change would be a yielding to temptation.  For our God calls us to believe his Word even when the evidence appears against it!  Sarah shall bear a son, even though she is ninety and her husband is a hundred!9  God is just, even though righteous Job must suffer!  The heroes of the faith believed the Word of God without the corroboration of other evidence: they walked by faith, not by sight.10  As long as we remain faithful, God’s Word takes precedence over other evidence.

Flew’s objection, therefore, is not to be lightly dismissed.  There is a sense in which, not only the language of “sophisticated religious people” but even the language of simple Christian believers, fails to measure up to his challenge.  God-language resists falsification.  It is difficult to say what would refute a faith-assertion; for faith requires us to resist all temptation to doubt, within the faith-language, no terms can be specified for renouncing the faith-assertions; for faith excludes, prohibits, such renouncement.

Does this, then, mean that the Resurrection “makes no difference”?  We hope not!  We certainly want to say that it does make a difference.  Yet we find it difficult to say what would refute our belief in the Resurrection.  We find it difficult to conceive of any state of affairs in which we would abandon our belief.  We find it difficult to say what the Resurrection rules out.  And thus we find it difficult to state what difference it makes!  Perhaps, then, talk of the Resurrection does not really concern any empirical fact.  Perhaps all God-talk is cognitively meaningless.  And perhaps, then, God cannot be spoken of at all in human language.  And if that is true, all talk of Scripture as the Word of God is clearly nonsense.

This, then, is the second form of the objection which I stated at the beginning of the paper, the second way in which human language is said to be disqualified as a medium of divine speech.  Let us briefly examine the third form of the objection before presenting our response:

3.    The third form of our objection is more distinctively theological.  Karl Barth, for example, suggests on theological grounds that human language is unfit to convey truth about God:

The pictures in which we view God, the thoughts in which we think Him, the words with which we can define Him, are in themselves unfitted to this object and thus inappropriate to express and affirm’ the knowledge of Him.11


The Bible, further is not itself and in itself God’s past revelation, but by becoming God’s Word it attests God’s past revelation and is God’s past revelation in the form of attestation…. Attestation is, therefore, the service of this something else, in which the witness answers for the truth of this something else.12

This sort of point, which is very common in twentieth-century theology, is essentially a religious appeal to the divine transcendence.  God is the Lord, the creator, the redeemer.  To him belong all praise and glory. How can any human language ever be “fitted” to the conveyance of his word?  Surely human language, like everything human and finite, can only be a servant, confessing its own unfitness, its own inadequacy.  The Bible cannot be revelation; it can only serve revelation.  To claim anything more for human language, for the Bible, is to dishonor God, to elevate something finite and human to divine status.  To claim anything more is to think of revelation “in abstraction from” God himself and from Jesus Christ.13  It is not just a mistake; it is an impiety.

At the same time, Barth does insist that the words of revelation have an importance:

Thus God reveals Himself in propositions by means of language, and human language at that, to the effect that from time to time such and such a word, spoken by the prophets and apostles and proclaimed in the Church, becomes His Word.  Thus the personality of the Word of God is not to be played off against its verbal character and spirituality….


The personification of the concept of the Word of God … does not signify any lessening of its verbal character.14

The words are still unfit; they are not themselves revelation; they are not necessarily true themselves, but they witness to the truth of “something else.” Nevertheless the words are important, because from time to time God may use them to communicate with man.  Even when they are false, they are God’s instruments.  God uses them, however, not as true propositional representations of his message, but as the instruments for an encounter that no human language is fit to describe.

Barth, therefore, like Flew, argues that God cannot be truly spoken of in human language.  Here, it would seem, the resemblance between Barth and Flew ceases; for Barth argues “from above,” Flew “from below.” Barth argues that God is too great for language; Flew argues that language cannot speak meaningfully of God.  But are the two positions really that far apart?  Thomas McPherson suggests that an alliance is possible between the logical positivist philosophers and theologians like Rudolph Otto (McPherson might also have cited Karl Barth in this connection) who stress the transcendence of God over language:

Perhaps positivistic philosophy has done a service to religion.  By showing, in their own way, the absurdity of what theologians try to utter, positivists have helped to suggest that religion belongs to the sphere of the unutterable.  And this may be true.  And it is what Otto, too, in his way, wanted to point out.  Positivists may be the enemies of theology, but the friends of religion.15

Enemies of some theology! – not of Otto’s theology, nor of Barth’s, nor of Buber’s (to which McPherson refers in a footnote), nor (I would judge) of the broad tradition of dialectical and existential theologies of the twentieth century.  In positivism and in these modern theologies, God belongs to the sphere of the unutterable, and human language (when “cognitively meaningful”) belongs to the sphere of the humanly verifiable. Let us then consider the Flew problem and the Barth problem as one.



Religious language is “odd” in a great number of ways.  Not only does it tend to resist falsification, as Flew has pointed out; it also tends to claim certainty for itself, as opposed to mere possibility or probability.16  It also tends to be connected with moral predicates – as if disbelief in it were a sin, rather than a mere mistake.17  It is frequently spoken with great passion; with Kierkegaard we tend to be suspicious of allegedly religious language which seems detached or uncommitted.

On the other hand, religious language is in some respects very “ordinary,” very similar to other language.  It is not a technical, academic language like that of physics or philosophy; it is the language of ordinary people.  It is not restricted to some limited and distinctive compartment of human life; rather it enters into all human activities and concerns.  We pray for the healing of a loved one, for help in a business crisis; we seek to “eat and drink to the glory of God.”18  I We believe that our faith “makes a difference” in the real world, that God can enter into all the affairs of our life and make his presence felt.  In this respect, the “action of God in history” is like the action of anyone in history.  God can change things, can make them different.  And what he does does not occur unless he chooses to do it.  God makes a difference, and in that sense he isverifiable – much as the existence of any person is verifiable (or so, at least, it appears to the simple believer!).  Few religious people would claim that their faith is a blind leap in the dark.  They have “reasons for faith.” These reasons may be the technical theistic arguments of the philosophers, or simply the childlike appeal to experience, “He lives within my heart.” One who really believes (as opposed to one who merely drifts along in a religious tradition) believes for a reason, because he thinks God has somehow made his presence felt, because God now makes a difference – to him!

Religious language, then, is “odd” and it is “ordinary.” If an analysis of religious language is to be adequate, it must take both features into account, not just one of them.  Flew and Barth do not reflect very much upon the “ordinariness” of religious language.  They seem to imply that it is a sort of delusion, for it makes a claim to verifiability which cannot on analysis be sustained, or because it betrays a spirit of human pride, because it brings God down to man’s level.  For Barth at least, we gather that the “ordinariness” of religious language is a mark of its humanity, a mark of its unfitness to convey the word of God.  There is, however, another interpretation of the data – one which does not write off the “ordinariness” of religious language as a delusion, one which accounts both for the verifiability of religious statements and for their tendency to resist verification, one which illumines the ways in which Scripture itself speaks of God.

Religious language is language of basic conviction.  It is the language by which we state, invoke, honor, advocate (and otherwise “bring to bear”) those things of which we are most certain, those things which are most important to us, those things which we will cling to even though we must lose all else.  Not all language of “basic conviction” is religious in the usual sense.  Many people who consider themselves irreligious have “basic convictions” of some sort.  If fact, it may well be disputed whether anyone can avoid having some basic conviction – whether it be a faith in reason, in material success, in a philosophical absolute, or in a god. But all language which is religious in the usual sense is language of basic conviction.

Someone may object that for many people their religion is not their most basic commitment.  A man may mumble through the church liturgy every Sunday while devoting his existence almost exclusively to acquiring political power.  For him, surely, the liturgy does not express his “basic commitment.” True; but that is because there is something wrong!  A man like this we call a hypocrite; for the liturgy is intended to express basic conviction and our fanatical politician utters the words deceitfully.  He does not really “believe in God, the father almighty” in the sense of biblical faith, though he says he does.  His real faith is in something else.  The man is a liar.  But his lying use of the language does not change the meaning of it, which is to confess true faith in God.

All of us have basic convictions, unless possibly we are just confused. Positivists do too – and Barthians! And insofar as we try to be consistent, we try to bring all of life and thought into accord with that basic conviction.19  Nothing inconsistent with that conviction is to be tolerated. An inconsistency of that sort amounts to a divided loyalty, a confusion of life-direction.  Most of us, at least, try to avoid such confusion. The conviction becomes the paradigm of reality, of truth and of right, to which all other examples of reality, truth and right must measure up.  As such, it is the cornerstone of our metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. It is not, be it noted, the only factor in the development of a system of thought.  Two people may have virtually identical “basic commitments” while differing greatly in their systems of thought.  The two will both try to develop systems according with their common presupposition, but because of differences in experience, ability, secondary commitments and the like, they may seek such consistency in opposite directions.  But though the “basic commitment” is not the only factor in the development of thought (and life), it is (by definition) the most important factor.

We have suggested that religious language is a subdivision of “basic-commitment language.” The next point is that basic commitment language in general displays the same kinds of “oddness” and ordinariness: that we have noted in religious language.  We state our basic commitments as certainties, not merely as possibilities or probabilities, because our basic commitments are the things of which we are most sure, the paradigms of certainty against which all other certainties are measured.  Basic commitments are paradigms, too, of righteousness; challenges to those commitments invariably seem to us unjust because such challenges if successful will deny our whole reason for living.  And basic-commitment language is (almost tautologically) the language of commitment, not of detached objectivity.  And to these “oddnesses” we must add the oddness of resistance to falsification.

Take a man whose basic commitment in life is the earning of money.  To him, the legitimacy of that goal is a certainty, beyond all question.  When that goal conflicts with other goals, the basic goal must prevail. Questions and doubts, indeed, may enter his mind; but these questions and doubts are much like religious temptations.  Insofar as he takes them seriously, he compromises his commitment; he becomes to that extent double-minded, unstable.  He faces then a crisis wherein he is challenged to change his basic commitment.  Under such pressure he may do so.  But then the new commitment will demand the same kind of loyalty as the old one.  Challenges must be resisted.  Evidence against the legitimacy of the commitment must be somehow either ignored, suppressed, or accounted for in a way that leaves the commitment intact.  “Are people starving in India?  We must be compassionate, of course; but the best means of helping the poor is by teaching them the virtues of free enterprise and self-help: if everyone were truly dedicated to earning money there would be no poverty.  We do them no favor by compromising our commitment”!  A rationalization?  It might not seem so to one so committed, especially if no other answer to the poverty question lies close at hand.

Let us rephrase Flew’s question as it might be addressed to the mammon-worshipper: What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the primacy of money-making?  What would have to happen to cause him to abandon his faith?  Well, one simply cannot say in advance!  Committed as he is, he devoutly hopes that nothing will bring about such a change.  He not only hopes, he knows (or so he thinks) – because he interprets all reality so as to accord with that commitment.  Some event, indeed (we can’t say what), may cause him to change – if he yields to the temptation of regarding that event from a non-mammon perspective.  He changes them because he has already compromised; it is like a change in religious faith.

The basic-commitment language is “odd” indeed; but it is also “ordinary.” It is not something strange or esoteric; we use it all the time.  It enters into every area of life, simply because it is so basic, so important.  It is important because it “makes a difference” – more difference than anything else.  Without it nothing would make sense.  All of experience, then, “verifies” the validity of the commitment.  We can “prove” our commitment true in any number of ways.  The evidence is there.

But how can a commitment be verifiable and nonverifiable at the same time?  How can it present proof, and at the same time resist falsification by contrary evidence?  The resolution of this paradox gets us to the heart of the matter.  Think of a philosopher who is committed to establishing all truth by the evidence of his senses.  Sense-experience is his criterion of truth.  What evidence would disprove that criterion?  In one sense none; for if sense-experience is truly his criterion, then all objections to the criterion will have to be verified through sense-experience.  They will have to be tested by the criterion they oppose.  “Disproof,” as with other basic commitments, will come only when there is something like a crisis of faith.  At the same time, all evidence proves the criterion.  The philosopher will argue very learnedly to establish his conviction.  He will refute contrary claims, he will produce carefully constructed arguments.

The arguments, of course, will be “circular.” Arguments for the sense-criterion must be verified by the sense-criterion itself.  The philosopher must argue for sense-experience by appealing to sense-experience.  What choice does he have?  If he appeals to something else as his final authority, he is simply being inconsistent.  But this is the case with any “basic commitment.” When we are arguing on behalf of an absolute authority, then our final appeal must be to that authority and no other.  A proof of the primacy of reason must appeal to reason; a proof of the necessity of logic must appeal to logic; a proof of the primacy of mammon must itself be part of an attempt to earn more money; and a proof of the existence of God must appeal in the final analysis to God.

Such arguments are circular; but they are also arguments A “proof”’ of, say, the primacy of reason, can be highly persuasive and logically sound even though, at one level, circular.  The circularity is rarely blatant; it lurks in the background.  One never says “Reason is true because reason says it is.” One says instead, “Reason is true because one must presuppose it even to deny it.” The second argument is just as circular as the first.  Both presuppose the validity of reason.  But in the second argument the presupposition is implicit rather than explicit.  And the second one is highly persuasive!  The irrationalist cannot help but note that he is (in many cases) presenting his irrationalism in a highly rational way.  He is trying to be more rational than the rationalists-a contradictory way to be!  He must decide either to be a more consistent irrationalist (but note the paradox of that!) or to abandon his irrationalism.  Of course he might renounce consistency altogether, thus renouncing the presupposition of the argument.  But the argument shows him vividly how hard it is to live without rationality.  The argument is circular, but it draws some important facts to his attention.  The argument is persuasive though circular because down deep in our hearts we know that we cannot live without reason.20

Some circular arguments are persuasive to us, others not.  Those circular arguments which verify the most basic commitments of our lives are by definition the most persuasive to us. And because we believe those commitments true, we believe that those arguments ought to be persuasive to others too.  A Christian theist, while conceding that the argument for God’s existence is circular, nevertheless will claim that the argument is sound and persuasive.  For he devoutly believes that his position is true, and he believes that it can be recognized clearly as such.  He believes that God made men to think in terms of this circularity, rather than in terms of some competing circularity.21

Basic-commitment language, therefore, is both “odd” and “ordinary”; it resists falsification, it refuses to be judged by some antithetical commitment; yet it accepts the responsibility to verify itself.  It accepts the responsibility of displaying whatever rationality and consistency it may claim.

What is Antony Flew’s “basic commitment”?  To reason?  To “academic integrity” of some sort?  To a secular ethic?  To religious agnosticism? I don’t know, but I would assume that he has one, since he does not seem like the sort of person who accepts values unreflectively.  And more can be said: If with the Bible we divide the human race into Christian and non-Christian, those who know God and those who don’t, those who love God and those who oppose him, clearly Flew by his writings has identified himself with the God-opposing group.  If this self-identification truly represents his heart commitment, then according to Scripture Flew is committed to “hindering the truth” of God, “exchanging the truth of God for a lie.”22  According to Scripture, he is committed at a basic level to opposing, contradicting, resisting the truth of God which in some sense he nevertheless “knows.”23  This commitment too will be unfalsifiable and yet self-verifying, for it is a basic commitment; and for all its irreligiosity it is logically like a religious commitment.  Let us illustrate by a parody on Flew’s parable:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle.  A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches.  The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener.  One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries.  The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick. Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp.  Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot.  Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms.  “He’s only doing it because we’re here-to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status.  Then the sceptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us.  There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials.  It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion?  Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

A garden indeed!  How convenient that we should be talking about gardens – for that is where the Bible’s own story begins.  Adam and Eve lived in a garden, and they knew the divine Gardener.  He talked to them, worked with them, lived with them; until one day Eve – and Adam! – denied that he was there.  Irrational it was, for sin is at its root irrational.  And Scripture tells us that ever since that day sinners have been guilty of the same irrationality.  God is verifiable, knowable, “clearly seen” in his works;24 but men still – “irrationally” because sinfully – deny him.  To the Christian, the denials lapse into cognitive meaninglessness – an attempt to evade God by using atheistic language to describe a patently theistic world.

From a “neutral” point of view, both Flew and the Christian are in the same boat.  Both have beliefs which are “odd” and “ordinary”; resistant to falsification, yet verifiable on their own terms.  But of course there is no “neutral” point of view.  You are either for God or against Him.  You must place yourself in one circle or the other.  Logically, both systems face the difficulties of circularity.  But one is true and the other is false. And if man is made to know such things, then you can tell the difference.20 You know you can!20

Our response to Flew, in short, is that (1) He has only told half the story: religious language does resist falsification, as he says; but it also often claims to be verifiable in terms of its own presuppositions. (2) These epistemological peculiarities attach to all “basic-commitment language,” not just to religious or Christian language – and thus they attach to unbelieving language as well.  Therefore, these considerations may not be urged as a criticism of Christianity.  They are simply descriptive of the human epistemological condition. (3) Scripture pictures the unbeliever as the truly ridiculous figure, who ignores patent evidence and makes mockery of reason, on whose basis no knowledge is possible.  To the Christian, the unbelieving circle is, or ought to be, absurd: something like “Truth is a giant onion; therefore truth is a giant onion.”

Flew, therefore, does not succeed in showing religious language to be “cognitively meaningless”; and therefore he fails to show that human language cannot speak of God.  But what of the third form of our objection? What of Karl Barth?  Should we simply leave him behind?

Let us go back to the “oddness” and “ordinariness” of religious language, and Christian language in particular.  The oddness of Christian language derives from the transcendence of God, and the ordinariness of it derives from God’s immanence.  Christian language is odd because it is the language of basic commitment; and the transcendence of God’s Lordship demands that our commitment be basic.  This language is odd because it expresses our most ultimate presuppositions; and these presuppositions are the demands which God makes upon us – nothing less.  It is odd because it attempts to convey God’s demands – his demands for all of life.  It will not be “falsified” by some secular philosophical criterion, because God will not be judged by such a criterion.  “Let God be true, though every man a liar.”25  God’s own word, the paradigm of all Christian language, is therefore supremely odd.

Christian language is “ordinary,” verifiable, because God is not only the transcendent Lord; he is also “with us,” close to us.  These two attributes do not conflict with one another.  God is close to us because he is Lord.  He is Lord, and thus free to make his power felt everywhere we go.  He is Lord, and thus able to reveal himself clearly to us, distinguishing himself from all mere creatures.  He is Lord, and therefore the most central fact of our experience, the least avoidable, the most verifiable.

And because God’s own word is supremely odd, it is supremely ordinary.  Because it is supremely authoritative, it is supremely verifiable.  Because it furnishes the ultimate presuppositions of thought, it furnishes the ultimate truths of thought.

Barth’s argument essentially reverses this picture (derived from Scripture) of God’s transcendence and immanence.  To Barth, God’s transcendence implies that he cannot be clearly revealed to men, clearly represented by human words and concepts.  This view of God’s transcendence contradicts the view of God’s immanence which we presented.  Similarly, Barth has a view of God’s immanence which contradicts the view of transcendence which we presented.  To Barth, the immanence of God implies that words of merely human authority, words which are fallible, may from time to time “become” the word of God.  Thus the only authority we have, in the final analysis, is a fallible one.  The only “word of God” we have is a fallible human word.  God does not make authoritative demands which require unconditional belief; he does not determine the presuppositions of our thought; he does not resist all falsification – rather he endorses falsehood and sanctifies it.

Well, who is right?  Does God’s transcendence include or exclude an authoritative verbal revelation of himself to men?  Note that this question must be faced squarely.  It is not enough to say that revelation must be seen in the context of God’s transcendence; for that transcendence has been understood in different ways, and one must therefore defend his particular view of it.  One does not get into the heart of the matter by saying that one view sees revelation “in abstraction from” God’s lordship; for the two sides do not agree on the nature of this lordship or the relation that revelation is supposed to sustain to that lordship.

Both views claim Scriptural support.  Barth can appeal to the basic creator-creature relationship as presented in Scripture: man is a creature; his ultimate trust must rest solely in God.  To put ultimate confidence in something finite is idolatry.  Human words are finite.  Therefore to put ultimate confidence in Scripture is idolatry.  And in a fallen world, such confidence is all the more foolish; for human words are sinful as well as finite.  Sinful speech can never perfectly honor God.  The Gospel precisely requires us to disown any claim to perfection, to confess the inadequacy of all human works, to cast all our hope on the mercy of God.  How can we put ultimate trust in human words and in God’s mercy at the same time?

Barth’s view can be stated very persuasively as long as it focuses on the general facts of creation and redemption.  Scripture does condemn idolatry; it does condemn reliance on merely human means of salvation.  But when this view turns specifically to the concept of revelation, its unbiblical character becomes obvious.  For Scripture itself never deduces from God’s transcendence the inadequacy and fallibility of all verbal revelation.  Quite to the contrary: in Scripture, verbal revelation is to be obeyed without question, because of the divine transcendence:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.  And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up…. Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded thee.26

One who serves God as lord will obey his verbal revelation without question.  One who loves Christ as Lord will keep his commandments.27  God’s lordship, transcendence, demands unconditional belief in and obedience to the words of revelation; it never relativizes or softens the authority of these words.  But how can that be?  Is Scripture itself guilty of idolizing human words?  The answer is simply that Scripture does not regard verbal revelation as merely human words.  Verbal revelation, according to Scripture, is the Word of God, as well as the word of man.  As with the incarnate Christ, verbal revelation has divine qualities as well as human qualities.  Most particularly, it is divine as to its authority.  To obey God’s word is to obey Him; to disobey God’s word is to disobey Him.  Unconditional obedience to verbal revelation is not idolatry of human words; it is simply a recognition of the divinity of God’s own words.  It is the deference which we owe to God as our creator and redeemer.

Dishonoring the divine is just as sinful as idolizing the creature.  The two are inseparable.  To disobey God is to obey something less than God.  When we turn from God’s words, we idolize human words.  If Scripture is right, if verbal revelation does have divine authority, then it is Barth’s view which encourages idolatry.  For Barth’s view would turn us away from proper deference to God’s words, and would have us instead make a “basic commitment” to the truth of some other words – our own, perhaps, or those of scientists, or those of theologians.

These considerations do not prove that Scripture is the word of God.  They do show, however, that the biblical doctrine of divine transcendence does not compromise the authority of verbal revelation.  One may, indeed, prefer Barth’s concept of transcendence to the biblical one; but such a view may not be paraded and displayed as the authentic Christian position.

We conclude, then, that the “objection” before us is unsound in all of its three forms.  Human language may convey the infallible word of God, because God is lord – even of human language!



One helpful discussion of these matters from an orthodox Christian perspective can be found in Gordon H. Clark, Religion, Reason and Revelation (Phila.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961) pp. 11 1-50.

The classical exposition of logical positivism in the English language is A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (New York: Dover, 1946).

One of the sharpest debates was over the status of the verification principle itself.  Surely it was not to be regarded as a tautology; but it did not seem to be “verifiable” either in any quasi-scientific sense.  Was it then to be dismissed as “cognitively meaningless”?  Ayer himself (see above note) came to the view that the verification principle was a “convention” (see his introduction to the anthology Logical Positivism [Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 19591 P. 15).  He maintained that this “convention” had some basis in ordinary usage, but admitted that it went beyond ordinary usage in crucial respects.

Antony Flew, et al., “Theology and Falsification,” New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair Maclntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955), p. 96.

Ibid., p. 98.

Ibid., p. 99.

7 I Cor. 15:14.

8 I Cor. 15:5-8.

9 Gen. 17:16-17.

10 Heb. 11.  The contrast between faith and sight alludes to II Cor. 5:7.

11 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol.  II: The Doctrine of God, ed.  G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance; trans.  T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, H. Knight, and J. L. M. Haire (New York: Scribner, 1957), Pt. 1, p. 188.

12 Ibid.. Vol. 1: The Doctrine f the Word of God, trans.  G. T. Thomson @New York: Scribner, 1936), Pt. 1, p. 125.

13 Ibid., pp. 155ff.

14 Ibid., pp. 156f.

15 ‘Thomas McPherson, “Religion as the Inexpressible,” New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed.  Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955), pp. 140f.  In a footnote, McPherson notes a similar view in Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

16 Note Ludwig Wittgenstein’s interesting discussion of this point in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Compiled from Notes taken by Yorick Smythies, Rush Rhees and James Taylor, ed.  Cyril Barrett (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), pp. 53-59.  Wittgenstein seems to make the extreme suggestion that religious belief never is “probable” in character.  Wittgenstein obviously never spent much time around seminary students and academic theologians!

17 Cf. ibid., p. 59.

18 I Cor. 10:31.

19 Some readers may be helped here by the observation that there are many different degrees of “basicness” among our convictions.  All of our convictions govern life to some degree.  When someone disagrees with one of our opinions. we naturally tend to try to defend it-either to refute our opponent’s argument or to show that his position is compatible with ours.  The learning process is such that we always try to interpret new knowledge in such a way as to minimize disturbance to past opinions. Some opinions we hold more tenaciously than others.  It is fairly easy to convince me that I am wrong about. say, the team batting average of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It is much more difficult to persuade me that the earth is flat!  In the first instance, citation of one presumable competent authority is enough.  In the second instance, the intrinsic unlikelihood of a flat earth would bring into question the competence of any “presumably competent authority” who held such a position.  Nevertheless. if there were a full-scale revolution among scientists over systems of measurement, and cogent reasons could be given for reverting to a flat earth view, I might be persuaded to reconsider.  Some convictions, then, we relinquish less easily than others; and the “most basic convictions” (which we focus upon in the text of the article) are relinquished least easily of all.  In fact, we never relinquish those unless at the same time we change in our basic concept of rationality.

20 How do we know?  That’s hard to say; but we do.  Some circular arguments simply are more plausible than others.  “Truth is a giant onion, for all true statements are onion shoots in disguise.” That argument is best interpreted as a circular one, the conclusion being presupposed in the reason offered.  But there is something absurd about it.  “Reason is necessary, for one must use reason even in order to deny it.” That too, is circular, but it seems much more plausible.  A sceptic might say that the second argument seems plausible because it is our argument, while the first is not.

“Knowledge” itself is dreadfully hard to define.  Logicians, epistemologists and scientists have devoted countless hours to the task of finding criteria for genuine knowledge.  Yet knowledge may not be defined as the observance of any such criteria. Knowledge occurred in human life long before there was any science of logic or epistemology or biology, and people still gain knowledge without referring to such disciplines.  These disciplines try to conceptualize, define, understand a phenomenon which exists independently of those disciplines.  They do not make knowledge possible.  And their concepts of knowledge change rather frequently.  It would be presumptuous indeed to suppose that these disciplines have succeeded at last in defining everything which constitutes “knowledge.” Thus, if the recognition of plausibility in a circular argument does not fit any existing technical criteria of “knowledge,” then so much the worse for those criteria.

The fact is that recognition of such plausibility is a type of knowledge which epistemologists are obligated to note and account for.  “Basic convictions” cannot be avoided; and such convictions may be proved only through circular argument.  Therefore circular argument is unavoidable, at the level of basic conviction.  This sort of circularity is not a defect in one system as opposed to others.  It is an element of all systems.  It is part of the human condition.  It is altogether natural, the, that the term “knowledge” be applied to basic convictions, and if no technical account has yet been given of this sort of knowledge, then such an account is overdue.

Within a particular system, the basic convictions are not only truths; they are the most certain of truths, the criteria of other truths.  If we deny the term “knowledge” to these greatest of all certainties, then no lesser certainty can be called “knowledge” either.  And no epistemologist may adopt a view which, by doing away with all knowledge, does away with his job!  Knowledge is not an ideal; it is not something which we strive for and never attain.  It is a commonplace of everyday life.  It is the job of epistemologists to account for that commonplace, not to define it out of existence.  One may not define “knowledge” in such a way as to require us to transcend our humanity in order to know.  One must defer to the commonplace.  And “knowledge of basic principles” is part of that commonplace.

21 These are the terms in which the matter must be phrased.  The controversy is between competing circularities, not between circularity and non-circularity.

22 Rom. 1: 18:25.

23 Rom. 1: 19-21a; note the phrase gnontes ton theon, “knowing God.”

24 Rom. 1:20.

25 Rom. 3:4.

26 Deut. 6:4-7, 17.

27 John 14:15, 21, 23; 15: 10.  On these matters, cf. my other essay in this collection.


Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail