Review of High’s New Essays on Religious Language

by John M. Frame

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 33:1 (Nov., 1970), 126-131. Used by Permission.]


ed. Dallas M. High: New Essays on Religious Language. New York: Oxford University Press. 1969. xv, 240. Cloth, $5.00. Paper, $1.95.


Since the fall of Adam, many men have expressed doubts concerning God’s existence; others have gone further and have questioned the very possibility of God’s existence. In our own century, however, unbelief has reached a still more radical level: learned men now have come to question the very meaningfulness of the sentence “God exists” and, by implication, the meaningfulness of all Christian language. Others, somewhat less radical, have granted that “God exists” is somehow meaningful, but have insisted that the sentence does not state a fact; rather, they propose, this sentence makes a moral resolution, expresses an attitude, makes an aesthetic judgment, or performs some mysterious function not clearly specifiable.

Such is the challenge of “analytic philosophy” to Christianity. Not all “analysts” are that radical, to be sure, but those with religious interests are characteristically absorbed by that sort of problem—and the problem is indeed a radical one. Furthermore, this challenge is all the more significant in view of the fact that analytic philosophy is the dominant philosophical approach today in British and American universities. And in those universities the challenge is most effectively articulated. The analysts present their case with a refreshing straightforwardness, and

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with higher standards of clarity and logical rigor than any theology of which I know. It is therefore about time that orthodox Christian scholars came to grips with analytic philosophy. Why is it that even in those orthodox circles where “epistemological self-consciousness” is most highly prized there has never (in my opinion) been any really thoroughgoing critical appraisal of this movement? We have totally failed to meet the most significant philosophical challenge of our day to the Gospel, while we have squandered our intellectual skills on movements of far less substance. We have, unlike Dr. Robert Dick Wilson, “shirked the difficult questions.”

Well, if anyone at this late date wants to do something toward remedying this deplorable situation, he will find Professor High’s collection of essays an excellent place to start. The articles are written by some of the most prominent analysts of religious language, and the quality of thought is high indeed (though in my view the contributions of Poteat and McPherson fall somewhat below the overall standard). The first two essays introduce us to Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the guiding spirits of the movement, perhaps the most important philosopher of our century, and surely the most fascinating philosophical personality since Kierkegaard. The other papers make various proposals for the settlement of the “religious language question” and incidentally provide the reader with a valuable survey of current thinking on the subject. The contributors all represent the “right wing” of the movement. Not one of them argues that religious language is generally meaningless or even that religious affirmations are generally non-factual. Yet all feel to some extent the force of the “left wing” attack on the meaningfulness of language about God and are constrained to reply to it. All agree that there is something “odd” (a favorite term in the analytic vocabulary) about sentences containing the term “God.”

Take the sentence “God exists.” Clearly, as the logical positivists pointed out earlier in our century, that statement is not verified in the way that scientific theories are verified (at least on the positivist account of “verification”). Further, as John Wisdom and Antony Flew later observed, religious people are strangely reluctant even to conceive of some empirical fact which might possibly falsify such a sentence. Since, therefore, this sentence behaves very differently in these respects from other statements of fact, we are tempted to ask what kind of “odd” fact this sentence can be used to state—if indeed it can state any fact at all.

All the essays in the present volume may be read as responses to this problem. One approach is to consider more closely the relationships between religion and science (particularly scientific “verification”). Ian Ramsey

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argues that science is not as unreligious as it sometimes seems to be, and that it requires a religious metaphysic to achieve its goal of a comprehensive conceptual scheme. Frederick Ferré gives us the other side of the coin: as Ramsey’s scientists are religious, so Ferré’s religious people are in important respects scientific-especially in their use of conceptual models (Ferré incidentally includes a valuable catalogue of information on this much-discussed subject). Basil Mitchell takes the discipline of history (sort of a borderline between science and something else) and argues that the historian’s treatment of evidence is not all that different from the theologian’s. Of course there are differences between religion and the sciences, and Ramsey, Ferré, and Mitchell do point these out. All argue, however, that the sense in which religious statements are “unverifiable” does not disqualify them as meaningless, or even as scientifically meaningless.

But, now, what are some of the differences between science and religion? The writers in this volume address this question also, and their answers are in part a further justification for the “unverifiability” of religious affirmations. Ramsey and Ferré, to be sure, come close to saying that religion and the sciences are so necessary to one another that they should be amalgamated into one embracive discipline. Still they would argue that such an embracive discipline must contain elements which are in narrower senses either religious or scientific. Religion provides the insight necessary to formulate hypotheses while science provides the techniques for testing and applying them, though at the higher levels of generality conclusive verification is not possible. Mitchell, in an article especially important for those of us concerned about “presuppositions,” adds the point that even at the highest levels of generality “evidence” still has a role to play, but he seems to agree with the others that that role is not one of conclusive verification. Ramsey, in a second essay, discusses what is involved in saying that religious language is “paradoxical,” and Thomas McPherson explores the concepts of “analogy” and “symbol,” thus setting religious language off yet more distinctly from the “straightforward” language of science. Still more interesting is the thought which intrigues several of the essayists, that narrowly scientific language is unable adequately to account for persons—human and, a fortiori, divine. It is particularly unable to analyze statements containing the first person singular pronoun. William H. Poteat in his two essays formulates the distinction between “objective, scientific” language and the language of “personal involvement” so crassly that only the poetic prose of a Martin Buber could make it plausible. And Poteat is no Buber. Ramsey, however, along with Robert C. Coburn and C. B. Daly, offers some fascinating

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“analytic” variants on Calvin’s theme, that knowledge of God and knowledge of self are interdependent. Daly’s article is especially interesting, for to him the analysis of human selfhood is one of many tunnels leading us from Wittgensteinian analysis back to a traditional—or even Heideggerian—sort of metaphysics. He suggests that Wittgenstein’s concept of “family resemblances” is virtually a return to the medieval “analogy of being,” but fails to respond to Wittgenstein’s explicit strictures against such interpretations.

According to Coburn and Paul L. Holmer, however, the kind of self-knowledge requisite for knowing God is far more than a sharp analysis of a personal pronoun. Coburn tells us that statements like “God exists” serve to give “logically complete answers” to “religious limiting questions” such as “What is the meaning of life?” When such questions are answered, that personal distress which produced the question is cured, so that the questioner’s life is changed in highly practical ways. Holmer argues that theology should not think of itself as endlessly pursuing a set of highly esoteric and elusive facts, as though the facts about God were inadequately presented in Scripture and the creeds, but rather theology should aim at curing the ills of men—the confusions of thought and the complacencies of life which keep men from feeling the force of the Christian Gospel (cf. Daly on p. 120 for an interesting parallel, with a stress considerably different from that of Ramsey et al.).

How shall we as Christians respond to all of this? Let us look first for a moment at the central problem, the verifiability of God-language. The reason why a Christian resists conceiving of a “possible falsification” of God’s existence is simply that to him God’s existence is a presupposition. Nothing can “disconfirm” God’s existence because all confirmation and disconfirmation presupposes it. There can be no “possible falsification” of God’s existence just because it is God who determines what is possible and what is not. At the same time the existence of God does have a positive relation to “evidence”; for since all facts presuppose God, all facts are evidence of his reality. God’s existence, therefore, is “verifiable”; but because of its logically unique presuppositional status there is a kind of “oddness” in this particular sort of “verification.” The Christian resists submitting God to human criteria, for he is under orders to “bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). But for that same reason he must acknowledge God’s own criterion, his self-attestation! And “self-attestation” is something “odd” indeed; for only God can attest himself.

Now Ramsey, Daly, and others in the present volume acknowledge

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that religious statements are terribly basic, that they provide a conceptual scheme for interpreting the whole of reality. Yet at every point the writers assume that in some realm (generally what we have called the “narrowly scientific”) men can go about their business without listening to God’s voice. The religious “conceptual scheme” does not, after all, interpret the whole of reality; not every thought is to be brought captive to Christ. Mitchell, for instance, argues that it is possible for me to accept arguments against my own faith without even implicitly and incipiently accepting a rival one; my doubts may cause me simply to modify my own system in some way. At one level this is a valid point. There are times when I should recognize inadequacies in my own system in order to make it more congruent with that of Scripture. But as Mitchell fails to realize, the Christian is not free to “modify” Scripture itself; and when he “accepts arguments against” Scripture he is in fact accepting a non-Christian standard of reference. Mitchell like the other authors assumes that men have an open-ended right autonomously to shape their own systems; and that assumption the Christian cannot abide. Erich Heller, not a philosopher but a professor of German, in his heretofore unmentioned lead essay in our volume, presents this point strikingly. His remarkable paper attempts to place Wittgenstein in the context of continental philosophy and literature and points up some rather striking parallels between Wittgenstein and Nietzsche! He argues that Nietzsche’s “death of God” is parallel to Wittgenstein’s loss of faith in the power of language to “mirror” reality and his subsequent insistence that man himself must confer meaning upon language and upon the world through his “form of life.” We have seen similar autonomous pretensions in Wittgenstein’s followers in this volume. No wonder that “left wing” analysts have denied the very meaningfulness of Christian language! For how can it be meaningful on such criteria? Clearly an orthodox Christian can make no compromise with such idolatry!

And yet we can learn so much from the analysts! Yes, theology does make use of models. Yes, there is paradox in theology, and we had better learn to distinguish one type of paradox from another. Yes, we have much to learn about the function of signs and symbols. Yes, there are important analogies between “I” and “God” that we have left unexplored. Yes, Our standards of clarity and logical rigor have been sinfully shoddy. Yes, we have too often ignored in our theology what is painfully obvious in Scripture, that practical obedience is a constitutive aspect of the “knowledge of God” (1 John 2:3–6), and that therefore any theology worthy of the name will aim, by the power of God, to cure men of those ills of thoughts

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and life which inhibit their grasp of God’s Word, even the ills of autonomous “analysis.”

John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia



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