Review of Holmer’s The Grammar of Faith

by John M. Frame

Paul L. Holmer: The Grammar of Faith. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978. xii, 212. $10.00. Published in Westminster Theological Journal 42:1 (Fall, 1979), 219-231. Used by Permission.


This book deals in very basic terms with what theology is, what it can and cannot do for people, how it ought to be done. It presents a genuinely new perspective on these matters which deserves close attention, especially by evangelicals. I expect that it will provoke considerable discussion.

Holmer is another of those Yale professors1 concerned more with the nature of theology itself than with any particular theological theses. He is somewhat older than David Kelsey but has published mostly in scholarly journals to this point. I expect that he will soon be much better known. In 1976 he published a highly regarded volume on C. S. Lewis, and he is currently planning two works called Logic and the Theologians and Philosophy and the Theologians. The present volume includes essays dating as far back as 1961 (but recently revised) together with some previously unpublished material. Thus it stands as a sort of summation of his thought to date, and that makes it especially appropriate for us to give the book some extended attention here.

He is not easy to locate on the theological spectrum. Evangelicalism is certainly one major influence. Once a pianist for Mordecai Hamm (the evangelist through whom Billy Graham was converted) Holmer has lectured at Wheaton on C. S. Lewis, served as faculty advisor to InterVarsity at Yale, been a good friend to many lonely evangelicals at the latter campus. He acknowledges

…a standing debt to the evangelicals. That debt is not only for childhood nurture which made Christianity vastly momentous and more


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 220

than a hobby, but also for that stream of reminders that the evangelicals provide which keeps alive the radical breach that the gospel is from the nous of the world.2

And he speaks of himself, even in later life, “suffering the angularity of trying to be evangelical and an intellectual” (Evangelicals, 69). Yet his work is far from standard evangelical writing, and his critique of the movement might seem to some, at least, to reach a fairly basic level. The thinkers to whom he has devoted the most study and to whom he refers most often, generally with approval, are Kierkegaard and the later Wittgenstein. This may seem an odd combination—the fattier of existentialism and the father of ordinary language philosophy. Yet Wittgenstein read Kierkegaard (before it was fashionable to do so) and considered him a highly important figure. And Holmer’s Kierkegaard is not quite the one condemned in the familiar evangelical polemics against neo-orthodoxy (cf. 182f.).3 He is not a screaming irrationalist, but one who seeks to make careful distinctions among different kinds of rationality, not unlike Wittgenstein! Wittgensteinian motifs abound in The Grammar of Faith. Holmer is always trying to lay to rest “the ghost of those peculiar philosophical longings that grip us ever and anon” (106), to call in question this or that “plausible dogma” (118). He speaks mysteriously of the many confusions or difficulties in this idea or that without bothering to list them or even, sometimes, to give examples. He is suspicious of generalizations, of philosophical schemes, insistent upon attention to the particulars of common language and everyday life as the solution to most really perplexing problems.4 Yet unlike Wittgenstein Holmer is a Christian theologian (Lutheran by confession).


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 221

All in all, then, it seems wise to read Holmer as a rather individual thinker, rather than as an instance of some movement or other. His individuality is confirmed by his writing style. The snatches already quoted here provide some examples of his preference for slightly odd word choices and grammatical constructions—not unclear, usually, but almost antagonistic to the traditional academic diction, almost calculated to rouse the reader from dogmatic slumbers. He tells us that “this theological stuff, this news about God and man, helps to redefine the human boundaries, to tame its vagrants …” (12), he speaks of “another and wry effect of learning” (72) and of “the foundation, the in re point” (95). His Evangelicals article, having accused its subjects of unbiblical thinking, concludes with the question, “What could be more dilemmic for evangelicals?” (95). Behind all this, perhaps is his view that theology in the most edifying sense ought to be in the vernacular (24) and should include 11 metaphor, figures and stories by way of a necessary projection of imagination” (30). It is Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication” (31, 185) that is difficult to achieve, he would admit, when one is speaking of somewhat technical matters as in Grammar of Faith; but he seems intent on giving his narrative at least an aura of indirectness.

The main substance of the book is a discussion of the familiar notion that the language of Scripture and the creeds has become meaningless (useless) to modern man because of changes (advances?) in science, technology, philosophy, etc. The common remedy for this problem is to try to recover the missing meaning through scholarship in various forms: historians telling us what really happened in ancient Palestine, scientists telling us that there really is room in Einstein’s universe for some sort of god, metaphysicians constructing new conceptual schemes by which we can use the old language without intellectual sacrifice, theologians assuring us that such strategies do retain the main drift of the biblical message. This common approach, however, according to Holmer, compounds the problems: First, each of the new schemes is at least initially


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 222

plausible and thus creates a following; but the non-academic believer is unable to make judgments among the various schools. Thus the vital matter of restoring the meaning of Christianity becomes a game for specialists, a conversation- starter for “the talkative bright college set” (48). Second, the history of doctrine turns into a series of short-lived fads, as one new hope for meaning is quickly supplanted by another (2, 195ff.). Third, faddishness begets scepticism: if the most ingenious schemes can be fashionable for only a few years, and if they stand as our only channel to meaning and truth, then who knows what is right? It seems that theology is a “free creation,” (1) that one man’s idea is as good as another’s. Fourth, theology loses its cutting edge. It cannot really challenge the spirits of the age, for it is so in debt to them (12, 14ff.). Fifth, the authority of Scripture gets lost. One’s primary allegiance is directed to a scheme in or behind the Bible (46ff., cf. Evangelicals 77ff., 80ff.) or to a “vague meta-view” (3) about how theology must change with the times. The shift in authority may seem very modern and sophisticated, but Holmer points out how these schemes and meta-views are themselves highly dubious (165, passim)When people recognize that, they may tend to become still more sceptical. Sixth, with the biblical message lost among the ontologies, meta-theologies, etc., the basics of Christianity—faith in Christ, love, obedience—tend to be ignored (162, 172, Evangelicals 74). Thus the emphasis of theology shifts drastically away from that of Scripture.

Holmer finds this whole approach radically wrong. Religion is sui generis—something radically different from the various fields of technical study and needing no foundation in any of them (31, 46ff., etc.).5 Knowing God is not like knowing anything else. We cannot say we know God unless we fear and love him (25), rejoice (Evangelicals, 94), experience a whole range of godly emotions (34, 64ff., 198ff.) and practice godly virtues (34, 50f.). We find him, not by observation (202), but by the practice of the Christian life, in prayer, in church liturgy (198, 202f.). There are no intellectual guarantees; the knowledge of God is not “done on paper” (32). There are “facts” involved, the consummatum est of Jesus’ work (109; cf. 101f.) ; but these are facts of a unique sort, not to be measured on criteria used in the technical disciplines. The result is that our knowledge


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 223

of God is “immediate” (209) and theology is best expressed in the vernacular (24, 30) rather than in any technical language.

There is, to be sure, a kind of theology which is academic—e.g., the historical study of biblical texts. Holmer does not wish to discourage or disparage this sort of work (46, 61, 167) ; but he does insist that such study is not the foundation of faith, nor is it the only kind of theology worthy of the name. There is also a kind of theology which is not scholarly nor scientific, but “which is not lesser for all that” (62). This is the sort of theology which we find in Paul, Augustine, Luther (63)—and Kierkegaard. Theology in the first sense is language “about” faith. It is neutral, detached, something which “Christians and non-Christians can share” (64; cf. 58f., 62f., 111ff., 147). The second kind of theology is language “of” faith, not merely “about,” though it may speak about many things (31, 50, 63ff., 71ff., 189, 201)—about God, ourselves, “everything else in the world” (73; cf. 12, 22, 189, 201). Yet he denies that the theology of the New Testament “satisfied also a cognitive interest” (75). The language “of” faith is “passionate, personal, evaluative, and useful for the purposes of being faithful” (64). Theology in this sense “expresses an enthusiasm in virtue of which judgments and beliefs are articulated” (65)—an enthusiasm which would be inappropriate in academic contexts.

Academic theology cannot serve as the basis for faith, cannot produce it in any sense. Intellectual achievements do not make people godly. They can aid faith only “indirectly” (62). Even theology of the second kind cannot communicate faith “directly” (31, 185), since knowing God is never merely a matter of mastering a certain thought content. But theology in the “of” mood (as Holmer puts it) does seek to set forth the 11 grammar” of faith, to show what the rules of faith are. And it seeks, through metaphor, parable, exhortation, poetry as well as straightforward prose, to elicit religious enthusiasm, to motivate people to love and obey. It makes true judgments, but makes them “to incite, not merely to inform” (67). Hence, perhaps, Holmer’s stylistic oddities noted earlier.

Holmer sees this point as a special instance of a broader one. Language in general cannot be said to derive its meaning from some theoretical scheme or other. Rather, words generally derive their meaning from their use in ordinary life. As Wittgenstein said, meaning is use (154, often elsewhere). Words become meaningful when people use them to do things; and since we use words in countless different ways, there is no one standard way for words to acquire meaning.

Therefore it is not as if the word “God” derived its original meaning from a cosmology featuring a “three level universe” and somehow lost


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 224

its meaning when that cosmology was abandoned. And we are not to try to restore its meaning by finding a new logical home for it within Einstein physics or evolutionary theory or process metaphysics. Its meaning is understood “in use.” It takes on life when it is put to work in its natural context of worship and practical godliness. Holmer asks,

But is there not a great deal of theology that is idle reflection and principally so because there is so little to being faithful? When there is nothing to be, very little to do, and very little to believe that is the way of a Christian, then the burden has to fall upon “understanding” and its correlative, “meaning” (39).

If we were faithful, godly people, he says, we would not have to worry about the “meaning” of Christianity. To be godly is to have the meaning.

The Christian life, Holmer sees it, and hence the meaning of Christianity, has not changed in its basic character since the first century (12, 112ff, 146ff). We are still called to love and obey, tempted to despair, anxiety, doubt, unkindness, and so on. When one sees the Christian faith in these terms, the supposed progress of science, philosophy, etc. cannot have any devastating effect on it. And when our faith grows dim, we cannot blame the dimness on our lack of education or scholarly skills.

By way of analysis: it should be evident by now that Holmer’s position rests heavily on the force of certain distinctions: between religion and science, knowledge of God and knowledge of other sorts, academic and edifying theology, language “about” and language “of,” technical schemes and everyday use of words. Like Wittgenstein, he seeks to cure our philosophical bewitchments by helping us attend to particulars, to see differences between things, rather than being misled by overstated generalizations. The book exhibits, we may say, a fairly pervasive and emphatic pluralism concerning language. Holmer admits that there are some concepts broad enough to function the same way in many different sorts of context. Words like “not,” “and,” “if”, particularly, have “meaning in independence of what they are linked to” (148), and also words like “object,” “event,” “hot,” “cold.” It is important to note these, he says, lest we credit the false notion that all concepts change or become outmoded through historical process (150f.). In general, however, his emphasis is upon discontinuity, on the differences between the uses of terms as contexts vary. So he insists that there is no single activity called “interpretation,” but rather “interpretations”—varieties of ways in which we set forth various meanings (6f., cf. 124ff.). There is no general theory of meaning by which we can judge, e.g., scientific language to be more or less “meaningful” than religious: the two are “incommensurable” (68f.).


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 225

Even logic and rationality escape generalization: the “logic of” science is different from that of religion (68f. again). Rationality is “polymorphic” (74; cf. 183f.). There is no “single and master concept of ‘fact’ “ (102), no “general working concept” of “cause” (171). Same for “knowledge,” objective,” “true,” “real” (189).

This sort of approach is clearly necessary in the current theological discussion. Holmer is right: there are all sorts of confusion about what constitutes “fact” “rationality,” etc., and important distinctions are glossed over. Holmer’s argument, however, goes too far and in another sense not far enough. Paradoxically, his pluralism is too generalized; an abstract pluralism such as this will recognize some important distinctions but of its very nature will miss others.

I think he goes too far, first, in that he asserts these discontinuities, often without any argument at all and other times with inadequate argument. Since he does allow for some field-invariant expressions (“not,” “and,” etc.), we naturally look for some justification when he states that such-and-such an expression is field-variant, and we expect that a thinker so influenced by analytic philosophy would be anxious to supply such an argument.6 Further, the pluralism is often not even adequately defined; for generally the crucial question is not whether a particular expression is field-variant, but in what respect it is. Historical facts, scientific facts, religious facts may indeed be different in some ways, but there are also some respects in which they are the same. Holmer himself is willing to submit a definition of fact which, though modified by the word “usually,” nevertheless clearly crosses the borders of the disciplines mentioned: “Usually what we call a fact is what we can reason from, what we can take for granted …” (105). Thus there is, even for Holmer, some continuity between different kinds of fact. And, on the other hand, for all his emphasis on discontinuities, there are differences among kinds of


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 226

fact that he does not explore. If meaning is use, then since two uses of a word are never exactly alike, there is some change in meaning with every use of a word. Thus the meaning of the word “fact” varies, not only from field to field, but even from utterance to utterance. Thus in a sense Holmer’s pluralism does not go far enough. But the overall point is that more argument is needed to establish the specific kinds of discontinuity needed for his case. Something more needs to be said about how scientific facts differ from religious facts in thisway, but not in that,7 That he tends to miss distinctions of this kind suggests an additional and profound sense in which his pluralism does not go far enough. Ironically he fails precisely to give enough attention to specifics.

I need to get more specific myself! Let us look more closely at Holmer’s distinction between language “about” and language “of” faith, and at the related distinction between the knowledge of God and other sorts of knowledge. These distinctions are somewhat reminiscent of Dooyeweerd’s distinction between “pre-theoretical” and “theoretical.”8 Like Dooyeweerd, Holmer is concerned (although he does not use this language) about the priesthood of believers and the perspicuity of revelation. Knowledge of God is not reserved for the educated, for the intellectuals. Religious wisdom comes to “conscientious tentmakers, tinkers like Bunyan, lay people like Brother Lawrence” (21). The same is true in other fields: an auto repairman can do his work quite well without a knowledge of atomic physics (174f.) ; an artist can be first-rate without an academic knowledge of aesthetic philosophy (37). Neither ordinary life in general nor ordinary language in particular gets its meaning from abstract theoretical struc-


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 227

tures ( 122ff., 150, etc.), nor can ordinary language be described as “theory-laden” (45). On the contrary, the technical concepts depend on the ordinary ones, and

The specialized concepts often mean less rather than more. For such concepts in these abstruse and artificial contexts have very little work to do. Typically it is only the special metaphysical context that keeps such concepts alive ( 175 ).

Hence the independence of faith from metaphysics, generalized conceptual schemes (120ff., 159ff., 195ff.), scientific theory (68ff., etc.), historical research (7ff., 72ff., 95ff., 109f., 165f.) or even the cogitations of systematic theologians (90; cf. Evangelicals 77, 93). So sharply is faith distinguished from these that Holmer is able to deny that the theology of the New Testament “among other things … satisfied also a cognitive interest” (75). It seems, then, that “the knowledge of God” adds nothing to our “cognition,” and vice versa ; that “language about” faith adds nothing to our “language of” faith, and vice versa.

But as we saw in our initial exposition such is not the case. Faith does depend, for Holmer, on facts of a certain kind (109, 209, 172). Though faith does not have the primary purpose of informing, it nevertheless tells “about” all sorts of things, encompassing the whole world.

… one gets to see as well as understand the world differently. Different feelings about one’s tasks develop, and a radically new composure towards the world—a contrasting metaphysics—is also elicited (158).

Metaphysics! And, he says, Christians do make “ontological commitments,” though not as instances of a philosophical scheme (Evangelicals, 79, cf. 91). And although in Grammar Holmer seems to dismiss “theism” as a needless and harmful sort of philosophizing (159ff), he tells us in Evangelicals that if the notion is understood “in biblical terms” Christians do “become theists” (80). And after all the polemics about technical and theoretical systems, Holmer surprises us all by denying that “the religious life is theory-free” (176). After all this, it turns out even that Christian concepts “depend upon” ( !) “the somewhat piecemeal outlook and piecemeal theories that bind them together” (177).

It seems, then, that there is “language about,” even theoretical language, yes, even metaphysical language, within the “language of” faith. But this fact surely demands some modification in the rather strident rhetoric of discontinuity. Once we get the whole picture, it is impossible to see how Holmer can deny “among other things … a cognitive inter-


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 228

est”9 to the New Testament. And although he has made faith independent of science, etc. generally, he has not made it independent of those theoretical structures within the language “of” faith. Thus he goes much too far in saying that faith is independent of all theory.

The distinction becomes even fuzzier when we look at it from the other side. Academic knowledge is supposed to be “neutral,” common to Christians and non-Christians. Occasionally, however, Holmer modifies this principle with “most of the time” (147, cf. 59). He points out that a biblical scholar does use the concepts of faith when seeking “to adequately describe his subject matter” (147) and he mentions the case where scientific language itself becomes a kind of religious enthusiasm (74). The scientific language “satisfies curiosity first and any other need only indirectly” (62) ; but this statement leaves the door open for science to supply, e.g., religious needs “indirectly,” which, interestingly, is all that religious language itself can do (31, 185).

What does the distinction, then, amount to, once we strip the discontinuity of rhetorical exaggeration? The scientific language is sometimes, though not always, religiously motivated and sometimes, though not always, accomplishes a religious purpose. The religious language is not merely10 scientific, but it performs scientific functions among others and depends,11 not on any “neutral” science, but upon that (piecemeal!) science within itself, the scientific aspect of the “language of faith.” The


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 229

simple twofold distinction might be better seen as a fourfold one: (1) neutral scientific language, (2) scientific language with a religious character or purpose, (3) religious language with a scientific character or purpose, (4) religious language without scientific character or purpose. (2) and (3) present, I think, no principial differences, and thus may be taken as identical, or merely as differing in emphasis. Then I have argued elsewhere, contrary to Dooyeweerd, that the distinction between scientific (“theoretical”) and non-scientific language is a continuum, a relative distinction, not a sharp one. One can be more or less theoretical about something. This argument would somewhat relativize the distinction between (3) and (4) as well.

Thus the significant divide would not be between religion and science. Holmer’s own qualifications turn that distinction into a relative one. The major distinction is between (1) and the others, between “neutral” language and religious language. This is, indeed, the point where the big issues lie. It is the point where Holmer’s main concern—the alleged loss of meaning in Christian language— must be addressed. The main problem is not that people are trying to base religion on science (though Holmer is right to point out confusions when they do), but that they are trying to base it on a (supposedly) neutral science. And I have a hunch that this is what Holmer himself cares most about. As we have seen, for instance, he has no quarrel with “ontological commitments” or “theism” as part of Christianity as long as these are understood “in biblical terms.” The point is not ontology in general vs. religion, but unbiblical ontology vs. religion. Note also his rather odd critique of the doctrine of divine omniscience (103, 173). This is an instance of his assertion that faith is independent of technical schemes even of the systematic theologians. But the force of his argument does not rest on any dichotomy between academic theology and faith: that dichotomy is too unclear to be persuasive, and I have my doubts that even Holmer came to his conclusion on that basis. What seems to generate the critique of omniscience, rather, is Holmer’s feeling that the concept is not biblical (cf. his acceptance of a theism “biblical terms”). “Anyway,” he says, “it is very questionable whether most people need to know what God knows in order to become devout” (103). Questionable on what ground? On religious grounds, presumably. He does not find the assumption warranted, as he puts it elsewhere, in Scripture and the creeds. And later he tells us that in Scripture and prayer “we do not find the words of theistic metaphysics at all” (173). Well, I could argue with him here. To be sure, the word “omniscience” is not found in Scripture, but I think the concept clearly is; cf. Ps.139, Heb. 4:12f. And it is not


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 230

a mere speculative notion, as the contexts of those passages indicate; it expresses the very religious conviction that we cannot escape from God or hide anything from him. It promotes fear and worship. There are, perhaps, “merely speculative” concepts of omniscience which deserve Holmer’s polemic; but those should be distinguished from the real thing. At this point too Holmer could take his pluralism more seriously. But note: the issue for Holmer as for me is not whether omniscience is religious or scientific, but whether it is biblical or unbiblical.

If we put the main dividing line, not between science and religion, but between “neutral” and religious language, further issues will have to be faced. Is there any neutral language, or only pretended neutrality? Holmer opposes “neutrality” in the sense of facts or language without meaning, without context (5, 105), but he does assume that the language of science is neutral in the sense of being “common to Christians and non-Christians,” as we have seen. No doubt there are common aspects of scientific language: there are 100 centimeters in a meter for Christians and non-Christians alike. But (again!) there are further distinctions to be made. If we allow (as seems necessary from the above discussion) that religion influences science and vice versa, then every scientist will have to decide, not only whether or not to be Christian, but also whether or not he will accept the implications of Christianity for his scientific work. Whatever we say about weights and measures, then, it is clear that science as a whole is not religiously neutral, and that a claim to neutrality amounts to a choice against Christianity.

The conclusion of our argument is that the great divide is best formulated not as a difference between religion and science, nor between neutral and religious language, but between belief and unbelief. The categories “non-religious science” and “neutral science” simply do not exist. Thus if we ask whether some idea is suitable as a “basis” for Christianity in some sense, we must ask, not whether it is scientific or religious, nor whether it is neutral or biased, but rather, as we did earlier, whether it is biblical or not.

Putting the matter in this way, we can mount a clear, strong attack on the problems Holmer addresses in the book. Why has the Christian language become meaningless to many today? Holmer is right: not because of the alleged progress of science and technology, but people have turned away from the pursuit of biblical godliness. He is right: the situation will not be helped by some new conceptual scheme (although I would say, and I think he would too, that a biblically informed conceptual scheme could be of help), but by people being moved by grace to obey God instead


WTJ 42:1 (Fall 1979) p. 231

of their own lusts. On this account, there need be no temptation to faddism or scepticism. Scripture is the authority, the sure word of God, and it abides forever. On this basis, theology can and must challenge the spirits of the age including the “vague meta-views.” And Scripture must determine our priorities as well. Preoccupation with “being,” “conceptual schemes,” etc. must never be allowed to eclipse our trust in the simplicities of the Gospel—that Jesus loved us and gave himself for us. Knowing God is indeed inseparable from fearing and loving (though it involves knowledge of a more pedestrian sort as well). And Christian concepts indeed speak “about” all areas of human life. You can see, then, how much of Holmer’s case is reaffirmed and indeed strengthened by our restructuring and clarification of his central distinctions.

In fact, Holmer of all people ought to recognize that the malaise of our time is not a failure to distinguish one area of life from another—an intellectual mistake after all ! It is not a matter of missing information, but a religious disability: a religious disability which, among other things, sets up false intellectual standards and seizes on linguistic confusions to rationalize its unbelief.

It will be interesting to read Holmer’s next books. At the moment he seems poised between a radical biblical critique of modern thought and a quasi-neutral analysis of the different areas of human life. It is hard to imagine that he will not move more decisively in one direction or the other. I devoutly hope that he will seize the former alternative. His insight, cogency and concern to edify could make him a powerful apologist indeed.

John M. Frame



1 See my article, “The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology,” WTJ XXXIX, 2 (Spring, 1977), p. 329, for some of the others. I should mention that Holmer was my thesis advisor, so that readers can assess effects of any possible conflict of interest.

2 Holmer, “Contemporary Evangelical Faith: An Assessment and Critique,” in D. F. Wells and J.D. Woodbridge, ed., The Evangelicals (N.Y., Abingdon, 1975), 68; henceforth abbreviated Evangelicals. Quotes and references not so labelled will be from the volume under review.

3 It might be possible to state Holmer’s theses in a way that would make him sound like a conventional “neo-orthodox” thinker: anti-abstractionism, “language about” vs. “language of,” denial of a philosophical grounding for faith, etc. But one misses in Holmer the dialectial orientation, the supra-historical salvation event, the Christo-monism, the opposition of propositional to personal encounters. Though he speaks well of Barth (183), his concerns and the structure of his thought are quite different.

4 At times, Holmer seems almost as much of an uncritical Wittgensteinian as Paul Van Buren in The Edges of Language (cf. my review, WTJ XXXVI, 1 (Fall, 1973), 106–111). He writes as if Wittgenstein’s equation of meaning and use, e.g., is so obvious as to require very little argument, when in fact it is still controversial. Van Buren, however, in Edges was going through a phase, dabbling in Wittgenstein a bit as part of his restless pilgrimage from one fashion to another. Holmer, principially opposed to such reverence for the fashionable, has worked hard on Wittgenstein for many years. He seems (and is to an extent) dogmatic because he has gone over the arguments before and is now mainly intent upon integrating this work with his now mature and stable theological outlook. One could nevertheless wish for a bit more consideration of those still suspicious of Wittgenstein for whatever reason, but Holmer’s dogmatism ought to be understood in perspective.

5 Usually by “religion” Holmer means Christianity. He says that Christian religious concepts are the only ones with which he has “a standing familiarity” (177). We shall see that some unclarity develops here, for he sometimes, I think, uses the religion/science distinction where the Christian/non- Christian distinction would be more appropriate.

6 A fairly general weakness in the book is Holmer’s frequent use of expressions like “obviously” and “plainly” precisely where the issue is not obvious or plain, or, on the other hand, his branding alternate views as “absurd” or “silly” where serious discussion might be expected (cf. 103, 111, 121f., 165, 170, 184). He asks, e.g., “Is it not madness to interpret the New Testament as though it served the abstract intellectual interests of its authors and readers?” (76). But he has just attributed such a view to Bultmann, and much as we may disagree with Bultmann do we really want to call him mad? Is the question really that obvious? Holmer is highly critical of some who in his estimation jump to easy answers when problems are difficult. Sometimes, however, I think the shoe is on the other foot.

7 Other examples: Although Holmer thinks “objectivity” is a polymorphic expression, he seems to acknowledge that it can be pretty generally opposed to “whim” (191). “Meaning,” too, is polymorphic, but Holmer is willing to accept Wittgenstein’s meaning-use as a fairly general definition. It may be (as Wittgenstein argued) that no single component is present in all uses of a particular term, that a word has “sameness of meaning” over a range of use due to a “family” of overlapping likenesses. Still, even on that view there are likenesses; and on that view it becomes all the more important to sort them out, to map where they begin and end.

8 There are significant differences, too, as we shall see. It is interesting to note, however, that despite the rather great differences between Holmer’s language analysis and the phenomenology which served as the background for Dooyeweerd’s distinctions, Wittgenstein was familiar with phenomenology and at one point was willing to describe his own work with that label.

9 Or does he want to distinguish between one sort of “cognitive interest” and another. Part of the problem is that Holmer uses two incompatible rhetorics—one denying all theoretical basis for Christianity & another demanding distinctions between different sorts of theory.

10 It has occurred to me lately that a surprising amount of confusion could be avoided if theologians would learn to use this word. So often theological writers say “not” when they mean “not merely.”

11 “Depends” = “is founded on?” The language of foundation, dependence, etc. is another area in which Holmer’s formulations need clarification. There are a number of ways in which something can “depend on” or “be founded on” something else, and by failing to distinguish these, Holmer again compromises his pluralism. “Foundation” and “basis” are architectural metaphors, and their application to concepts is not obvious. They can refer to ontological relations, to causality of different kinds, to logical conditionality (necessary or sufficient), to the psychological preconditions of having certain ideas, etc. The work of an auto repairman is not “based on” atomic theory in the sense that the man must take courses in the latter. But this work would indeed be impossible it if were not for certain regularities in the world which we commonly describe in terms of atomic physics. This is a lot like the question of whether faith “depends” on the finer points of systematic theology.



Sign up to receive new posts via e-mail