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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Wahlberg, Mats


Revelation as Testimony. A Philosophical-Theological Study.


Grand Rapids u. a.: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2014. X, 246 S. Kart. US$ 20,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-6988-3.


Jan-Olav Henriksen

Mats Wahlberg argues that the most adequate understanding of the theological notion of revelation is to see it as testimonial knowledge. Testimonial knowledge is knowledge gained from the spoken or written words of other people (1). Furthermore, he argues that our knowledge of God is mainly testimonial. The main ques-tion that his book addresses is this: »Can beliefs about God and salvation that are acquired from divine testimony, mediated by hum­an spokespersons and expressed in human language, be rationally justified?« Because he argues that this is the case, most of his book is devoted to clarify different aspects of the notion of testimonial knowledge.
The profile of W.’s book emerges from his position on the ad-equacy of testimonial knowledge. By bringing revelation and testimony closely together, he has to argue against many of the contemporary concepts of revelation in both German and American theology. Revelation is mainly something that happens by means of speaking – and not by something happening, or taking place. As is obvious, this position has to take issue with any notion of revelation that sees revelation as exclusively manifestational as well as views that reject revelation understood as acceptance of the author-­ity of the revealer. Revelation means that God speaks through persons authorized by God to speak in God’s name, giving testimony. W. argues that much of the contemporary rejection of revelation understood as testimonial is based on inadequate conceptions of the nature of testimonial knowledge. He is nevertheless also keenly aware of how historical appeals to divine authority has contri-buted to these misunderstandings. His notion of divine relation as propositional (and true) knowledge therefore strives to include the possibility of critical scrutiny of what one takes to be a divine assertion (cf. 34 f.).
W. argues convincingly that testimonial beliefs are just as ra-tion­al as other beliefs we may have. He rejects an understanding of such beliefs as based on a distinction between faith and reason, because much of our beliefs in general (and not only in the re-ligious sphere) are in fact based on testimonial knowledge.
W. furthermore argues that his »divine testimony model of re-velation« not only is rationally defensible, but also necessary in for theology to be a coherent activity (cf. 13). His argument is therefore reliant on him being able to present a case for testimonial know-ledge that can face the most important challenges this notion has met in contemporary theology. As a basis for discussing this, he claims that there are in fact only two viable models for getting knowledge about God: a potent natural theology, and propositional revelation. These models are in his view not alternatives, but can also work together.
As should be clear from this presentation, W. holds a notion of revelation that links it to propositional knowledge, and is in need of demonstrating the limitations of the alternative, manifesta-tional models of revelation, without rejecting them altogether. He discusses in his Chapter 3 revelation as history (Pannenberg), as inner, non-conceptual experience (Schleiermacher et al.), and as inner, conceptual experience (Alston), a model of revelation he calls dialectical presence (Brunner, Barth), and postliberal models of revelation (Lindbeck, Thiemann). Although the treatise discussing these positions is in many ways preparatory, the discussions are thorough and illuminating, and can be read as valuable for those who do not share W.’s optimistic views on divine revelation as testimonial knowledge as well.
A full chapter is given to treating the notion of divine speech – where W. mainly builds on and develops elements from the work of N. Wolterstorff, whereas another chapter is given to discuss knowledge by hearsay, where W. builds especially on John McDowell’s anti-reductionist view of knowledge. These chapters must be seen as building blocks for his overall argument, and represents thorough treatises of relevant points. One of the important conclusions here is that testimonial knowledge require that one abandons »the idea of the ›epistemically isolated self‹ and the related fantasy of reasons autonomy with respect to the world and other people« (143).
The next main chapter of the book is called »Entrance into God’s own knowledge«, and the main topic here, of course, how one can acquire knowledge of God. This is related to believing God when God speaks (through others). A main element in the treatise in this chapter is W.’s illuminating discussion of doxastic responsibility. He distinguishes here clearly between being doxastically respon-sible when forming a belief, and being able to justify a belief in a satisfactory way. Furthermore, this chapter offers a discussion of miracles and their function on the forming of beliefs, which is also possible to read as an independent treatise on the topic, and which is taken up again and developed further in the next chapter..
Against the backdrop of the previous chapters, W. then formu-lates what he holds to be responsible belief, starting out with assert­ing that this means »Trusting the Gospels« – including their testimony on miracles. He employs a valuable distinction between seeing the gospels as historical reports and seeing them as testimony, and argues that much biblical scholarship has done the former, thereby blocking the possibility to see them as revelatory testimony.
It follows from W.’s account that his notion of revelation as tes-timony brings revelation and the scriptures closely together. The core of the argument lies in the assumption that the biblical witness about the resurrection of Jesus is true, as this miracle contrib­utes to the reliability of his claim to bear testimony to God. What this positions seems to miss, though, is the fact that those who bear testimony in the Bible, to a large extent do so based on the testimony of others who are not God. He seems to underestimate the his-torical dimension and the problems related to those when it comes to see the Bible as offering something like the revelatory self-tes-timony by God. This comment is nevertheless not meant to overturn W.’s argument: His notion of doxastic responsibility can be seen as a way to overcome such problems, although the present reader would like to see this more done than what is presently the case.
W.’s work is thorough, interesting, bold, and offers food for thought for both theologians and philosophers of religion. It draws on sources from a wide variety of theological schools and traditions, and should be relevant in different contexts, for students and scholars alike.