Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 4: Chapter 6

macquarrieMacQuarrie has been interested from the very beginning of Principles of Christian Theology in the ability or inability of human language to express the experiences and revelations that make up the beginnings of religion. The first sentence of the book, after all, says that theology “seeks to express the content of this faith in the clearest and most coherent language available” (1), and the introduction has a number of reflections on the difficulty of finding clear and coherent language that will express theological propositions. But because MacQuarrie is committed to expressing theology in the language of his culture, he cannot simply throw his hands up and say that faith and language have little to do with each other. He cannot even make the apophatic turn and say that nothing meaningful can be said about what God is, but only about what God is not. This concern reaches its apex in Chapter 6 of Principles, “The Language of Theology.”

Language and Logic

In the mid-twentieth century (and probably in our own, too, although I am much less familiar with contemporary philosophy), to speak of philosophical language in the Anglo-American world in which MacQuarrie moves was to speak of logic. The philosophical concern with logic reached its (illogical) extreme with the movement known as Logical Positivism, which in its simplest form demanded that any statement of putative fact be subjected to “the principle of verification,” which (as A.J. Ayer puts it in Language, Truth, and Logic) says “that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express–that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (35). The word observation in this description demonstrates the degree to which Ayer’s criterion demands empiricism–with the exception of merely logical statements (such as the famous syllogism that ends with the statement “Therefore, Socrates is mortal”), a statement can be true only if it can be empirically verified. Obviously such a principle forbids all metaphysical and most religious statements–which Ayer charitably calls “nonsense.”

When I teach Logical Positivism, it generally takes my students about five minutes to determine its central problem: the principle of verification is not itself verifiable empirically; thus Logical Positivism relies on a metaphysics that it refuses to recognize as metaphysical. Ayer later turned his back on the movement, saying that “nearly all of it was false”; I suspect that it was this internal contradiction that led him to that point, though I don’t know that for sure. The important point for MacQuarrie’s purposes is that Logical Positivism was succeeded by a much more moderate view of logic, the Wittgensteinian view that “The meaning of a language is to be looked for in the way it gets used” (124). A pragmatic approach like this one is much less hostile to theology, which now at least has the opportunity to explain how its language is used. Language is now grounded in human life rather than abstracted into a series of objective statements to be analyzed. Happily for MacQuarrie, Wittgenstein’s view dovetails nicely with Heidegger’s idea that language is an existential phenomenon near the heart of what makes human beings human.


A given speech act, says MacQuarrie, has three basic components: the person speaking, the person being spoken to, and the subject about which the speaking deals. He considers them separately in some detail; I’m going to go through them more quickly and more or less as a whole, both because I have other interests and because I think his philosophy of language is flawed in some key ways.

From the point of view of the speaker, the purpose of language is to communicate an experience, which is, naturally enough, the subject of the discourse. He must do so by putting it into words that the person being spoken to can understand and adapt to his or her own experience. When we’re talking theology, this is, it almost goes without saying, a translation fraught with difficulty, and the language that results will often look very different from everyday language; theological language looks more like poetic or mythological speech than like scientific discourse or a person giving someone directions to the park. All of this is perfectly in keeping with Heidegger’s conception of language (at least in his middle period)–for Heidegger, poetic-cum-philosophical language might allow a person to encounter the Being that is blocked by average everyday language.

Principles of Christian Theology was published in 1966 and must have been written in the preceding years. That’s an unfortunate date when it comes to philosophy of language, because just a few years later, poststructuralism had burst upon the scene and demonstrated (I think, anyway) the degree to which all human experience is mediated by language. For Derrida–and even for the more moderate Gadamer–there is no pre-linguistic experience that must be translated into language to be communicated. Instead, the experience itself was always already interpreted.

This is the meaning of Derrida’s famous il n’y a rien de hors-texte–often translated “There is nothing outside the text,” but better translated “There is no outer-text.” That is, there is nothing that does not need to be interpreted, including original religious experiences. When Moses saw the burning bush, for example, he did not have a primal, pre-linguistic encounter that later, in the privacy of his study, he translated into linguistic form. Instead, his experience of the burning bush took place in language, because he thought about it as it was happening, and because human thought is always linguistic. Thus, a given speech act need not require a listener–because thought itself, because experience itself, is a speech act.

We can’t blame MacQuarrie for not inventing poststructuralism, and of course poststructuralist theory has many problems with it from religious and philosophical perspectives. (By my estimation, Gadamer and Paul Ricœur, who accept certain structuralist and poststructuralist assumptions about language but who emphasize the encounter between beings in language, temper a lot of these problems.) But I would be interested in seeing someone attempt to integrate MacQuarrie’s Christian existentialism with a more poststructuralist view of language.

Myth and Symbol

The precursor to theology (and to philosophy, for that matter) is myth, which is marked by its narrative and unsystematic character. The events and characters in myths seem to exist in our own world–and yet they also apparently do not exist in our own world, which means that myths “are put beyond the possibility of verification” (132). It’s clear, then, that for theological discourse to belong properly to the human sciences, it’s going to have to go beyond myth. MacQuarrie is a well-known admirer of the great Christian demythologizer Rudolf Bultmann, so perhaps these assertions are not surprising. But for those who, like me, are made nervous by Bultmann, it’s worth noting that MacQuarrie points to a real danger of the process of demythologizing: “it tends to subjectivize the whole content of the myth, so that all the ideas of the myth, including even the idea of ‘God,’ are taken to refer to elements of our own inner life” (133). The only way to avoid this subjectivizing is to admit that the myth cannot be entirely demythologized without losing something essential in it; at the same time, we must always think of the world the myth refers to rather than just the existential state it creates in its hearers (ancient or modern).

One difference between mythological discourse and theological discourse is that the latter recognizes symbols as symbols. In fact, a great deal of theological conversation–a great deal of all academic conversation–rotates around symbols, and MacQuarrie spends a great deal of time talking about them. (Much more time than I’m going to spend, I’m afraid.) Symbols are never universal, but they’re also not wholly individual; they belong to a community of interpretation and thus have value for people who speak the same symbolic language. All theology is going to be symbolic because it involves talking about Being itself, which can’t be talked about straightforwardly. Thus we’re going to have to use symbols, either comparing Being to beings (or our relationship with Being to our relationships with beings) or by pointing out the places in which Being fills and makes possible beings. Because Being fills and makes possible all beings, literally anything could be a symbol for Being–and yet MacQuarrie says that the relationships inherent in revelation make better symbols. In other words, I could discover God in a bundle of collard greens, but the incarnate Christ is a better symbol–although we have to make sure that we don’t deny the materiality of the incarnation in talking about it as a symbol.

The Truth of Religious Statements

Religious statements cannot be “true” in the same way that mathematical formulas or empirical observations are “true”–but that shouldn’t concern us too much, because mathematical formulas and empirical observations aren’t “true” in the same way to begin with. We must recognize that there are many ways of determining the truth of a given statement, and that these ways will likely vary on the basis of the discipline from which we consider the statements.

What all these different forms of “truth” have in common is that “when a statement is true, it lets us see things as they really are, without distortion or concealment” (146). We’re back to Heidegger’s notion of truth as alēitheia, in other words–unconcealment. And thus it should not be surprising that MacQuarrie posits the truth of religious statements on existential grounds, which is to say that a given theological statement should be true if it appropriately illuminates human self-understanding (and especially if it causes people to act accordingly).

When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Georgia, I once had a student ask me why I was a Christian. It’s not a question I like to answer, although obviously it’s an important question to answer (and, I suspect, one that a person is asked a relatively small number of times in his life). My answer was that the New Testament seemed to me to describe the human condition better than anything else I knew. I’d not read MacQuarrie at the time, but I suspect that he’d approve of this answer–the New Testament is true in the sense that it tells us who we are.

I like that answer and dislike it in almost equal measure. On the one hand, I believe pretty firmly that we have to begin with what’s around us. No one’s attracted to Christianity primarily because of its vision of God, and to the degree they are, it’s because that vision of God echoes something they always knew about themselves but perhaps didn’t have words to express. (They saw in themselves the Imago Dei, for example, or the effects of original sin, their need for a savior.) On the other hand, something about grounding the fundamental truths of religious statements in our own condition rather than in God seems to me like putting the cart before the horse. But that may be my own Barthianism/Calvinism speaking.

1 thought on “Reading Through Principles of Christian Theology part 4: Chapter 6

  1. Macquarrie’s strong reliance on Wittgenstein certainly did my heart good in this chapter, though as you note, he’s not a full-on Gademerian by any means.

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