Student Essay: Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God

In this student essay there is a discussion of the relative merits of propositional and non-propositional revelation. It is an A grade essay.

Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God. (35)

Propositional and non-propositional revelations are forms of divine disclosure involving, in the Christian tradition, truths about God being revealed to (or recognised by) people in the natural world. Propositional revelations are truths revealed by God, whereas non-propositional revelations are a believer’s recognition of God acting in human experience. Various accounts of revelatory acts also exist within other religious traditions, such as those recorded in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam – Mohammed on the mountain, for example. These ‘holy books’ (the Bible and the Qur’an) supposedly posses a special status linked to God, helping followers to learn about God – despite his transcendence – through revelation in the natural world. These revelations can be concerned with nature, people, miracles or visions, for example God appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, resulting in Saul’s conversion to Christianity. The word ‘Islam’ actually derives from the notion of ‘submission to God’, highlighting the powerful and important role of Allah in the Islamic faith. It is generally accepted that the revelatory accounts in the Bible (containing what is believed to be the Word of God) are propositional in nature, whereas other revelatory experiences, such as religious experiences, are generally non-propositional in nature.

Belief in propositional revelations as divinely inspired experiences of God has both strengths and weaknesses attached to it. From a positive angle, there is no need for reinterpretation with these revelatory experiences because the truths revealed by God are infallible in nature. In this sense, there is arguably less potential for ‘human error’ as there is less of a focus on the individual or people in question. On the other hand, as these revelations are received ‘passively’ and without a human thought process, reason is removed from the equation, and therefore God’s revelations are not ‘provable’ by human standards. However, the existence of God (an argument put forward by Saint Thomas Aquinas) may be demonstrated using arguments for God’s existence, which do evolve from experience of the natural world. In this way, so long as propositional revelations are in accordance with Church teaching, particularly the Magisterium, Aquinas argues that it is sensible to accept them. Aquinas concluded by stating that Faith is more certain than opinion but less certain than scientific evidence, highlighting the importance of Natural Theology (using the natural world as evidence of God’s existence, such as in the forms of the cosmological and teleological arguments). William Paley, the developer of the teleological argument, was entranced by the complexity of the human eye, which lead him to the conclusion that ‘when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover [analogically] in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose…the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker.”

The fact that human beings do not receive information passively but actively and the fact that the human mind is prone to making mistakes when learning new things are primary weaknesses of the notion of propositional revelation. Aquinas argues that ‘absolute proof’ of divine revelation is impossible because of his notion that propositional revelations are not demonstrable using human reason. However, Aquinas’ ‘faith’ argument in support of propositional revelation is weak in the sense that many so-called revelation experiences may merely be a person’s passive acceptance of an unauthentic revelation. This weakness could however be countered by reference to Paul’s conversion experience; it was a truly unique experience which had a definitive outcome. However, on a greater scale, there are faith claims from different religious traditions that conflict and it could be argued thereby count each other out. For example claims that God is triune and became incarnate in Jesus directly contradict Muslim views of God as one and completely transcendent. A final strong weakness in the authority of Bible scripture (wherein accounts of revelatory experiences can be found) is that several passages conflict with accepted modern ethical views, such as those relating to the role of women. In this way, the authority of the Bible as the true ‘Word of God’ is diminished.

The interpretation on the part of the believer when it comes to non-propositional revelation leads to problems with the potential for misunderstanding and resulting at the ‘wrong message’. Furthermore, as non-propositional revelation is dependent on the perspective of the individual, there is no way of verifying whether the beauty of nature is something only God (or a higher being) can fully understand, or whether our environment is the product of a complex and beautiful process of evolution, of which it is possible and foreseeable for all elements to be explained or accounted for in scientific terms. The Bible from a non-propositional viewpoint is a collection of perceptions of religious believers who have witnessed revelatory acts through history. This is, of course, a very subjective and indirect way of viewing the ‘Word of God’. In this way, non-propositional revelation cannot in any way be considered infallible, unlike propositional revelation, which can appeal to ‘facts revealed by God’ as a basis for theological debate. On the other hand, strengths of the non-propositional perspective include the concept of faith as a way of seeing the world, in other words from a Christian or Muslim perspective, for instance. Finally, it appeals to our human nature to adopt a theory which enables us to interact with information, and thereby apply it to our own lives and the lives of those around us, perhaps providing a more useful result of the revelation.

In conclusion, it is exemplified though the world of the character of Sherlock Holmes that the beauty of nature is awe-inspiring; ‘Our highest assurance of the goodness of providence seems to rest in the flowers. All other things…are really necessary’. In contrast to this opinion, evolutionary atheist Richard Dawkins approaches the universe from a different angle in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’; he states: ‘Isn’t it a noble, enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it’. Although it is evidently possible to wonder at the beauty of nature without experiencing non-propositional revelation, and possible to discard arguably ‘delusionary and unverifiable’ cases of direct religious experience or revelation, it is also true that cases of divine inspiration, such as the giving of the Ten Commandments, as recorded in the Bible, have remained important features of our lives and helped tailor our lives towards the greater good for a great length of time, that perhaps being the reason why such accounts have remained pertinent within the scripture of religious believers for so long.

3 thoughts on “Student Essay: Critically assess propositional and non-propositional revelation as divinely inspired experiences of God

  1. Hi mr Livermore, I’ve read your sample essays on the website but I sill don’t know how to answer in terms of structure for tomorrow’s exam… Can I get away with for/against and still get top marks?

    Many thanks, Tia

  2. For and against is more of a middle-band answer – especially if it is more like a list of pre-prepared strengths and weaknesses. The exam board are really just looking to see that you can answer the question on the paper (not a general question related to the one on the paper), by analysing and evaluating a philosopher or argument. That means you do need to criticise arguments, but that you can also criticise the criticisms themselves. Use different philosophers to do this.

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