Oh, the Paine: On revelation as evidence

In the time I have been blogging, I’ve touched on a lot of different things, but none has quite blown up in my face like my attempt to take the site God vs. the Bible to task. Trying to take advantage of the fact (or so I thought) that few people read this blog in the vastness of the Internet was not one of my prouder moments, but it did introduce me to some interesting lines of reasoning in more depth. So, while I will not be jumping back on the “bash John Armstrong” platform, I would like to take a second look at something he says both on the site and in the comments and – perhaps more importantly – on what authority he makes those comments.

What I am referring to may be obvious to some, but for my sake, let’s look at a comment John made in response to my incredulity about his treatment of revelation:

Regarding point #3, “revelation” must be first hand. It can only be the matchless honor of speaking to God directly. Otherwise, we’re under no obligation to believe it. Can I assume you don’t believe the Muslims when they claim their Koran represents the will of God?

The interested reader can see my response, which is much the same now as then: Revelation doesn’t mean that, and not all revelation is equal. I thought it was an interesting line of reasoning (my original entry on GvB says I almost did a double-take), but now I’m not so impressed:

…Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.

It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication — after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.

If this sounds familiar, it means you’re up on your early U.S. lit – it’s from Part I of The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. (It is obvious that Armstrong thinks highly of Paine from the prominence of the quotes on the site, so this isn’t a big shock to me.)

Looking at Paine’s original declaration (which Armstrong seems to accept) bears out the problem:

Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. (emphasis mine)

This is a vital premise; Paine’s argument (simplified) is: revelation is a first-hand communication; but all religious texts are second-hand accounts that purport to be revelations from God; therefore, no religious texts are revelations at all (since ’second-hand revelation’ is a contradiction of terms). If the first premise is denied, then the otherwise valid argument collapses upon itself.

To that I ask: What religious adherent agrees that revelation can only be a direct communication from God? I don’t, and I can’t think of a single religious person who does. (I should note the not-so-small amount of irony that Paine here fails to use his reason when thinking about revelation, and certainly there were plenty of people who found The Age of Reason to be quite faulty in that regard, including one individual who shares my surname.)

Now, there is one point that Paine makes that is cogent enough: Second-hand evidence (of any kind, I would add) is not as convincing as first-hand evidence. It is, however, not so certain that God would directly reveal Himself to everyone (which does bring up the doctrine of divine hiddenness; that is well beyond the scope of this entry, however), and certainly we cannot establish this principle out of necessity. But Paine does so, and in fact, I would argue that his claim (implicit though it may be) is protected from an expansion to all kinds of evidence by the claim that ordinary evidence is dissimilar in degree to extraordinary, supernatural evidence – the kind that revelation would be. I am skeptical about this apparent asymmetry and think it an awfully precarious position for one to take, which makes it all the most amazing that Armstrong, writing more than two hundred years after Age of Reason, feels it so compelling.

Of course, Armstrong is free to believe this, but I am not obliged to believe it as well.


2 Responses to Oh, the Paine: On revelation as evidence

  1. C.L. Mareydt says:

    Don’t you think … revelation can come thru one word, one sentence, one thought, one action, etc? Or several altogether …

    Isn’t it still God ordained (ordered) in that moment thru whatever the medium is being used that makes it “revelation”?

    Yes, or no? Or still questionable?

  2. Brody says:

    That’s an interesting notion, very reminiscent of the Greek apocalypsis from which we get the name for the book of Revelation – simply “unveiling” – and certainly that is not limited to a direct revealing. It’s not that objectionable a thought.

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