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-by Andrew Chignell


He Is Not Silent

Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks

By Nicholas Wolterstorff

Cambridge University Press

326 pp.; $59.99, hardcover; $18.95, paper

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard relates the Hasidic legend of Rebbe Shmelke from Nickolsburg. Shmelke, it is told, never heard his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch, complete a teaching, because as soon as the Maggid would say "and the Lord spoke," Rebbe Shmelke would start shouting in wonderment, "The Lord spoke! The Lord spoke!" and continue in this vein until he had to be carried from the room.

Shocking as it sometimes seems, many theists--especially those in Jewish and Christian circles--believe that the Lord of the universe speaks. More surprising still: many of these believers claim that God speaks to them. Saint Augustine is famous for confessing that he was led to Christianity when he heard God speaking to him through a young child's voice in a garden. Contemporary evangelicals are (in)famous for saying things like "I felt God speaking to me through that passage" or "I really heard from the Lord on that issue." In Divine Discourse, Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff reflects on these kinds of claims and concludes that they may be philosophically defensible.

Leaving God speechless

Can Divinity discourse? After all, "God is Spirit," says the apostle John; and spirit-beings don't have vocal chords and they do not use pens, paper, or word processors (though stone tablets and palace walls have been utilized on special occasions). This does not deter Wolterstorff: We know of many cases, he says, "in which one person says something with words which he himself hasn't uttered or inscribed. Cases of double agency, we might call them." An ambassador, for example, is authorized to speak in lieu of the head of state, while many a CEO has "composed" a letter by the hand of a secretary.

These are the kinds of creative comparisons Wolterstorff makes as he tries to bring questions about the nature of language (which ...

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