How Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Language Complicates Protestant Salvation

One of the members of a Lutheran Bible study group I attend recently said some unkind words about Catholics. That encouraged me to think up a theology that would allow for the salvation of Catholics while implying the damnation of Lutherans and other Protestants without relying upon Catholic tradition that implies the damnation of Protestants (e.g. “No salvation outside the Church.”). I wanted a theology that shows the requirements of salvation, as construed by most Protestants, aren’t achievable, or don’t seem to be. I realized that Wittgenstein’s treatment of private language could be the basis for such a theology. We will conclude that the Protestant doctrine of salvation through faith doesn’t seem possible, but Christian traditions that uphold the saving power of sacraments—like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy—can still furnish Christians with salvation.

“faith is a thing in the heart”

Let’s first establish that Protestants commonly understand faith to consist in an internal state of a person, a personal fact about oneself that one can identify inwardly but others can only derive evidence of through actions. Martin Luther tells us that “faith is a thing in the heart” (Wittgenstein quotes Luther along similar lines, “Faith is under the left nipple,” when discussing the idea that faith is a “state of the soul.”). The Baptist Confession of 1689 reads, “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts.” Evangelicals commonly emphasize accepting Christ as one’s “personal savior.” Mormons speak of a “burning in their belly.” John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, described his conversion experience as, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ.”

This isn’t surprising for two reasons. First the idea that our beliefs are immediately transparent to us, but only indirectly available to others is a natural understanding of “belief,” whether those beliefs be religious or otherwise. Second in broad terms, this is also a conception of faith that is common in the New Testament, so continuing to understand “belief” and “faith” in the commonsense way is not necessarily unbiblical. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:13, “Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak.” See also James 2:18, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” Also Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”

I’m not claiming that Protestants see no connection between faith and action and other public behaviors or even that the connection is rather casual. Many Protestants believe in quite a robust connection between faith and action, including that inner faith will necessarily give rise to piety, charity, less sinful behaviors, and the like. The point here is that what constitutes salvation, in the mainstream Protestant view, is inner faith, and outward behaviors are only signs of what’s inside. That view is prevalent among Protestants no matter how prone faith is to give rise to action.

Do Catholics have this view as well? Sort of. More on that later.

Wittgenstein’s Treatment of Private Language

The difficulty is that, as a fact of our language, it doesn’t seem possible to have this inner faith on the basis of Wittgenstein’s treatment of private language. I say “treatment” because I follow Barry Stroud’s interpretation of Wittgenstein—Wittgenstein is not trying to prove that there can be no language that refers to one’s private inner experiences. Rather he so scrutinizes the idea of private language that it seems impossible for such a language to have any foundation, to have any meaning at all. The worry surrounding a claim like “Faith is a thing in the heart” is that “faith” is supposed to refer to an inner state, but that signification doesn’t seem to be possible.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein describes a language-game through which a word acquires meaning, the kind of “game” that children “play” when learning language and we use to teach and stipulate meanings. Language-games also describe how we use language in practice. Suppose we point at two nuts and say, “That is called ‘two.’” He asks us how this act succeeds in defining, that is pairing name to object. There’s a presumption of what kind of thing “two” is in the grammar of our language. Because after all, it could be assumed that “two” refers to that very group of nuts, to their shape, their color, the way the light hits them, their possessor, their cause, etc. There’s a mutual understanding that quantity is being discussed so we come to understand the meaning of “two.” Without this understanding that is grounded in the grammar of our shared public language, “two” could have any number of meanings. As Wittgenstein writes, “A great deal of stage-setting in the language is presupposed if the mere act of naming is to make sense.”

Say we point at someone praying, a congregation singing a hymn, or a person giving anonymously to charity and say “I call that ‘faith.’” Through pointing and so naming, we can establish that faith is a behavior or pattern of behavior that includes making certain motions at certain times, going to Church on Sunday mornings, agreeing when asked certain questions about creed, and so on (the pattern may be very complex). No amount of pointing at people and uttering “faith” can establish faith as a feature of a person’s subjective experience because we can’t point at or otherwise reference objects within a person’s subjectivity. Subjectivity has no role in language as it is actually used—in any language-game, to use Wittgenstein’s term. As far as we can tell, language games can only operate on public entities according to public rules for how and when words are used.

So when we read “Faith is a thing in the heart,” we aren’t supposed to read the English word “faith,” we’re supposed to understand “faith” as a word of a private language quite different from English. This is faith that results from a quite different act of naming.

Let us try to establish the meaning of “faith” in this private language. Say that we point at some feature of our subjective experience (Wittgenstein concedes this is possible by focusing our attention).  Say we point at the faith that is felt in the heart, and say “I call that ‘faith.’” In this situation, we don’t have the stage-setting of English to know what kind of thing is being designated by this act of naming. So the act achieves noting, like pointing and saying “two” without knowing what kind of thing two is. It’s just an empty ceremony.

The Beetle in a Box

The point is difficult to understand. It’s helpful to come at it from a different angel, that of Wittgenstein’s famous “beetle in a box” example:

Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!—Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle.” No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.—Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.—But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? —If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.

As with pain, so with this faith-in-the-heart. The situation we find ourselves in is unbearably frustrating. We have these somethings, that are not even something because even “something” is a term of public language. They (and we cannot even say “they”) are essential for our salvation, according to Protestants and the Bible. We don’t even know if we have it because the faith that Biblical writers mean by “faith” need not be what we mean by “faith”; the Bible’s beetle need not be our beetle. Wittgenstein leaves us at adrift. In frustration, we’d “like to emit an inarticulate sound.—But such a sound is an expression only in a particular language-game, which now has to be described.”

We’re left with the quest to establish a language-game for that inarticulate sound, but it doesn’t really seem like a way forward. It’s more of a tease. Perhaps Adam, who gave names to all the animals that God created, could describe a language-game for this inarticulate sound, but for humans after the Fall, it seems impossible. Eden is on the other side of the walls at the edge of our language (To us, that edge might as well be a precipice). We’re like mimes beating on the inside of an invisible box; there doesn’t seem to be a way out. We have no way of knowing whether we have the faith the Bible and our creeds expect us to have, and insofar as faith is necessary to avoid damnation, damnation seems unavoidable.

I’ll later discuss why there’s hope for Catholics and others, particularly in connection to sacraments, and the wider theological implications of this finding.