Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Versuch einer Kritik aller Offenbarung, 1792), despite its title, is a defense, rather than a critique, of the meaningfulness and validity of the concept of revelation, and is an investigation not of “all revelation” (in the sense of both religious and non-religious revelation), but only of religious revelation (which for Fichte constitutes “all revelation”).
Fichte describes a theory of volition according to which the will to obey principles of morality may be guided by practical reason. Insofar as the idea of God as moral lawgiver may facilitate determinations of the will, it may also guide us to act according to practical reason. The translation of the idea of God as moral lawgiver into the idea of the moral law in human nature is the principle of religion, insofar as this translation of pure into practical reason may serve as a guide for determinations of the will.1
Fichte distinguishes between natural and revealed religion by saying that God as moral lawgiver may proclaim Himself to us through natural or supernatural means. Natural (or rational) religion is based on recognition of the natural (or rational) means by which God may proclaim Himself to us as lawgiver, while revealed religion is based on recognition of the supernatural means by which God may proclaim Himself to us as lawgiver. Natural and revealed religion may be combined, and they are mutually compatible.
Revelation, according to Fichte, is an event or experience by which something is made known to us. Something is revealed to us when it is made known to us. Revelation therefore presupposes two internal conditions: the thing that is made known, and the form in which is made known. It also presupposes two external conditions: someone who makes something known, and someone to whom that thing is made known. 2
The possibility of divine revelation also presupposes the existence of God. Fichte therefore asks: how can we know that a given revelation comes from God? How can we know that it is God who has revealed something to us?
Such questions may be especially important when we try to distinguish revelation from other phenomena, such as fantasy, hallucination, or the delusion of a deranged person who commits some senseless crime or irrational act and then says, “I heard God’s voice talking to me,” or “I had a vision from God,” or “God made me do it.” In contrast to a delusion, which may be described as a fixed, persistent, idiosyncratic, false belief that is resistant to reason, a revelation may be described as a proclamation or communication from God that apparently conforms to reason.
In order to answer the question of how we can know that a given revelation comes from God, Fichte describes some criteria for the divinity of a revelation (with regard to its form), including (1) any revelation that has proclaimed, maintained, or propagated itself by immoral means cannot be from God,3 (2) only a revelation that proclaims God as moral lawgiver can be truly believed to be from God,4 and (3) any revelation that attempts to move us to act on account of motives other than reverence and respect for God’s holiness cannot be from God.5
Fichte describes some additional criteria for the divinity of a revelation (with regard to its content), including: (1) a revelation cannot require faith in teachings that cannot be arrived at by reason, (2) a revelation cannot require faith in teachings that are contradictory to reason (indeed, we can convince ourselves of the divinity of a given revelation only if it conforms to reason6), and (3) the divinity of a revelation must be evident not only on grounds of its conformity to reason, but also on other grounds7 (such as its arising from something supernatural in the sensory world).
Fichte explains that the essential element of (divine) revelation is the proclamation, through a supernatural effect in the sensory world, of God as moral lawgiver.8 Thus, revelation cannot be proven to have any objective validity, and it may not even have subjective validity for all rational individuals.9 A rational acceptance of a particular revelation as divine is possible only on a priori grounds, and this renders problematic any acceptance of a particular revelation as divine on the basis of principles learned from experience.
Fichte also explains that a priori knowledge of something is demonstrated, rather than revealed, to us.10 We can have a posteriori knowledge of something on the basis of experience, but only a priori knowledge enables us to conclusively prove or objectively demonstrate it.
A questionable claim made by Fichte is that something can be made known to us only if we do not already know it. Something that we already know cannot be made known to us; only the fact that we already know it can be made known to us. But this claim raises the question: why can’t something be made known to us more than once? Why can’t something that we already know be repeatedly revealed to us? —Perhaps the repeated revelation of a given thing may secure our knowledge or confirm our certainty of that thing,
Another questionable claim is that whenever something is made known to us, there must be someone other than ourselves who has directly or indirectly made it known to us. But why isn’t it possible for us to reveal things to ourselves? Why can’t we reveal things to ourselves that we weren’t previously aware of? Perhaps in revealing things about ourselves to others, we may reveal to ourselves things about ourselves that we weren’t previously aware of or that we weren’t previously prepared to acknowledge.
Another questionable claim is that only things that are known a priori are provable or objectively demonstrable. —What about proof by experience or scientific testing?
The concept of revelation presupposes an empirically given moral need for revelation, explains Fichte. God would not reveal something to us if it were not logically necessary for Him to do so. Every (divine) revelation proclaims God as moral lawgiver, and therefore only those revelations that have this proclamation as their ultimate purpose can be truly believed to be from God.
Fichte concludes that (divine) revelation is rationally possible, and that a critique of it can only apply the concept of it to a given event or experience and guide us in doing so; that is to say, a critique of (divine) revelation can only determine the conditions under which the application of the concept of revelation to a given event or experience is possible.11 We may therefore be certain of both the possibility of revelation in general and the possibility of a particular manifestation of it by some event or experience that fulfills the proper criteria.
1Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation, edited by Allen Wood, translated by Garrett Green (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 41.
2Ibid., p. 51.
3Ibid., p. 93.
4Ibid., p. 94.
5Ibid., p. 94.
6Ibid., pp. 100-101.
7Ibid., p. 99.
8Ibid., p. 96.
9Ibid., p. 66.
10Ibid., p. 52.
11Ibid., p. 132.