Monday, July 09, 2007

"Speech Acts to Scripture Acts"... the title of an essay I've just finished reading in Vanhoozer's rather excellent First Theology. I have to say, speech act theory is all new to me, so I may have misunderstood it. But if I haven't, I think it could well be the way forward when it comes to our understanding of Scripture. This gets a bit technical - I apologise.

Essentially, Vanhoozer points out (drawing heavily on philosophical work by J.L. Austin and others) that generally when we speak we do not intend merely to communicate information. Sometimes communicating information barely features amongst our intentions in speaking. For example, if I said to you "get out of my house!", I am not intending to communicate information primarily (although I may communicate that I am bored of your company and also rather rude). Primarily, I intend to achieve the result of you leaving my house! Recognising this, speech act theory contends that there are three elements to communication (the examples are all taken from the book):

  1. the locution - which does not communicate anything of the speakers intention in speaking, and is independent of the content of what is spoken. An example might be, "he said some words", or, more specifically "he said 'Jesus is Lord'".

  2. the illocution - is what someone does in speaking. This is dependent on the content, and also the context, of their speaking. So, if the locution is "he said 'Jesus is Lord'", the illocution might be "he confessed that Jesus is Lord", or perhaps "he told his neighbour that Jesus is Lord". These tell us why the speaker spoke, and what he intended to be understood by his speaking.

  3. the perlocution - is the effect (or sometimes the byproduct) of speaking. So, if the locution is "he said 'Jesus is Lord'", and the illocution is "he testified that Jesus is Lord", the perlocution might be "he made me feel unspiritual by comparison". (This would, hopefully, be an unintended perlocution!)

What is the point of all this, and how does it relate to Scripture?

I won't go into Vanhoozer's whole argument for the transferrence of speech act theory to the written word - suffice to say I find it persuasive and recommend you read it. The point, though, is this: we do not understand Scripture, or any other text, unless we recognise the illocutionary acts in them. Indeed, the art of interpretation is precisely the art of working from the locutionary act (the text as we have it written) to the illocutionary act (the intention of the author in the text). Vanhoozer is of course claiming what many postmodern theorists would deny - that there is a link between the two, and that we can therefore meaningfully speak of authorial intent. That he does so is based on his view that language is designed, and designed for communication. He makes the point repeatedly through the book that our doctrines of God, revelation and Scripture are inevitably intertwined, and therefore form one subject rather than three - namely, "first theology". This is one point in his discussion where this is very clear.

The most important thing for me, though, is the recognition that speech acts/scripture acts aren't always all about conveying information.

Think about the traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture, with its emphasis on inerrancy and truth. "The Bible is true". It strikes me that this way of formulating the doctrine, for all its many strengths, gives the impression that we are dealing with a textbook rather than an inspired record of God's dealings with his covenant people. In what sense can a narrative be "inerrant"? In what sense could Psalm 150 be "inerrant"?

Don't misunderstand me. I am not claiming that there are errors in Scripture. I'm simply wondering whether our emphasis on truth hasn't led us to reduce the majestic landscape of the Bible - with its stories, songs and prayers - to a flat plain of accurate propositions. I wonder whether speech act theory shows us a way out of this, by pointing out that we do not understand the text unless we understand what the author is trying to achieve through it - what the illocutionary act is. And this illocutionary act will not normally be "make so-and-so understand that this doctrine is true", although it may sometimes be that.

I have more to say on this, but it can wait for another day. If you're still reading at this point, you should probably read Vanhoozer instead of me, since he understands what he's writing about!


  1. If you're getting into it in First Theology, you should pick up his Is there meaning in this text?. A marvellous read. I'd only studied a little philosophy of language, so to begin with found it hard to remember everything, but it's very worth chewing over - and by the end of the book I got what he was on about! I think...

  2. Anonymous2:42 pm

    Aha, methinks you should have read "is there a meaning in this text?" first which is somewhat foundational to Vanhoozer's thought (or so I'm told, I've only just finished chapter one). Other good brief primers into speech act theory are found in "Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon" Edited by Carson and Woodbridge and Melvin Tinker has written the Noddy's guide to speech act theory in his chapter on Holy Communion (I think?) in his book Evangelical Concerns. I guess you'll be reading the "Drama of Doctrine" next...

    A friend of mine prefers the expression "verbally perfect" to inerrant as a means of describing his high view of scripture. Don't you think it's marvellous that God doesn't just want us to know things and do things, but also to feel things, ask things etc... I love the whole speech-act thing because it makes scripture and potentially also therefore preaching something which addresses the whole person not just their mind and activity.

    That said it raises interesting questions about the nature of genre.

    Here's something for you to ponder, Dan:

    By moving away from inerrancy and accepting a broader understanding of the Bible's perfection, one can develop a keener sense of genre and therefore hopefully a better understanding of scripture.

    Is God, who does not lie, allowed to use the genre of fiction so that in the same way that Orwell's "Animal Farm" clearly has meaning but is fictitious, could God have done the same thing with some books as some suggest: Jon, Ruth, Esth?

    Yours, Greg B

  3. Thus quoth Greg:
    "By moving away from inerrancy and accepting a broader understanding of the Bible's perfection, one can develop a keener sense of genre and therefore hopefully a better understanding of scripture."

    I think that's exactly it. Of course, one isn't really "moving away from" inerrancy, but merely subsuming it under a larger scheme. So, where the Scripture aims to impart factual information, it does so inerrantly. But when it exhorts me to praise the Lord, the concept of inerrancy is irrelevant. "Verbal perfection" captures it, although with apologies to your friend it is a little clumsy as a phrase. Expect a discussion of "infallibility" on this very blog in the near future, because I think that has promise if we're prepared to be a teensy weensy bit Barthian. Okay, quite a lot Barthian. Oh all right, I admit it, I love Barth more than I love a good merlot.

    Vis a vis the genre question, I take it to be self-evident that Job is largely, if not entirely, fictional (given that people don't speak in verse, usually), and yet capable of teaching us great truth. The question is whether something clearly purports to be history. Ruth and Esther I think do. Jonah..? Not so sure. Daniel..? Probably, although I wouldn't eat my hat if it were fiction. But is it lying to convey truth in the guise of fiction? Is "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" true? Well, yes, within its frame of reference - it is a fictional story that conveys truth. Is God free to use such a genre? Evidently - consider the prophet Nathan going to David with a cock-and-bull story about a poor man's lamb...