Thursday, May 03, 2007

Paul Helm on propositions and speech acts

The Prof continues his Analysis series (here) with a discussion of the role of propositions and speech acts in theology (here). Theologians draw on speech-act theory to emphasise the importance of what God does with his words. He does not merely speak. By speaking God does something, like make a promise or enter into a covenant. These are God's illocutions - his speech-acts. By the Spirit, these speech-acts are made effective as the Word is understood, promises believed, commands obeyed. This is the perlocutionary effect of God's speech-acts.
Kevin Vanhoozer draws on speech-act theory in his The Drama of Doctrine (WJK, 2005 - my review series here). He does this to show that God incorporates his people into the drama of redemption by his communicative action in Scripture. Paul Helm, although sometimes critical of Vanhoozer's approach (here), acknowledges that speech-acts have a role in Biblical revelation.
"the whole of divine revelation in Scripture is confessed by the Christian church to be God’s speech. We might think of the whole of Scripture as being enclosed within speech marks, with other sets of speech marks occurring within Scripture".
The Prof helpfully points out that Calvin understood speech-act theory before it was formally proposed by J. L. Austen in the 1960's. But Helm's concern is that theologians may emphasise speech-acts over the propositional content on Scripture. He quotes Luther's dictum, 'Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity’. This is certainly true. Revealed religion is propositional, "God is", "Christ died for our sins", "Jesus is risen". Without such propositions the heart would be ripped out of the Christian faith.
But does it follow that the task of theology is to abstract the Biblical proportions from the drama of redemption? This, perhaps is what Charles Hodge and Louis Berkhof tend to do in their approach to theology. Charles Hodge defined the task of systematic theology thus: "the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation". John Frame is critical of this proposal, saying, "Hodge didn't have a very clear idea of why we need theology." For him, "Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." (See here). When used properly, speech-act theory helps us to consider what God is doing with his Word. This is not at the expense of propositions, but Biblical propositions must not be abstracted from the drama of redemption.
Paul Helm makes reference to my post, Dedramatising Omnipresence? (here). In that post, I criticise Berkhof's handling of omnipresence in his Systematic Theology. Berkhof gives a perfectly good definition of omnipresence, but his discussion of the subject is pretty abstract in tone. Psalm 139 is listed as a proof text, but the communicative action intended by the Psalm is missing. Yes God's omnipresence is,
"That perfection of the Divine Being by which he transcends all spatial limitations, and yet is present in every point of space with his whole Being".
It is right that systematic theology offers a definition omnipresence in such terms. But is that all it should do? Theology should try to capture something of what God was communicating through Psalm 139: that his presence is inescapable and that he holds us in his hand. What I am arguing for is an approach to systematic theology that safeguards the crucial importance of propositions and is sensitive to the communicative action of Scripture. It is not that the Hodge/Berkhof method is fundamentally wrong or misconceived, but is it sufficient?
Vanhoozer's theo-dramatic approach embraces the propositional content of Scripture. He quotes Colin Gunton with approval that to deny the propositional aspect of theology "is an attack on revealed religion." (Drama of Doctrine p. 91). Every speech-act includes a proposition whether that be a promise, a question or even a joke. But when propositions are removed from the communicative action of Scripture, they are dedramatised. The task of theology is to enable the people of God to participate fittingly in the drama of redemption, not simply to exhibit the facts of Scripture in an orderly way.
Paul Helm's article on propositions and speech-acts shows the danger of polarisation. If speech-act theory is used to undermine the propositional content of Scripture, then effect will be to "fuzzy" the gospel. But when used properly in theology, an emphasis on speech-acts may help to remind us of what God is doing with and by his written Word.

7 comments:

John said...

Guy,
you ask, 'But does it follow that the task of theology is to abstract the Biblical proportions from the drama of redemption?' It follows that the task of systematic theology is almost exactly that and as they say, 'If it's not broke…'

This is a major reason why I hate systematic theology. It has to be everything in the minds of its minions who are quite willing to destroy it to get at the golden eggs it lays.

Not all theology is dogmatic theology so when something says that it is dogmatic theology it ought to do exactly what it says on the tin.

Berkhof himself in his prolegomenous volume, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology explains why other methods of organisation — the Trinitarian method, the analytical method, the covenantal method, the Christological method and the method based on the kingdom idea — don't work. The synthetical method, of what we have come to think of as Systematic Theology, is the only method, says Berkhof, 'That will yield the desired unity in Dogmatics.'

Doing something differently might be to do something better but if the something better isn't systematic theology why call it that? You're all loving it to death.

Exiled Preacher said...

John,

I'm not so sure that STh isn't broke. Surely Reformed Dogmatics should also be reforming Dogmatics? Why not try to make some improvements to STh?

John said...

Guy,
How to keep my response within bounds? But how is it broken? And what is it to fix it? Take two parallels, one near, one far:
• Far parallel is the replacement of tramways in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Was the system broken down? You bet it was and no wonder after the lack of investment but the principle of tram operation was not flawed. Buses are good but they are not trams, not an improvement on trams and not a direct replacement for trams.
• Near parallel is the abandonment of Vos's Biblical Theology because of a failure to grasp why Vos ends his work where he does. By taking something else and making out that it is the same as Vos only immeasurably improved we have both encroached onto the territory that Systematic Theology might be best fitted to rule and drowned out much that Vos was actually saying. Vos's Biblical Theology wasn't broken in the way his would be successors thought it to be broken so their 'fix' produces something new and IMHO not so good.

Two fixes for Berkhof I recommend are:
• John Murray's method of recasting dogmas, redefining concepts and coining terms that more accurately fit the synthetical ideal of Systematic Theology.
• The translation of Bavinck into English so that now Berkhof's introduction points to something accessible rather than a big book in Dutch.

A third fix would be to get the Introductory Volume, of course but doing something that isn't Systematic Theology and calling it Systematic Theology is not a fix. It's a fudge.

Exiled Preacher said...

John,

Trams were a bit before my time. But I agree with you concerning John Murray's approach to STh. I'm doing a series on his theological method at the moment. I haven't yes got to his proposals on the relationship between STh and Biblical Theology. But he regarded BTh as "indispensible" to STh, and of course his theology was thoroughly exegetical. He did not give a statement of doctrine and then back it up with a string of proof texts a la Berkhof. His systematic theology was mined from Scripture.

John said...

Yes, Guy,
but John Murray was not writing an introduction to Systematic Theology and Louis Berkhof was. That's the whole root of the trouble here. People will insist on treating of Berkhof as if his work is a Systematic Theology. It isn't, it's an introduction.
• That's why there are lists of verses for students to look up for themselves.
• That's why the exegeses aren't shown because they should be looked for in commentaries on the texts and works on individual doctrines.
• That's why the questions at the end of chapters can't always be answered by searching Berkhof; you are supposed to look in a real Systematic Theology to answer these questions.
• That's why so much of Berkhof looks as though it's been plagiarized from Strong. A introductory textbook ought not be an original piece of work.

When Murray advised Cornelius van Til not to go take Berkhof's old job it was because he thought that van Til wasn't qualified rather than that he opposed the Calvin College way of doing Systematic Theology.

What I'm saying is, criticise Berkhof for what it is or more cogently for how badly it's been published (Sorry, Banner; great price, lousy proof reading and indexing, appalling lack of reference to the missing Introductory Volume) but let's not criticise it for what it's not.

Exiled Preacher said...

John,

If Berkhof's STh was just an intro, then it's far too long. John Frame's Salvation Belongs to the Lord serves as a far better intoduction to the discpline (from what I've read so far.

John said...

As a textbook that was supposed to accompany a student through two / three years of seminary classes, I'm not sure that it is too long for an introduction. Maybe there are different kinds of introduction. You must have a look at the Introductory Volume sometime, or the Summary of Christian Doctrine to see if these Berkhofs help you understand why the quintessential Berkhof is as long as other introductions, e.g. Dabney.

Me? I don't think the problem with Berkhof lies within Berkhof but in the way what Berkhof is is misunderstood by those who claim to love its subject best.

Every blessing tomorrow.