Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Holy Scripture as a divine speech-act

More from my paper on Holy Scripture as the living and active Word of God (see here):
Traditionally Evangelicals have been keen to assert the propositional character of Scripture. That is only right. Biblical revelation comes to us in the form of words and those words form sentences that make truth statements or propositions. Without propositions we would have no gospel. ‘Christ died for our sins’ is a vital biblical proposition as is ‘Jesus is risen’. But an overly propositionalist approach can give the impression that the Holy Scripture is simply a book that is full of true information and it is the task of theologians to process and systematise that information. That was more or less Charles Hodge’s approach,

"The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches. The duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him. These facts are all in the Bible."

However, while paying due respect to the propositional nature of biblical revelation, we need a more dynamic account of the way language works that will help us to grasp the relationship between God, Holy Scripture and the Church. It is not sufficient to say, “God has given his people all the factual information they will ever need in the Bible”. This is where speech-act theory comes into play. Speech-act theory rightly emphasises that words are more than just words. They always do something. The theory breaks language down into three component parts: locutions, illocutions, and perlocutions. First of all we have locutions – basic units of speech or words and sentences. In theological terms, we confess that Scripture reveals God Word in words – locutions. But we use words to do things. With words we declare a man and a woman husband and wife, we ask for a glass of water, or order a ticket for the cinema. This is the illocutionary effect of language. By speaking, I have acted. In Scripture we have God’s own illocutions – his speech acts. By words, he makes promises, utters warnings, and enters into a covenant relationship with his people. Scripture is not simply a record of God’s words. In the Bible we have the communicative action of the triune God. Now, it is one thing for God to speak words and to do things with his words, like make promises. But what guarantees that God’s words will be received for what they are? God may make a promise, but it is another for us to trust in that promise! This is called the perlocutionary effect of language. And it is here that the work of the Holy Spirit comes into its own. He enables people to respond appropriately to God’s communicative action in Scripture.

So much for the theory, now let's see how this kind of approach is reflected in the text of Scripture itself. In both Old and New Testaments there is a tight link between God's actions and his speech. God’s words are speech-acts that initiate and carry forward the great drama of redemption. We may think of the theodrama in terms of a five act play. Act One is creation, where God’s “Let there be” (Genesis 1:3) creates the setting for the rest of the drama. In his providence God continues to rule the world he created by his word, (Psalm 147:15-18). In Act Two of the drama of redemption by his Word God entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants, constituting Israel as his own special people (Genesis 22:18). In Act Three, the Word of God is made flesh for our salvation in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again (John 1:14, note the relationship between Jesus' words and deeds - e.g. Mark 2:5, 11). In Act Four the Spirit of truth is poured out upon the church to empower the people of God to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8, 2:1). Act Five is the consummation where God will make all things new by his might word (Rev. 22:5).

God's person is so tied up with his words that to believe and obey his word is to believe and obey him, Isaiah 66:2. The human words of Scripture are at the same time God's covenant words to his people. To encounter God's communicative action through the prophets and apostles is to meet with God himself.

"Whenever we encounter the speech acts of Scripture, we encounter God himself in action. The Father presents himself to us as a God who makes and keeps his covenant promises. The Son comes to us as the Word of God, knowable to us through his words. The Spirit ministers these words to us, illuminating our minds and hearts, so that in receiving, understanding and trusting them, we receive, know and trust God himself." (Words of Life, Timothy Ward, IVP, p. 97)


Jon said...

Good post - very interesting!


Just curious, Guy, how does a Reformed Baptist see speech acts functioning in worship. They are very much a part of Lutheran liturgical worship, but I'm not so familiar with your tradition. Thanks in anticipation.

Guy Davies said...

1) When the Word is read the church is subject to the communicative action of God.

2)Preaching is a speech-act. The task of the preacher is not simply to convey information about the text, but to involve the congregation in the communicative action of Scripture. By the power of the Spirit God so speaks through the preaching of the Word that promises are believed, commands obeyed and warning heeded.