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Speech Act Theory and the Authority of Scripture

Happy New Year everyone. I can think of no better way to bring in the New Year on this blog than by having a brief discussion of a quotation from Drama of Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer.

To give a little background to those unfamiliar with Dr. Vanhoozer and recent discussions of hermeneutics and philosophy of language, he bases his approach on what is known as speech-act theory. What speech-act theory helpfully recognizes is that when we say/write something we frequently are communicating more than propositional content. Our words also have the ability to do things. For example when a minister declares a man and a woman to be husband and wife, his proclamation does more than convey the content to those present that the two people are now married, his or her pronouncement binds the two together in marriage. Thus speech-act theory breaks down communication into three aspects: the locution (the propositional content), the illocution (what the speaker is doing in making the statement), and the perlocution (the end effect the speech-act has on the recipient).

This separation of the different levels at which discourse functions enables us to gain a greater grasp on what it means for the Bible to be authoritative.
In sum: it is the divine illocutions - God's use - that construe biblical authority. Let us posit the notion of a 'conical illocution' to refer to 'what God is doing by means of the human discourse in the biblical texts at the level of canon.' According to our revitalized Scripture principle, then, the divine author is not merely a teacher who passes on propositional truths or a narrator who conveys the discourse of others but a dramatist who does things in and through the dialogical action of others (Drama of Doctrine p. 179).
While the propositional content of the Bible is important, there's far more to it than that. Interpreting Scripture requires us to do far more than see and grasp statements. We need to see what God is doing the text. We need to ask ourselves if canonical stories like those of Daniel help us see the sovereignty of God and then as a result trust him more at a practical level? Accepting biblical authority means that we not only accept indicative statements like 'Jesus is the Christ' but that we recognize and appropriate what God is doing through the text. For God acts when he speaks, and his speech-acts carry the fullest authority because he stands behind them.


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