‘Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity’ - Martin Luther
In this note I comment on the current idea that ‘speech-acts’ ought to supplant propositions in our view of divine revelation, (this 'propositionalist' view has been called the ‘Hodge-Henry hypothesis). Speech-acts , it is said, hold a key, if not the key, to a much-needed re-shaping of systematic theology. It is argued that the 'static view' of propositional revelation must give way to the ‘dramatic’ view of revelation as God’s speech-acts.
The term ‘speech-act’ arose from the work of J.L. Austin in the 1950’s. (How To Do Things With Words (published in 1962 after Austin’s early death) is the seminal work.) However, we must not confuse the term with the thing. Appreciation of speech-acts is by no means a novelty in biblical interpretation, as we shall see.
But first we need to note a couple of things about speech-acts. In his work Austin focused upon performative utterances; forms of utterance in which to say something is to do something. The standard example is the wedding ceremony. In saying ‘I do’ at the appropriate points, the groom and the bride are wed. Such acting-by-speaking occurs because of the existence of certain conventions; in the case of marriage, certain legal and moral conventions which govern the marriage service, making it the sort of occasion that it is. Saying ‘I resign’ is, in certain circumstances, to resign, saying ‘I apologise’ is an apology, and so on. (Incidentally, sometimes we are told that the Lord’s creative fiats in Genesis 1 are instances of performatives, but this is a mistake. In Genesis 1 the reason that God’s saying is his doing is not in virtue of any conventions, but solely because of his supreme power.) As noted, there are many types of speech-act: including asking questions, giving orders, and (most importantly for us) making assertions. In appropriate circumstances, saying ‘The cat is on the mat’ is asserting that the cat is on the mat.
The idea that in view of Austin’s work we are faced with a new choice: either a speech-act view of divine revelation, or a propositional view, won’t stand up. For propositions are used to make assertions, to express beliefs, true propositions to express true beliefs. Assertion is a familiar and fundamental type of speech-act. Propositions standardly have this form in Scripture. In addition, 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.
Not surprisingly, this point was widely recognised well before the 1950’s. However, no-one who holds the standard view of propositional revelation doubts that the Scriptures contain other forms of utterance than assertions. But since Scripture is taken to be a revelation, with a unique cognitive value, assertions have primacy because its other speech forms – exclamations, questions, etc. – logically depend for their own force and intelligibility on a bedrock of assertions. The exclamation ‘How good is the Lord!’ implies the truth of the assertion ‘The Lord is good’. Those who uphold the propositional character of divine revelation - those who subscribe to the 'Hodge-Henry hypothesis' - have nothing more or less in mind than the central importance of assertions, especially God's assertions about himself, in Scripture.
The second point is that the same form of words can be used to make different and incompatible speech acts. The question ‘Have you cleaned your teeth, yet?’ may have the force (in circumstances familiar to parents) of ‘Please clean your teeth’ or ‘Clean your teeth at once!’. Others besides parents have long understood this. In the case of the language of Scripture it may not always be easy to determine what is the force of the original speech-act, partly because its force (its ‘illocutionary force’ as Austin put it) of the utterance depends on tone, and on other non-verbal cues such as body-language, which as interpreters of Scripture we are largely ignorant of. When Jesus said . ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary’, (Lk. 10.41-2), what was his facial expression? Was Jesus serious or jocular? Was Vermeer correctly catching Jesus’ mood by having him extend his arm, palm open, to Mary? Does the context, and what else we know about Jesus – our Christology - answer this question without us needing to know his tone of voice? Would a video-clip help? Perhaps it would. But perhaps we have sufficient information from the words on the page and what else we know from Scripture to enable us to interpret the passage accurately, though naturally enough we'd like to have more.
With the help of John Calvin we can reflect on another biblical incident, the drama of Hezekiah’s sickness and recovery, (Isaiah 38) and note the conditions in which some of the language of the drama occurs, and understand the language accordingly, seeing for instance that the Lord’s words 'Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover' not as a prediction but as a warning. Commenting the Lord’s response to Hezekiah’s prayer, after the Lord had said that he would die, Calvin says
It may be thought strange that God, having uttered a sentence, should soon after be moved, as it were, by repentance to reverse it; for nothing is more at variance with his nature than a change of purpose. (How does Calvin know this? Because he takes from elsewhere in Scripture its teaching about the immutability or steadfastness of the Lord.) I reply, while death was threatened against Hezekiah, still God had not decreed it, but determined in this manner to put to the test of the faith of Hezekiah. (So the Lord’s words had a particular force, not the force of a decree or infallible prediction, but of a threat. His intention was to threaten Hezekiah.) We must, therefore, suppose a condition to be implied in that threatening; for otherwise Hezekiah would not have altered, by repentance or prayer, the irreversible decree of God. (Commentary on Is. 38.4, CTS, III.157-8. There is more in Calvin’s treatment of this incident that is relevant)
So (500 years ago) Calvin had regard to the particular force that expressions may have, a concern that is now a prominent feature of speech-act theory. The Lord's words to Hezekiah are a threat, not a decree. Calvin pays attention to the flow of the narrative. But for all our adherence to the narrative, we cannot ourselves be Hezekiah, or be back in his time. After all, the story is in front of us and we have read it through endless times and know how it goes. The idea that we come closer to the nature of God’s revelation by adopting a kind of ‘real time’ approach to the text is jejune. The events were pretty dramatic for Hezekiah, much less so, if at all, for us. The idea that focusing on speech-acts will make the Bible more dramatic for us is a non-starter.
It’s only because we know (from elsewhere in Scripture) that God is utterly trustworthy and unchangeably true, and that we already know, as we re-read the story, how it turns out, that it is reasonable to believe that the Lord’s words to Hezekiah have the form of a threat, a test to elicit faith, and not a prediction which fails or may fail, or a decree which the Lord quickly countermands by another decree.
It’s not a matter of favouring prose and disparaging poetry, either. The poetry of Psalm 139 (an example used by my friend Guy Davies, who got me going on this) is full of propositions, of assertions. Of course it is full of questions too, and of exclamations, and so there’s the danger here of a false polarisation between propositions (or assertions) and other linguistic forms. But (as noted earlier) the other forms of speech are intelligible only because they imply (either logically or conversationally) certain propositions, and so themselves presuppose. ‘Shut the door!’ presupposes the truth of some or all of the assertions ‘The door can be shut’ or ‘The door is not shut’ or ‘You may shut the door’ or 'The door is shut when it is fixed within its frame by some kind of latch', and so on.
It is the assertions that the very many different speech-acts to be found in Scripture presuppose - the true assertions, or propositions, about God and his ways - that provide the bedrock of theological reflection that goes to form systematic theology.
So - as is usual in thinking theologically - we need a historical perspective if we are not to be bowled over by the latest big words. This perspective gives us a sense of proportion. More importantly, we need a little philosophy, in this case the idea of propositions and assertions, what accounts for their meaning, and their fundamental character as truth-bearers.
Attempting to make the form of systematic theology more ‘participatory’ by stressing its 'dramatic' character, and by talking about speech-acts as its jazzy units, will not ensure participation in the Gospel, nor will it help to ensure it. It’s likely outcome is something that will make participation in the Gospel more difficult. For it will fuzzy the distinctive cognitive character of God's revelation, its good news, and make our thinking about divine things less exact, and less exacting.