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From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts
The Covenant of Discourse and the Discourse of the Covenant Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Introduction: Language in Jerusalem and Athens
A word is dead
When it is said
I say it just
Begins to live
'Know thyself '. Socrates' demand that philosophers reflect on what it is to be human has been taken up by many in other disciplines as well. It is possible to study the functions of humans considered as biological organisms (physiology) as well as human emotional and mental dysfunctions (psychology); the actions of individuals in the past (history) as well as the behavior of various human groups (sociology). The study of human language is similarly interdisciplinary. It can be studied by linguists, cognitive psychologists, historians, logicians, philosophers -- and, yes, theologians. If the third-century theologian Tertullian was correct in defining a 'person' as a being who speaks and acts (which is not so very far from what a philosopher, Peter Strawson, would say about individuals some seventeen hundred years later), then it may well be that we have to treat both topics -- language and humanity -- together. To study language, then, is to touch on issues involving a whole world and life view. Some approaches to the study of language's origin and purpose, for example, presuppose that human existence and behavior is best explained in terms of Darwinian evolution. In their highly regarded work on linguistic relevance, for instance, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson suggest that human cognition is a biological function whose mechanisms result from a process of natural selection: 'Human beings are efficient information-processing devices'.
For Sperber and Wilson, language is essentially a cognitive rather than communicative tool that enables an organism (or device) with memory to process information.
On the other hand, George Steiner claims, on the basis of his experience of transcendence in literature, that 'God underwrites language'.
Such disparate analyses should give philosophers pause. They also raise the question as to whether Christians should not approach the study of language from an explicitly Christian point of view. Such, however, is the intent of the present article: to reflect on language from out of the convictions of Christian faith.
Craig Bartholomew has recently called for those interested in the theological interpretation of Scripture to clarify just how the relation of philosophy to theology bears on biblical study.
Here we probably do not want to follow Tertullian's suggestion, stated in the form of a rhetorical question, that Jerusalem (theology) has nothing to do with Athens (philosophy). We would do better to follow Alvin Plantinga's advice to Christian philosophers not to let others -- people with non-Christian world-views -- set the agenda, but to pursue their own research programs. What is needed, he says, is 'less accommodation to current fashion and more Christian self-confidence'.
Why should Christian faith be excluded from the search for understanding when other faiths -- including modernity's faith in instrumental reason, empiricism and naturalism -- are not?
Christian theology takes faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ, attested in the Scriptures, as its ultimate criterion for judging what is true, good and beautiful. While not at all turning our back on the results, assured or not, of modern learning, it is important to acknowledge that all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, come to the data with interpretive frameworks already in place. The present essay approaches the 'data' concerning language and interpretation with an interpretive framework largely structured by theological concepts. Instead of excluding considerations of Christian doctrine from my inquiry, I intend to make explicit use of them. This is not to turn one's back on philosophy, but to let human reason be guided and corrected by Christian doctrine, and by the language and literature of Scripture itself. Only by first conducting 'theological investigations' of language and literature in general can we then come to discuss, with philosophy, the task of interpreting Scripture.
The most fruitful recent development for the dialogue about language between philosophy and theology is undoubtedly the emphasis on language as a species of human action: speech acts. Examining what people do with language represents a fascinating case study for the broader dialogue between philosophy and theology. Of course, the idea that humans do things in speaking was well known to the very earliest biblical authors, even without the analytic concepts of speech-act philosophy.
The present essay evaluates the extent to which speech-act philosophy approximates and contributes to what theologians want to say about language. This is not to say that speech-act categories will dominate the discussion. On the contrary, we will see that Christian convictions concerning, say, divine authorship, the canon and the covenant, will lead us to both modify and intensify the typical speech-act analysis. My goal is to let the 'discourse of the covenant' (e.g., Scripture) inform and transform our understanding of the 'covenant of discourse' (e.g., ordinary language and literature).
The first, and longer, part of the chapter explores what I shall call the 'covenant of discourse': a philosophy and theology of communication. My hope is to achieve a certain consensus about language and understanding based on a strategic appropriation of certain philosophical concepts that will be amenable to Christian biblical scholars and theologians.
In the second part of the chapter, I turn to the 'discourse of the covenant', that is, to a consideration of the Bible as written communication. Dealing with the canon -- a complex, intertextual communicative act -- will lead us to modify and develop our understanding of how biblical language works in ways that again go beyond typical speech-act theory. However, the benefit of using speech-act categories to describe the divine discourse in Scripture will also become apparent. Throughout the essay I examine not only what speech acts are, but the implications for looking at language as a form of human action as well, particularly for the sake of interpretation. Here too the leading theme of covenant proves helpful, insofar as interpretation is largely a matter of fulfilling one's covenantal obligation towards the communicative agents, canonical or not, who address us.