Speech act theory is something of a fad in evangelical theology. Like all theoretical paradigms, it has its strengths. It is most useful, perhaps, in thinking about preaching and ritual, and also in thinking through (as Nicholas Wolterstorff has done) what it means to say that the Bible is God’s word.

Some uses are disquieting, though. John Walton and Brent Sandy use speech act theory in their book, The Lost World of Scripture, to discover the precise location of inerrancy and Scriptural authority and to distinguish that from the culturally specific features of the text.

Speech act theory distinguishes between locution and illocution. Locutions are the words, sentences, structures, tropes of a speech act; the illocution is what the speaker intends by those locutions. Walton and Sandy argue that Scriptural authority is located in the illocution, in what God intends to say; and not in the locution, the way He says it, which is “accommodated” to ancient understandings. 

So, for instance, when Scripture says that the sun rises or that the earth is the center of the universe, it is not God’s purpose “to communicate truth about cosmic geography”; those are “simply part of the shape of the locution - it is incidental, not part of God’s illocution” (42). This doesn’t undermine the factuality of the Bible because God does intend to assert, for instance, that the exodus happened. “God will accommodate limited understanding for the sake of communication. . . . he will not communicate about how he worked in events . . . or through people . . . if those events never took place and those people never existed” (42-3). Even the locutions are “inspired,” but only the illocutions are authoritative and inerrant” (44).

In my judgment, there are many problems with this approach, but let me point to two fairly obvious ones. First, why wouldn’t God speak of people who never existed and events that never took place to communicate His purposes. Jesus certainly did - telling fictions right and left, a spinner of tales. Walton and Sandy would answer by distinguishing the genre of parable and that of “historiography,” and argue that God doesn’t make things up in the latter. But they don’t provide much evidence that ancient writers thought in terms of genres.

Second, they claim that “discerning the levels of a speech act is only the first stage in the task of interpretation” (45). “Critical reading” can be unleashed on the locutionary level, but the illocution remains safely invulnerable to criticism (47). But they don’t provide much of any help in explaining how that discernment takes place. They assert that “cosmic geography and anatomy/physiology are part of the locutionary framework of the communication” (47). When God speaks of thinking with our kidneys, He’s accommodating himself to ancient understandings, not making any assertions about the locus of feeling or thought. But they are only making assertions, not providing arguments. 

The arbitrariness of the distinction is evident in their brief analysis of the flood narrative. Does the text claim that it was a global flood? Well, we have to consider the “locutionary details” - including the “meaning of ‘all,’ of ‘earth,’ etc” (47). What makes “all” a locution rather than part of the illocution? They don’t say but only make a vague gesture at genre. Yet, though they are not sure what “all” means, they somehow know that the God intended to claim that “there was a flood.” But doesn’t that need to be tested by “genre” too - doesn’t the story as a whole above all need to be subjected to genre criticism? And having analyzed the genre, mightn’t we conclude that the flood itself is part of the locutionary framework? It seems an obvious move, and Walton and Sandy offer no reasons for not taking that step. 

Walton and Sandy want to be reassuring: “We need not be concerned that culturally limited locutions will diminish the Bible’s authority, but we dare not dismiss the illocutions and focused meaning as accommodating error” (47). This tenuous defense of inerrancy is not reassuring, because so much of the modern challenge to the Bible’s authority has been aimed precisely at the areas they classify as locution. They retreat to the sliver of ground left intact by critical scholarship; then declare victory.

It’s not clear to me how this particular use of speech act theory differs from the husk/kernel distinctions of classic liberal scholarship (on this, see Deep Exegesis, chapter 1). And that, as I say, leaves one disquieted.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

Loading...