Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (Pt.4)

Part Three

Speech-Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation

On a more positive note overall is the matter of whether language is merely descriptive or whether it can be said to actually do something. This gets us into the subject of language as “speech-acts.” This view has been defined as follows:

Speech-act theory is a set of pragmatically based principles that were developed at the edge of philosophy and linguistics. The major assumption is that language is not so much concerned with saying as with doing. That is, the use of language is in fact a way of accomplishing things.[83]

Speech-act theory was introduced by the British philosopher of language J. L. Austin in his 1955 Harvard lectures, posthumously published as How to do Things with Words. Austin’s insights, being rather puzzling in places, were improved by John Searle.[84] Both scholars divided speech-acts into locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary forms.[85] A locutionary utterance is any act of saying something. Illocutionary acts are what is done in saying something, while perlocutionary acts are what is done by saying something.[86]  An illocutionary speech-act, for example, “It’s time to go” affirms that something is so. So when God makes an illocutionary speech-act, He is affirming the truth (since He cannot lie) about something. Obviously, identifying God’s illocutionary speech-acts helps a person to pay more attention to what God is saying. Thus, illocutions are often considered to be the most important kind of speech-acts.[87]

Although many postmodernists, with their preoccupation with language as a manipulative power tool, will often place more emphasis upon perlocutionary utterances – those expressions which get a person to act or attempt at least to alter the actions of the hearer.

Hill states that propositional sayings ought not to be separated from narratives because “in a sense a narrative just is a set of propositions, albeit about events in time.”[88] But he does say that the Bible contains more than propositions, it “also contains questions, injunctions, and wishes.”[89] While this is true, it does appear that each of these other sayings may be converted into a proposition.[90] The main problem (according to Hill) in biblical hermeneutics is to work out what God is affirming. Speech-act theory’s analysis, particularly of the illocutionary act, is of real help in reaching that goal.

However, there is a word of caution. Briggs points out that since one locution (or simple uttering of words) may entail several illocutions, and some perhaps unintended, in fact, “most locutions are multilayered in some way, and will often admit of unintended illocutions.”[91] For that reason, some interpreters are wary of recommending the theory, at least as a way to get at the message.[92]

Notwithstanding, one must not minimize the obligation to the text as it is understood by the believer.[93] Vanhoozer, in an essay entitled, “From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts” calls attention to the possibility of “an illocutionary act performed on the level of a literary whole.”[94] This is certainly intriguing, especially when Vanhoozer shows the effectiveness of the approach in reading John 21:20-24.[95]

It seems that responsible speech-act analysis is amenable to an attentive form of grammatico-historical interpretation. It involves the reader in the text more because it raises his expectancy.[96]And that is surely a good thing.

Summary in Nine Points

From our survey of some of the major players in modern hermeneutics we can quickly take stock of the main issues:

  1. To define hermeneutics as a set of rules decides the issue beforehand.
  2. Some preliminary understanding (preunderstanding) of a text (both its whole and parts) is unavoidable in every reading.[97]
  3. The ongoing process of a reader’s preunderstanding shaping the text and the text shaping the reader creates a “hermeneutical spiral.”
  4. In this “spiral” the two horizons of text and interpreter “fuse” to some degree, though utter objectivity is never arrived at.
  5. Each individual’s horizon is his or her own. This implies that valid interpretations will differ according to the social, historical and cultural situation of the reader.[98]
  6. This could be taken to mean (and often is) that complete objectivity is an impossible dream, and that, therefore, talk of propositional revelation (wherein truth is situated in the Bible’s propositional teaching) is implausible.
  7. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” further renders propositional truth out of place.
  8. Standard Grammatical-Historical interpretation might be seen as slipping into redundancy, being unable to integrate the findings of modern hermeneutical theories.  However, this is untrue.  But also, it must not be supposed that anything close to the last word has been said about speech-acts.  {Moreover, as Craig Blaising correctly observes: “To postulate a “fulfillment” of…covenant promises by means of a reality shift in the thing promised overlooks the performative nature of the word of promise…” – Craig A. Blaising, “Israel and Hermeneutics”, in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds., Darrell L. Bock & Mitch Glaser, 161}
  9. On a positive note, we can explore the promise of responsible speech-act theory to help us to be more attentive as we read Scripture, and thus, compose our theology.

————————————————————————-

[83] Stanley Porter, in I. Howard Marshall, Beyond The Bible, 112.
[84] Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory,” in Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 763.
[85] These are sometimes categorized as utterance, performative, propositional, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. See Tate, 350-351. It is quite usual however to find propositional included in locutionary.“Utterances” in Tate’s taxonomy are just reactive sounds.
[86] Daniel Hill, “Proposition,” in Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 632.
[87] Briggs, 763.
[88] Hill, 632.
[89] Ibid.
[90] I have discussed the matter of propositionalism in chapter 4, “The Revelation of the Triune Creator,” of my dissertation.
[91] Briggs, 764.
[92] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 351.
[93] This is where Vanhoozer brings in a covenantal obligation.
[94] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 192. He is talking about the Book of Jonah.
[95] Ibid, 257ff.
[96] Briggs, 766.
[97] We include Maier’s opinion of preunderstanding, which we think is very helpful.Although he rightly holds to presuppositions, he sounds a note of sanity amid the cheers for “preunderstanding.”

All these and other considerations do not exactly encourage us to cling to philosophical preunderstandings or to take them as our guideposts in listening to revelation. As already stated, conscious and unconscious philosophical influences will always accompany our hearing. But they are present in order to be divested of their leading role. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 36.

[98] This is where one encounters various special interest groups like Eco-Feminists, Marxists, and Gays interpreting the Bible according to their agendas.Remember, in postmodern interpretation there are no metanarratives, only individual community narratives.Thus, each interpretation is as valid as another (unless it stakes a claim to be a metanarrative).

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5 comments

  1. Paul, someone just mentioned to me Osrborne’s “The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.”

    I hadn’t heard of it before. He gives it more weight than Thomas’ “Evangelical Hermeneutics.”

    Care to Comment?

    Hopefully this isn’t one of those pesky questions. 😉

    1. It’s a different sort of book than Thomas. The Thomas book is a kind of warning about the drift of evangelical hermeneutics away from G-
      H hermeneutics as was. Today they re-define G-H hermeneutics to include canonical and literary views, which makes it a misnomer.

      Anyway, Osborne is one of the best of this new(er) batch of hermeneutics manuals, with the sophistication of the work of Gadamer, Thiselton and others brought in. I don’t much like these approaches because they are actually pretty subjective with their stress on canonical context, preunderstanding, and the merging of horizons. This does not mean that I think they have no value – they are valuable in their place. But I believe philosophical sophistication which overturns a plain-sense reading easily becomes a sort of interpretive bluff which needs to be called. I would read Osborne with Thomas in hand! 🙂

      1. Thanks Paul, I’ve also been told -perhaps from same source as Alf – about the Osborne book. Good to keep your comment in mind.

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