One of the most interesting and useful concepts I picked up in my philosophy undergrad is the idea of a ‘speech-act.’ Speech-act philosophy takes as its basic insight that language isn’t just about representing thoughts, or making simple statements of fact, but that, we actually do things with our words. There are words that we say in order to accomplish or bring about a new state of affairs. There are innumerable examples of this sort of thing (promising, lying, etc.) and all sorts of distinctions that philosophers can, and have made, but we see the basic point that, some words can be more efficacious than others.
The classic example of this is the minister’s words in a wedding. ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’ doesn’t just state the fact, but actually creates the fact. Before that statement, the two are merely engaged, but after that, they are married.
Now, of course, theologians have taken this and done all sorts of things with this over the years. For instance, we can see that a number of very important theological concepts can be understood and refined with the concept of speech-acts. When God justifies us, he is making a strongly declarative statement that, not only asserts that we are just and righteous in God’s sight, but in fact, actually brings about that situation. Or, again, God’s pronouncement of forgiveness is a constitutive speech-act. God saying ‘I forgive you’ creates the situation in which you are a forgiven person. Actually, push back farther and you’ll realize that we’re dealing with a God who speaks the world into existence (‘let there be light…’ Gen. 1). Kevin Vanhoozer and Nicholas Wolsterstorff have done extensive work with this, but, it’s safe to say it’s a fairly common concept in Biblical interpretation nowadays.
Why bring all this up? Well, the idea of speech-acts came to mind as I was going through my recent study in John’s Farewell Discourses in Calvin’s commentaries. Commenting on Jesus’ words “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27), Calvin says:
By the word ‘peace’ he means prosperity, which men are wont =to wish for each other when they meet or part; for such is the import of the word peace in the Hebrew language. He therefore alludes to the ordinary custom of his nation; as if he had said, ‘I give you my Farewell.’ But he immediately adds, that this peace is of far greater value than that which is usually to be found among men, who generally have the word peace but coldly in their mouth, by way of ceremony, or, if they sincerely wish peace for any one, yet cannot actually bestow it. But Christ reminds them that his peace does not consist in an empty and unavailing wish, but is accompanied by the effect. In short, he says that he goes away from them in body, but that his peace remains with the disciples; that is, that they will be always happy through his blessing.
“…his peace does not consist in an empty and unavailing wish, but is accompanied by the effect.” Calvin reminds us that when Jesus speaks ‘peace’ to us, he’s an effective speaker. When we wish each other peace, if we actually mean it, it’s just that–a wish. We’re not in a place to grant our own wishes. When Jesus speaks peace, he’s an authoritative speaker who can actually bring that peace into our lives–in fact, by speaking it, he brings it. He can do this because, as Paul says elsewhere, Jesus is, in himself, our peace (Eph. 2:14). He is the one who brought about the reconciliation that is the foundation of peace in his cross and resurrection in our place, so that, united to him by faith, we have the peace that he himself is (Col 1:20-22).
In other words, when Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”, he wasn’t just blowing smoke.
Soli Deo Gloria
Really powerful, thanks!
Reblogged this on Sunday School on Steroids-The Seminary Experience.
Speech-acts, and philosophy of language in general, really make you think differently about a lot of Scripture – the ‘logos’, for example.