Speech-Acts and the Peace of Jesus

Jesus talkingOne 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.

Commentary on John 14:27

…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 

Book Review- A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists by Mitch Stokes

Mitch Stokes. A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 252 pp. $16.99. ($11.35 on Amazon)

In the last few years, with the rise of the New Atheism, authors like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens have made popular Christian apologetics popular again. A veritable cottage industry of “responses” and rejoinders have been churned out by top-notch scholars (and some hacks too) either presenting arguments for Christianity or attempting to dismantle the claims of the New Atheists. While a number of these books are well-written and quite valuable, none of them quite accomplish what Mitch Stokes’ has in his recent work, A Shot of Faith to the Head: Be A Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists.  

He Knows What He’s Doing

What makes this book different? The key is that Stokes knows what he’s doing and, more importantly, what he isn’t. So often works of apologetics try to cover everything and don’t end up adequately covering anything.  Stokes knows better. He’s narrowed his focus, honed in on the key issues, and goes to work on them in a humorous, engaging, and readable fashion. What are those issues? The relationship between faith and reason, science, and the problem of evil.

Stokes is particularly qualified to tackle these. Before taking up his position as the Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews in Moscow, Idaho he got his MA in religion at Yale under Nicholas Wolterstorff, then went on to get his Ph.D. at Notre Dame under Alvin Plantinga and Peter Van Inwagen. No big deal–just three of the foremost philosophers of religion alive. And, if that weren’t enough,  prior to entering the philosophy game, he got an MS in mechanical engineering. The man knows what he’s talking about.

Introducing Reformed Epistemology–You’re Welcome

One way of describing Stokes’ project is translating Alvin Plantinga for everybody. Plantinga, while being, in my opinion, the most brilliant Christian philosopher working in the analytic tradition today, has not gone out of his way to make his philosophical genius widely accessible to the general reader. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s hilarious and pretty clear as far as analytic philosophers go. Let’s be honest though, the average layman or pastor won’t take the time to read all 500 pages of Warranted Christian Belief  even if it’s worth it (which it is). Stokes takes the best of the Reformed epistemological approach developed by Plantinga and Wolterstorff (don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Calvinist to buy into it) applied to various issues in philosophy over the last 40 years and condenses it into short, winsome, witty, and clearly laid-out chapters uncluttered with small print or symbolic logic.  He also includes helpful “For Your Arsenal” summary points at the back of each chapter for easy recall of the information.

This isn’t to say that he merely repeats Plantinga, or offers nothing new–he does, especially the way he frames the discussion historically, concretely grounding these ideas in conversation with Hume and Locke on down to W.V.O. Quine. Still, even if translating Plantinga were all he did, this would be crucial because in engaging with both believers and unbelievers with the Gospel over the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize that the issue of epistemology is one that is too often ignored, or simply botched in most popular works on apologetics even though it lies at the root of so many of these discussions. By focusing his sights on the epistemological questions, Stokes really is aiming to give readers a “shot of faith to the head.”

So how does he actually do it? Stokes starts out by explaining and debunking the evidentialist objection to belief in God, that there isn’t sufficient evidence to “prove” he exists. He shows that, in fact, evidentialism is self-defeating–some beliefs must be basic, taken without reasons or evidence, otherwise reasoning itself cannot get off the ground. In fact, he pushes on to show that a demand for arguments and “reasons” for all of our beliefs, actually leads us to the conclusion that atheism itself is self-defeating. In place of the rationalism and evidentialism so commonly assumed by skeptics, Stokes proposes an alternative definition for what it means for a belief to be rational, that it is the product of “properly-functioning cognitive faculty operating in the appropriate environment” (read as good thinking equipment), like sense-perception, memory, and reason; this is a Reidian, reliabilist approach to epistemology as recovered and retooled by Plantinga and others. Stokes goes on to show that belief by way of testimony, or faith, is actually another valid way of coming by our beliefs, and that it is perfectly rational to believe in God by way faith, testimony, or “taking God at his word.”  Pressing a bit further, Stokes makes the very Plantingan point that if the “Christian epistemic story” is true, then the Christian can believe in God in a way that is basic and rational. Basically, in order to show that faith is irrational, you have to prove Christianity false first.

Now, none of these considerations means that he discounts reason or even the arguments for the existence of God–he actually has a very helpful “intermission” section dealing with the nature of the arguments and the problem of the burden of proof. Instead, Stokes shows that these arguments are helpful in supplementing faith and in dealing with “defeater” beliefs.

Defeaters and Highlights

What’s a “defeater”? A defeater is basically a reason to ditch a belief we gained previously in light of new evidence to the contrary, or that casts suspicion on the way we arrived at our belief. This is why Stokes moves on from his general discussion on faith and reason to consider the two main defeater beliefs for God out there today: science and the problem of evil.

I won’t review these two sections extensively, but some highlights include:

  • Helpful corrections of the historical record when it comes to the “history of the warfare between science and religion.” (Stokes has written short biographies of both Galileo and Newton so he’s well-equipped to handle this.)
  • A good discussion of the difference between the unnecessary “god of the Gaps” who intervenes from time to time to fix things that science can’t figure out and the God of the Bible who supervenes over and upholds the created order.
  • A much-needed guide to distinguishing between methodological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, and the scientific provincialism that convinces so many that accepting the former is predicated by the latter.
  • A fascinating historical and philosophical analysis of the rise of science, the way science actually proceeds, and how theism gives us confidence to engage in scientific study given belief in the Image of God and the rationality of a universe created by God.
  • Numbers. Stokes has an absorbing discussion on the nature of numbers that made even a math-hater like me wonder at the beauty of a mathematically-ordered universe–and how bizarre the existence of such a one truly is unless the world was created by a rational God.
  • A clean introduction into the “problem of evil” discussion that’s been going on in academic philosophy since the 1960s.
  • Short, but clear, Plantingan responses to both the logical and the probabilistic versions of the problem of evil, using both the Free Will Defense with respect to the logical, and a sober reflection on the epistemological limitations of finite thinkers in relation to the probabilistic.
  • A theistic turning of the tables, using the insights of the moral argument to point out that, without God, there is no absolute, moral standard, in which case the objection from evil can’t even get off the ground.
  • A bold statement of the uncommon yet undeniably appealing O Felix Culpa (Happy Fault) theodicy. (I won’t blow the surprise for you.)

Conclusions 

To sum up: Mitch Stokes has done the church a great service with this book.  By making available some of the best insights of the Christian community’s academic philosophers, believers who read this can be humbly confident that their faith in the Gospel is not blind, irrational, or illegitimate. Rather, it is in fact capable of standing up to the fiercest intellectual objections. I highly recommend this book to doubting believers, inquisitive skeptics, and especially pastors who want to be able to lovingly and persuasively commend the Gospel to the both groups.

Soli Deo Gloria