How Does Speech-Act Theory Help Us Understand Inerrancy?

In The Lost World of Scripture John Walton incorporates elements of speech-act theory as it relates to the issue of inerrancy. This new title from IVP Academic is a joint effort with D. Brent Sandy. Though Walton is careful to observe that they “do not agree with many of the conclusions associated with speech-act theory” they do “find its foundational premise and terminology helpful and have therefore adopted its three basic categories.” He continues,

“The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief). A common illustration is the words spoken in a wedding. When the bride and groom say ‘I do’ they are using a very basic locution—words that could be used in any number of contexts with varieties of meaning. But in this context they are used for a specific illocution: a lifetime of vow of faithfulness and commitment. The resulting perlocution is the implementation of that vow throughout life.” (41)

Walton claims that “[i]nerrancy and authority are related to the illocution; accommodation and genre attach to the locution. There inerrancy and authority cannot be undermined, compromised, or jeopardized by genre or accommodation. While genre labels may be misleading, genre itself cannot be true or false, errant or inerrant, authoritative or nonauthoritative.” (45)

What this means is that “[c]ulture-specific aspects of a locution do not determine the illocution. That is, even though people in Israel believed there were waters above the earth held back by a solid sky, or that cognitive processes took place in the heart or kidneys, the illocution of the texts is not affirming those beliefs as revealed truth. Culture-specific aspects of an illocution do not have a universal perlocution (eating pork, circumcision, head covering). Culture-specific aspects of the perlocution need to be translated to an appropriate contemporary perlocution. So our response to the second or third commandment will be adjusted to our culture and will differ in specifics from the response expected in the ancient context. . . . To set aside such culturally bound locutions does not jeopardize the illocution or the authority. . . . In conclusion then, God accommodates human culture and limitations in the locutions that he inspires in the human communicator, but he does not accommodate erroneous illocution or meaning. . . .These human illocutions have authority because they are the means by which God gives his illocutions. 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. If meaning that carries authority is derived from the human communicator’s illocution, we dare not supply our own substitute illocutions and meanings derived from the human communicator’s locutions.” (45-48)

It’s something to think about. I happen to think Walton and Sandy are on to something fruitful here.

The Lost World of Scripture is a paperback with 320 pages and sells for $24.00.


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, John Walton, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How Does Speech-Act Theory Help Us Understand Inerrancy?

  1. Pingback: Baker Book House Church Connection | How Does Speech Act Theory Help Us Understand Speaking in Tongues?

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