Divine Discourse (Wolterstorff)

Wolterstorff, Nicholas.  Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the claim that God speaks.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Wolterstorff takes the findings in current speech-act theory and applies them to the claim that God speaks.  He insists that his project is not another treatment on theological revelation, but that discourse is different from revelation.  For revelation to occur, not only must must the actor speak, but the actee must receive the propositional content of the speech (29).  However, promises and commands are not (primarily) intended to reveal the unknown to us, but to show us our duties, etc.

This leads to the basics of speech-act theory.  The locution is a meaningful sentence uttered. Moreover, as Wolterstorff notes, “Acts of asserting, commanding, promising, and asking…are all illocutionary acts; by contrast, acts of communicating knowledge, when brought about by illocutionary acts, are all perlocutionary acts” (32; emphasis original).

The Rules of the Speaking Game

Speaking, especially speaking one between another, assumes certain rules that are “given.”  Thus, there is a new relation between the speakers. This relationship has “built-in” rules. Wolterstorff explains, “If I say ‘I saw Jim drive off with your car’…I have not simply transmitted information” (84).  He goes on to say that if you understood what I said–assuming I am not lying–you are now obligated to take me at my word.

It is not that the words themselves are binding, but the conditions attached to them.  The conditions yield consequences of the words being uttered or not uttered (87).  

Can God Speak?

Nota Bene:  Illocutionary acts are related to locutionary acts by way of the counting as relation; perlocutionary acts are related to illocutionary acts by causality.

NB, 2:  Could the conditions attending the “Rules of the Speaking Game” shed light on the nature of imputation in justification?  I think so. If God declares me just on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, is it a legal fiction? The Reformed can answer no on two counts:

  1. If God says something it’s probably best that we not argue with him on that point.
  2. But assuming with the objection that God’s words aren’t good enough, we can go a step further: God’s speech-act “You are righteous on account of Christ” is a real phenomenon because it met real conditions in speech-act theory.  The relations that govern the laws of discourse are real, not legal fictions. God himself is the author of all reality. When I speak in mundane affairs I can create a new relation (I pronounce you man and wife; you’re fired, etc).  If this is true and easy for me to do, why is it suddenly hard for God to do? Because of his speech I have a new relation to him: loving Father. (see p. 97 for more technical details)

Discussions of Barth and Derrida

NW gives the standard criticisms of Barth.  He gives a very careful and clear discussion of what Barth means by Jesus being the Word-as-Revelation of God.  For Barth, Jesus is the medium of God’s revelation, but it is important to note that Barth does not see any revelation of God as being “speech.”  God does not speak, per Barth. NW hovers around the main criticism of Barth but never delivers it: Barth cannot see God as speaking because God, being wholly other, cannot enter the realm of the phenomenal.  In short, Barth is an Origenist. (The only theologian to really make this observation was the fellow-gnostic Hans urs von Balthasar).

I enjoyed the section on Derrida.  NW rightly points out that not everything Derrida said is wrong.  While we must appreciate (and employ!) Derrida’s criticisms of Plato, at the end of the day we must part with Derrida.  If everything is a “trace” of something else, “and meaning is not anterior to signification, but a creature of ‘our’ signification,” then the Bible as God’s speech has no original meaning (Wolterstorff 161).  We must destroy Plato to the hilt, but this is too high a price to pay, pace Derrida.

Towards an Ethics of Belief

At the end of the book Wolterstorff hints towards a future project:  the ethics of belief. Considering that God can speak, are Christians warranted in holding that God speaks?  Yes. It seems a rather simple question, but Wolterstorff uses it to explain how epistemology can work.

Many times true beliefs are formed by “doxastic practice” (269).  

Criticisms and Evaluation

As Reformed Christians we should rejoice in any work that champions God’s word as speech, as speech-act.  Many chapters in this volume are pure gold. The section on John Locke at the end of the book is almost worth the price of the book.

I have some criticisms, though.   This book is not as clear as later works (Horton, Vanhoozer) on the differences between locutions, illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts.  Further, and as is often the case with analytic philosophy, some pages tend to go on without any clear purpose.  

NB 3: Token-type language ontology:  in straight-forward language (Common Sense Realism?) words can be “tokened,” some enduring and some perishing in character (135ff).   

NB 4: “Performance interpretation” is analogous to Frei/Lindbeck school.

3 thoughts on “Divine Discourse (Wolterstorff)

  1. No fan of Barth, I don’t understand the particular Origenist charge. On top of that, I don’t understand the accusation that for Barth God doesn’t speak. As far as I understand it, God does speak but His speech is alien and strange (but still speech), like seeing the animator’s hand in one of those meta Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s not omnipresent, but a hammer falling out of the sky or an invasion. God’s speech is a tangent (this has radical dimensions when it comes to understanding scripture as God’s word, but that’s another thing). But maybe Barth shifts away from this when he becomes more akin to van Balthasar (and Origen)?

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  2. Pingback: Approaching Philosophy of Religion (Thiselton) | A Wandering Aramean

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