The Bible – The Word of God – Three Views: Part 5

This is part five of “The Bible – The Word of God.” Today we will be looking at the the views of a philosophical theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff. We will see how he appropriates speech-act theory to argue for a particular understanding of what it means to say that the Bible is the Word of God. This is part 3 of the subsection “Three Views on What it Means to Say that the Bible is the Word of God.”

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III. Nicholas Wolterstorff

            Wolterstorff takes a philosophical approach towards answering the question of what it means for God to speak. The claim that God speaks presents us with some metaphysical problems, for instance: how can a being with no hands or vocal cords be said to speak to humans? If God cannot “speak” how can God address humanity? Wolterstorff believes that this question can be answered by making use of J.L. Austin’s distinction between locutionary acts, acts of uttering or inscribing words, and illocutionary acts, acts performed by way of locutionary such as asserting, commanding, promising, etc. Wolterstorff suggests that “attributions of speech to God should be understood as the attribution to God of illocutionary acts.”

There are many ways to speak besides by making sounds with one’s vocal apparatus or inscribing marks with one’s limbs. For instance there are cases in which one person says something with words which she herself has not uttered or inscribed, these can be considered cases of double agency. For instance consider the following case: a person prepares a copy of a position paper for the president of a seminary to sign. The person who prepares the paper is not herself performing the speech action; it is the president who performs the speech action by signing the papers. This example would be a case of double agency.

Double agency can be categorized into at least two different kinds: deputized discourse and appropriated discourse. Deputized discourse is the phenomenon of “speaking in the name of.” For instance an ambassador to a foreign country “speaks in the name of” his country’s president. In the Bible we find examples of deputized discourse, especially in the prophets. For instance, Wolterstorff cites Hosea as an example of God giving someone authority to “speak in his name.”[1] In addition to deputized discourse there is appropriated discourse. In appropriated discourse one agent appropriates the speech of another agent’s discourse as his or her own. For instance sometimes people will say things like “she speaks for me too,” “I share those commitments,” or “I second that motion.”[2] In saying things like this, the agent appropriates another agent’s speech as her own. Although some parts of the Bible definitely seem to be deputized discourse, Wolterstorff believes that the majority of the Bible can be understood as God appropriating human discourse. In fact he says that “the most natural way of understanding the claim that as a whole this (the Bible) is God’s book, (is) understanding it in terms of appropriated discourse.”[3]

So for Wolterstorff to say that the Bible is the word of God is to say that the Bible is God’s speech, however it is appropriated speech. Thus if we are to categorize Wolterstorff’s position we should say that for him the phrase “the bible is the word of God” should be read as a subjective genitive, that is, the bible is the word somehow proceeding from God by means of someone else’s speech.


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections On the Claim That God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 46.

[2] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections On the Claim That God Speaks, 52.

[3] Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections On the Claim That God Speaks, 53.

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