Canon And Speech Act: Limitations In Speech-Act Theory, With Implications For A Putative Theory Of Canonical Speech Acts -- By: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 70:2 (Fall 2008)
Article: Canon And Speech Act: Limitations In Speech-Act Theory, With Implications For A Putative Theory Of Canonical Speech Acts
Author: Vern Sheridan Poythress


Canon And Speech Act:
Limitations In Speech-Act Theory,
With Implications For A Putative Theory
Of Canonical Speech Acts

Vern Sheridan Poythress

Vern S. Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. This article is based on a paper presented to the eastern regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, March 14, 2008.

The theory of speech acts, as developed by John Austin and John R. Searle, sets language in the context of human action and inquires about the functions and purposes of human action that are accomplished by sentences.1 This viewpoint is potentially useful in considering the canon of Scripture, and indeed has already been so used.2 The canon of Scripture is not just a natural object like a set of dinosaur bones, but a cultural product, and, yes—most emphatically—a divine product as well, with attendant personal purposes associated with its production. Inquiring about those purposes helps us to assess the meaning of canon in the context of who God is and the relation of his words to his redemptive deeds.3

But if we are to use speech-act theory in analyzing the canon as a whole, or in attending to the purposes of any small piece of biblical text, it helps to be aware of limitations in the theory. To explore those limitations is my purpose. Inevitably a focus on limitations is going to sound negative. So I should say at the beginning

that I am not really criticizing speech-act theory at its best, but rather attempting to head off misuses and oversimplifications, as well as lack of awareness concerning the simplifications that enter into the formation of the theory.

I. Classification of Speech Acts

What is speech-act theory? It describes and classifies the different kinds of things that people do when they use sentences in actual speech. According to John Searle’s classification, there are five general categories.4 (1) “Assertives,” such as “I went to town yesterday,” “commit the speaker … to the truth of the expressed proposition.”5 (2) “Directives,” such as “Go to town,” “are attempts … to get the hearer to do something.”6 (3) “Commissives,” such as “I promise to go to town,” “committ [sic] the speaker … to some future course of act...

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