First Theology (Vanhoozer)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Kevin Vanhoozer (KV) bases this prolegomena off of speech-act theory. He is working from several methodological presuppositions, all of which I think are sound: our understanding of God and our understanding of Scripture presuppose one another (or are correlates). This is helpful because it alleviates the problem of whether we need to start with God or Scripture.

His book has three parts: God, Scripture, and (Cultural) Hermeneutics.


KV raises the problem of whether the Trinity belongs in a philosophy of religions. He advances the standard claims against pluralism: whenever a pluralist defines a "core" of all religious beliefs, that core is inevitably exclusivistic--it excludes other categories (57).

Drawing from themes by Robert W. Jenson, KV places God's identity in his self-identifying acts as the God of Israel. Before that he notes the problem of the term "identity." Does it mean ontological sameness or self-constancy in the case of God? According to Paul Ricoeur, the God of the Philosophers is the God of idem-identity (bare essence; ground of being, the ineffable One swallowing the Many). This makes differentiation of any sorts (persons, relations) a movement towards non-being. By contrast, the God of Israel is the God of ipse-identity (constancy, covenantal fidelity). God identifies himself as Israel's God and ties his name to a promise. This is not the god of the philosophers. Very fine section.

Effectual Call as Case Study

KV perceptively notes that the doctrine of effectual call is simply an example of the problem of the God-world nexus. Does God operate on the world in a causal manner merely, or is the relation one of calling, speech? As Descartes noted, the God-world nexus is seen in the following problem: how does the mental (God, mind, spiritual, etc) have any effect on the physical?

KV proposes we see this relationship in communicative categories. If there is a God-world nexus, the "calling" is the "communicative joint" (118). The Word that summons has both content and illocutionary force (energy).

Speech Act Terminology

Before continuing it will be helpful to explain key speech-act terms. A perlocution is what one brings about by one's speech act (120). Locution is the speaking (154). Illocution is the content and intent of the Locution.
Scripture as Speech-Act

KV proposes that speech-act theory allows us to transcend the debate between revelation as content and revelation as act, since Speech-Act includes both (130).

He has some good responses to high-church readings of Scripture and tradition: "I see no reason that cognitive malfunction could not be corporate as well as individual" (223). He notes the Anabaptist claim to "read in community" is not that materially different from the Romanist/EO claim that the Church reads the Bible.

This claim to “self-referentiality is artificial; it disconnects the text from the extratextual world and from the process of reading…[quoting Francis Watson] To regard the church as a self-sufficient sphere closed of from the world is ecclesiological docetism” (Vanhoozer 216).

Indeed, such a position reduces to “interpretive might makes right. One may very well question the grounds of such optimism: the believing community in Scripture is too often portraryed as unbelieving or confused, and subsequent church history has not been reassurring either” (219)
And Vanhoozer asks the most painful and unanswerable of questions: how can we guard against the possible misuse of Scripture? If we have to read the Bible with the church, we have to posit the corollary: the church’s interpretation is what counts. But what are the criteria so we know the church interpreted it correctly? The Holy Spirit will guide it. Well, what about Heira? That doesn’t count.

It’s kind of like the definition of p0rnography: I’ll know it when I see it (or not see it, as the case may be).


The book is mostly magnificent. The final sections on Cultural Hermeneutics have promise, but only if you are already interested in that topic.


Puritan Board Freshman
Does this sound similar to Michael Horton's use of speech-act theory?

I believe it is always important to hear all views and be humble enough to research their cautions about one another. This way, we can seek the truth and not seek to "win our argument at the expense of truth." With this spirit, readers should be aware that Lane Tipton from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and the guys on Reformed Forum caution others about certain uses of speech act theory. Hopefully, someone understands the "downside" of this view better than I do and can explain their line of reasoning.

Justification and Union with Christ - Reformed Forum [18-19 minute mark]

Mark G says:
January 21, 2012 at 9:10 am
It is a good service to the church for Tipton to question the use of speech act theory categories and definitions to explain ordo salutus categories. I’m not against using philosophy but the use of speech act theory to structure salvation is an innovation that needs to be questioned, clarified & explained. I seriously doubt that it is helpful to use contemporary linguistic theory to frame and define salvation. I suspect it is unbiblical. However, I am open to Mike Horton clarifying what he means.

I think one must at least be very careful to underscore differences between man’s speaking and God’s speaking if one is going to co-opt. speech act theory to explain God’s speaking. God’s speaking always accomplishes exactly what he intends. Also, God’s word is effective because of who He is, because of His nature. There is no force independent of God in His speaking, in the “words” themselves. God’s revelation is supernatural. The response of hearer’s of God’s speaking respond in accordance with His divine will. God never has to mold his speaking in order to get the response he wills. I don’t believe God’s speaking is ever an illocutionary speech act. Given all these things I think it is confusing at best to frame God’s speaking in terms of speech act theory categories; locutionary acts, illocutionary acts, and perlocutionary acts. At best this would seem to lead to confusion.

Mike Horton is also promoting “speech act preaching.” I also have concerns as to whether this is helpful. Preaching is effective because of the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word. There is nothing else like this in human linguistic communication.

By the way, just an FYI, Dr. Tipton is not the first to voice concerns regarding the use of speech act theory to describe God’s speaking.


Puritan Board Graduate
Psyche, the objection there is actually fairly weak: all that it means is that the illocutionary force of Divine speech-acts is always successful in obtaining its intended perlocutionary effects. Applied to preaching, this simply means that the Holy Spirit produces the perlocutionary effects (whether quickening or hardening) in the hearts and minds of the hearers.

One naturally does have to make an ontological distinction between Divine speech-acts and human speech-acts, but there is still enough of a family resemblance between human and Divine speech-acts that the associated categories can be helpful.

My caution regarding this, though, is that in Scripture, God also speaks through sign-acts, that is through actions which are declarative in nature. For example, Jesus is making a claim when he bends down to write in the sand in John 8. He is claiming, in essence, Divine authority (only God writes with a finger cf: Ex 31:18; Dan 5:5). Or God giving assurance of the promise by passing between the pieces in Genesis 15. These are sign-acts which proclaim something.


Puritanboard Clerk
Yes, it's the same as what Horton is saying. Horton is building off of Vanhoozer's work. A full scale-revamping of ontology with speech-act, while not perhaps wrong, could be dangerous. But seeing effectual calling in terms of speech-act really helped me answer a lot of problems from Romanists and Orthodoxy.


Puritan Board Junior
Thanks. I always find Vanhoozer creative and insightful. He has written a very interesting essay on biblical hermeneutics: "Imprisoned or Free? Text, Status, and Theological Interpretation in the Master/Slave Discourse of Philemon," in Reading Scripture with the Church. He offers an ingenious defense of plurality of interpretation based not on discrete senses but based on multiple legitimate framing contexts.
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