Bavinck on Speech Acts and the Power of God's Word

It seems as though some version of speech act theory--the rather simple but significant observation that we use words to do things--pokes out from under every stone in evangelical discussions of Scripture these days. This has been the case at least since Nicholas Wolterstorff's 1993 Wilde Lectures at Oxford, later developed into Divine Discourse (Oxford, 1995), and perhaps especially since Kevin Vanhoozer's big splash, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Zondervan, 1998). The application of speech act theory to topics in the doctrine of Scripture has generally made for stimulating but not always helpful reading. The impression occasionally cast is that scholars working in this field are plowing up fertile ground only discovered since the philosophical explorations of Austin and Searle in the 1960s.

Not so. Though there was no such thing as speech act theory, per se, prior to Austin's How to Do Things with Words (Clarendon, 1962; from the 1955 William James Lectures at Harvard), not even Austin claimed his ideas were new. Here is how he opens his first lecture:

What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts. The phenomenon to be discussed is very widespread and obvious, and it cannot fail to have been already noticed, at least here and there, by others. Yet I have not found attention paid to it specifically.

Austin is right, and one place this phenomenon has been noticed is in Christian reflection on language, Scripture, and the power of God's word to accomplish things beyond just telling and describing.

Take Bavinck's argument under his discussion of the Spirit's means of grace. In Austin's words, Bavinck argues from what he clearly believes to be an obvious phenomenon--the power of human words to do things--to the perfection of this power in the God's word:

The word is not an empty set of vibrations in the air, nor an empty sign, or a cold symbol, but every word, also every human word, is a power greater and more durable than the power of the sword. Encapsulated within it is thought, mind, soul, and life. If this applies to words in general, how much more is it true of the word that proceeds from the mouth of God and is spoken by him? That is a word that creates and maintains, judges and kills, re-creates and renews, and always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish and never returns empty (RD, 4.458).

He draws out one line of support:

The power of the human word . . . depends [to some degree] on the extent to which a person puts one's heart and soul into it, on the distance existing between the person and one's speech. But in the case of God that is different. It is always his word; he is always present in it; he consistently sustains it by his almighty and omnipresent power. It is always God himself who, in whatever form and by whatever means, brings it to people and calls them by it. Therefore, even though the word of God that is freely proclaimed by ministers or conveyed to people by way of personal admonition, public address, a book or other writing, is indeed taken from Scripture but not identical with Scripture, it is still a word from God, a word that comes to human beings but is originally from God, is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective.

This is true of the word as both law and gospel, written and proclaimed, he argues:

The word of God is never separate from God, from Christ, from the Holy Spirit; . . . Just as Scripture was not just inspired at one time by the holy Spirit, but is continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by the Spirit, so it is with the word of God that, taken from Scripture, is preached in some fashion to people. . . . In that respect, the Lutherans are completely correct: always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit. . . . It is always efficacious; it is never powerless. If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down (RD, 4.459).

It is no stretch to recast Bavinck's point in the jargon of speech act theory: even human discourse is not just the product of a locutionary act (uttering intelligible sounds); neither is it just an illocutionary act (an instance of asserting, commanding, promising, and so on); it is also a power to do things--to achieve the perlocutionary acts (the intended effects) in the speaker's sights. Now, if even human discourse has this power, we ought to believe that God's word is perfect in this power, able to accomplish all he intends.

Lutheran and Reformed theologians disagree over just what those divinely intended perlocutionary effects are. Lutherans argue God is always aiming to save but his saving power is resistible since he is exerting it through means; the Reformed argue God aims at a variety of particular effects and that he always achieves his perlocutionary intentions--"if it does not raise people up, it strikes them down," as Bavinck puts it. Both, however, have reflected at length on how God does things with words and agree that his word is more than just locution and illocution--it is "always and everywhere" living, active, and able.