Are There Only Propositions in This Text?

This post is a short dialogue paper that I wrote for Dr. Vanhoozer’s ST 5201 – God of the Gospel. We were instructed to write a short conversation (1500 word limit) between two theologians on a topic in which they disagreed. I choose Dr. Vanhoozer, himself, and one of my personal heroes, Dr. Carl F.H. Henry. We were instructed not to use direct quotes, but to put their arguments in our own words. I tried my best to do this while still keeping the general feel of each theologian. My main goal was to make Dr. Vanhoozer laugh, which I accomplished. The topic is speech acts. The original format was much better but it doesn’t work on WordPress.


“… and so that’s how I’m going to merge the ideas of both Van Til and C.S. Lewis” Parker announced to Dr. Vanhoozer with the very last of his air. Parker, a wide-eyed first year seminary student at TEDS, is what some might call “pesky”. Parker continually barrages Dr. Vanhoozer with an array of questions that are both untimely and beyond the scope of his class. And while Dr. Vanhoozer usually indulges him, today was different. Parker’s eagerness to learn and discuss theology made it difficult for him to sense when he’d worn out his welcome. He should have known by his professor’s weary eyes and uncharacteristically short answers that he needed some time to recuperate- after all, Dr. Vanhoozer had been the keynote speaker for six different conferences in the third week of October alone!

“Well, that’s interesting, Parker. I wish you luck with your project.” It was at this point that Parker finally got the hint, said “thank you”, and quickly scurried out of the classroom, more than slightly embarrassed.

As he watched his student exit, his drowsiness began to overtake him. The weight of his eyelids was too much for him to bear. His desk, as if magnetized, drew his head in closer and closer. As blackness creeped in from his peripherals, he thought to himself, “maybe I’ll rest my eyes for a couple minutes”, as if he was still in control of the situation.

Just then a voice, filled with authority, called out: “Wake up, Kevin!”. Dr. Vanhoozer sprung back into consciousness as his head broke free of his desk’s gravity. His blurry eyes focused on the figure at the door- it was Dr. Carl F.H. Henry!

“Dr. Henry?!” cried Dr. Vanhoozer, “Wha- what’re you doing here? And why are you wearing that elaborate Elizabethan ruff?”

“Never mind my attire, Kevin.” Said Dr. Henry, “As to why I’m here, you should be well aware of that by now. It’s this business of ‘speech acts’ that brings me to your classroom today. Now, I thought we had settled this years ago. But apparently you’ve been spreading this tripe all over Evangelicalism.”

“My dear Dr. Henry, I’m so glad you brought that up. Our first conversation concerning speech act theory left me unsettled. I was unable to convince you that we were both eager to uphold the propositional content of God’s speech. I’ll accept responsibility for any confusion.”

“I’m not sure that you’ll be able to convince me now either, Kevin. At best Speech Act Theory is superfluous and at worse it leads to skepticism.”

“I really don’t think you’ve given Speech Act Theory a fair shake. Take God’s commands for instance-”

Dr. Henry interjected with a quick snort and said “I’m perfectly willing to concede that God gives us commands, imperatives, promises, and other expressions that aren’t strictly truth bearing units like propositions. But the mere fact that a command is technically different than a proposition doesn’t undermine the fact that God is communicating truth to us in His commands. You and men like Nicolas Wolterstorff might argue-”

“Don’t lump me in with Wolterstorff, I am my own man after all.” Dr. Vanhoozer insisted in a polite, yet forceful tone.

“Very well, point taken. You might say, “Thou shalt not steal” doesn’t have any truth content, per se, since it’s not a proposition. Yet, this command certainly means that stealing is wrong, that God doesn’t want us to steal, that stealing goes against God’s nature, etc. Does it not?”

Dr. Vanhoozer barely let out a, “Yes, but-”, before Dr. Henry continued his logical progression.

“So, if Speech Act Theory does preserve the propositional content implied in commands and other “speech acts”, then we ought to hold to a simpler cognitive/propositional model such as that held by faithful Evangelical thinkers like Gordon Clark, Edward J. Carnell, Cornelius Van Til, Ronald Nash, Francis Schaeffer, James I. Packer (amongst others), rather than some newer philosophical theory that apparently adds nothing to the propositional content, except confusion!

At worst, if Speech Act Theory doesn’t preserve the propositional content of God’s word, then it leads us to skepticism concerning God’s revelation, and thus must be abandoned. So, you see Kevin, this theory is either unnecessary, or detrimental. It is hardly the cutting-edge tool you think it to be.”

Dr. Vanhoozer had a thousand lines of argument flying through his head, coupled with a whole bag of mixed emotions. He took a moment to collect himself and proceeded to say, “but Dr. Henry, there’s certainly some confusion over propositions and speech acts. Perhaps I’ve been less than clear in our past dialogues. Though, in all fairness, there’s also some confusion amongst those of you in the “bare proposition” camp, as well. For instance, you’ve tried to present all those evangelical titans you mentioned as a unified front; as if they all agreed in their definitions of propositional communication. But as you well know, your conceptual-verbal model of communication is different from Gordon Clark’s, which also differs from Ronald Nash’s model. And while the three of you agree on the overall concept of propositional revelation, the discrepancies are certainly significant. Not to mention the other positions in that impressive list. But I digress. Would you allow me a quick explanation of my view of speech acts so that we might be on the same page?”

Dr. Henry grabbed a chair in the front row of the class as he gestured an “as you wish” with a wave of his hand.

“My position concerning speech acts includes the biblical propositions that you’ve fought so hard to defend throughout the last century- but propositions aren’t the whole story. The text of Scripture contains many rich literary forms. If we want to do them- or rather, if we want to do God justice, we must take speech acts into account. To properly interpret the word of God, we need to know what God is doing with His words. We need the text in all its glory. If God decided to give us poetry, we need to deal with that poetry, and yes, we can recognize the propositions as they come, but speech act theory allows us to receive the text without abstracting out the bare propositions.”

“But it’s superfluous”, Dr. Henry growled after his restraint had given way.

Dr. Vanhoozer continued, though now a bit more forcefully, “can propositional acts ever occur by themselves? Isn’t there always an “illocutionary act” that’s being performed by the speaker or writer? Propositional content doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The speech act provides much of the sinew and flesh for the bare bones of the proposition. Surely, we can follow Augustine in raiding the Egyptians when they’re onto something true and useful. It’s on this account that I feel justified in raiding Austin and Searle. I appropriate J.L. Austin’s trichotomy of a speech act:

  1. the locutionary act, which is basically the meaning of an act.
  2. The illocutionary act, which is what the speaker/writer ‘does’ in speaking or writing.
  3. The perlocutionary act, which is what the speaker/writer achieves or brings about.

It’s the illocutionary act that’s the most original, as well as the most helpful of the three. John Searle’s simple formula, F(p), should convince you that we still preserve the propositional content, “p”, and yet we don’t strip it from its illocutionary force, “F”.

Dr. Henry’s face began to soften. “So, you’re saying that speech act theory allows us to be more faithful to the text of Scripture by preserving the information God wants to share, as well as preserving the force of His act of speaking?”

“Precisely!”, Dr. Vanhoozer exclaimed.

“Well, I see how that could be a useful tool for”-

“Don’t be fooled by his sophistry, Carl! He’s a postmodernist!” A voice bellowed from the doorway.

“Paul Helm?! Not now, we’re just having a break through here.” Dr. Vanhoozer chirped.

“Yeah, he’s a theistic mutalist, he believes that God’s ontology can change.” Another voice yelled from over Helm’s shoulder. Suddenly professors James Dolezal, William Roach, and Greg Thornberry entered the classroom.

“No! Not here, not now!” Dr. Vanhoozer yelled as he reached for a copy of his book, Is There a Meaning in This Text.

“Dr. Henry, here! Read this!” he shouted.

But as he flipped to the desired page, the words were illegible: ShmaT Druzzle84$#.

“No, this is… I don’t understand. Noo!”

“Dr. Vanhoozer! Dr. Vanhoozer! Wake up!”

Dr. Vanhoozer’s head sprung up from his makeshift pillow, a volume of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Standing before him was his pesky student, Parker.

“Looks like you were having a coo-coo dream, sir.” The now bashful student said. “I was just reading about speech act theory in the library, and I was wondering if you could help me understand it.”

A winsome smile slowly diffused over Dr. Vanhoozer’s face. “Yeah, I might be able to help with that.”

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