Michael Horton on Speech Acts and Biblical Interpretation

Long before Wittgenstein, Calvin argued in his own way, and in connection with scripture particularly, that language was suited to a form of life.  Language was not a static and immutable code to which the speaker had to submit, a type of calculative reasoning; it was a dynamic tool of human existence and divine communication.  In other words, it is not merely what the words mean in themselves, but what the speaker does and intends in using them.  God wished to make a particular point, to promise, to warn, to persuade.  As in the instance of apparent conflict over whether God loved humanity before the cross, Calvin not only engages in appropriate analysis of grammar and syntax, but interprets the intention of the discourse.  God was intending to say something then and there that would make a point in a particular context and for a particular illocutionary purpose, not to establish eternal ideas.

Unlike pictures, which capture an image and, because of their identical representation, are inflexible to interpretation, analogies belong to the linguistic world in which people do things by saying things.  Thus the question of contradiction recedes into the background and the context of personal language, and the question now becomes, What is God doing here in saying this, in this way? The goal is not only to interpret words about God, but words of God.  It is this designative content that is taken as reliable communication from God.

Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, 187-88.  (Bold emphasis mine.)

I love how Horton draws attention to the fact that words aren’t simply referring to cognitive propositions.  Words do things which makes defaulting to a “literal” interpretation of scripture unhelpful unless one actually defines what it means to be “literal.”  For one to say that literally interpreting a text means just reading it in a plain, straight-ahead manner is so hopelessly simplistic as to be utterly worthless for any meaning contribution to hermeneutics and biblical interpretation.


2 thoughts on “Michael Horton on Speech Acts and Biblical Interpretation”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Nice post :)

    On a side note, I’ve never quite understood how Horton can use pictorial representation as a foil to linguistic representation. He states that pictures “because of their identical representation, are inflexible to interpretation.” Not to be a pain, but that is simply not true. Art is notoriously flexible in interpretation (even photography!). I realize, of course, that he’s getting at the allusive nature of words, but this seems a poor point of comparison.

    If I recall correctly, he goes on to use this foil as part of an argument for Word over image in worship, etc. Again, as a Reformed Christian, I’m generally with him. However, the argument seems a bit weak.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point of your post, but I couldn’t help myself :)


    1. Hi Nevada, good to hear from you!

      Hmmm – I’d have to think about this a bit more. I guess when I’ve read Horton speaking about pictorial representation, I wasn’t so much thinking of art as I was a photo. While certainly a photo can still be artistic and open to interpretation, when making a description of something, a photo leaves much less to be imagined than does a textual description. Hermeneutically this seems to keep us a bit more humble. Those who think that texts are able to represent detail-for-detail and provide full presence tend to take so much more simplistic of an approach to textual meaning.

      As for how that applies to images in worship, I just haven’t done much thinking about it. Most URCs seem to avoid art in the sanctuary, though there are some churches with stained glass windows. How all that might relate (or not relate) to word over image seems like an interesting thing to reflect on.

      Hope your studies are going well!


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