What are speech acts? Here are 4 examples of words in action in the Bible

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What are speech acts? 4 examples of words in action in the Bible

Whenever we go into a room, if we were to say “let there be light”, unless we’re talking to artificial intelligences like Alexa or Siri who respond to your voice and control various functions, nothing is bound to happen. It’s more of a wish we’re expressing, that we would like some light.

However, if you spend any time reading the Bible, one of the interesting things you’ll quickly discover is that whenever God speaks, things happen.

So when God says “let there be light” in Genesis Chapter 1, he is not merely conveying that information or wishing for something. When he speaks, light immediately comes into being. His words carry power and authority. His word are his acts.

Although we can’t literally control light like God does on our own power, we’re made in the image of God. That means we still have a limited version of God’s power to do things with his words and change situations.

This ability to do things with our words is known in linguistic and philosophical circles as “Speech Acts.”

The Bible is full of these, and we can take a look at a few examples.

But first, let’s take a more detailed look at what speech acts involve.

 

What are speech acts?

Speech acts are certain types of words where something specific happens at the very moment we speak.

They are words or utterances which are not merely communicating facts or an exchange of information. Instead, they have an action or consequence that can change a situation. When we speak, we are actually doing things with our words.

The theory of speech acts originally comes from British philosopher of language J.L Austin’s seminal book How To Do Things With Words.

In his book, Austin uses three linguistical terms to describe different types of speech acts.

Locution: What is said
Illocution: What is meant
Perlocution: What happened as a result.

Do you remember that old Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Best of Both Worlds”? This is the one where the Enterprise battle the relentless cybernetic alien race known as the Borg. The Borg have a hive mind which links them all cybernetically to one another. They function as one collective unit, only ever referring to themselves in the third person – eg, “we are the Borg.”

At the end of the episode, the Borg kidnap Captain Picard and transform him into one of their own – the monstrous Locutus of Borg. He becomes their individual voice – the one who speaks on their behalf.

The name Locutus comes from the linguistic term “locution”. This refers to “what is said”. It’s where we get the word “elocution”  – the skill of having clear speech with distinct articulation and pronunciation (not to be confused with “Illocution”).

So if “locution” is what is said, then “illocution” is what is meant.  When J.L. Austin refers to an illocutionary act, he simply means by this that there are certain words or utterances which, when we say them, our words go beyond just mere words. The action meant or intended behind them also takes place.

Or put another way: when we say something, we do something. 

I don’t plan to go into all the details of illocutionary acts much further, because this is a vast subject. However, to simplify things, speech acts is generally synonymous with illocutionary acts.

Austin himself prefers the term “performative utterances”, or “performatives” for short, instead of speech acts. Performatives, he says, derive from the verb “perform” combined with the noun “action”.

An example of a speech act would be when the minister at a wedding says “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” When he makes that pronouncement, he is not merely saying the words but bringing the intention behind them into being. The couple, from that point onwards, are in fact now husband and wife.

Speech acts: When a minister pronounces a couple as husband and wife, this is a speech act

Similarly, when the couple say “I do”, they’re not just conveying information to the listeners around them. They’re actually indulging in the action and giving an assent with their words. They’re binding themselves to each other in the covenant of marriage.

Another example is when someone says “I name this ship the Jolly Roger” or “I name this child John”, You’re doing more than just assigning a name, but in one sense, you’re bringing that thing or person into being and giving it an identity.

When you tell someone you love them, you’re not merely communicating that information to them. You’re doing something with those words. If you’re two people in the early stages of dating, then saying “I love you” for the first time completely changes the nature of that relationship. If you’re family, or have been a couple for a while, you’re affirming that relationship, assigning value and all the other things you’d normally associate with love.

Further examples of speech acts are as follows:

“I nominate you as President”, “I promise to uphold the law”, “I bestow upon you this title”, “I sentence you to ten years in prison”, “I bequeath my possessions to you” and so on.

Although not a specifically Christian book, Austin’s work has been highly influential. Others have followed in his footsteps and carried out extensive research on the subject of speech acts in the Bible, including American theologian Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer has written in detail on this subject in a number of his books, but particularly in Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge.

This is because many of God’s words are speech acts themselves. When he said something, automatically something happened.

 

The significance of speech acts in the Bible for us as the reader

Speech acts in the Bible

All of God’s words are speech acts in the Bible. That means that we can allow the text to speak to us. Unlike a text book or a work of fiction, when we read the Bible, the text is not simply conveying information or facts.

Instead, because of the transformative power of God’s words, when we read and engage with the text, it has the ability to change our lives.

Therefore, when we study the Bible, we are not simply exploring what the text means, but asking ourselves “what is God  trying to do or accomplish here through this text?”

While the Bible is full of examples of speech acts, these would really be too numerous to list. God is speaking to us through the entire text, and all of the words have the power to be transformative in our lives.

Therefore I have chosen selected examples where you can see the transformative power at work immediately.

 

4 EXAMPLES OF SPEECH ACTS IN THE BIBLE

1. Romans 10:9: Confessing Jesus as Lord

 

Speech acts - confessing Jesus is Lord

Romans 10:9  says:

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Confessing Jesus is Lord is a speech act. When you make that confession, you aren’t merely making a statement with your lips, like some kind of magic incantation. Instead, you are committing to his rule over your life and aligning your own heart, will and thoughts with his.

To understand the significance of the confession, we need to understand what it meant to say this statement at the time of the New Testament.

The Greek word for “Lord” is κύριος (kyrios). This was also the designation or title given to the Roman emperor. People would have referred to Caesar as “Lord” or “Lord over the whole world.”

If anyone were to utter the words “Jesus is Lord”, they would have been ascribing the same status and honour to Jesus of “Lord over all” that Caesar normally enjoyed.

By confessing “Jesus is Lord”, the person uttering these words would have been identifying themselves with a different kingdom and pledging their allegiance to another king. They would’ve been saying that they now belonged to this other community that was in direct conflict with the Emperor.

Confessing Jesus is Lord may not necessarily carry the same risk of religious persecution as in Roman times. That is, unless you live in a country where Christians are persecuted. Nevertheless, your words are changing a situation as you speak these out in faith. You are aligning yourself with the kingdom of God and leaving behind the kingdom of darkness.

 

2. Luke 5:20 “Your sins are forgiven”,

Speech acts - Jesus forgives the paralytic's sin
Jesus heals the Paralytic by Harold Copping (1863-1932) – Public domain

 

In Luke 5:17-26, four friends bring a paralytic man so that Jesus can heal him. However, instead of only doing that, Jesus utters the words in verse 20:

“Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees and teachers of the law saw this as blasphemy and began asking themselves “who can forgive sins but God alone?”

The Pharisees recognised what Jesus was suggesting through his words. Jesus had God’s power to heal and forgive sin. If Jesus were to do both, that would imply that he is God himself.

Jesus responded in the following way in verses 22-25

“Which is easier, to say: ‘your sins are forgiven’ or to say ‘Get up and walk? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralysed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.

Both statements by Jesus here are clear examples of speech acts. One is a more physical manifestation, where we see Jesus tell the man to get up and walk, and the man does so immediately. The other is less obvious, but far more radical in nature and consequence as far as Jesus is concerned.

He tells the man that his sins are forgiven. In doing so, Jesus isn’t merely telling him “don’t worry about it” in a casual but meaningless way. Jesus does not leave the man wondering whether he has indeed forgiven him.  Nor is he simply telling him about some future event that his sins will be forgiven by God.

Instead, Jesus is showing himself to be God. He is actually bringing about the conditions in which he forgives the man’s sins.

From Jesus’ point of view, forgiveness of sins was more difficult than healing a physical condition. However, he chose to demonstrate his ability to forgive by doing the easier task of healing the man’s paralysis. If Jesus is able to heal, he is also able to forgive the man of sin as well.

In that moment, when Jesus spoke those words, he restored the man to a right relationship with God. That means that whether or not the man felt forgiven, the forgiveness has already taken place.

We can take comfort in these words ourselves. When Jesus pronounces we are forgiven, it is not something pending. It has actually happened because God’s words are speech acts. When he speaks, things happen.

 

 

3. Mark 4:39 “Peace, be still”

Speech acts - Jesus calms the storm
Image: Robert Sang © 2017 – Drawing on the Word

 

The above picture is from my Graphic Novel Bible of Luke’s gospel, which is the parallel passage to the one in Mark. You can download a sample of it (which includes the picture and the accompanying passage) by entering your details below.

In Mark 4:35-41, Jesus and his disciples are in a boat when a storm descends upon them. This appears to be more of a raging tempest as it has the disciples fearful for their lives. As experienced fishermen, they would normally be used to this kind of weather. Here, however, their faith is wavering.

The disciples wake Jesus, who is sleeping, and beg him to save them. “Teacher”, they say, “don’t you care if we drown?”

Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves in 4:39, and utters the words “Peace, be still.” Immediately the wind dies down and everything is calm. Then he turns to look at His disciples and ask them “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

The disciples are full of fear. “Who is this?” they ask. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Jesus doesn’t merely wish peace upon the situation like a typical greeting of peace. Instead, he intends for peace to happen. As he speaks it out with authority, immediately, peace is exactly what occurs as the storm disappears.

Jesus’ words are his acts. Because he himself is the prince of peace, he is able to bring peace with a mere word. Jesus is able to calm the storm.

 

4. John 11:  “Lazarus, come forth”

Lazarus come forth by Harold Copping (1907)
Lazarus come forth by Harold Copping (1907) – Public Domain

 

In John 11, Jesus is at the tomb of Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Martha and Mary, who has died recently. Jesus weeps for his friend, and then orders those nearby to remove the stone from the tomb.

Jesus tells Martha in John 11:25

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

As far as Jesus is concerned, the resurrection isn’t some far-off event in the future. It’s happening here and now the moment a person believes.

When Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb with the words “Lazarus, come forth”, his words immediately change the situation. Jesus calls the dead man to life through his words, which itself are an echo of John 5:24-25 which says:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.”

Jesus speaks. Because he is the resurrection and the life, his words bring life.

Lazarus is dead but hears the voice of the Son of God calling to him. He literally crosses over from death to life as he comes forth from the grave.

 

How we can use speech acts in our Bible reading, prayers and praise

Using speech acts in our prayer and praise

The Bible is the inspired word of God and contains the words of God.

Whenever you read the Bible during your quiet time, don’t just limit yourself to reading it silently.

When we read books, unless we’re reading to an audience, we generally tend to read to ourselves. However, scripture is something we should read out loud. This should be not only during a reading in church, but even in your own private meditation.

When we read the passages of scripture aloud, we are speaking these words in faith and, in a sense, bringing it into being or making it a reality in our lives.

Romans 10:17 tells us that

“faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (NIV)

By speaking these words out and giving voice to them, we are agreeing with them and reinforcing them in our own lives and thoughts.

Proverbs 18:21 tells us that

“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”

There is power in our words, and what we speak out we eventually tend to believe.

We can also use the words of the Bible in our prayers and praise. Whenever we sing or speak out words of praise and thanksgiving to God, we are actually making them into speech acts. When we speak out these words in faith, we are not simply communicating information. Instead, we are committing to that attitude and agreeing with the truths of the Bible.

This has the effect of aligning our hearts, wills and thoughts with those of God. The result is that it gives us a different perspective of the situation from God’s point of view and boosts our own faith as well.  I have written about this in more detail here: Why we should still worship God even when we don’t feel like it.

 

Conclusion

Did you know that there is power in your words?

Can you think of any other examples of speech acts, either in the Bible or in everyday life?

Leave your comments in the section below. Also, please share if you found this article useful.

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Robert is the founder of Drawing on the Word. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Theology and a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology. He also has a degree in Law and was called to the Bar. Robert previously taught religious studies and was a theology lecturer. He is an artist, musician and writer, and has created a graphic novel version of Luke’s gospel. You can follow him below.

What are speech acts and their significance for us? Here are 4 examples of words in action or performative utterances found in the Bible #speechacts #godsword #bible #wordsinaction #speakinggodsword

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. What a great post! Very informative. I had never heard them referred to as speech acts. I think my favorite one is when Jesus tells Lazarus to come forth. I’ve heard it said that if Jesus didn’t put a name with that statement, everything in that graveyard would have came forward. There is certainly power in our words and as Christians operating under the authority of God, we have access to some of that same authority. I’m so glad that we can speak life into circumstances just like Jesus did for Lazarus.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you enjoyed it and found it helpful.

  2. I always knew there was power in what we say but you opened my eyes even more to how what we say has a profound effect on our lives. God chose his words carefully because he knew the power behind them. And we should as well. I always liked the phrase “preach the gospel and when necessary use words” to Ben though are actions speak louder there is power in the tongue and what we say. Very detailed. I like it

    1. Thanks for commenting. Funny you should mention that quote, because I have a blog article in the works on that very subject! Watch this space!

  3. Really enjoyed this. As we’re created in the image of God, and has God’s words contain power, we to hold power in our words. Thanks for really breaking it down in a “technical” sense like that. Puts things into perspective.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. There is a lot to speech acts that I haven’t covered. I’ve barely touched on the surface of it, but God’s word is full of them and definitely worth exploring more.

  4. I had never heard about “speech acts” before; thanks for the introduction. I appreciate the biblical examples you gave. God bless you.

    1. Thanks for reading. Speech acts are definitely an interesting concept when you explore it further, because we use them in our everyday lives and do so many things with words.

  5. Love this article! I absolutely love words and was actually just thinking a little bit today about their power. God’s words are so powerful – speaking his truth into a person’s life has the power to literally change their heart and life. In my own life, speaking out prayers and Bible verses have had such a power to bring peace.

    1. Thanks! That’s really great to hear how you’ve been thinking about it and speaking these out in your own life.

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