This post is really a question for Richard Rhodes, partly in response to his posts The 800 pound Gorilla and The itch that inerrancy scratches. But I am writing it as a separate post because I think it might get a bit long for a comment, and because others might be interested in this topic.
Over the last few days on a private mailing list for Bible translators there has been some discussion (mainly between David Frank and myself, and I have David’s permission to post about this) of the word in Paul’s letters usually translated “justify” being used as a performative. That is, it is being used in the same way as when a judge declares a defendant not guilty: that is not so much a statement that the defendant did not commit the crime as a declaration that he or she is legally treated as innocent and will not be punished. On this interpretation, when Paul writes that God justifies us by faith, he does not mean that God says we have not sinned, but that God is declaring that we will legally be treated as innocent and will not be punished.
One objection sometimes made to the Reformed Evangelical doctrine of justification (here to be distinguished from the understanding of Paul’s teaching associated with the New Perspective on Paul) is that it teaches that God says that Christian believers have not sinned although in fact they have – which implies that God is a liar, as in 1 John 1:10. But, as David Frank pointed out to me, if justification is a performative one cannot say that it is a lie. Indeed, even if an unjust or corrupt human judge were to declare not guilty a defendant who he or she knew was in fact guilty, one would not call that verdict a lie.
This of course agrees with what Richard wrote in the gorilla post:
In the 1960’s, after the posthumous publication of John L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, the philosophical and linguistic worlds became aware that the notion truth only applied to a portion of language.
In short, it makes no sense to talk about whether utterances like the following are true or false:
And although none of the utterances Richard listed are in fact performatives, it also makes no sense to talk about whether performatives are true or false.
Richard goes on to introduce the concept of felicity, which does apply to all kinds of utterances. He also makes the claim that
Scripture is fully felicitous communication.
Presumably he would suggest that a fortiori all utterances of God are fully felicitous.
But what does it mean for a performative utterance to be felicitous? This is where my question to Richard comes in. In fact there are three questions, but the important one is the third one.
First, if someone who in fact has no authority to do so, who is not a judge, presumes to pronounce a perpetrator not guilty, that would be an apparently performative utterance which actually fails to perform, in that it has no legal effect and fails to protect that person from punishment. Would it be reasonable to say that the pronouncement is an utterance which is not felicitous?
Then I return to the unjust or corrupt human judge who declares not guilty a defendant who he or she knows is in fact guilty. Would that verdict also be an utterance which is not felicitous? After all, although it is not in itself an untruth, it is based on untruth and deception. Of course this verdict is felicitous in the common sense of the word for the defendant (not for the victim), but is it felicitous in the technical linguistic sense?
And now at last for my real question. If God declares me not guilty, or righteous, although he knows very well that I have committed many sins and am in fact guilty, is his declaration an utterance which is not felicitous? Again, it is felicitous for me in the common sense, but what about the technical linguistic sense?
If this verdict is not felicitous, then either we have to accept that God can and does make infelicitous utterances, or find some other interpretation of Paul’s language about justification, such as that of the New Perspective on Paul, according to which justification is not just a declaration of not guilty but a real change in the person’s status and actions.
The relevance for this for Bible translation is that, if translators cannot use a traditional word like “justify” whose precise meaning is not well known to their readers, they need to know what alternative to use. Should it be something like “declare not guilty”? Presumably it should not be “say that … has not sinned”. But perhaps, following the New Perspective on Paul, it should be more like “make not guilty”. What does anyone think?