Living & Active: The Efficacy of Scripture in Contemporary Evangelical Theology

Bruce P. Baugus
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson


The theological appropriation of speech-act theory over the last two decades has revived interest in the efficacy of Scripture—the ability of God’s written word to accomplish divinely intended effects. Pioneered by J. L. Austin and John Searle in the 1960s, speech-act theory is constructed around the simple yet profound observation that we often use language to do many things other than just utter words that pick out objects or depict real or imagined states of affairs.[1] By way of uttering intelligible sounds (or inscribing meaningful notations, if the theory is extended to authorial acts), we might promise, command, question, warn, confess, or perform any number of other meaningful acts like these that are aimed at securing corresponding outcomes or effects. We can distinguish three distinct aspects of such speech acts: the locutionary act of uttering an intelligible pattern of sound, the illocutionary act which is the meaningful act one accomplishes by way of the uttering words and sentences, and the perlocutionary force of the speech act which is the intended effects or outcomes (perlocutionary acts) the speaker aimed to achieve by speaking.

Though Austin and Searle were not the first to notice we often put language to illocutionary and perlocutionary work, their sustained and systematic analysis has plowed up fertile ground for theorists in many fields and continues to turn the soil of evangelical theology, especially since Nicholas Wolterstorff’s and Kevin Vanhoozer’s groundbreaking work.[2] Vanhoozer’s sophisticated speech-act account of biblical efficacy may be the most influential proposal among American evangelicals since Karl Barth’s work in the middle of the last century. Intriguingly, Vanhoozer’s “trinitarian theology of holy Scripture” as a divine communicative act leads him to propose a formula that echoes Barth: namely, “that Scripture is the Word of God . . . and that Scripture may become the Word of God.”[3]

To understand what Vanhoozer means by this formula and assess its agreement with traditional Protestant accounts of biblical efficacy, we need to pay some attention to the theological context of the debate on biblical efficacy in early Protestant theology. I will argue that even though the orthodox Lutheran and Reformed branches of Protestantism carve out distinct positions on this point there are also deep structural similarities we do well to understand and maintain. Unfortunately, Vanhoozer’s account appears unable to accommodate several important features that the Reformed broadly hold in common with their Lutheran counterparts. To embrace Vanhoozer’s proposed formula on biblical efficacy, therefore, represents a perhaps subtle but consequential departure from Protestant orthodoxy on biblical efficacy.

The Efficacy of God’s Word & Scripture

The biblical testimony to the efficacy of God’s word is clear. He not only speaks creation into existence and “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3), but through the revealed word he promises and warns, blesses and curses, commands and calls, commissions and ordains, discloses and exposes, heals, delivers, takes possession, controls the elements, casts out demons, condemns, forgives, and raises the dead. The efficacy of God’s prophetic and apostolic word is not just displayed, but also explicitly asserted: the “word . . . that goes out from my mouth,” God declares, “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11); “the gospel,” Paul asserts, “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16); and “the word of God is living and active,” the author of Hebrews writes, “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12–13).

According to Protestant orthodox theologians the efficacy of God’s word applies just as fully to the inscripturated word as it does the spoken word. Whereas Roman Catholics argued that the spoken word and written word were two distinct kinds or species of divine word, Protestants countered that they are just two forms of the same word, the difference being merely accidental. While Lutherans distinguish between the efficacy of God’s immediate word of majestic power, such as he spoke at creation, and the efficacy of the mediated, revealed word spoken by the prophets and apostles, they agree with the Reformed that the inscripturated word (verbum engraphon) is the same word as the unwritten revealed word (verbum agraphon).

“So, too,” Richard Muller observes, “does the written form of Scripture convey the divine Word in such a way as to deliver it living and speaking to the church.”[4] As such, whatever efficacy is ascribed to the word of God spoken by the prophets and apostles is properly applied to the written word of Scripture. That the word initially spoken by God through his prophets may have been subsequently reduced to writing does not diminish its ability to accomplish whatever God intended it to effect in the world but is the very means by which these effects will be achieved. The gospel as preached by Peter at Pentecost or written by John for posterity is equally “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). For this reason, “the sacred writings,” being “breathed out by God,” are just as “able to make you wise for salvation”—just as able to instruct, reprove, correct, and discipline the believing reader or hearer—and thus just as “profitable” and efficacious as the apostles’ preaching and teaching (2 Tim. 3:16).

In words echoed by the Westminster Assembly, John Cameron argues we must not construe “God speaking in the Scriptures or by way of the Scriptures” in such a way that “Scripture . . . hath neede to be propounded and applyed” in order to become God’s efficacious word.[5] “It is an infinite wrong,” he contends, “that the written word of the living God is called a dead and dumbe letter,” which is just what he believes such a construal amounts to.[6] “Since it is most true that the Scripture is given by inspiration of God, . . . the letter and the word change not the signification, neyther the force and efficacy of it.”[7] Whether the word is spoken or written makes no difference, it remains the lively and active word of God through which he is accomplishing whatever he intends to effect by it.

The Priority of the Word

Not only did Protestants insist the written word of God is equally efficacious as the unwritten, they also insisted God’s word is the primary means of grace (media gratiae par excellence) over against the sacerdotal claims of Rome that prioritize the visible church and her ceremonies. Both the Lutheran and Reformed orthodox insisted that the word of God is the primary means of grace and that the visible church is born of the word (ecclesia nata est ex Dei Verbo), not the other way around. Rome’s view, they argued, reduces the saving efficacy of God’s word to a mere preparation to receive the grace distributed through the church’s priestly hierarchy that is bound so tightly to the sacramental sign that these rites work by their very performance (ex opere operato), regardless of the faith or personal holiness of the recipient.[8]

The last point, that the grace signified is communicated independent of the recipient’s actual faith, was particularly scandalous to the heirs of the Reformation. While Roman Catholics argue that additional benefits or grace may flow to those who are properly disposed (ex opere operantis)—that is, by the work of the recipient who is open to the influence of divine grace—the grace signified by the sacrament properly administered is always conveyed through the priest to participants by virtue of their participation in the rite.[9]

The Reformers and their orthodox heirs, however, insisted that the received means of grace (word and sacrament) must be united in the recipient with the receiving means of faith. Apart from actual faith there cannot be any saving benefit or effect to the recipient. Though, as we shall see below, Lutheran and Reformed theologians differ on how the means of grace effectively operate, on the need for saving faith rather than mere assent they agree and offer a united front, as it were, to what the Reformers viewed as Rome’s superstitious or magical construal of sacramental efficacy.

To Raise Up or Strike Down

Despite their agreement on the equal efficacy of the written and unwritten word and priority of the word as a means of grace, Lutheran and Reformed Protestants did not develop identical responses to Rome (and other disputants). Lutheran orthodox theologians sharply distinguished and defended their view from their Reformed counterparts who frequently accused them of having “partly retraced their steps” to Rome on the efficacy of the means of grace.[10]

Although the differences between the Lutheran and Reformed orthodox positions are substantial, and not just semantic, they are not as far apart as the rhetoric sometimes suggests. The Reformed emphasize the instrumentality of God’s word as the primary means of grace whereas Lutherans prefer to speak of an inherent saving power in the word. Similarly, the Reformed tend to stress the free and personal agency of the Spirit in their explanations of the word’s saving power while Lutherans emphasize a perpetual union of Spirit and word. Yet, Lutherans also speak of the word in instrumental terms and insist its saving power is only through the agency of the Spirit just as the Reformed affirm a union or conjunction between word and Spirit such that the external word is always powerful an active, able to do all that God wills.

Still, substantial differences do exist between Lutheran and Reformed accounts. As Robert Preus explains the Lutheran view,

[I]f a man is converted and saved, the glory is due to God alone, who works through the Word. If a man is lost, it is wholly because of his own stubborn resistance to the Gospel, and it is therefore his fault. Hence, it is never because the Word has no power or because the Spirit chooses not to work through the Word that a sinner is lost. The efficacy of the Word extends to all men everywhere.[11]

He continues, quoting the eminent Lutheran scholastic Johannes Andreas Quenstedt:

“It is the intrinsic power and natural disposition of the divine Word to persuade people of its truth; and it is never non-persuasive, except when its work is removed and impeded by a person’s willful, self-determined stubbornness and natural resistance.”[12]

Three points stand out: (1) the word is always powerful to save in itself; (2) the Spirit is always at work through the word; and (3) the intrinsic power of the Spirit at work through the word can be resisted.

The Reformed agree that the Spirit is always attending the word and that the word of God is always powerful. Herman Bavinck, taking full account of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debate, is emphatic: “the Lutherans are completely correct: always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit. ‘The Holy Spirit is always present with that word’.” This, he argues, is true of God’s word in whatever form the word happens to take or by whatever means it happens to be conveyed—proclaimed by a minister, conveyed in a personal admonition, taught to a child, inscribed on a monument, written in a book, presented in a tract, meditated upon in the mind, and so on. So long as it is “taken from Scripture,” even if “not identical to it,” it remains the word of God and “is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective . . . [in just the same way] as Scripture . . . is continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit.”[13]

The Reformed do not accept that this power is always being exerted to save all readers and hearers indiscriminately, however. They agree that the power of God’s word is universal or “extends to all men everywhere,” as Preus puts it. They also agree that the word “is always efficacious; it is never powerless.”[14] But, in doing so, they have in view a wider and more diverse efficacy than just the efficacy to save, as Bavinck again makes clear:

The word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance. The sacrament can only be administered by a lawfully called minister in the assembly of believers, but the word of God also has a place and life outside of it and also exerts many and varied influences.[15]

And yet, despite this wider scope of influence, he also insists “this power of the word of God and specifically of the gospel must, with the Lutherans, be maintained in all its fullness and richness.”[16]

The crux of the Reformed objection to the Lutheran view of biblical efficacy is therefore not that the word is always efficacious everywhere but that it is always efficacious to save. “Lutherans lock this divine and supernatural efficacy [to save] up in the word, but do not secure any advantage by it and, to explain the variable outcome of the word in people, have to resort to free will.” The problem is that the Lutheran construal is one-dimensional even though “both Scripture and experience teach that the word does not always have the same effect,” but rather has many diverse effects of two broad sorts: “If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down.”[17]

This variegated concept of efficacy is able to accommodate God’s complex perlocutionary intentionality, the particularity of saving grace, and the freedom of the Spirit’s activity to account for the diversity of outcomes the word effects. By reducing efficacy to one sort of effect the word is viewed as nothing but a means of saving grace and by insisting it is always efficacious to this end the Spirit’s activity begins to look like an “impersonal magical power” located within the word. Unable to accommodate variegated efficacy, Lutherans are also forced to explain the apparent failure of the word to save in at least some cases by arguing that “God, working through means, can be resisted” by the willful individual in a way that “God, working in uncovered majesty, cannot.”[18]

Vanhoozer’s Speech-Act Construal of Efficacy

Vanhoozer also maintains Scripture’s “power to produce effects” is only realized through the agency of the Spirit. In line with the Protestant tradition, he affirms “the Spirit is neither a supplement nor a second source to the Word in Scripture” and neither changes nor adds to the meaning of the text.[19] From this, he proceeds to argue that the Spirit “renders the word effective” in two distinct ways: he “illumines it” and “energize[s] and empower[s] the sense” of it.[20]

Appropriating speech-act categories, he relates the illuminating work of the Spirit to the “illocutionary efficacy” of the text, which is fully realized when the reader understands its meaning. He isolates this particular effect from all other textual effects while maintaining that understanding the text’s meaning includes understanding the text’s perlocutionary significance. Accordingly, “the Spirit renders the Word efficacious by impressing on us the full force of a communicative action.”[21] He also suggests the Spirit’s illuminating work that “enables understanding” is necessary to overcome readers’ “prejudices or ideologies” not just when reading Scripture but when reading “novels, newspapers, and traffic signs.” Scripture may be an intensified instance of this need for divine illumination, given how much the God’s word demands of readers, but it is not unique in this respect.[22]

In terms of perlocutionary efficacy, “the Spirit’s role . . . [is] to energize and empower the sense—the speech act—that is already there.” In doing so, The Spirit goes beyond “bringing the illocutionary point home to the reader” by “achieving the corresponding perlocutionary effect—belief, obedience, praise, and so on.” Following Bernard Ramm, Vanhoozer insists “the Word does not work ex opere operato.” On the contrary, “the Spirit is ‘mute’ without the Word” and “the Word is ‘inactive’ apart from the Spirit.”[23] What is more, “God the Spirit is free to use or not to use these words to witness to himself or to make the words efficacious in a perlocutionary manner.”[24]

So, the Spirit uses the instrument of the inspired biblical text, perhaps sporadically, to speak to readers and hearers in the moment, illuminating and activating the text and thereby rendering it efficacious. According to Vanhoozer, we may “affirm both that Scripture is the Word of God (in the sense of divine locution and illocution) and that Scripture may become the Word of God (in the sense of achieving its intended perlocutionary effects).”[25]

Echoes of Barth?

On the surface, this seems to locate Vanhoozer’s view somewhere along the Reformed branch of the Protestant tree; he certainly presents it as such and not without some reason. Charles Hodge, for example, uses similar language when he writes that “it is necessary, in order to render the Word of God an effectual means of salvation, that it should be attended by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit” and that, “when attended by the demonstration of the Spirit, [it] becomes the wisdom and power of God unto salvation” to those who believe.[26] But in writing this, Hodge is speaking only of how Scripture “is made effectual to salvation,” he is not suggesting that the word is ever perlocutionarily impotent.[27] On the contrary, he follows the standard Reformed line: “that the Bible has the power attributed to it;” that it produces various effects such as binding all to obedience, exposing and restraining sin, and offending the unrepentant and not just saving effects; and that “this work of the Spirit” the renders the word effectual to salvation “is with the soul” of fallen readers or hearers who “are not in a condition to receive the transforming and saving power of the truths of the Bible.”[28]

Being intentionally bound, exposed, restrained, and offended by someone’s word are just the sort of perlocutionary effects speech-act theory has in view and discussions of the saving efficacy of Scripture often do not. While examples of effects like these are noted in nearly all Reformed systems in their discussions of the law, common grace, external call, and other places, they are seldom explicitly discussed in terms of biblical efficacy in these systems since that discussion is ordinarily located under the means of grace and thus understandably focused on how the word is effectual to salvation among those who believe. Despite this, Bavinck recognizes the point and speaks of a wide scope and diverse array of biblical effects in his summary of the Reformed position and even Hodge, whose discussion is tightly restricted to just the saving efficacy of Scripture, observes the general enlightening, liberating, and sin-restraining effects of the word in the world wherever Scripture is widely taught and notes the power of the gospel to offend unbelievers: “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness.”[29]

From the perspective of Reformed orthodoxy, Vanhoozer’s proposal that Scripture in some sense becomes God’s word as the Spirit freely chooses to use it or not “to witness to himself” is jarring and drives him to pose this question: “Is such a view similar to Barth’s insistence that . . . the Bible ‘becomes’ the Word of God only when the Spirit illumines the reader?” He answers that it “depends on how one views communicative acts and on how one defines Word.”[30] Contemporary evangelicals, he notes, disagree.

While there is no evident disagreement among the Reformers or their orthodox heirs on whether the Bible in any way becomes God’s word at any point subsequent to inscripturation, Barth famously advances just such a view. Distinguishing between the Bible and God’s word, he holds the former becomes the latter on the occasion the Spirit uses the text to speak, as it were, to or through its readers. Although, as the normative source for the church’s proclamation, readers ought to approach the text with the expectation that God will speak, the Spirit is free to be silent and, if he is, Scripture will be ineffective as divine discourse.

Despite significant differences in their respective doctrines of Scripture, Vanhoozer agrees with Barth that God must perform some sort of act subsequent to the original authorial act in order for Scripture to become God’s active and efficacious word and that the Spirit is free to perform such an act or not on any given occasion. As such, each proposes that Scripture must become something like a divinely spoken word by the Spirit, in the moment, to become God’s efficacious word. For Barth, God’s word is always efficacious but Scripture is not always God’s word; for Vanhoozer, Scripture is always God’s word but is perlocutionarily impotent as divine discourse until activated by the Spirit.

After explaining “the Spirit’s agency consists” only “in bringing the illocutionary point home to the reader and in achieving the corresponding perlocutionary effect,” Vanhoozer proceeds to argue that “Word and Spirit together make up God’s active speech (speech act).”[31] The inscripturated word, it appears, does not count as a divine speech act apart from the Spirit’s act of “bringing the illocutionary point home to the reader” such that “the corresponding perlocutionary effect” is achieved. Similarly, Barth argues that,

The presence of the Word of God itself, the real and present speaking and hearing of it, is not identical with the existence of the book as such. But in this presence something takes place in and with the book for which the book as such does indeed give the possibility[, and this something is a] free divine decision. . . . It then comes about that the Bible, . . . is taken and used as an instrument in the hand of God, i.e., it speaks to and is heard by us as the authentic witness to divine revelation and is therefore present as the Word of God.[32]

Both Vanhoozer and Barth, then, point to an occasional performed divine act subsequent to and independent of inspiration that renders Scripture God’s living and active word capable of producing divinely intended effects, saving or otherwise.

Presenting, Activating, and Speaking

Wolterstorff’s speech-act analysis of Barth’s argument leads him to conclude, first, that Barth operates with a “presentational, rather than authorial” model of divine discourse and, second, that “a different sort of action than speaking” is in view when he speaks of Scripture becoming God’s word.[33] Presentational discourse says “something by presenting a text to someone, be it a text that one has oneself authored, or one that someone else has authored.”[34] A key aspect of presentational discourse is that it treats texts instrumentally. Rather than using an act of writing or speaking, presentational discourse uses an already authored text to say something. Both Barth and Vanhoozer appear to operate with an essentially presentational model of biblical efficacy.

Unlike Vanhoozer, Barth offers little more than a presentational model of the Bible as divine discourse. In his view, the Bible becomes God’s word only as the Spirit freely uses it to say something as it is presented to someone. Vanhoozer, in defending his embrace of the identity thesis—that the Bible is God’s word—criticizes Barth on this point.[35] Yet, when he turns to biblical efficacy he also depicts the Bible as inactive and ineffective (being word alone) apart from the Spirit’s presentational use of it. Scripture becomes “God’s mighty speech act” able to accomplish what God intends not by way of the original authorial act but by way of a subsequent presentational act performed by the Spirit.[36]

According to Wolterstorff, however, the divine act that renders the biblical text a divine speech act is not itself an act of God speaking—at least not for Barth. It is instead an act in the neighborhood of activation, ratification, and fulfillment, which is just how Barth describes it:

To bring it about that the Deus dixit is present with the Church in its various times and situations is not in the power of the Bible or proclamation. The Deus dixit is true . . . where and when God by His activating, ratifying and fulfilling of the word of the Bible and preaching lets it become true.[37]

Wolterstorff reads Barth as claiming that “God activates, ratifies, and fulfills in us what God says in Jesus Christ.”[38] Barth may instead be saying God activates and ratifies “the word of the Bible and preaching” such that the text or sermon “become true” in the sense of fulfilling the expectation that God will speak.

Either way, some sort of activating and ratifying activity of God is involved, leading Wolterstorff to conclude there is “no reason to call this action ‘speech’” since “it doesn’t itself consist in God saying something.”[39] Even if Barth means that God does something that renders the written or preached discourse God’s efficacious word (rather than merely acting on the reader or hearer to acknowledge it), the point holds: what Barth depicts God doing is something other than speaking.

Vanhoozer’s account of the activating act of the Spirit is also puzzling in that he denies the Spirit is performing an illocutionary act, which is what a meaningful speech act amounts to, while representing this act as the way the Spirit “speaks in and through Scripture.”[40] The denial seems clear:

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of understanding—the Spirit of the letter correctly understood—not a rival author. Indeed, the one who inspired Scripture cannot contradict himself when he illumines it. . . . The Spirit is neither a supplement nor a second source to the Word in Scripture. . . . [He] does not alter the literal meaning but . . . enables understanding. . . . The Spirit’s work . . . is not to change the sense but to restore us to our senses.[41]

The Spirit’s activity consists merely in illuminating and applying the meaning of the text as a previously completed illocutionary act, not in performing a fresh illocutionary act. By denying the Spirit performs a new illocutionary act, however, he appears to deny the Spirit is saying anything at all—even presentational discourse involves performing a distinct illocutionary act, it just uses an already authored text to do so. Yet, Vanhoozer explicitly states the “Spirit speaks in and through Scripture precisely by rendering its illocutions . . . perlocutionarily efficacious.”[42]

How the Spirit can speak without performing a distinct illocutionary act, which would necessarily introduce another meaning, is not clear.[43] Each time he performs this oft-repeated act, however, he renders an inactive illocution (the biblical text) one of “God’s mighty speech acts.”[44] Only then does the Bible become what the Protestant orthodox insisted it always was: God’s efficacious word, living and active, able to accomplish all he intends. Prior to this act “Scripture is the word of God” only “in the sense of” being a “divine locution and illocution” (which is much more than Barth claimed for the text); by this act it “become[s] the Word of God, . . . achieving its intended perlocutionary effects.”[45]

Mapping a Fault Line

Although substantial differences exist between Lutheran and Reformed orthodox accounts of biblical efficacy, deeper structural continuities hold the Protestant theological plate together. Vanhoozer’s particular application of speech act theory to this issue, however, breaks with several of these tectonic continuities. The resulting fault between Vanhoozer’s account of scriptural efficacy and Protestant orthodox accounts, however subtle in some places, can be traced.

Like Barth’s proposal, Vanhoozer’s construal of scriptural efficacy requires the written text be transformed into something like direct personal speech in order for it to become efficacious. Because the inscripturated word is not living and active as inspired, the Spirit must activate this word as it is read in order to “energize and empower the sense—the speech act—that is already there.”[46] Only then does the inactive written word become a mighty speech act of God capable of achieving his purposes.

The Reformers and their orthodox heirs are fully aware of the necessity of the Spirit’s agency and the instrumental nature of Scripture, but do not frame biblical efficacy this way. They often explicitly deny the assumption that the inspired word of God must become anything more or other than what it already is in order to accomplish what God intends. For their part, Lutherans hold that “the Word has an inherent, divine, and constant power.”[47] In Quenstedt’s words, God’s external word has an “intrinsic power and natural disposition.”[48]

Vanhoozer rejects such formulas as committing “the mistake . . . that transfers the life and power of the Spirit to the text itself.”[49] Despite their emphasis on the power of God’s word in itself (in se) and independent of its use (extra usum), Lutherans do not seem to commit this error. As Preus explains,

The written . . . Word of God derives its power from the Holy Spirit, who is united with the Word and operative through it. Orthodox Lutheranism . . . emphasiz[es] the perpetual union of the Spirit with the Word of God. This is the reason for the Word always being efficacious.[50]

Rather than neglecting the role of the Spirit, it is precisely due to the “perpetual union” of word and Spirit that Scripture, in their view, is always efficacious.

More than this, the union of word and Spirit, which the Reformed also affirm in their own way, is the very reason why a second divine act to render the word efficacious is unthinkable to them:

The power of the Word is never independent of the Spirit of God. . . . The work of the Word and the work of the Spirit are not two works, nor are they the union of two distinct operations, but they are one work, a unity of effect and a unity of operation. . . . Lutheran theology never thought of the Spirit of God abdicating His work of saving sinners to the Word, which then takes over God’s soteriological purposes in some sort of automatic fashion. . . . The power and work of the Word is never distinct from the Spirit’s power and work but is His power and work. . . . All Lutheran theologians from the time of the Reformation through the period of orthodoxy taught that the Spirit was the efficient cause of conversion and of all spiritual activity in man and that the Word (and sacraments) was His instrument.[51]

The union of the Spirit with God’s word allows Lutheran (and Reformed) theologians to attribute the life and power of the Spirit to the external word, even in its written form, without transferring that life and power from God to the text, as though God abdicated his saving work to the Bible sans the Spirit.

Vanhoozer also envisions a tight relationship between the Spirit and God’s word: “the Spirit is most properly conceived as the effective presence of the Word, or as the Word’s empowering presence,” he writes.[52] By this he means to affirm the conjunction of word and Spirit that one finds throughout Reformed theology and that he takes to be the critical distinction between an abbreviated “fundamentalist” Protestant principle and an unabbreviated one. But his conclusion, that Scripture both is the word of God on the basis of a past illocutionary act and becomes the word of God on the occasion of the Spirit’s presentational use of it does not square with the sort of union or conjunction either Lutheran or Reformed orthodox doctors taught. Indeed, Lutherans explicitly teach that, in virtue of the standing relation between word and Spirit, the Bible “is not a passive, inanimate instrument that . . . has no power in itself” but is rather “an instrumentum activum . . . like the eye or hand of a living man.”[53]

The fault line between the traditional Reformed account and Vanhoozer’s proposal is also evident. It is true that the Reformed teach that “the Spirit’s sovereignty” over the word is such that he “gives or withholds” his saving influence as he pleases and so, as the primary means of grace, its effects are “sometimes more and sometimes less” and sometimes not at all.[54] On the surface, this teaching might seem very close to Vanhoozer’s (and Barth’s) and able to accommodate the construction that the ineffectual word of God may become God’s efficacious speech act whenever the Spirit is pleased to use it.

The case is not so simple, however. To begin, when the Reformed speak this way they are referring only to the function of Scripture as a means of saving grace and not to the efficacy of Scripture in general. Since biblical efficacy is often discussed under the larger topic of the means of grace it may sometimes seem as though the Reformed teach that the Bible only becomes efficacious on particular occasions and only through a subsequent act of the Spirit. But, as noted above, the Reformed recognize a richly variegated efficacy—“to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jer. 1:10)—and this efficacy is universal in scope, constant in operation, and diverse in outcome.

“For the Reformed,” Bavinck is convinced, “the word of God had a much richer meaning than one would gather from its use as a means of grace in the strict sense of the term.” In the first place, “the word of God, both as law and gospel, . . . concerns all human beings and all creatures and so has universal significance.” For this reason, unlike the sacraments, “the word of God also has a place and life outside of [the visible church] and also exerts many and varied influences.”[55] This wider scope of the word is matched not only to a wider administration than the sacraments but also a wider efficacy. The word is to be preached to all people in all places and the preacher can know for certain that even if none are converted or strengthened the Spirit is always at work through the word accomplishing everything God has appointed it to do.

According to Bavinck, the very expression “word of God” denotes “that it is never just a sound but a power, not mere information but an accomplishment of his will (Isa. 55:11).” This is not just true of God’s creative word but of his re-creative word too, by which he “works in the area of morality and spirituality.”[56] To translate this into speech-act terms, Bavinck argues that the word of God, by definition, is not only a completed illocutionary act but also perlocutionarily efficacious, actually accomplishing everything God intends.

If Bavinck is right then Vanhoozer’s proposed distinction between Scripture being the word of God “in the sense of divine locution and illocution” and becoming the word of God “in the sense of achieving its intended perlocutionary effects” is discontinuous with the Reformed orthodox view. There is, by definition, no such thing as an inactive or ineffective form of God’s word available to become efficacious in the latter sense. The word of God is not divided this way and is never perlocutionarily impotent; it is instead always living and active, always efficacious.

When Reformed authors assert “that the Word alone is insufficient to bring people to faith and repentance” they never imagine that the word ever is “alone” or that it requires energizing and empowering. As Hodge writes, it is “a fact that the Bible has the power attributed to it” and that “it is a clear doctrine of the Bible and fact of experience that the truth [of God’s word] . . . has this transformative power.”[57] As Bavinck explains, “Word and Spirit . . . work in conjunction to apply the salvation of Christ to human beings” and even when saving grace is not communicated the word has not failed to accomplish God’s intended purpose:

The word that proceeds from the mouth of God is indeed always a power accomplishing that for which God sent it forth. . . . And this is even true not just of the gospel but also of the law. Paul, admittedly, says of the Old Testament dispensation of law that “the letter kills” (2 Cor. 3:6), but in making that point he is saying as powerfully as he can possibly say it that it is not a dead letter. Instead, it is so powerful that it produces sin, wrath, a curse, and death.[58]

These effects of the law on the lost are clearly taught in Scripture (Rom. 4:15, 1 Cor. 15:56, 2 Cor. 3:7–9) and belong also to Scripture.

Unlike the law, which “demands that humans work out their own righteousness, . . . the gospel invites them to renounce all self-righteousness and to accept the righteousness of Christ and even offers the gift of faith to that end.”[59] As such, the gospel is,

The ‘power of God for salvation’ (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:4–5; 15:2; Eph. 1:13). Since it is not a human word but God’s (Acts 4:29; 1 Thess. 2:13), it is living and lasting (1 Pet. 1:25), living and active (Heb. 4:12), spirit and life (John 6:63), a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Pet. 1:19); it is a seed sown in the human heart (Matt. 13:3), growing and multiplying (Acts 12:24), a sharp two-edged sword piercing the innermost being of a person and judging all the thoughts and intentions of the human heart (Heb. 4:12). For that reason it is not void and futile but works . . . in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13); and the works it brings about are regeneration (John 1:18; 1 Cor. 4:15; 1 Pet. 1:23), faith (Rom. 10:17), illumination (2 Cor. 4:4–6; Eph. 3:9; 5:14; 1 Tim. 1:20), teaching, correction, consolation, and so forth (1 Cor. 14:3; 2 Tim. 3:15).[60]

Not even the efficacy of the gospel is one dimensional, however. Just as the law continues to drive believers to Christ and guide them in their sanctification, so also the gospel offends the unrepentant:

The gospel exerts its effect even in those who are lost; to them it is a reason for their falling, an offense and foolishness, a stone over which they stumble, a fragrance from death to death (Luke 2:34; Rom. 9:32; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2 Cor. 2:16; 1 Pet. 2:8).[61]

All of these divinely intended perlocutionary effects of the word of God as law and gospel, among believers and unbelievers, are equally effects of Scripture, which “always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish and never returns empty.”[62]

God’s inscripturated word, in other words, does not need to become efficacious because “it is always his word; he is always present in it; he consistently sustains it by his almighty and omnipresent power.” As such, “Scripture was not just inspired at one time by the Holy Spirit, but is continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit.” For this reason “it is always efficacious; it is never powerless. If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down.”[63]


As Vanhoozer’s work demonstrates, the insights of speech-act theory break rich ground for evangelical theologians to work. His appropriation of these insights is always stimulating and often constructive, and his attention to biblical efficacy is justified and appreciated. Nevertheless, his proposed “solution” to this issue—that “Scripture is the Word of God (in the sense of divine locution and illocution) and that Scripture may become the Word of God (in the sense of achieving its intended perlocutionary effects)”—represents a problematic departure from Protestant orthodoxy.

The fault line between Vanhoozer’s account of scriptural efficacy and Protestant orthodox accounts is now evident. His account establishes two senses in which the biblical text could be called the word of God and presupposes the inspired text, as mere divine illocution, is inactive and ineffectual. As such, it must be activated by the Spirit on the occasion of it being read in order for it to have the power to accomplish God’s perlocutionary intentions. Although nothing seems to preclude the Spirit activating the written word every time it is taken up, he maintains “the Spirit is free to use or not use these words to witness to himself or to make the words efficacious in a perlocutionary manner.”[64]

On each of these points Vanhoozer breaks with basic features of traditional Protestant accounts of the efficacy of God’s inscripturated word, and on each one the Reformed are actually closer to their Lutheran counterparts than to Vanhoozer, whose views on efficacy are nearer to Barth’s. This is somewhat surprising given the prima facie resemblance of Vanhoozer’s proposal to the traditional Reformed position, but illustrative of the tectonic rift his proposal opens on this particular issue. For both the Lutheran and Reformed orthodox, to deny the perlocutionary efficacy of a discourse is to deny that discourse is the word of God. There is no inactive or ineffective form of God’s word and therefore no instance of his word, written or unwritten, ever needing to be activated in order to become his efficacious speech act. On the contrary, the word of God in whatever form is living and active, “always a power accomplishing that for which God sends it forth.” Tolle, lege.

  1. See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962) and John Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
  2. See especially Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).
  3. Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 156 (emphasis original).
  4. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, vol. 2, Holy Scripture: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 200.
  5. John Cameron, A Tract of the Soveraigne Iudge of Controversies in Matters of Religion, trans. John Verneuil (Oxford: William Turner, 1648), 14–15 (italics original). Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.10.
  6. Cameron, Soveraigne Iudge, 22 (italics original).
  7. Cameron, Soveraigne Iudge, 23 (italics original).
  8. Council of Trent, Sess. VII, cans. vi–viii; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1128.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1128.
  10. See Robert D. Preus, The Theology of Post-Reformation Lutheranism: A Study of Theological Prolegomena (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970), 362-78 and Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture: A Study of the Theology of the Seventeenth Century Lutheran Dogmaticians (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), 170-92; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 445.
  11. Preus, Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 376-77.
  12. Preus, Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 377.
  13. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.459.
  14. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.459.
  15. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.448–49.
  16. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.458.
  17. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.459.
  18. Francis Pieper, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951), 465. See also Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; reprint, 1982), 479–85.
  19. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 427.
  20. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 427, 428 (emphasis original).
  21. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 427.
  22. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 428.
  23. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 428.
  24. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 437n.288.
  25. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 156 (emphasis original).
  26. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.472 and 622, respectively (emphasis mine); cf. 3.500, 622.
  27. Westminster Larger Catechism, 155.
  28. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.470, 477, and 472, respectively.
  29. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.473, citing 1 Cor. 1:23. Hodge also discusses the profound moral force of biblical truth. Though this force is “all in vain” with respect to salvation apart from the Spirit’s effectual calling, he nevertheless allows that it produces various non-saving effects in the world (see 3.470–73).
  30. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 155 (italics original).
  31. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 428.
  32. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I/I: The Doctrine of the Word of God, 2d ed., eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 530.
  33. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 71, 72.
  34. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 55 (emphasis original).
  35. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 130, 148, and, 150-51. See also Vanhoozer, “A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation,” in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology: Convergences and Divergences , ed. Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).
  36. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 428 and First Theology, 130-31.
  37. Barth, Church Dogmatics I/I, 120.
  38. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 73.
  39. Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse, 72-73.
  40. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 200.
  41. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 427-28.
  42. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 200 (emphasis added).
  43. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 429. Even if the Spirit is doing nothing more than performing the same kind of illocutionary act on two different occasions, this still seems to require two (or more) illocutionary acts: an original authorial speech act and a subsequent presentational speech act, the latter necessarily repeated each time the Spirit renders the text efficacious. If so then it is difficult to see how there are not also two meanings—one authorial and the other presentational—which he denies.
  44. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 127.
  45. Vanhoozer, First Theology, 156.
  46. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 428.
  47. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.481.
  48. Preus, Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 377.
  49. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 428. Following Bernard Ramm, Vanhoozer identifies this as the error of ex opere operato. That error, however, is not so much about whether the Spirit’s agency is being acknowledged as the requirement of saving faith to benefit from the means of grace.
  50. Preus, Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 374.
  51. Preus, Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 374-76.
  52. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 429 (emphasis original).
  53. Preus, Post-Reformation Lutheranism, 365.
  54. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.476, 482.
  55. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.448–49.
  56. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.459.
  57. Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.470 and 3.477, respectively.
  58. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.457 and 4.458, respectively.
  59. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.454.
  60. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.458.
  61. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.458.
  62. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.458.
  63. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.459.
  64. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 437n.288.