This essay seeks to explore speech-act theory in its relation to biblical interpretation. Its initial focus falls on the application of N. Wolterstorff whose book Divine Discourse provided the decisive catalyst for the recent debates. Building on the different kinds of action involved when speaking (locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary) Wolterstorff draws two important hermeneutical implications. First, the theory affords a way of understanding the unity of scripture in its entirety as God's book; second, it enables the reader to acknowledge the infallibility of God's Word as divine discourse without ascribing infallibility to the human words of scripture.
The second part attempts to offer a critical assessment of Wolterstorff's application of his theory, especially in its failure to deal adequately with the function of the Christian canon which shaped the church's traditions in such a way as to provide a rule-of-faith for the theological guidance of subsequent generations of readers. By abandoning the hermeneutical understanding of scripture developed by Irenaeus and Calvin, Wolterstorff flounders in his inability to overcome the threat of scripture's becoming a ‘wax nose’ in which the noematic content of what God now says in divine discourse is not identical with the meaning of the biblical sentence itself.
The final section examines the exegesis of the well-known scholar A. Thiselton, whose work has done much in developing a speech-act theory. The conclusion reached is that Thiselton's application of the theory is far different from that of Wolterstorff's and avoids many of the problems which plague Wolterstorff's exegesis. The implication of this analysis is to argue that speech-act theory cannot be indiscriminately lumped together, because various forms of the theory often reflect different hermeneutical theories of biblical interpretation.