On Speech Act Theory and Slander

Tim Keller, commenting on the recent “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel“, said,

You can’t just analyze words by what they say, you also have to analyze words by what they do. . . . When I go through [the Statement]—if you go really, really strictly—I think just about anybody would take about eighty percent of it. . . . But in the end what concerns me most about it is not so much what it’s saying but what it’s trying to do. . . . It’s trying to marginalize people who are talking about race and justice. It’s trying to say, “You’re really not biblical.” And it’s not fair in that sense…Even if I could agree with most of it, I don’t like it. It’s what it’s doing that I don’t like.

He approaches the statement from the perspective of speech act theory: the idea that language is not just about the content of words, but how the words are used. Keller is not saying that the arguments of the statement are unimportant, but the effect, what the statement is doing, matters as much in evaluating it.

John MacArthur was active in creating the statement, and over at his ministry Grace to You, the response has been harsh:

Keller appeals to secular philosophy in order to make his case, using speech-act theory as the key to his interpretive approach…Make no mistake—Keller has raised the stakes far beyond the debate on social justice. This is an assault on the nature of truth itself. Hanging in the balance is how we interpret Scripture. While Keller’s words aren’t an outright rejection of all propositional truth, that is effectively what he opens the door to when he subjugates the words of the Dallas Statement to his feelings about what has been said.

Of course, theories about how language works are by definition secular. The Bible never presents linguistic philosophy. GtY is critiquing Keller for self-consciously employing a secular approach to language when that is precisely what GtY is doing when they insist on evaluating language merely on the basis of content and not its effect.

And then, GtY seems incapable of even addressing the content of Keller’s comments honestly: never once does he say he dislikes the statement because of how he feels, though you’d never know that reading GtY’s response.

And it is from this blatantly inaccurate and misleading characterization that statements like these come:

In fact, Keller’s stance is emblematic of a poisonous perspective that is already wreaking havoc in the church. The notion that you can disregard truth on the basis of how it makes you feel undergirds most of the heresies, false doctrines, and twisted theologies plaguing the church today…

That initial deception in the garden is the true origin of speech-act theory. Eve shouldn’t have bought into it, and neither should we.

GtY and the signers of the statement can disagree with Keller, and vice-versa, on how to interpret the statement. But these comments from GtY are nothing other than slander.