Thank you all for responding to last week’s blog post. It is always enriching to have many points of view and your comments are very welcome. Based on the responses to that post, I will touch on two relevant concerns:
First, it is important to distinguish (inculpable) errors of belief from errors of teaching. Let me explain: when someone utters a speech act, it is crucial to understanding the act that we discern what the speaker intends to do with his words – whether the speaker is asserting, promising, hyperbolizing, etc, or some combination thereof. Speech act theorists call this the “illocution” of the act.
How does this relate to the belief/teaching distinction? Well, supposing that Jesus incorrectly believed that mustard seeds were the smallest seeds in the world (Matt 13:31-32), it still would not follow that he taught this. Why? Because the illocution of the speech act was theological – not botanical. His intention was to make a theological statement about the nature of faith, not a botanical claim about the size of seeds. Therefore, his (supposedly) false belief is not part of his speech act.
Why is this distinction important? Because it allows for the possibility that Jesus innocently held false beliefs on a variety of subjects which need not jeopardize the truth of his preaching and teaching. Perhaps his being fully human meant that he shared with his contemporaries mistaken beliefs about cosmology, history, literature, geography, medicine, and even theology which were either not part of his teaching, or part of it but benign in nature. As long as such errors are neither culpably acquired nor the consequence of defective character, it is hard to see how these would compromise the doctrine of the incarnation. However, the idea of benign errors of teaching may be harder to square with what (John’s) Jesus actually said about his own words. This leads to the next point.
Second, the Johannine portrait of Jesus suggests a very tight connection (or “identity”) between Jesus’ words and God’s words. In John 8:26,28 and 12:49-50, Jesus appeals to the Father not only as the source and authority of his testimony, but as the One commanding him what to say and how to say it! What are we to make of this identity claim?
Allow me to suggest a speculative proposal. In his book Divine Discourse (1995), Nick Wolterstorff explores the notion of “double discourse” whereby someone speaks through the speech act of another. He analyzes two kinds of double discourse which are especially relevant: authorized and deputized speech. When speech is authorized, one speaker places their seal of approval on what another has said, as when a boss signs a letter that his secretary has just drafted. Or perhaps the boss pre-signs a blank draft before his secretary writes the letter because he trusts her enough to know his mind. When speech is deputized, a speaker confers authority upon another to speak on his behalf. The deputee then has the right to speak in the name of the deputizer, as when president Obama sends ambassadors to foreign countries to speak on behalf of the home nation: e.g. “the United States says!”
Now, an interesting feature of double discourse is that someone can speak through another’s speech act without necessarily intending or endorsing every detail of what the other in fact says. The author/deputizer just accepts the limits and risks involved in appropriating someone else’s discourse as their own, though both speech acts are taken as a unit. Could something like this be happening with respect to Jesus speaking the words of the Father? Can the concept of “double discourse” affirm a tight connection between Jesus’ message and the Father’s, while allowing for enough wiggle room for innocent errors in the delivery?
What are your thoughts?
 Nicholas Wolterstorff. (1995) Divine Discourse. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.