Back Issues

Volume 15, Issue 4: Liturgia

Visible Words

Peter J. Leithart

Since the time of Augustine, sacraments have been described as "visible words." Too often, the accent is on the first half of the phrase, on the "visibility" of the sacraments. It is said that the word comes to us through the sense of hearing but the sacrament through sight. Calvin, for instance, talks about sacraments as "mirrors" and "images," and says that in the sacraments Christ is portrayed as in a picture.

This has a subtle and highly unfortunate tendency to move our attention away from receiving the baptismal bath and participating in the sacramental meal toward viewing the bath and the meal. This shift of attention perpetuates the worst abuses of medieval worship within many Protestant traditions. If sacraments are visible words, then perhaps the main point is to look at it, to ponder what it "shows" us, to strive to "see" Jesus in the celebration. Perhaps we should simply adopt the piety of our medieval fathers: Wait for the bell to ring, and then strain for a glimpse of the bread-made-Jesus. (The Westminster Larger Catechism's phrase "sensible signs" [q. 163] is far better, since it highlights the physical reality of the sacraments without calling attention particularly to their visibility.)
If we emphasize the second part of the phrase—that the sacraments are visible words—Augustine's terminology is useful. Sacraments have a linguistic character and function as words do. Even here, however, there are dangers and pitfalls. Calling the sacraments "words" is useful only when we recognize that words do far more than communicate information and appeal to the intellect. Words certainly do communicate information. But they also do many other things. Language is the most universal symbolic system, and like other symbols its purpose is as much to create and maintain personal relationships as to deliver data.
An example will help. When we say to the stranger next to us on the airplane, "Man, the lines were long today," or "Beautiful day for flying," we are not communicating anything new to him. Even "Where are you heading?" is not a question for information, since if we're on the same plane we're likely heading to the same destination. Yet, speech of this sort (which linguists call "phatic" speech) is not useless. Phatic speech is a way of establishing friendship with a stranger, and it can lead into conversation on more substantive topics. Its use is not cognitive or didactic but personal.
As "visible words," the sacraments are not "phatic" speech. Baptism and the Supper do have cognitive and didactic content, ritually retelling the story of the world's redemption. Yet sacraments, as visible words, do not have an exclusively didactic function. Insofar as they are like speech, the sacraments form or continue personal communion.
"Speech act theory," a branch of the philosophy of language, is helpful here as well. The phrase "speech act" emphasizes that when we speak, we are doing something as well as saying something. In fact, we are probably doing several things at once. J. L. Austin, the founder of speech act theory, distinguished between the "locutionary" and the "illocutionary" force of speech. The "locutionary" force of a statement is the use of linguistic signs and the meaning of the signs. I make particular sounds or write particular signs, and I mean something. If I say, "I see leafy green trees and billowy clouds," for example, I mean that "I see leafy green trees and billowy clouds."
But my use of these sounds or signs may be intended to accomplish a number of different things, depending on the context of my speech or writing. What I intend to accomplish through these linguistic signs and sounds is the "illocutionary force" of my utterance. The "illocutionary force" is the point I'm trying to make with my words. By saying, "I see leafy green trees and billowy clouds," I might be sending a coded message that I'm being held prisoner and giving directions to the rescue team concerning my whereabouts; or I might be communicating that I'm not writing this in Idaho, since Idaho has no leafy green trees, though it has plenty of billowy clouds; or I might be telling a psychiatrist what I see in his inkblot or an ER doc what happened when I cracked my skull on the sidewalk. The locutionary force (or simple "meaning") stays the same, but what I intend to do or say with the sentence varies with the context.
Austin and other philosophers of language, like John Searle, have also paid close attention to what they call "performative" uses of language. We think that language describes the way things are, but these philosophers note that language used in a particular way by a particular person at a particular time make things the way they are. A judge who says, "I sentence you to death" is not merely declaring a decision that has already been rendered in some other forum. Rather, by his declaration, the judge is passing the sentence. Speaking the words is doing the deed. Similarly, the captain who says, "I now name you the Queen Mary" has actually named the ship, and the pastor who says "I now pronounce you man and wife" has made the man and woman man and wife. Wittgenstein said it simply: "Words are deeds."
Just as words are "performative," so the sacraments as visible words actually do things. They not only remind us and teach us about Christ's death, but confirm, sustain, and nourish our relationship with the Triune God. Through sacramental "words," we make promises, receive warnings, establish or renew covenants. Sacraments are indeed "words" from God, but not so much visible as performative words.

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.