The Structure of Promising

The Structure of Promising December 31, 2014

Christoph Schwobel’s contribution to Justification in a Post-Christian Society is characteristically grand. Exploring what contribution Lutheranism can make to contemporary society, he focuses on central Lutheran concerns – promise and trust.

His explanation of the grammar of promise is densely brilliant: “The central distinction between law and gospel only becomes clear if we distinguish the logic of promise from the logic of prescription. While the law follows the pattern ‘if (. . . ), then (. . . )’ in the form of the commandment ‘you shall (. . . ),’ ‘so that (. . . ),’ a promise has the logical pattern ‘because (. . . ), therefore (. . . ).’ The decisive difference is that while the law binds the outcome to antecedent conditions in the past, the promise opens up a future, which also changes the way the past is determined be the future. While the law is focused on an obligation laid upon the second person, the addressee of the commandment, the promise expresses a commitment that can only be expressed in the first person. . . . A promise therefore involves the being of the first person in the act of promising, the time during which the promise is upheld, and the fulfillment of the promise in the future in such a way that the future fulfillment qualifies each of the moments of the promise” (20).

Lots of balls in the air already, and he’s not done. Let’s take a breath and see what’s going on here. First, law and promise different in their temporal orientation, law having a “tragic” orientation to determinations from the past, promise determined comically by the future. Bound with that, second, is the difference in the relationship between commander and promiser. Issuing a command is not self-involving; in fact, it may involve the withdrawal of the person of the commander: He issues a command, and then steps back to let the recipient obey, or not; he may return, but to assess and judge. A promiser doesn’t step back; real promises cannot be third-person, but has to be first-person. Promises are self-involving statements in a way that commands are not.

This, I think, needs to be qualified, especially the temporal aspect. Rosenstock-Huessy is right, I think, to stress the future-orientation of imperatives: A command does open a future: Go, make disciples of nations. But Schwobel does seem to be right that a promise involves the promiser in a way that a command does not (or not necessarily). Of course, that great commission imperative is immediately followed by a self-committing, self-involving promise: “Behold, I am with you always.” Best of both worlds, one would think.

Schwobel goes on to stress the relationality and co-determination involved in a promise: “The promise . . . qualified the being of the promiser and, consequently, the being of the addressee of the promise. . . . The being of both promiser and addressee of the promise can only be grasped as a relational being, constituted by the communicative act of the promise and all that it entails. Understood in the category of promise, this being is in its core a personal being – people are people because they can promise and can receive promises – that is always directed towards establishing a communion in which being is correlated to the becoming that is involved in the actualization of the promise. The reciprocity of this relational being is dependent on its non-circular asymmetry. In this sense the logic of promising entails the logic of giving, the unconditionality of the promise as pure gift that does not presuppose anything other than the being of the promiser as the capacity to enter into a free, yet reciprocal relationship” (20).

The promiser’s being is qualified by his having-promised: He is the one who has committed himself in this way. The trajectory of his life is determined by what he has promised; even if he fails, for then he is a “breaker of promises.” He has also qualified the being of the recipient, who is the one who has been promised this or that. This qualification arises from a promise that begins the relationship, but it is not merely past: Because of the nature of promise, the being of each is determined by expectation of a future. A promising being is personal and relational at the “core” of his being.

All this, and Schwobel hasn’t yet gotten to explicit theology. I’ll summarize some of that in another post.


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