A benediction is a human or divine pronouncement of favor upon oneself, or another, or both. It may ring pedestrian, such as “Have a nice day,” or profound, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Benedictions summon the desire of one person that another person receive goodness, whether it be health, employment, spiritual growth, or any other desirable state. Consider several of the multitudes of benedictions from the Bible, written by the Apostle Paul:
To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 1:7).
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had (Romans 15:5).
Benedictions are found throughout the Scripture and outside of it as well. The toast at a wedding is a type of benediction. This gesture, which includes some libation to be drunk after the toast, is given to or for someone: “May you live happily ever after.”
The historic liturgy of the Christian church ends each service with a benediction given by the priest or pastor. This text is often used:
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14).
If we have some idea of what a benediction is, let us consider the matter a bit more philosophically with respect to the kinds of linguistic work various sentences can perform.
The benediction is more than a wish and less than an imperative. If you say, “I wish you did not have shingles,” you are expressing good will to someone; but it is not a benediction. If I say to a student, “Never cheat on a test again,” this is an imperative, but not a benediction. I am enjoining or commanding someone to be honest. Despite this, commands may be hidden or partially expressed in benedictions. Paul shows this:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
By saying, “May the God of hope…,” Paul expressed his earnest desire that God bless those to whom he was writing. He includes “as you trust in him,” which is a subtle command or exhortation to trust the God who does these things for his people. The sense of command or exhortation is even stronger in this benediction from the Anglican tradition.
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour everyone; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.
The benedictory element is almost muted by the strength of the exhortation. This benediction lacks the customary, “May you…,” and instead inserts a command, “Go forth.” However, there is a sense of desire for the blessing of others is tacit. Thus, it could be worded, “May you go forth…”
To put it formally what we have argued:
A benediction is a pronouncement made on behalf of another that contains a desire that the other person or group experience some kind of beneficial state of affairs. That state of affairs may be received passively or achieved actively or it may be a combination of both, as in Romans 15:13, discussed above.
Benedictions may also perform something linguistically. Philosopher J. L. Austin wrote of a kind of speech called a performative utterance. Sentences of this stripe achieve what they affirm simply by saying it. It does not merely describe or question. When a pastor says, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” he brings about the nuptial state by so pronouncing it. At graduations, some official will announce that the degree has been conferred to those who have met the qualifications. In 1979, I sat with a few friends at my college graduation ceremony. Becoming impatient, I said to a friend, “When is the moment of metaphysical import?” That is, when will the degree be conferred?” A performative utterance does not describe a set of facts as in “You have just received your degree.” Rather, the statement enacts the state of affairs that is addressed. For example this was spoken at the 2007 commencement at the University of Texas at Dallas by the President, Dr. David Daniel.
Now by virtue of the authority vested by law in the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System, I confer upon each of you the respective academic degree for which you have been recommended, with all the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and obligations appertaining thereunto.
All such ceremonies feature a similar speech event, which comes as the culmination of the meeting. This benediction is absent of religious concerns. But many are not.
Philosophically, then, benedictions have properties not possessed by other kinds of speech. The act of pronouncing a benediction invokes a future in which goodness dwells. Beyond wishing, it commends goodness to the one receiving it. In some cases, the act of benediction confers some quality of existence to the one so addressed. God has the metaphysical and moral status to give benedictions that achieve the ends he desires, since his judgments are true and his power is unlimited.
The world is fallen. God is good. Christians are spokespeople for these two truths. Therefore, even in suffering, Christ-followers may receive God’s benediction:
But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:13-14).