With scriptural teaching and broad-ranging application, this follow-up to Redeeming Science builds a Christian theology of language and reforms our thinking about words.
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About the Author
Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.
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The Importance of Language
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host — Psalm 33:6
Language is wonderful and mysterious. It is so because it is a gift of God to us. It reflects and reveals him.
How does language reflect God? According to the Bible, God himself can speak, and does speak. We are made like him, and that is why we can speak. When we use language, we rely on resources and powers that find their origin in God. In fact, as we shall see, language reflects God in his Trinitarian character. We can appreciate language more deeply, and use it more wisely, if we come to know God and understand the relation of God to the language we use.
Because I am a follower of Christ, I trust in the Bible as the word of God. The Bible is a foundational resource for my thinking about language. From time to time we will look briefly at other views of language. But my primary purpose is helping people increase their appreciation for language, using the Bible for guidance. If you as a reader are not yet convinced about the Bible, I would still invite you to think with me about language. The actual character of language does, I believe, confirm what the Bible says.
The Central Role of Language
Language has a central role in human living. We spend a lot of our time talking and listening. Education constantly uses language. Television, radio, newspapers, and the Internet use language. Friendships are cemented and maintained through language. All these are sources of meaning in our lives.
Some tasks, such as washing dishes, do not demand using language. But even they gain significance from what we say and think about them. We wash dishes because through language we have learned about bacteria, sickness, and how washing helps protect health. And washing dishes can be more pleasant if we are talking with a friend while doing it.
We could go on. Many of the most significant and precious moments in life gain significance through language. So examining language itself could contribute significantly to reorienting our lives. That is why we are going to take a long look at language and its meaning.
The Importance of Language in the Bible
The Bible confirms the importance of language. It says that in the beginning God created the world using language: "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3).
The first recorded interaction between God and man involved God speaking in language concerning man's task:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (Gen. 1:28).
Adam and Eve fell into sin through the serpent's use of language to tempt them the serpent said, "You will not surely die" (Gen. 3:4). Shortly afterward, God gave hope to Adam and Eve through a promise of redemption, and the promise was expressed in language:
The Lord God said to the serpent, ..
One of the principal aspects of Jesus' earthly ministry was teaching and proclaiming a message. He used language; he had much to say. And he made plain the importance of his teaching:
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine [Jesus' words] and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it" (Matt. 7:24–27).
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead by issuing a verbal command: "Lazarus, come out" ( John 11:43). Jesus' words have power. The future resurrection of the body will take place through the power of Jesus' words: "... for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his [Jesus'] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment" ( John 5:28–29). At the last judgment people will be judged according to their words:
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matt. 12:36–37).
And how can we escape condemnation? The answer to condemnation is found in the gospel, the good news concerning what Christ has done to save us. That good news is a verbal message. Through this message, given in language, people come to believe in Christ and to receive God's salvation:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith" (Rom. 1:16–17). But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom. 10:8–9).
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?" So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:14–17).
Words, then, have a central role, according to the Bible. And of course the Bible itself is composed of words.
We may note still one more role of language. Jesus Christ himself has a close relation to language. The Gospel of John calls Christ "the Word," and begins by speaking of his eternal existence with God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made ( John 1:1–3).
These verses in John allude to the opening chapter in Genesis, when God created the universe by speaking. So the "Word" in John 1:1, that is, Christ before his incarnation, was the source of the speech of God in Genesis. Christ is thus the origin of language itself. Moreover, Christ says concerning himself, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life" ( John 14:6). He identifies himself with "the truth," showing a connection with truth in language. And he says that God's word is truth and the source of holiness for disciples:
Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth (John 17:17–19).
God himself is true: "Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true" ( John 3:33).
Language in Our Conduct
Language, then, has a significant role in God's relation to human beings from creation onward. Appreciating language properly can contribute to our well-being in relation to God.
Language affects not only the big issues concerning who God is, and how to be reconciled to him, but the smaller issues of how to conduct our lives. The book of Proverbs contains any number of illustrations of the importance of language in our conduct:
The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse (Prov. 10:32).
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov. 12:18).
A wise son hears his father's instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke (Prov. 13:1).
Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin (Prov. 13:3).
By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom (Prov. 13:10).
Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored (Prov. 13:18).
By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them (Prov. 14:3).
Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge (Prov. 14:7).
In all toil there is profit, but mere talk ends only to poverty (Prov. 14:23).
A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful (Prov. 14:25).
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Prov. 15:1).
Which of us would not benefit from greater wisdom in how to speak and how to listen?CHAPTER 2
Language and the Trinity
"I do as the Father has commanded me."
— John 14:31
Language has a close relation to the Trinitarian character of God. In fact, the Trinitarian character of God is the deepest starting point for understanding language. So we need to look at what the Bible teaches about God in his Trinitarian character.
The Bible teaches that God is one God, and that he exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I will not undertake to defend orthodox Trinitarian doctrine in detail, because this has already been done many times. Let me mention briefly only a small number of evidences.
In addressing the polytheism of surrounding nations, the Old Testament makes it clear that there is only one true God, the God of Israel, who is the only Creator (Genesis 1; see Deut. 6:4; 32:39; Isa. 40:18–28). The New Testament introduces further revelation about the distinction of persons in God, but it everywhere presupposes the unity of one God, as revealed in the Old Testament. The New Testament does not repudiate but reinforces the Old Testament. "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (Mark 12:29). "You believe that God is one; you do well" ( James 2:19).
Second, in the New Testament the deity of Christ the Son of God is dramatically affirmed by applying to him Old Testament verses that use the tetragrammaton, the sacred name of God: "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom. 10:13; from Joel 2:32, which has the tetragrammaton). We also find explicit affirmations that Jesus is God in John 1:1 ("... and the Word was God") and John 20:28. The Holy Spirit is God, according to Acts 5:3–4. The distinction between the persons is regularly evident in John, when it expresses the relation of two persons as a Father-and-Son relation, and when the Spirit is described as another Helper, indicating that he is distinct from the Son (14:16).
God Speaks to Himself
The New Testament indicates that the persons of the Trinity speak to one another. This speaking on the part of God is significant for our thinking about language. Not only is God a member of a language community that includes human beings, but the persons of the Trinity function as members of a language community among themselves. Language does not have as its sole purpose human-human communication, or even divine-human communication, but also divine-divine communication. Approaches that conceive of language only with reference to human beings are accordingly reductionistic.
What is the evidence for divine-divine communication? First consider John 16:13–15:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The principal role of the Holy Spirit in these verses is to speak to the disciples of Christ. But we need to notice the basis for that speaking: "Whatever he hears he will speak." The Spirit is first a hearer. And whom does he hear? The subsequent explanation brings in both the Father and the Son. The Spirit hears the Father, and hears about "what is mine," that is, what is the Son's. Conceivably the Son as well as the Father is speaking to the Spirit. But in any case we have divine-divine communication between at least two persons of the Trinity.
Consider next John 17. In John 17 we have a long discourse where the Son speaks to the Father. This discourse is often called the "high priestly prayer," because Jesus is interceding on behalf of the disciples. The label "prayer" invites us to think of this passage in connection with Jesus' human nature. As high priest he shares our humanity, and so is able to represent us (Heb. 2:10–18; 4:15). Doubtless this is one aspect of what is going on in John 17. Some translations even use the word "pray" when they translate the Greek word that has the general meaning "ask" (17:9, 20). But Christ as a whole person is communing with the Father. The words we have in John 17 show us what he asks, not only with respect to his human nature but with respect to his divine nature as well. Consider, for example, that he talks about "the glory that I had with you before the world existed" (John 17:5). The word "I" in that verse must include the divine nature of Christ, because the "glory that I had with you" was the glory before his incarnation ("before the world existed"), a glory therefore with respect to his divine nature but not his human nature. Similarly John 17:24 says that "you [God the Father] loved me before the foundation of the world."
We conclude, then, that John 17 presents not merely human communication but also divine communication between the divine persons of the Father and the Son. That communication takes place through language. And so language is something used among the persons of the Trinity.
Of course the language recorded in John 17 is also language accessible to us as human beings. But it is given to us as human beings precisely so that we may know that the communication that it represents exceeds human grasp, and is divine communication. This particular piece of language in John 17 is not "merely" human, as modernist theologians sometimes claim concerning language in general. It is also divine. And because God is God, and is greater than we are, we can never plumb to the bottom the depths of divine communication.
Distinct Roles of the Persons of the Trinity in Language: Speaker, Speech, Breath
We need to consider another striking biblical claim about language. John 1:1 calls the second person of the Trinity "the Word":
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
One of the backgrounds to John 1:1 is Genesis 1, where God creates the world by speaking. "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). The eternal Word in John 1:1 is analogically related to the creational words that God spoke in calling the world into existence in Genesis 1, and to the words of Scripture, which are the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16). All three of these — eternal Word, creational words, and the Bible — are forms of the word of God. The latter two both make manifest the wisdom of God that has its source in the eternal Word (Col. 2:3; 1 Cor. 1:30).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In the Beginning Was the Word"
Copyright © 2009 Vern S. Poythress.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Importance of Language,
Part 1: God's Involvement with Language,
Chapter 2: Language and the Trinity,
Chapter 3: God Speaking,
Chapter 4: God's Creation of Man,
Chapter 5: God Sustaining Language,
Chapter 6: Creativity in Language,
Chapter 7: Exploring Examples of Language,
Chapter 8: The Rules of Language,
Chapter 9: God's Rule,
Chapter 10: Responding to God's Government,
Part 2: From Big to Small: Language in the Context of History,
Chapter 11: Small Pieces of Language within the Big Pieces,
Chapter 12: Imaging,
Chapter 13: World History,
Chapter 14: The Fall into Sin,
Chapter 15: Redemption through Christ,
Chapter 16: Peoples, Cultures, and Languages,
Chapter 17: Principles for Cultural Reconciliation,
Chapter 18: Good and Bad Kinds of Diversity,
Chapter 19: Human Action,
Part 3: Discourse,
Chapter 20: Speaking and Writing,
Chapter 21: Analysis and Verbal Interpretation,
Chapter 22: Interpreting the Bible,
Chapter 23: Genre,
Part 4: Stories,
Chapter 24: Storytelling,
Chapter 25: The Story of Redemption,
Chapter 26: Many Mini-redemptions,
Chapter 27: Counterfeit Stories of Redemption,
Chapter 28: Modern Reinterpretations of Redemptive Stories,
Chapter 29: Stories about Jesus,
Part 5: Smaller Packages in Language: Sentences and Words,
Chapter 30: Sentences in Use: Foundations in Truth,
Chapter 31: Foundations for Meaning in Trinitarian Inter-personal Action,
Chapter 32: Subsystems of Language,
Chapter 33: Words and Their Meanings,
Chapter 34: From Words to Perspectives,
Part 6: Application,
Chapter 35: Truth as a Perspective,
Chapter 36: Living in the Truth,
Interaction with Other Approaches to Language,
Appendix A: Modernism and Postmodernism,
Appendix B: Doubt within Postmodernism,
Appendix C: Non-Christian Thinking,
Appendix D: Platonic Ideas,
Appendix E: The Contribution of Structural Linguistics,
Appendix F: Translation Theory,
Appendix G: Symbolic Logic and Logical Positivism,
Appendix H: The Theory of Speech Acts,
Appendix I: Reaching Out to Deconstruction,
Appendix J: Special Cases of Human Speech,