the humanness of language

Vern Poythress has a new book out – In the Beginning was the Word: Language – a God-Centred Approach (thanks to Jeremy Walker for flagging it up).

It’s available for sale here, accompanied by a publisher’s description which induced some raised eyebrows, I admit, from a linguistic point of view (what can be meant by the specification of the meaning of every word in every language? in what way does language reflect and reveal the glory of the Creator, other than in the trivially true way in which everything in the Creator’s creation does? doesn’t the publisher care about gender-specific pronouns, or is it only Christian men who are supposed to read this book? isn’t the publisher aware of the difference between language and speech? am I, possibly, being too harsh?).

Let’s just overlook all of this and put it down to a non-technical presentation of what must be, at least if you read the endorsements, an insightful, profound, compelling, significant piece of work.

Instead, I’m more interested in what you can see inside the sample pages.

Specifically, this paragraph from p18:

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.

Now, I find almost everything in here questionable (apart from the first two sentences, I suppose). One – terminology – I’m more familiar with the term ‘speech community’ than ‘language community’ (although I don’t suppose much hangs on the difference; correct me if I’m wrong). I find it odd to say that God is a member of a language community that includes human beings. Surely, it is odd to think of God as being a member of any kind of community that includes human beings: he is infinite, humans are finite; he is eternal, humans are created; he is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and his attributes; humans are not. If he so much as notices humans, it is infinite condescension on his part – and yet he does more – and even so, he is not part of our communities. Great fear, in meeting of the saints, is due unto the Lord, even and especially when he reveals himself most condescendingly. Certainly he speaks, and we must listen. And through the Mediator we have access to the Father to speak to him in prayer, which in his grace he hears. But this does not a speech community make.

Two – I fail to see how it is reductionistic to conceive of language as merely serving human-human communication. Partly, there’s no ‘merely’ or ‘only’ about it – language is a beautiful, rich, elegant, effective, complex, amazing tool, which only humans out of all creatures have, for communicating with each other. It doesn’t belittle language to say that only humans have it. But partly too – only humans have it! Humans use language for all sorts of meaningful reasons – to convey or take in indexical, social, affective, and propositional kinds of information, and so on. Animals have no way of using such a tool. But also, to speak reverently, the Trinity has no need of such a tool. The Scriptures present the persons of the trinity as taking counsel together and speaking one to another (this is one of the reasons, after all, how we know there are distinct persons in the Godhead). But the three persons of the trinity have always existed in a fellowship of love and harmony with each other. The Spirit searches the deep things of God. The Son knows the will of the Father. As the Father is omniscient so is the Son and so is the Holy Spirit. The purposes of the Father are the purposes of the Son and the purposes of the Spirit. Everything is always present before God. Thus, on the propositional front, he doesn’t need to be told anything for information. Indexical? Each person knows the other persons thoroughly; there is no question about the identity of any person or the relationships each person stands in to the other persons. Affective – he has no parts nor passions: it doesn’t even apply. Or think of the stuff of language – syntax, morphology, phonology – with imagination straining at the limits of what is reverent, without the physical production of some word, spoken through a vocal tract (or gestured by hand in signed languages), there can be no phonology, and without a word, no morphology, and without concatenations of words, no syntax. How sad, to have a concept of the communion between the persons of the Trinity that doesn’t even rise above the possibility that language such as humans have is the only conceivable manner or method of it.

Pages 18-19 do (I should point out) contain discussion of two passages of scripture which are used in support of the position that part of the purpose of language is for communication within the Trinity. One is John 16:13-15, where the Spirit is said to hear (from the Father) of the things of Christ. The other is John 17, the intercessory prayer: “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.” But caution is needed. It cannot be a literal hearing, just as it cannot be a literal speaking – speaking and hearing involve physical, motor and sensory, processes. Further, things are true of the incarnate Son which are not true of the other persons of the Trinity. It is not in question that Christ speaks in John 17 as a divine person, but he speaks as a divine person with a human nature. There is no doubt that the Father heard him (as he “hears” prayer) as he spoke with human language, but the fact that the communication between Christ in his time on the earth and the Father naturally included human language does not automatically license the conclusion that the pre-incarnate Son and the Father and the Spirit communicated with each other using language that is somehow the same means of communication as human beings use among themselves.*

So: I think the case is overstated. There is no doubt that there is communication between the persons of the Trinity. There is no doubt that God speaks to humans using language. There is no doubt that language, which humans use to communicate with each other, is a gift from God (although of course affected by the Fall). But a more compelling case needs to be made – from scripture – that the communication between the persons of the Trinity is by way of language. Language is a special gift for humans – it is suited to human capacities and human needs. By conflating ‘language’ with ‘communication’, you fail to take the opportunity to explore exactly how unique and special language is, you bring divine communication within the trinity down to the level of the finite and frail efforts at interaction which creaturely and fallen humans make, and you make linguists grouchy.

All of which, it turns out, I said before, better, here.

Note too the argumentation in the following pages from the possibility of translating ruach as ‘breath’; and the notion of breath “carrying speech to its destination”; this concept does not strike me as particularly salient in how phoneticians would understand articulation, nor in how semanticists would conceive of the creation or accessing of meaning, although on both fronts I remain open to correction. Phoneticians and semanticists, needless to say, are prone to mistake – but if there is a mistake here, or elsewhere, in how linguists understand language, this needs to be demonstrated through serious engagement with the principles and concepts that are current. Even in something aimed at a lay audience, there could still be a nod to the concerns of anyone with more specialised knowledge.


12 thoughts on “the humanness of language

  1. Fascinating!
    I’ve always assumed God to inherently have language, too. But I can see the need to distinguish between language and communication.
    Instead of “humanness” you may want to say “createdness” of language. After all, other creatures do have languages, or what else would Paul have meant with angelic languages (1 Cor 13:1)? And then, even creation seems to be able to communicate without using language (Ps 19:2-5).
    To speculate from the other side of time: What will language be like in heaven? At least, from different passages in Revelation, I presume that language(s) will be used there. The imperfections of language which you list notwithstanding, language use in heaven should not exhibit these (if we are to take things literally at all). Tough to imagine – the mind boggles!
    Keep up the good work / thoughts / blogposts / I mean: communication! :)


  2. Instinctive thought:

    “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness . . . ‘”

    Is this anthropomorphism (anthropoverbism)? Did God speak? How? To whom? Who, if anyone, heard, if that is the right word, whom, if that is the right question, say what, if that makes sense?

    I suppose you could also ask, when God said, “Let there be light,” did he need an audience, even if that audience was himself?

    Thanks for the stimulating post. I also think that Oliver raises a fascinating question with regard to a heavenly language. Will there be one tongue in heaven, or – under the influence of the Spirit, as at Pentecost but in final completeness – will the tribes and tongues and nations praise God in a variety of tongues according to their tribes and nations, that very variety being a means of glorifying God?


    • Thanks, Jeremy, for some great reminders.

      Also brought Hebrews 11:3 to mind: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command” – not trying to read too much into it, but isn’t a command a *speech* act? ;-)

      And last but not least: If language was not inherently divine, that would make the Word of God the only non-linguistic word. (Oh, should explain, with Word of God I don’t mean that restricted to the written Bible, which of course *is* a linguistic product, but the eternal living Word.)


  3. Very, very interesting, gentlemen.

    I don’t think there should be any dispute that God is a communicating, “speaking” being. He communicates to us in creation and providence, in human language in the scriptures, and in the person of his incarnate Son.
    Also, there is something represented as consultations and the taking of counsel among the persons of the Trinity, even though that somehow has to be understood in the context of the persons of the Trinity being entirely acquainted with the divine purpose from all eternity and eternally having one and the same will.
    Who heard whom say what in the counsels and announcements of the Godhead – I would hesitate to speculate any further than what I’ve just said, although obviously I speak as a layman. It’s not (just to state the obvious) as if we can understand “And God said, Let us make man,” as if there came some point in eternity or the existence of God when this was a new idea or a new plan, even when the statement in scripture is in the form of a report of an action that was taken and completed at some point in time [or at least in my English translation!] – my inclination would be to treat his “saying” with the same kind of caution – it must mean something, but it cannot mean exactly the same thing as when a human opens their mouth and produces sounds for the conveying of information to another human. Anthropomorphism, perhaps, then – roughly analogous to how we understand the “thoughts” of God, eg, ie not like the way that we think.

    And yes, speech acts are all the rage these days it seems – really i suppose God is the only one who can genuinely make something happen merely by the uttering, sic, of words, sic. Interesting too that so many of the miracles in the NT were performed simply by the Lord speaking words – Lazarus, come forth – maid, arise – put forth thy hand – take up thy bed and walk – thy sins be forgiven thee. He only needs to express his purpose for the thing to be done – his power and authority are such that he has the ability to bring about what he purposes even more effortlessly than uttering some words.

    And I did wonder about the eternal, personal Word. But simply calling him the eternal, personal Word indicates that this name of his can’t be understood linguistically, in the way that humans have words (word-forms, lexemes, morphemes, whatever) – it doesn’t make sense. Again though his name must mean something – perhaps, although again open to suggestions & refinement, it would be a reference to how he reveals the Father, as transparently, aptly, informatively as ideally our human words would map on to the concepts they putatively label. (They often don’t, but ideally they would.) He is the express image of his person (that’s eikon, right, unless i’m mistaken, and that’s not linguistic either!).

    I suppose my overall concern is this. Looking up O’Grady et al’s textbook on linguistics (1996) – “Language is many things – a system of communication, a medium for thought, a vehicle for literary expression, a social institution, a matter for political controversy, a catalyst for nation building.” And: “All languages have a grammar. …. Since all languages are spoken, they must have phonetic and phonological systems; since they all have words and sentences, thehy also must have a morphology and a syntax; and since these words and sentences have systematic meanings, there obviously must be semantic principles as well.” Etc. If this is how we understand language — and i know linguists’ opinions vary, but this should be sort of generic and comprehensible to most — then I cannot comprehend how we can say that this kind of thing is what the divine persons are limited to using in their eternal counsels of love and knowledge, or alternatively, how the infinite, eternal God would need to resort to such a clearly creaturely thing other than in acts of great condescension towards his creatures.

    Re angels and heaven – deserves a separate comment as it’s a whole nother level of speculation!


  4. Just a few more quick musings:
    “He is the express image of his person (that’s eikon, right, unless i’m mistaken, and that’s not linguistic either!).”
    – I like that. Okay, so it’s eikon, and it’s not linguistic, but then it would at least be semiological. Which I’m not sure solves the problem rather than shifting it into a different domain.

    “Since all languages are spoken …”
    – Hmmm, sign languages obviously aren’t. If there is such a thing as divine language it’s definitely qualitatively different from human language. Maybe that’s the main problem of this discussion that you seem to connect language with humans whereas I could imagine calling whatever God uses internally (i.e. when He doesn’t communicate with his creatures “condescendingly” – somehow I’m irritated by that word) “language” too – albeit on a completely different plane.

    “this kind of thing is what the divine persons are limited to using in their eternal counsels of love and knowledge”
    – again hmmm: Not even we humans are limited to the use of language in our expression of love and knowledge.

    Great stuff to end a good day with. Good night!


  5. Yes to this point: “If there is such a thing as divine language it’s definitely qualitatively different from human language” – and yes, I do connect language with humans.

    Ie i don’t particularly mind using terms like “speaking” to refer to the communication within the Trinity, but obviously hedged around with caveats. The problem is that these caveats are not much in evidence in the chapters that are available online from the book in question: language is said to have as its purpose not only “human-human communication” but also “divine-divine communication”, with the implication (apparently) that human language is so wonderful because it is language that God himself uses within the Godhead. It cannot be the same thing.

    And yes, I did sneak in a reference to sign languages in the original post :-) The point from O’Grady et al would then be broadened out to, All languages are physically produced, or something.

    Obviously you don’t want to reduce language to its physical aspects – what is produced in the vocal tract or signed by hand – but language does intrinsically include these physical aspects. The actual physical speech stream is primary, both in production and perception, although not to the exclusion of paralinguistic and other contextual factors. (And that statement doesn’t exclude written language btw!) Without a vocal tract and an auditory perception system, language isn’t possible (- make your own adjustments for sign languages).

    Limited to the use of language – would have been better worded if i’d said “…something they use, with all its limitations, in their eternal counsels…” ~ or something!


  6. Not that i had anything particularly earth-shattering to offer on angels or heaven!

    The tongues of angels – is there any other scriptural reference to this, outside 1 Cor 13 ? – the passage is often hypothetical – if i understood *all* mysteries? – possibly mainly rhetorical?

    Heaven – actually the more i think about it the less i want to make any suggestions :-) Everyone in heaven in Revelation is singing in unison, giving the same praise. Thinking in earthly terms, if we heard Thomas Boston speak or whoever, chances are it would be v difficult to understand their accent – never mind other languages. A new song, the language of Canaan … opinions differ, as we’ve already established :-)

    Ps – i can’t think of another word apart from condescending – has off-putting connotations i know but don’t know how else to put it. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? & Isaiah 40. The limits of language eh.


    • On the word ‘condescending’, might the following be helpful? defines the word ‘condescend’ in the following three ways:
      1. To behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity.
      2. To stoop or deign to do something.
      3. To put aside one’s dignity or superiority voluntarily and assume equality with one regarded as inferior.

      It seems to me that the only one of these three definitions which carries the negative, patronising ovetone we sometimes object to is the first. God, in his dealings with man, specifically in the context of salvation, can be said to condescend in the sense of the second, but more fully (and beautifully) the third definition.

      The word ‘condescending’ is normally used between humans to describe an attitude roughly equivalent to the first definition. With the suffix ‘-ing’, I also find it slightly jarring, because God’s attitude towards men is precisely the opposite of this patronising and negative attitude. Ministers I have heard usually express it as “he condescends to” or “he shows infinite condescension towards” rather than “he is condescending towards”. It seems to come across better.


  7. Thanks, Cath, for further elaborations!
    I’m still searching for the divine origin, or reflection, or equivalent of human language – or at least those qualities, features, characteristics of language which transcend its boundedness to the created.

    The kenotic theory may be dead. However, incarnation is still very much at the heart of the Godhead (or at least of Their Second Person – nearly wrote “Its” or “His”, both probably lacking in accuracy). This eternal giving of yourself, emanating, communicating vital information to the other, to creation, viz that God Himself stoops (in order not to say “condescends”) so deeply in order to bridge the Great Divide, the Great Divorce, I could imagine this divine quality to be (or become) the essence, the true meaning (in all its semantic, semiological richness) of redeemed, i.e. eternal language. Allow me to close with a quote from Ong (1987) who claims that,
    “despite the radical primacy that the biblical text has in Christian tradition, The Word of God, who is the Son, is to be thought of by analogy with the human spoken word, not the written word.”
    (full bibliographical detail: Ong, W.J. 1987. Orality-literacy studies and the unity of the human race. Oral Tradition 2.1: 371-382.)


  8. Ah, Ong! My favourite Jesuit priest! I even cited him in my thesis.
    I would in fact be inclined to concur with that quote. There are properties of the written word which are distinct advantages in the written Word (that looks more clever than it’s intended to be) – and yet the written Word itself is not living, active, dynamic in the way that the personal Word is (even though in the hand of the Spirit it is living, powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword, and even though it is our infallible & comprehensive source of information about the personal Word).

    Incarnation is, you could say, at the heart of the scheme of redemption. (I’d have thought “His” would have been appropriate?)

    By the end of your middle para there I do feel i’ve been swept off my feet slightly… but do you mean to equate “redeemed language” with “eternal language”? and if so, may i enquire, warum?


  9. Yea, I got carried away a little with that middle para ;-)

    Intuitively, I would have presumed human language this side of heaven to be (and remain) fallible. Eternal language, as the one which is used in front of the throne, cannot be marred by any of the blemishes (or even just physical characteristics) you listed in the original post. Hence the equation of eternal with redeemed. Maybe, transformed comes closer to what I meant …

    (Difficult to think about that too deeply when my mind is occupied predominantly with features of written style at the word, sentence and text level – but that’s a different story.)


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