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I found something on the Calvin College website after Googling the phrase “theology of language”. I find it curious that with all the electrons sacrificing their quantum levels, smashing against the phosphors of computer screens in the service of the wars between “free grace” and “works-religion”, no one seems to expend much curiosity about why man is allowed to speak at all.

A Calvin College professor, Nathan Bierma, has come up with five observations that he believes should serve as prolegomena for a theology of language:

1. God created us as linguistic beings, encoding symbolic meaning in our words and actions as “stewards of symbolic reality” (Quentin Schultze, Communicating For Life).

2. Christ’s incarnate nature is revealed to us in John 1 as logos, “the word.” Here, and in Genesis 1, the word is associated with divine nature and divine action.

3. Our sinful nature leads us to miscommunicate, both deliberately and unintentionally, perpetuating our pride, frustration, and helplessness.

4. We are transformed through Christ to speak the truth, to “echo God’s reality,” as Schultze says, rather than to use linguistic symbols as tools to serve self-serving ends.

5. Multilingual diversity is a prelude of heavenly community and its songs of praise and confession of Christ’s lordship in every tongue.

Thank you, Nathan. That is a good introduction, and it saves a lazy Mule from having to come up with something on my own. I would like to add some comments, of course.

In point number one, Bierma correctly points out that God has created us as linguistic beings. However, I would like to expand on this. A linguistic being means that you were created as someone who exists within a linguistic community. Evolutionary accounts of the emergence of language in human beings appear to me to ignore the fact that for a language-production-gene to have any possible survival value, there has to be a corresponding language-processing-gene in the receiver.

Language -> necessarily implies relationship, exchange, and tradition. A man can receive nothing, says the Forerunner, except what has been given him… All of us were born into different language communities, and we received our language from others.   Indeed, research seems to indicate that children raised apart from social contact never do learn language properly.  Any discussion of language that focuses only on the individual and his linguistic ability is not even going to be able to begin to explain language theologically.

In Mr. Bierma’s second point, Christ as the Word of the Father has a rich metaphorical tradition in the Eastern Orthodox church. Evidently, Christ is not a “word” in the sense of a His being a vibration in the air. He is not a spoken or a written Word. He is an incarnate Word. This is getting easier for me to understand the longer I am Orthodox, for the Orthodox use a lot of different means to express Christ – icons, vestments, liturgical movements, colors, smells (the incense used during Lent is more acrid than that used between Pentecost and Advent, for example).

Some Christians take issue with this. Jacques Ellul in his remarkable book, The Humiliation Of The Word, points out that God is primarily concerned with the Word qua language, and he criticizes the modern tendency to reduce everything to image. I don’t know but that the Orthodox are going to have to answer his objections eventually. Ellul’s arguments are a good deal more nuanced than the unsophisticated “You guys are breaking the Second Commandment” arguments that are usually thrown our way.


The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams