Language and Theology

From an evolutionary perspective language is unnecessary. Animals can reproduce, warn, threaten, urge each other on, be intimate, play, express hunger without conceptual language.
And yet we have a language which enables us to ask why, to dream, to despair (would suicide as a deliberately chosen act be possible without language?).

Language is gratuitous. It is a gift. Without language we can share ourselves with another. With language we can share our souls.

a. God uses a word to bring that which is not, into being
Genesis 1:3 
‘And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light’

Hebrews 11:3 
‘By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible’

b. God uses language to speak to us: to declare his laws, wisdom, promises
Psalm 119:9,105
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.

c. We use language to enable relationship, and to communicate with each other the wonders of God’s truth.
1 Corinthians 14:5,19
Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up  .. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 

d. We must speak in the language of the people whom we are addressing
Not just Latin versus English, or KJV versus ESV
Cross cultural communication: Wycliffe bible translators
The language we use can reinforce barriers (the language of Zion), open up new possibilities; closed or open. 

e. There must be a deep integrity about how we use language
Ephesians 5:4
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 
Matthew 5:33-37
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn." But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply "Yes" or "No"; anything more than this comes from evil.
(cf James 3:5-10)
The ‘faithfulness of God’ is primarily displayed in his keeping his promises:
(eg.Zechariah’s prophecy, Luke 1:67-79)

f. The end of language is to acclaim God in worship
Revelation 5:13 ‘And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever’.


The limits of human language:
Language unites, but language also divides.
The confusion of language - Genesis 11:1,7  ‘Now the whole earth had one language and the same words .. Come let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech’

The limits of angelic languages (the tongues of angels):
- personal relationship with God (1 Corinthians 14:2, ‘For the one who speaks to you in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit’)
- sign for unbelievers, to show how far they are alienated from God (1 Corinthians 14:23)

note: prophecies, tongues, knowledge will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8)


Philosophical debates about language
a)    Realism: Universals exist out there, which are different to the words we use, but as our knowledge and language develop, so we capture that reality in our words.
b)    Nominalism: The variety of objects to which a single word applies (eg. ‘dog’) have nothing in common apart from the word. We will never be able to know a reality beyond our words

Alice through the Looking Glass:
`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'
`I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

However, we work with a realist assumption: words describe things out there.

a) Literal language
(in the Bible there is historical, legal, scientific – explanatory - language)

What is it?  It is black, it has two wheels, it comes up to just over my waist, it has a fold over lid
If I say, ‘we have a brown wheely bin and a blue wheely bin’, you know exactly what I mean.

Much of the language in the bible is used in this way: it is law, history, wisdom, the gospels

But because of the limits of language, we recognise that language is not able to describe everything in this sort of way

i) Reality is too big

Language describing events pre-fall and post return of the Lord Jesus
How do we describe love, personality

ii) God is too big

But how do you describe the one who created all things, including time and space – when we can only think in terms of time and space?

Tom and Jerry discussing who drew Walt Disney.

b) Metaphorical language
(in the Bible there is poetic, apocalyptic, ‘saga’ language. Jesus spoke in parables)

John Masefield: Sea-fever
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

It is trying to convey a reality that is too big for us to imagine. It is about imagination – about feeling.
This is language which points us to a reality beyond language.

And how do we describe One who is beyond all concept, all definition?

1 Timothy 6:15-16
‘.. which God will bring about in his own time - God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honour and might forever. Amen.’

God reveals himself to us in language which points us beyond language

Revelation 1:12-16
I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lamp stands, and among the lamp stands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.’

Oddly, to even turn this into an image, somehow limits what is being said.

An image is always going to be an image of something that is created. How do we depict the uncreated in an image?

c) Going beyond language
The impossibility of describing God

Is God up there?
Does God have hands or eyes?
Is God angry or jealous or loving?
Is God good and faithful?

We want to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’

The creed:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being  with the Father; through him all things were made.

In God-talk there have been two ways of speaking about God

a) Positive language: increasing knowledge about God, about the ways of God and the promises of God.  

There are things that can be known about God

Romans 1:19-20
.. since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

John 14:9
Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, "Show us the Father"? 

b) Negative language: the stripping away of idols that we build around words.

The place of silence

Rev 8:1 ‘When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.’

The silence of presence and not of absence


a) to lead us into faith/obedience

Deuteronomy 29:29
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

b) to lead us into relationship and encounter with Jesus Christ

John 5:39-40
You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 

c) to enable us to speak to others about God

Psalm 78:1-3
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

d) to enable us to worship

1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi  (the rule of prayer is the rule of belief is the rule of life)

Wisdom of Cranmer introducing a book of common prayer.

We do theology in:
  • The words we use
  • The songs we sing
  • The prayers we pray (eg. Lord’s prayer)
The difference between knowing about God and knowing God. 


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