The Mod | Why Language Is Everything

Monday, 21 Jan 2019

Everyone has a window, a lens through which they see the world around them and organize their understanding of it. I began looking through it when I was studying the work of Kenneth Pike and Vern Poythress, and by continual observation have seen more of who God is, who we are, and what our world is like.  More specifically, I better appreciate the purpose God has given language (for communion with himself and others), the way in which I engage with people each day, and even how creation has a language of its own.  There are three panes that make up the window, and I’d like to encourage my brothers and sisters to take a look through it.

Language Is Central to Who God Is

I’m not just talking about God’s use of language with us, but also his use of language with himself.  God speaks to himself—that is, he relates to himself—in three persons.  The Bible makes it clear that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit communicate with one another in a language of love and glory.  When Jesus says, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5), he is pointing us to this reality.  When the beloved disciple tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8), he is doing the same.  In ways we will never fully understand, the members of the Godhead consciously engage with one another in the one divine essence. We worship not just the Trinity, but the speaking Trinity. Put differently, Scripture indicates that language or speech is part of the essence of God. It is not simply something that God does; it is part of who God is, part of God’s identity. The Christian God, in other words, is revealed as one who communicates and communes with himself in three persons via mutual expressions of love and glory. It’s for that reason that I call language communion behavior, and God is the one who dwells in self-communion. Some theologians even go so far as to say that God is communion.

Language Is Central to Who We Are

Much has been written about what it means for us to be made in the image of God.  While theologians in the Reformed tradition often point to knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, Geerhardus Vos has offered a helpful nuance: our being made in the image of God means that we are disposed for communion with him. The deepest movements of the human heart gravitate towards communion with the God who communes with himself in three persons. Our knowledge is meant to draw us into closer fellowship with God, which then nurtures our growth in righteousness and holiness.  Our disposition for communion is simultaneously our disposition to speak and listen, to engage intimately with him.  When we stop doing this (i.e., when we stop praying and reading Scripture), we drift further from him—our spirits become vagrants, wandering the paths of the world in search of something only God can provide.  To paraphrase Augustine, we are restless until we rest in communion with the God who speaks.  Language will always be central to who we are, because it’s central to who God is, and God made us in his image.

Language Is Central to Creation

Herman Bavinck wrote: “In the whole creation there are no speech or words whose voice is not heard by all humankind. The speech of created things goes on until the end of the world. Everything speaks. Each thing has its own language and voice. The creation, in its entirety, is eloquent; sin is the only dissonance in its song.”  Bavinck was ruminating on one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Psalm 19:1–4.  In a mysterious sense, the whole world speaks.  By that, the psalmist (and Bavinck) meant that all of creation reveals God; everything has something to say about his divine nature and character (Rom. 1:20).  There is no part of creation that is mute.  The world might seem mute to us at times, but that’s because our spiritual ears are clogged.  Sin keeps us from hearing the clarion call of creation.  The speaking Trinity made creatures in his speaking image and placed them in a speaking world. Language, in this sense, is central to everything.

Communing with God

These observations may appear to be a mere series of interesting ideas, but I’ve nonetheless been struck by in my own spiritual life is how formative (albeit glaringly obvious) they are.  They help me engage with God, with others, and with the world in ways I had not truly grasped before.  It’s no secret that many of us struggle to find time in our daily lives to do what should be most important to us. Amidst checking social media feeds, dealing with pastoral problems, or mitigating conflict in our family, we can all too easily sidestep the importance of our dialogue with God.  Because language is central to who God is, if we want to engage with God, we need to use language, in two senses.  First, we need to hear the voice of God in Scripture.  Second, we need to raise our voice in prayer and worship. Without this two-way communication, we cannot really engage with God.  We can ruminate over biblical truths as we commute to work or talk about Scripture with fellow believers (both of which are good things), but that’s no substitute for communing with God himself. That should be our highest priority; our greatest relationship should receive the greatest amount of attention. This isn’t a call to live the life of a hermit, to remove yourself from others and sit alone in a room with God, but for many of us, that wouldn’t be such a harmful habit.  We live in times when it’s increasingly difficult for us to sit in silence. We engage with others via technology all throughout the day. But we don’t do this with God, do we?

Imagine if you had God’s number and all of his social media accounts.  What would you say to him each day? Would you check the social media feeds for his voice?  The truth, of course, is that God is omnipresent, so you have a deeper connection with him than any media outlet could ever provide.  And all you have to do to access it is open your ears and mouth.  There shouldn’t be a day that goes by when you can’t answer two questions: What has God said to me today? What have I said to God?  The centrality of language brings us repeatedly to the age-old truth that communion with God requires speech, both from God and from us.  Without it, we are wanderers.

Communing with Others

When it comes to our human relationships, the notion of language as communion behavior carries tremendous ethical and theological implications. The purpose of every conversation we have, in one sense or another, is to grow closer with the ones to whom we speak. That closeness comes in the form of mutual understanding, empathy, or agreement. No matter what the form, communion is not far off.  This is a very different view of language from what is commonly called the transactional use of words.  As the name suggests, this definition assumes that we’re largely completing an information transaction when we talk with others—the other person has information we don’t have or vice versa, and our language provides that information. While this is certainly true, it doesn’t get at the overarching purpose of language, which is to be a vehicle for communion with God and with others. Communion is like a divine salt that seasons our relationships: it gives them mirth and purpose and sensitivity. Viewing language as merely transactional can make our conversations cold or even careless, for it not only lacks the salt of communion (which preserves and flavors communication), but also fails to account for the complexity of persons. Language is not merely cognitive. It’s not only a transfer of information between minds; it’s embodied in facial expressions, posture, pronunciation, emotional overtones—all of which affect the means and manner of communicating. When persons in communion—in all of their glorious complexity—are participating, I find that we speak and listen very differently than we would if information transfer were our primary end.

Let me give you an example. Yesterday evening, my wife asked me, “Did you take time off from work to come to Nora’s Christmas celebration at her preschool?” I replied, “I don’t know. I think so, but I’m not sure.” On one level, my wife was trying to ascertain information. Did I do what she had asked me to do earlier? But on a deeper level (as was evident from her facial expressions), she was also checking to see if I was being conscious of my family. Did I think about them enough to work their particularities into my scheduling priorities? Were they central to my daily routine? Or were they an add-on that I needed to be constantly reminded of? She didn’t need to voice any of these questions. I understood from the context that these thoughts were related to the simple inquiry she did voice. And I understood that because language is not just about information transfer. At its deepest level, it’s always about communion with others.

Communion with Creation

As I write this, I look out my office window at the sunrise pouring onto the tops of the large white pine trees.  The five-inch needles are a deep gold color, as the light slowly makes its way down the canopy.  When I see that light, I think of passages in Scripture such as John 8:12 and 1 John 1:5. God is a light unto himself, the origin and maker of earthly light.  When I stare at the light on these pine trees, I am staring at something that tells me of God’s character as the source of illumination and warmth, as the source of life itself.  I’m not just staring at pine trees; I’m staring at something that is speaking of God, whether or not I listen.  Ultimately, there’s no such thing as mere light, mere trees, mere people—everything around us reveals something of the personal God.  Scripture makes it plain that we don’t walk through a mute world, and that means we don’t have the luxury of ignorance.  I can no longer excuse my lack of spiritual vigor with the claim that I don’t feel connected with God.  God is always and everywhere connecting with me, regardless of how I feel.  Since we live and move and have our being in the speaking God of Scripture (Acts 17:28), we’re surrounded by God’s address.  But because God’s speech proceeds from himself as the hearth of interpersonal communion, that also means that this address compels us to speak and listen in a certain way: with hearts weighted by communion. Every word we speak is meant to draw us closer to another. Do you speak that way? Do I?

We walk through a speaking world that everywhere divulges the divine. And the real beauty of it all is that God’s called us to commune with him and with each other in this “worded” context. From the Word came a worded world and word-giving creatures. Through the Word, also, comes a new world in which we shepherd our words to commune with persons (both divine and human). This is what we’ll be doing for all of eternity. That’s why language is everything.

 

 

 

 

Pierce Taylor Hibbs serves as the Associate Director of the Theological English Department at Westminster Theological Seminary.  He is the author of Finding God in the Ordinary and  The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World: Why Language Is at the Center of Everything (Wipf & Stock, 2018). He writes regularly at wordsfortheologians.org. 

 

[1] James P. Eglinton, ed. and trans., Herman Bavinck: On Preaching and Preachers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017), 24.

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