Except from, “Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture,” by Gene Edward Veith, JR. published 1994. pgs 64 – 68.
Human Language And God’s Language
Christians can agree with postmodern theorists that meaning is made up of language. But where as the secular theorists assume that language is only a human phenomenon, Christians go much further.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shine sin the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen this glory, the glory of the One and the Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:1-5, 14)”
Language – God’s language – existed before human beings and before the physical universe. Language is indeed intrinsic to thought and to personality itself. God’s Word in an intrinsic part o His unfathomable being.
Furthermore, God’s language made the world. The universe was created, according to Genesis, by a series of speech-acts. (“God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light,” and so on [Gen. 1:3].) The Word of God brings into existence whatever He declares. “By the word of the LORD were the heavens made…. for he spoke, and it came to be” (Ps 33:6, 9). Before God spoke, “the form and fullness to existence. The order of the universe, the reality of scientific laws, the language like codes of DNA, and the mathematical consistency of physics all have their origin in the Word of God.
Like God, human beings have language. God is personal, capable of thought and of relationship, which are mediated through language. Adam and Eve could speak because the were created in God’s image. The source of their personality, including their capacity for language, was the personality and language of God. Genesis, however, makes clear that there is a difference between God’s language and human language, even before the Fall.
“Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man call each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. (Gen. 2:19-20)”
Significantly, God gave human beings a certain autonomy of language. Adam was allowed to make up his own words for what God had made. “Whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”
This distinction between God’s almighty words and human words, which are transient and arbitrary, means that human language is not sacred as such. It is likely to be changeable, limited, and somewhat clumsy. Just as there must be a vast difference between the infinite God and the limited thought sinless creature, there is an innate gap between human language and God’s language. This gap and the limits of human language became even more profound and complicated with the Fall.
The devil used words to seduce Adam and Eve into sin. He invented lies, severing language from truth. The devil, or serpent, cast doubt on God’s Word (“Did God really say, ‘you must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” [Gen. 3:1]). Even sinned; then the talked Adam into sinning. They then used language to rationalize what they did and to berate each other. They hid from God’s voice (“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the OLRD God…and they hid” [Gen 3:8]).
The sinfulness of human language built through history until God executed a special judgment against language itself. “Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (Gen 11:1). The unity of the human race and the ability of everyone to understand each other seem a utopian ideal, but these noble-sounding goals forget the reality of human sin. Human unity meant that the potential for tyranny, idolatry, and every kind of evil was only magnified. As these unified people began to build themselves a great city with a tower that reached the heavens, God intervened.
“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other. (Gen. 11:6-7)”
After Babel, human language is confused. We can no longer fully understand each other. Although our language presumes to erect structures that reach the heavens, in reality we are using our words to rebel against God’s Word.
God’s Word creates and condemns, but it also redeems. God called the Adam and Eve, and gave His Word as a promise to all the patriarchs. God revealed Himself in human language in the words of the prophets and in the inspired text of the Bible. God’s Word is not only far above human language, but it is of a different order completely. God’s Word is Jesus Christ, the Second person of the Trinity. God’s language is not merely meaningful sounds or marks on a page, but God’s mind, His self, His only begotten Son who became incarnate in the world that He Himself had spoken into existence: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14). The Incarnate Word died on the cross to atone for all of human sin. Pentecost undid the curse of Babel when the gift of the Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to preach in a way intelligible to speakers of many languages (Acts 2:1-12).
God continues to work in a powerful way by means of His Word. Whenever we read the Bible, whenever a pastor preaches a sermon on a text of Scripture, whenever we explain the gospel to someone, the Holy Spirit is at work. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edge sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12). Just as God’s Word called the universe into existence from nothingness, so God’s Word can create faith in the formless void of a sinner’s heart. “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Postmodern theorists are right when they focus upon the centrality of language. For them, however, language is a prison house a cultural creation. They say that there is no transcendent logos, no meaning outside of language. They assume that there is no God. For those who do believe in God and in transcendent logos who in Jesus Christ, the case is more complicated.
Yes, human language has gaps, limits and slippage. Our language is clumsy; using words to express what we mean is sometimes like trying to thread a needle while wearing gloves. But human language is a sign, a trace, of divine language. Language may get in the way sometimes, but it is also revelatory. Meaning is not only subjective; the external world is itself grounded in the Word of God, which established its form and gave it an objective meaning. When we study science, we are not merely making up mental models, but we are, in a sense, reading the divine language inscribed into the universe. Language in not merely a prison house; God’s language can break in from the outside and give us freedom.