God and Human Language

I’ve altered my reading list dramatically for the summer, partly due to my shifting role at the church and some classes I hope to be teaching in the fall. One of the books I’ve picked up is The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God by John Frame. Philosophy and Epistemology aren’t strong areas for me, so this is good and hard at the same time.

Frame discusses the question ‘can human language be used to describe God adequately?’ (Adequately meaning something like ‘truly’ or ‘accurately’, not ‘extensively’] The issue is a hot one both at the scholarly level and a popular level too. I’ve heard it more than once from a student that the Bible is just men trying to describe what can’t be described by human language.

Frame argues convincingly (though with qualifications) that human words have the same meaning for man as for God. If we deny this, divine-human communication would be impossible. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ might actually mean to God ‘Thou shalt plant radishes’.

Frame builds his case by reminding us that God is the ultimate Creator of human language. This hit me yesterday as I was reading. I’m not sure I had ever considered that before and it has profound implications. First, God’s authority extends over language and the meaning of words just as it does over every other area of his creation. Thus, a word ‘means’ what God has authorized it to mean and we should use language as God would expect us too, that is to say ‘truly, clearly, and lovingly’.

Second, if God created language, he did so for a purpose – namely, communicating with his creatures. To deny that language can be used as a tool to know God is to say that God has failed in this aspect of his creation. Yes, language has it’s ambiguities and nuances, but God knows these better than we do. Frame writes, “God, of course, knows the meanings of all words, phrases, and statements exhaustively. He knows all of their uses, both actual and potential: He can uses our language better than any of us can. and of course, at a deeper level, we must say that God’s knowledge of our language is different from our own knowledge of it because His is the knowledge of the Creator, the Lord of language.

On the other hand, that God is the Creator and Lord of language should remind us that there is always more to learn from a text and more mystery there than we can currently comprehend. Van Til (one of my favorites) reminds us that even after we’ve properly exegeted a passage correctly we still don’t ‘fully’ understand it. While Scripture is clear enough to leave everyone without excuse, there is still a lot even the best Bible scholars can learn. Again, Frame writes, “But because human language is so rich and because God’s knowledge of it is so comprehensive, Scripture will always contain depths of meaning beyond our understanding. Are these depths of meaning irrelevant to us because they are beyond our understanding? No. Nothing is more important in Scripture than the sense of mystery that it conveys, the attitude of awe that it evokes from its readers.

Frame’s argument reminds me of a quote from Augustine: “Such is the depth of the Christian Scriptures that even if I were attempting to study them and nothing else from early boyhood to decrepit old age, with the utmost leisure, the most unwearied zeal, and talents greater than I have, I would still daily be making progress in discovering their treasures.

Also, Edwards: “There are no things so worthy to be known as these things. They are as much above those things that are treated of in other sciences as the heavens are above the earth…Growing in knowledge should be the business of believers, and the very reason God has given us the faculties of reason and understanding…God has gone to great lengths to give us this body of knowledge.

Praying I continue to grow in my knowledge and appreciation of God’s Word!