In the Beginning Was the Word: Language – A God-Centered Approach

July 29, 2011 — 1 Comment

PoythressVern Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The present volume is the second of three in a series by investigating disciplines related to the field of New Testament studies. Published after the book on science and before the book on sociology, this treatment of language is perhaps the most germane to biblical studies. Poythress’s “primary purpose” in writing is to help “people increase their appreciation for language, using the Bible for guidance” (p. 9). This desire stems from his perspective that language “has a significant role in God’s relation to human beings from creation onward. Appreciating language properly can contribute to our well-being in relation to God” (p. 12). Similarly, Poythress sees an apologetic for the truth of the Christian worldview embedded in the structure of language.

Overview

Part one of the book focuses on God’s involvement in language. According to Poythress, “the Trinitarian character of God is the deepest starting point for understanding language” (p. 17). He sees a Trinitarian foundation for all language in which “God the Father is the speaker, God the Son is the speech, and God the Spirit is the breath carrying the speech to its destination” (p. 21). The foundation for human language, thus, is divine language and Poythress introduces a triad of “meaning, control, and presence” for analyzing God’s speaking (p. 24). The triad relates to the three omni- attributes, since God’s omniscience implies he knows all meaning, his omnipotence implies language is under his control, and omnipresence implies that God is present to us in his speaking (p. 25). God’s words convey meaning, control, and presence, and they are the starting point for any further thinking about language.

Having established this foundation, Poythress discusses the creation of man and how human speech images God. He briefly critiques modern linguistic approaches that ignore this connection since “the move to exclude God ignores the single most important fact about communication and the most weighty ontological fact about language” (p. 38 emphasis his). The remainder of part one discusses God’s faithfulness in keeping language stable over time, the use of creativity in language, and God’s providential rule over language. In this section Poythress introduces the particle, wave, and field perspective on language from the work of Kenneth L. Pike. The particle perspective looks at language as individual pieces with stable meaning (p. 52). The wave perspective looks at language as a dynamic processes controlled by a given speaker (ibid.). The field perspective looks at the field of relations among various parts of language (p. 55). These perspectives are correlated by Poythress to the previous triad of meaning, control, and presence, as well as to the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (p. 56-57).

Part two establishes a further context for examining language. Poythress employs a “hierarchy of action” in which individual words are part of clauses, which are part of sentences, which are part of paragraphs, which are part of monologues, which are part of conversations, which are part of human action in general, which take place in the context of an entire human life, which is part of an overarching human culture, which is a part of world history, and which finds its context in the purpose and plan of God (p. 87).

Part three then turns the focus to discourse, specifically the interpretation of language, written and spoken. It is here that Poythress first discusses the relation to biblical studies, applying the particle, wave, and field perspectives to his analysis. He then turns to a discussion of the variation of genres before focusing in part four on stories. Poythress offers a sound overview of storytelling in general before comparing it to the biblical story of redemption. He notes that throughout Scripture there are many mini-redemption stories that are analogues of the larger redemption narrative in Scripture. A discussion of this kind would not be complete without a brief survey of counterfeit redemption narratives and Poythress briefly recounts problems with the enlightenment myth, Marxism, evolutionary naturalism, and postmodern contextualism.

Part five focuses on the level of words and sentences. Poythress discusses the foundations of truth in language, interpersonal actions within the Trinity as the basis for structure within language, issues related to grammar and its reliance on the nature and plan of God, and the nature of meaning itself and its flexibility within language. Part six closes the main text of the book by using truth as a perspective on God’s gift to us in language. The book then contains several appendices that deal with mainly with other approaches to language in more critical detail. Poythress interacts there with modernism and postmodernism, postmodern doubt about stable meaning in language, non-Christian distortions of transcendence and immanence, Plato’s search for pure concepts, structural linguistics, translation theory, symbolic logic and logical positivism, speech act theory, and then some final thoughts on deconstructionism and the significance of God’s word being mediated through human authors.

Conclusion

The style in the main body of the book is more directed to a lay audience, while the appendices have a slightly smaller print and interact more extensively with current trends in linguistics. This formatting makes the book more accessible to the average reader, but may make the main text seem slow moving and repetitive to more advanced readers. The pervasive use of triads throughout the book will be welcome to those familiar with the work of John Frame, while it may make some of the concepts harder to grasp to those who are not. The same may be said for Kenneth Pike. Those unfamiliar with Pike’s work will sometimes lack a context for Poythress’s engagement with his ideas. Poythress connects Pike’s work in linguistics with Frame’s work in theology to provide a Trinitarian approach to studying language. Overall, this book should be a welcome addition to the library of the theologian and biblical scholar alike, since a sound philosophy of language is a necessity given the privilege of place the written text of Scripture is given in both disciplines.

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This review will appear in a further edited form in an upcoming issue of Bibliotheca Sacra, and was composed with editorial help of my professor Dr. Glenn Kreider.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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  1. A Trinitarian Reading List | Think Theologically - October 18, 2011

    [...] Vern Poythress shows how the doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of our understanding of human language and human interaction. I’ve found in general that many of the authors and teachers coming out [...]

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