Words and the Eternal Word PDF Print E-mail
Theology
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Sunday, 12 September 2010 21:09

God is an eternal Speaker, who speaks an eternal Word by the breath of the Spirit.  The Word that is with God from the beginning is God, and God is the Word (John 1:1-3).  God who speaks and the Word who is spoken are distinct.  No one ought to call the Father “Word,” nor the Son “Father.”  Even when the Son comes speaking in the flesh, He claims to communicate the message of the Father, to speak the Word of the Father that He is.

Distinction, classical Trinitarian theology says, implies relation.  If we have only a blob of undifferentiated factitude, no facts relate to other facts, since there are no different facts that can relate to other facts.  Male and female did not know one another until Adam was split into Man and Woman.  We can only have relation if we have distinction, but once a distinction is made we open the possibility of reunion in one flesh.  To distinguish between the God who speaks and the Word that is spoken is to describe them in relation to one another.  Not only to describe them in relation, but to define them in relation.  We cannot answer the question, “What Word?” without pointing to the Eternal Speaker who is the Father.  We cannot answer the question, “Who is the Speaker?” except by saying “He is the One who speaks the eternal Word that is God.”  Distinction implies relation, and relation distinction.

While distinct, the Father and Son dwell in one another.  “I am in the Father and the Father is in Me,” Jesus says (John 14:10).  Just so, the Speaker is in the Word, and the Word in the Speaker.  The Word is the self-expression of the Speaker, so that in the Speaker’s Word, we encounter the Speaker Himself, which is eternal life.

Now, if this is all true, what should we expect from the human reflex of divine communication?  To keep things simple, let’s think about individual words and their meanings.  If the Creator is the Triune God, how would we expect words to behave so as to be meaningful?

We would expect words to mean by having their own distinct properties and proper uses.  As the Father is Father and not Son, so “fire” means fire and not cucumber or Parliamentary committee.   The structuralist notion that words mean only by being different from other words is a radically truncated account of meaning.  As Vern Poythress has pointed out, the meaning of “purple” is not the void at the center of an infinite system of negatives – not-pink, not-red, not-yellow, not-slab, not-football.

Yet the structuralists have a point.  Every word has its own integrity, but the integrity is co-determined by the words differentiation from and relation to other words, just as the Father is Father in distinction from and relation to Son, is Speaker in relation to His Word.  In the linguistic stock of each language, words have a range of meaning, and the boundaries of that range are set by other words.  In French, mouton covers both the sheep in the field and the mutton on the plate, but if an English speaker said “I’m having sheep for dinner,” we’d imagine a gathering of bashful people.  The boundaries are porous, but they are boundaries.  Disputes will occur about the exact moment of transition, but at some point everyone agrees that “purple” becomes so emptied of red that we have to pick up the term “blue.”  Though it means more, “purple” does mean not-blue.

Words are meaningful not only in relation to other words in the vocabulary of a language, but in relation to surrounding words and their setting in the world.  Words behave meaningfully in company, in context.  If I say “fire,” it is not at all clear what I’ve said.   I have not said “duck” or “defibrillation,” but to explain positively what I mean demands that I say or do something more.  “What do you mean by ‘fire,’” someone queries, and I can’t just repeat the word.  I can point in panic to the glow in the back of the crowded theater.  I can indicate the firing squad, aimed, ready, waiting.  Perhaps I’m a small child pointing in fascination to the flickering flames.  The specific shade of meaning in “fire” depends on something other than the word itself, just as identifying the Father requires that we talk about the Son and the Spirit.

Thus far distinction and relation.  Are words also perichoretic containers and carriers for other words and concepts?  I think so.  The eternal Word contains the Father (who contains Him), so human words can also be conceived of as containers – of the speaker, of a myriad of connotations, of the previous uses of the word.  Let’s focus on that last point.  Today it is semantic orthodoxy to say that word meanings depend on the node the word occupies in the linguistic network at a particular time (synchronic) rather than on their original meaning or usage through time (diachronic).  Though this is true in certain respects, it is not the whole truth.  Past usage often indwells current meanings.

Proper names provide easy examples.  Suppose a poem that contains the line “And so I came to Bethlehem.”  What does that place name mean?  Today, “Bethlehem” means “a Palestinian city in the central West Bank” (as Wikipedia helpfully tells us).  Even for those who have no clue as to the etymology of the name, however, the word would likely conjure up a torrent of associations: David and the Davidic promise; Jesus, Mary and Joseph; wise men and shepherds; mangers, oxen, asses; snow and nativity scenes and Christmas trees and boys’ choirs pronouncing the second syllable as “lee.”  Depending on the context, it might also conjure Crusades, pitched battles between Palestinians and Israelis, pilgrimage.  “In” that word dwells a whole history, an entire theology, a living promise and a hope for the human race.



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Last Updated on Sunday, 12 September 2010 21:21