Language As a Tool of Theology

John Frame is someone from whom I’ve learned a great deal, and the learning continues. I found his chapter on language in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God to be so helpful that I wanted to share the material with you.

Frame begins the little section I’ll excerpt by noting something that may sound jarring at first: “Although evangelicals have always insisted that Scripture is true, they have generally agreed that Scripture is not necessarily, never completely, precise. Human language may be used to state truth, but it does not speak with absolute precision” (pp. 216-217).

Frame says that vagueness in human language comes from a number of sources (and if you don’t have time for all of them, read the last one!):

  1. Different human languages may “cut the pie in different ways.” The border between red and purple, for example, may be different in Bantu and Mandarin (217).
  2. There is no official rule book for determining the borders between natural kinds. “Should fish include or exclude the whale?” Who gets to say? Could we name the beluga a fish for one purpose and a mammal for others? “Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Biologists tends to answer the question one way, chefs another. Who is correct?" (p. 218).
  3. There are family resemblances among objects. Games, for example, can be competitions between two people, between two or more teams, or just a self-challenge like Solitaire. The word games might share a family resemblance without demanding that a specific set of components of meaning be present every time the word is used (218-219).
  4. Language unites sense and reference, meaning and use in a way that isn’t always transparent. What is time? We all know, but who can define it? "If someone asks for its ‘essence’ or its definition—we shrug our shoulders." If someone can use a word to communicate, he knows sufficiently what it means. "Demands for definitions are not always legitimate. Sometimes, someone will suggest that I cannot really understand or use a term unless I can define it. That idea is clearly wrong. Learning to use a word, in most cases, precedes our ability to define it. We all know how to use time, but few of us—possibly none of us—could come up with an adequate definition of that concept. And that is often the case with theological language" (219-220).
  5. Simply put, language changes. Vagueness in theology is sometimes the result of such change (220).
  6. It is impossible to have a completely concrete language. Sometimes abstraction, and an accompanying vagueness, are necessary (220-221). Humans don’t know enough about everything to be perfectly concrete in all their utterances.
  7. In addition, language is often intentionally vague. Wittgenstein offered this illustration: “A photographer tells a model, ‘Stand roughly there.’ He says exactly what he means. His command is not a sloppy way of saying, for example, ‘Stand exactly 2.8976 feet from the wall.’ The photographer is not intending to be as precise as that. If you ask my age and I give it down to the minute and second, I am (in most cases) being silly and defeating the purpose of our communication. This in most cases I will intentionally avoid that level of precision. We habitually use round numbers, metaphors, and other vague expressions as linguistic shortcuts…. Though Scripture is true and though it says exactly what God wants to say through it, it is not ‘absolutely precise.’ It contains round numbers, imprecise quotations, nonchronological narration, and so forth." This isn’t bad and doesn’t undermine inerrancy. Some vagueness is necessary for communication. We can’t be exhaustibly precise with every statement (221). "There is no way of escaping vagueness in theology, creed, or subscription without setting Scripture aside as our ultimate criterion. Theology does not dare to try to improve the preciseness of Scripture. Its only role is to apply what Scripture teaches. Let us be satisfied with that modest task, for it is glorious" (226).

In my case, I’ve been spending a good deal of time trying to formulate definitions of affections and emotion for my dissertation. From the beginning I knew that if Scripture doesn’t define these words—and what words does it define, exactly?—I can’t say with authority what they are. Perhaps they are fish sometimes and mammal at others. Who can say when God hasn’t? And the collection of sounds “a-fec-shun” and “ee-mo-shun” don’t have any intrinsic meaning; the Chinese have a different set of sounds for those ideas, if they have them at all. It’s not as if the words have an original meaning that, if discovered, will yield the truth about the things they name.

For purposes of a dissertation, I have to establish some model of the human person and his affective capacities, and I think I have scriptural reasons for much or most of mine. But I take comfort from Frame’s counsel not to be more precise than Scripture. I don’t have to nail down an air-tight definition of emotion. Some things—like the division between soul and spirit—only God knows.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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