OPEN BOOK, Views & Reviews, No. 32
Copyright (c) 1997 Biblical Horizons
Several implications flow from this first group of considerations. First (D1), nature and natural objects reveal God to the eye of faith. The study of nature is the study of the design of the Spirit, and from it we learn how God designs things, and how we as His images can design things, thinking His thoughts after Him.
Second (C1), rule and authority reveal God to the eye of faith. The study of government, in church, state, family, business, etc., is the study of the Son, and from it we learn how God governs things and how we as His images can govern things. We learn positive and negative things, because we live in a world held captive under sin. Yet, the Christian must learn to see the face of Christ in all rulers, even in evil ones to the extent that they actually rule and govern.
Finally (B1), the study of persons and of human life and of how human beings are constituted, is a study of God. The human body-soul-spirit complex is the image of God the Father, the Person, and a faith-full examination of the human person is a revelation of the nature of God. For instance, what does it mean that the human person, unlike any animal, has the ability to fall prostrate before a ruler, to kneel in submission, to stand to receive orders, to sit forward to pay attention, to sit back to judge and evaluate, to recline to eat, to dance and leap in ecstatic worship, to engage in sexual relations face-to-face, etc.? All of this is revelatory.
Thus, in summary, we have found four/_ve avenues of revelation in the area of Personhood. First, we have found that God reveals Himself as a Person through theophanies. Second, we have found that God reveals Himself as a Personal object ("particle") in each and every one of the lower parts of creation. Third/fourth, we have found that God reveals Himself as a Ruler in the human rulers of this world, and as a Servant in the Church. And finally, we have found that God reveals Himself as a full Person in the personality and total constitution of each and every human being.
We have thus far considered revelation apart from language and activity, and to these we now turn.
2. Revelation Through Language.
By revealing Himself as Word, God reveals Himself as Language. We are not speaking here of the Bible in particular, but of language as such. Language, its various forms and aspects, is a revelation of God. This is one of the most important avenues of revelation that is generally overlooked in discussions of "special" and "general" revelation.
A2. Word Revelation. God states that He is Word, and this is associated with the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. God is Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and thus also Aleph and Tav, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. A number of the psalms, four chapters of Lamentations, and some other Bible passages are structured as a list of 22 items each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. God is not only Alpha and Omega but Alpha through Omega; not only Word, but Alphabet! (On this, see Rite Reasons 33.)
It is important to see that God comes to us, as Word, first as Speech and then as Scripture. Hearing involves submission, while reading involves much less. I cannot close my ears, but I can close my eyes. I cannot go back and listen again to something I hear (before the modern tape recorder), but I can go back and re-read and meditate on what I read. The first hearing of something comes as a new thing, as an authority that I must either accept or reject.
For this reason, there is a great stress in the Bible on hearing the Word of God. We are to listen to it in Church, submitting to the words of the reader, and hearkening to its amplification in the sermon. If all we do is study the Bible, without hearing it, we have dominion over it. The goal, of course, is for it to have dominion over us.
Once we have heard something, we can "write it down" in our memory and meditate on it. Memory, however, is notoriously selective, and that is nowhere more true than in moral matters and in matters relating to God. Sin means that we shy away from God, and readily forget what He says. "Oral tradition" is no trustworthy safeguard of memory, despite what many early 20th century scholars maintained. Thus, writing has been with humanity from the beginning. It has always been necessary to write down things that have to be remembered, especially contracts and covenants. Long before he died, we can be sure that Adam was writing things down in some fashion. It is no surprise, then, that the God who speaks is also a God who writes down what He has already said. He spoke the Ten Words, and then wrote them down. He dictated laws to Moses and sermons to Isaiah, who then proclaimed them. They were written down, to be a memorial for all time. Note in this regard especially Jeremiah 36:2, where Jeremiah was told to write down all the messages God had been giving him to proclaim over the years. Speech comes first, and then the creation of a memorial through writing.
Once again, then, we see an eschatological dimension to linguistic communication. First God speaks, exercising direct authority over us in our childhood. Then God causes things to be written down, giving us more authority over His words so that we reflect on them, compare them, and expand upon them by making applications. In fact, the four fundamental periods of Biblical history reveal this sequence twice:
1. The Law period (Genesis-Joshua) is primarily a time of dictation.
2. The Kingdom period (Judges, Ruth, Samuel, the five wisdom books) is a time of revelation by inspiration.
3. The Prophetic period (the rest of the "Old Testament") is primarily a time of dictation, when God dictated to the prophets.
4. The Gospel period (the "New Testament") is, except for Revelation, a time of revelation by inspiration.
Books of vision, like Daniel, Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Revelation, are in between dictation and inspiration, for God shows things to the prophets, and the prophets write up the matter under inspiration.
I should add that whether dictated, inspired, or revealed through vision, the Word of God is equally inerrant and infallible. I might also add this:
Dictation – Son (words from God)
Inspiration – Father (out of the personal reflections of the writer)
Visionary Revelation – Spirit (visible mode)
B2. Linguistic Revelation. Linguistic revelation is different from revelation through things because while God is not visible and is not material (not a creature), God is language. He is Word. We must, of course, maintain the distinction between Creator and creature in the area of language, but the analogy between the two is "closer" and more pregnant than the analogy in the area of visible objects. We see this in that God in Himself is a linguistic being, while in Himself He is not visible. Thus, God demands that His worship must be through language, and in no way through images and icons. I am not enough of a philosopher to express the matter more focally at this point (but see Rite Reasons 33-36).
Since language is an attribute of God, the study of language is a study of a revelation of God, and perhaps more particularly, a study of human beings, the images of God. Human languages are a revelation of human existence; linguistics is correlative to anthropology. The study of language is the study of the medium between one person and another, including between God and human beings. Throughout his writings and lectures, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy provides valuable insights into the revelatory character of language as such, calling for a complete reevaluation of grammar and linguistics on a Christian base. (See especially his Speech and Reality [Norwich, VT: Argo Books, 1970]. For a brief introduction and summary, see Biblical Horizons 63.)
Because language is an attribute of God, linguistic aptitude is a characteristic of God’s people, while linguistic ineptitude is a characteristic of rebels. In a society under the influence of the Bible, languages improve in precision and populations become better speakers and readers. When Christianity declines in a society, as it has been in Western civilization, the result is a decline in literacy and in linguistic precision. When the Spirit comes tongues are loosed, as at Pentecost. In hell all is silent: No one desires to communicate with anyone else, for each is turned in upon himself. For a fine picture of this fact, see C. S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce.
The original language that God taught Adam was almost certainly Hebrew. Some language was spoken before Babel, and it was either Hebrew or something else. Why would it be some other language? Moreover, the names in the early chapters of Genesis are Hebrew words, and the words spoken by God have some double entendres and puns in Hebrew. All of this strongly implies that Hebrew was the language of that primordial revelation. (For a fuller discussion, see Open Book 27, June 1996.)
So, Hebrew was the primordial language, perfectly fitted to man’s first stage of life; and it will always be the language to which we corporately must return as we repeatedly re-start our lives in the covenant. At Babel, however, Hebrew expands to become the germ of many languages, with different configurations, which then multiply further. This is the glorification, the maturation, of language in history. The verb system in Hebrew, for instance, is built up largely of voices, with tenses only implied; certain other languages are built up largely of tenses, with only a few voices. This diversification, affirmed and sealed at Pentecost, is not to be undone; rather, each language has its own perspective on God, humanity, and the cosmos. In the world to come, we will be learning all these languages, and enjoying all these millions of perspectives on God.
Someday someone will have to study Hebrew with a view to how it is fitted to be the primordial language, and the language of God’s Word in its first three installments (with a little Aramaic in the third). What does it mean that the primordial language is so largely built up of voices (modes, stems)?
Now, each language implies all the others, and so all truth can be expressed in each language, though some languages are more felicitious for one purpose than another. It is hard to translate some things from Dutch to English, but if you use enough words, you can do it. Once we know them all, however, we can use the right language for the right purpose.
What language do we speak in heaven? All languages, not some other language. Learning languages in heaven will be learning new appreciations for the Word. It will be a neverending delight.
The vast number of languages and dialects, with their "body language" and tonal sing-song, provide a tremendous variety of avenues of "linguistic revelation." The dances and musics of various peoples are related to their body language and the tones of their speech.
C2. Linguistic Covenantal Revelation. There is a middle kind of linguistic communication that stands between general language and the Word of God as spoken into the creation from God Himself, and that is the proclamation of the Word: preaching; and with that, the kind of language that initiates and maintains covenants in history among men and between men and God.
The Bible maintains an authority over all languages, for when the Bible is translated into a language, that language is "Hebraized" to some extent, and is reformed to become a more fit vehicle for the Word of God. The involvement of certain human beings in this work of translation those who have the abiding form of the gift of tongues places this work in the middle between the original Word of God and ordinary human language.
Similarly, the preaching of the Word in the context of official worship, where the community is officially gathered under her leaders and in the context of the Lord’s Supper, has a certain power and authority not present at other times. And, _owing from this occasion, and then _owing back into it, are the times when the Bible is taught and studied and applied more generally by anyone able to teach and apply it.
The Spirit-led proclamation of the Word of God mediates the Word into human life and thus is a special linguistic event, different from ordinary language. Preaching, thus, is a distinct avenue of Divine revelation.
Preaching is Biblical study and teaching that takes place in worship, in a setting of covenant renewal. We must make a distinction between language that is merely descriptive or conversational, and language that initiates future states of affairs, or maintains those states of affairs. Preaching and evangelism are one form of such language. Evangelism initiates people into God’s family covenant, and preaching maintains it, renewing the covenant. Similarly, law codes and national constitutions and covenants consist of language that creates societies, and the decisions and proclamations of judges and rulers maintain such societies.
As above, we must distinguish between two kinds of Linguistic Covenantal Revelation. The covenantal language in the Church is fundamentally protological; that is, it creates a new world. Preaching continually calls us out of "Egypt" and into God’s Kingdom. We start over again in the Church, week by week, as worship on the first day of the week ushers us forward.
By way of contrast, the covenantal language in other spheres of life is fundamentally eschatological. A marriage comes about after a time of courtship. A nation is formed out of a crisis in history, as at the Exodus from Egypt, or as with the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Law codes are formed based on prior experience, though they also determine the future (since the law is also a teacher). The words of judges conclude cases at law.
Of course, all covenantal spheres of life employ both protological and eschatological language, both teaching and testing, both rules and judgments, etc. I hope it is clear enough, however, that there is a fundamental temporal difference between the most powerful forms of covenantal language: the language that creates a new world, and the language that develops into history and eventually closes an old one. The Church is primarily oriented to the former, while the other spheres of life are primarily oriented to the latter.
Thus, for 430 years the Hebrews possessed the constitutive, prophetic words given through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph words of genesis, beginnings. They had these kinds of covenant words, but not the covenant words of the Law that constituted Israel as a nation. That came later. Even then, God constituted Israel as a nation with priests but not with kings. The kings came later still, when God decided the people were ready to be given David. At two levels, then, Church preceded nation, Church-covenant words preceded national-covenant words. In both cases, the nation-constituting covenant words came after periods of crisis (the sojourn in Egypt and the period from Eli to Saul), while the covenant-initiating words came to Abram in no such historical context.
(Well, the covenant-initiation with Abram did come in the context of the judgment at Babel, but not with the immediate force as the other two examples just given. To find a purely priestly and thus initiatory covenant, we must go back to Adam.)
So, Linguistic Covenantal Revelation is a particular kind of language. This is the kind of language that gives direction to people. We can call it directive, but I prefer to call it covenantal. The Bible itself is this kind of language, as it comes from God. Man as the image of God also utters this kind of language.
(to be continued)