The more I read orthodox theology, the more apparent it becomes that a fundamental tenet of Christian belief is either embraced or ignored (to various degrees) by any given author. For me, this choice or tendency on the part of the author has dramatic implications for the truth of what he or she says. That tenet is this: Scripture is the very speech of God.
Most conservative Christians are quick to grant the validity of this tenet and would even affirm its centrality to our thinking about God. But I find in some orthodox theology an inconsistent working out of this tenet in the areas of metaphysics, epistemology, and language. This is not the place to pose and proliferate on theoretical questions concerning how Scripture as the speech of God influences our understanding of the nature of reality, or human thought, or language—those are oceans that even the best theologians that I have read have trouble navigating. I myself have only just begun exploring these issues and hope, by God’s grace, to write about them in the future. But I would at least suggest that confessional, orthodox theologians ask themselves a simple question when they begin thinking about a particular doctrine or body of thought in the above areas: What does God himself say about X in Scripture? Put differently, what does God’s speech tell us about his own nature and the nature of reality (metaphysics), how we acquire knowledge of him and the world that he has made (epistemology), and how our communicative behavior (language) functions to reveal both our epistemology and metaphysic? I believe that meditating on Scripture as the speech of God is absolutely critical in answering these questions. In the paragraphs that follow, I hope to explain why.
To begin with, if the Bible is the speech of God, it is the highest, most trustworthy, and most illuminating authority we have—on everything. In my understanding, that is why the Reformers were so adamant about the maxim sola Scriptura. Scripture alone is sufficient for us because Scripture alone is the speech of God—the verbal revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the medium of human language. Given this fundamental belief of Reformed theology, I cannot help but be puzzled as to why some theologians would first turn to a “respectable” figure in the history of human thought when they begin thinking about metaphysics, epistemology, or language—especially a figure outside the Christian tradition. Plato is not God, and neither is Aristotle, or Locke, or Wittgenstein. And yet the inanity of the previous sentence does not keep some theologians from turning to such figures first (sometimes through an intermediary such as Aquinas) when questions of metaphysics arise, for instance.
Now, let me be careful. I do not want to downplay the value of these thinkers and others when it comes to “big questions” of philosophy and theology. I did my undergraduate work at a liberal arts institution. I have benefited greatly from reading as widely as I can. To reaffirm the words Carl Trueman once uttered, echoing many before him, we learn a great deal not from reading only those who agree with us, but from reading those who disagree with us, those who differ from us. So, this is not a question of whether great figures in the history of human thought should be mined for their insight. It is a question of where Christian theologians are to begin. What will be their foundation for inquiry? When the question is put that way, I cannot help wondering, why do we not always begin by asking what God himself has to say about metaphysics, about the nature of human knowledge, and about language? Why not always begin with the speech of God in Scripture?
The inspiring thing about these questions is that when we do begin with the speech of God, I find that the whole world—our perception of God and reality, as well as human knowledge—takes on a linguistic dimension. In other words, the very fact that the triune God speaks, as revealed in Scripture means that he has created, sustains, and governs everything by word. Should this not profoundly shape the areas of human thought mentioned above? Should we not have a metaphysic, epistemology, and view of language grounded in and shaped by God’s speech?
A Linguistic Metaphysic
Take metaphysics, for instance. Some might argue that Scripture does not have a metaphysic (at least, not a developed one as can be found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics). But I would contest this. I believe that Scripture has a metaphysic yet to be fully developed in the church, though some have certainly begun to explore this. Perhaps what people mean when they say that Scripture does not have a metaphysic is, “Scripture does not have a metaphysic that looks like other metaphysical theories in human history.” But should it? Would we not expect the speech of God to be clearly distinct—even relatively radical—as compared to merely human speech? Or perhaps people mean, “The purpose of Scripture is not to give us a view of metaphysics, but a clear exposition of what God has done in history to redeem his people.” I understand the sentiment behind that statement, but what about the words of 2 Timothy 3:16–17? “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” We would be hard pressed to teach anything—much less be “complete”—if God did not reveal the nature of reality to us. In other words, if the purpose of Scripture is to reveal what God has done in history for our salvation so that we may use this to teach others, how can we do so without having a basic view of reality that is itself dictated by God?
This has led me to believe that Scripture does (in fact, must) have a metaphysic. In fact, Scripture begins to lay this out for us in the first chapter of Genesis. The very first page of Scripture tells us that all of reality came into existence by God’s speech (Gen 1), and Scripture elsewhere reminds us that all things are held together by the eternal Word of the Father (John 1:1; Col 1:17; Heb 1:3), who stood behind God’s speech at creation. Scripture’s metaphysic is thus linguistic. All things exist and draw their nature from the language, the speech, of the triune God, which governs the world and guides it to the ends that he has set for it. It is the divine voice—the Father uttering the person of his Son in the power of his Spirit—that has created, sustains, and governs all things. God’s voice has the power to bring the world into being, to sustain it, and to melt it away. As the psalmist wrote, “The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts” (Ps 46:6).
This linguistic metaphysic, I believe, should be where theologians begin when they ask what something is, when they ask about the nature of reality. To ask what something is, biblically speaking, is to ask what purpose that thing serves in the spoken plan of God, as revealed in Scripture (God’s written speech). It is to ask what God’s speech has done to create it, sustain it, and direct it to his revealed ends. An apple, for instance, is not merely a piece of produce from the malus pumila tree. That might be true in the context of botanical science, but in the context of redemptive history, an apple is a life-sustaining gift from a garden-speaking God (Gen 1:12). It exists as a revelation of God’s gracious providence, as a means of sustaining God’s image-bearers as they work to steward the world (Gen 1:29). That understanding might not appear in the Latin, and it certainly will not appear in Aristotle, but that does not make it any less true—at least, not for the biblically minded theologian. To discern what something truly is, to understand the nature of the world in which we live, we must turn first to God’s speech in Scripture, not to the thought of a philosopher or even to that of another godly theologian. When we turn to God’s speech, we find a metaphysics of word. That metaphysic certainly does not resemble the neat categories of form and matter, substance and accidents, or potentiality and actuality. But, again, I ask, should it?
An Epistemology of Word
Epistemology has a similar foundation when we examine the speech of God in Scripture. Scripture reveals two things very plainly: (1) God has spoken into existence a world that everywhere “speaks” about him, i.e., offers revelation of God (Ps 19:1–3); and (2) God speaks directly with his people to guide them in paths of wisdom. The bedrock question of epistemology—what is truth and how do we know that something is true—is again based on the speech of God. God tells us what is true in his revelation. This is what Reformed theologians have come to call a revelational epistemology. It is an epistemology that stands firmly on the grounds that God speaks to reveal himself and to reveal what we can faithfully know about his world. So, when we turn to God’s speech, we find an epistemology of word.
Again, let me re-emphasize my point here. I am not saying that examining the thought of philosophers is a fruitless endeavor. Despite our fundamental disagreements with them, we can learn much from reading Plato’s Gorgias, or considering satirists such as Voltaire, or rationalists such as Leibniz, or empiricists such as Locke and Hume. But biblical theologians should never begin there. That is not their foundation. Their foundation is God’s speech in Scripture.
A Christian Philosophy of Language
Lastly, language likewise must be understood according to God’s speech. This is perhaps the most profound truth I have ever encountered and something I plan on studying for the rest of my life, and well into eternity. Language—what I have in another article (“Words for Communion”) defined as communion behavior—is not a human faculty; it is a divine disposition that has been gifted, with creaturely restraints, to God’s image bearers. Language is a behavior that allows for interpersonal communion. It is a behavior that God sees fit to use in infallibly revealing himself to us throughout history. It is a behavior that God calls us to take up in prayer. It is a behavior that God calls us to take up in worship. It is, in essence, a behavior that is at the heart of God’s very being and at the heart of our being as image bearers. A Christian philosophy of language begins with the Trinity—the speaking God we encounter on every page of Scripture—and moves from there to humanity.
Once more, it is not that we cannot learn something from Aristotle’s view of language (though his etymological discussions are humorous at times), or Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games,” or Austin’s speech-act theory, or Saussure’s structuralism, or Chomsky’s generative grammar, or Derrida’s deconstructionism. We can learn something from all of them even when we have deep disagreements. (I would argue here that Kenneth L. Pike’s language theory is a far more biblical and Trinitarian approach to language than most others, and is often left unconsidered in many discussions of language.) But the point is that we should not begin there. We begin with the speech of God. When we do, we find a view of language that is deeply personal and purposive according to the ends that God has declared for his creation in Scripture.
Now, I’m sure that to some academics what I’ve just said is a blend of naivety and fideism. Some might read this article and conclude that I am merely a biblicist who attempts to elevate himself over all other “thoughtful” human beings. I cannot control what others might think of my motives. But I know my own history. I know what is on my bookshelf and how I have been blessed by great thinkers of the past and present.
I also know that my God is a God who speaks. And that truth—the tenet that Scripture is the very speech of God—takes precedence over any thought that mankind could develop. We can interact with the thoughts of men, but we should not begin there. Once we do, we are in danger of pandering to something less than divine revelation. What we end up saying will be attractive to the world, and even to much of Christian academia these days, but will it be pure? Will it be something that aligns with the speech of God? Titus 1:15 says, “Everything is pure to those whose hearts are pure.” Theological “purity,” if we might call it that, is found only in adherence to the speech of God, a speech that has made our hearts pure, and a speech that should purify our thinking as well.