(Read the series so far.)
The Creation & Purpose of Language
Approaching the question of language and meaning can often seem like a chicken and egg scenario. If we had words and grammar first then how did we learn to communicate them so as to be correctly understood by others? But if we had a thought to communicate, how could we do it without the symbols of language (alphabet, grammar, syntax, etc.) to convey that thought?
The Creation account in Genesis represents God as the first Speaker. He employs words to convey His precise intentions. Something of immense importance occurred when God created Adam and Eve. What we witness there is God speaking to them of their dominion mandate, and they understand Him. In the second chapter God gives a specific prohibition to the man with a clearly worded warning appended.
A little examination of this transaction will be helpful.
The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may freely eat; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for in the day you eat of it you will surely die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)
If Adam had bungled this command because he misunderstood any of it, it is hard to see how he could have been guilty of sin. To have any chance of comprehending this rather crucial communication he had to 1. Know what a tree was. 2. He needed to understand the meaning of “free”. 3. He needed to know which particular tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 4. He needed to understand what God meant by “day.” 5. He would certainly have had to understand what God meant by the word “die.” He would have had to have grasped more than the fact that the word carried a negative connotation.
Another thing worth considering is that the name of the forbidden tree would presumably have meant something to Adam. If it did, then Adam would have had an intellectual or conceptual knowledge of “good and evil” even though he had only ever encountered good.
Does this tell us anything about language and communication? Certainly. It tells us that language and meaning were gifts given to our first parents at the time they were created in God’s image. In fact, it is difficult to think of them being created in God’s image and not having the ability to communicate in words and sentences.1 After all, the dominion mandate was communicated to them by their Maker in words. To quote the French polymath Jacques Ellul,
God creates human beings as speaking beings. Perhaps this is one of the meanings of the image of God: one who responds and is responsible; a counterpart who will dialogue, who is both at a certain distance and has the ability to communicate.2
This responsibility pertains to the created ability to communicate and so understand. Remove or impede that ability by making God’s words ambiguous or equivocal, or diminishing man’s ability to comprehend his Maker and the responsibility will shrink by degrees.
Another thing which goes with this is that they had the ability to comprehend abstract entities and truths without necessarily experiencing them. Hence, their knowledge and vocabulary could have been extensive from the start.
In the third place, and most importantly, the first man and woman would have understood that the use of language was to communicate clearly, not ambiguously or in riddles. This is how God spoke to Himself in the days leading up the second part of the sixth day, and it is how He addressed Adam and Eve. In speaking to them, God essentially bound Himself to them. Walter Brueggemann explains:
The mode of binding is speech. The text five times uses the remarkable word “create” (vv. 1, 21, 27). It also employs the… word “make” (vv. 7, 16, 25, 26, 31). But God’s characteristic action isto speak (vv. 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 29). It is by God’s speech that the creation that the relation with his creation is determined. God ‘calls the world’s into being’ (cf. Rom. 4:17; II Pet. 3:5). It is by God’s speech that which did not exist comes into being. The way of God with his world is the way of language.3
A little further on Brueggemann indicates the teleological and eschatological paradigm I have referred to when he observes,
God’s speaking initiates a relationship for the fullness of time when all things will be united and gratefully in his care (Eph. 1:10). Movement towards a unity of harmony, trust and gratitude is underway in this poetry.4
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.