December 2023
What Is Language? Communion Behavior

What is language? This question is related to the nature of God and how he designed language to work for his creatures.

Over the years, I have developed a particular understanding of language. Language is what I call communion behavior (see The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World). By that I mean the following:

Language is (1) an interpersonal, Trinitarian divine behavior amongst the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whereby they express mutual and intimate love and glory towards one another; (2) an image-bearing human behavior that has the goal of (a) drawing persons into fellowship with God and (b) drawing persons into fellowship with each other. Communion behavior can be either verbal or nonverbal. Verbal communion behavior would be the use of written or spoken language to foster communion or fellowship between God and humanity or between human persons. Nonverbal communion behavior would be any other communicative behaviors (aside from written and spoken language) that serve the purpose of drawing people into more intimate fellowship with God or with each other.

Now, how did I come to this understanding of language, and what more do I mean by it?

How I Came to See Language as "Communion Behavior"

First, we need to understand that there are many ways to define language. Some definitions are narrow and focused; others are more expansive. The benefit of the former is that it allows specialists to focus on developing answers to more precise questions. The benefit of the latter is that it shows the relationship of the thing in question to the rest of what we know or think. My definition is more expansive, since I long to see how things are interrelated.

Of course, I did not come up with this view of language on my own. Quite the opposite: I blended the thoughts of two thinkers that have been very influential for me: Kenneth Pike (who was the focus of my ThM thesis at Westminster Theological Seminary, now published under the title The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior) and Vern Poythress (my teacher and friend). Vern Poythress was actually a student of Pike's in the early 70s and developed much of Pike's language theory in a theological context.

For Pike, language was not something we use or a mere system of encoded signs. Language was, in his words, "a phase of human behavior." So, he defined language as

a phase of human activity which must not be treated in essence as structurally divorced from the structure of nonverbal human activity. The activity of man constitutes a structural whole, in such a way that it cannot be subdivided into neat ‘parts’ or ‘levels’ or ‘compartments’ with language in a behavioral compartment insulated in character, content, and organization from other behavior. Verbal and nonverbal activity is a unified whole, and theory and methodology should be organized or created to treat it as such. (Pike, Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior, p. 26)

Pike was heavily influenced here by his mentor, Edward Sapir. Notice how expansive that view of language is. It integrates language with the rest of human behavior, allowing us to form a unified (though complex) understanding of all that we do as humans.

Now, merge this with the theological insight of Vern Poythress. Poythress's book on language, In the Beginning Was the Word, relies heavily on Pike's thought but places it within the context of biblical and systematic theology. At one point, he writes, "One of the purposes of language—in fact, a central, predominant purpose—is to be a vehicle for personal communication and communion between God and human beings" (Poythress, p. 38). Communion is "a central, predominant purpose" for language. One can see how I then refer to language as communion behavior.

Poythress also points out that language is not merely human. It is also divine. One of my favorite quotations of his is the following:

Not only is God a member of a language community that includes human beings, but the persons of the Trinity function as members of a language community among themselves. Language does not have as its sole purpose human-human communication, or even divine-human communication, but also divine-divine communication. Approaches that conceive of language only with reference to human beings are accordingly reductionistic. (Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word, p. 18)

Language is not merely human, and if we treat it as such, we cannot perceive its depth, complexity, and ultimate purpose. This leads to the next section.

What More Do I Mean?

Communion behavior must be understood on two levels. First, communion behavior is something that can be properly ascribed to the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mutually love and glorify one another in perpetuity (see Frame, Systematic Theology, p. 522-23). This mutual expression of love and glory among the divine persons is a kind of language, though it certainly surpasses our understanding as limited creatures. As I have written elsewhere, we use communion behavior to grow closer together to God and one another, but God simply is communion. It is also important to remember that our goal in using language is not to glorify one another, but to glorify God.

Second, communion behavior is an image-bearing behavior. It is something God has endowed us with as creatures made in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). That is why language, for me, is central to what theologians call the imago Dei, the biblical teaching of the image of God. In fact, as Geerhardus Vos put it, “That man bears God’s image means much more than that he is spirit and possesses understanding, will, etc. It means above all that he is disposed for communion with God, that all the capacities of his soul can act in a way that corresponds to their destiny only if they rest in God" (Vos, Anthropology, p. 13).

So, we use communion behavior because we are creatures built for communion with the self-communing God. That, in short, is how I understand language. Much more could be said about the myriad functions and more specific purposes for language, including its structure, but I develop that more fully elsewhere. I refer interested readers to The Trinity, Language, and Human Behavior. Needless to say, I have a very high view of language. But, after all, so does God, as revealed in Scripture. Meditating on the divine roots of something that we do everyday has profound and practical benefits for us. That is probably why I will be studying language and the nature of God for the rest of my earthly life.

Check out more in The Speaking Trinity & His Worded World

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