Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 18 (December 1966): 104-107, 103.

In this paper a single question is discussed, "In what language has God ever spoken to man?', and one possible answer is suggested. In the first section several assumptions which provide a context for this question are discussed, and it is argued that the major content of the Bible was probably not originally revealed in natural human languages such as Hebrew or Greek. It is therefore suggested that the Bible, at its first writing, was a translation.

In the second section it is suggested that the objects and events of the created world may be construed as constituting a language of God, and that perhaps this is the language from which much of the Biblical content was first translated.

What is revelation? What is meant by a theologian who asserts (or one who denies) that Christianity as a whole, or some part of it, rests upon revelation? How are we to think of the process or event of God's revealing Himself to man to us? These questions seem to me to be central to ihe "problem of revelation", which is in turn widely accepted as being one of the most significant, as well as one of the most perplexing, to face contemporary theology. For only as the meaning of "revelation" itself is clarified can satisfactory progress be made on questions of continuing revelation, the relation of revelation to the Bible, to the Church, to history, to reason, to the Holy Spirit, and so on.

Sometimes the clarification of a key concept such as "revelation" can be accomplished by a frontal attack. In other cases, however, a more oblique approach is also fruitful. Such an oblique approach is attempted here. I will raise and discuss a subsidiary question about the language in which God has revealed Himself to man. But I hope that out of this consideration may grow a more satisfactory and comprehensive understanding of revelation itself, of what it is that happens when God speaks.

The core of this paper, then, is a single question and a preliminary suggestion as to its answer. The question seems simple enough. It is, "In what language has God ever spoken to men?" The answer is perhaps not as simple as the question, but, at any rate, before we come to the answer I must sketch for you the context within which I ask the question.

That context consists primarily of three assumptions which I will not try to support here. They are (1) A substantial part of the content of the Bible was revealed by God to the prophets and apostles who wrote those sections of the Bible, (2) It is correct to refer to God's revealing activity by saying that God has spoken to these men. (3) The dictation theory is not an accurate or acceptable account of the writing of the Bible.

I do not, of course, choose these assumptions arbitrarily. I take them because they seem to be widely accepted by evangelical theologians, and because I am myself inclined to accept them. And much of this paper can be considered as an investigation of the implications of this conjoint set.

Within this context then, my question is narrowed to "In what language are we to suppose that God revealed to prophets and apostles the material which they then wrote down in the Bible?" My question might be rejected from the outset as being improper, but only, I think, at the cost of rejecting the second assumption, that God spoke to the prophets and

George 1. Mavrodes is in the department of philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

apostles. But if this is rejected it is not easy to see what will be meant by the first assumption, i.e., by saying that God revealed this material to the writers. For the meaning of "revelation" seems to come largely from the communication model of it, from thinking of it as one person's telling another something which that other might find it difficult or impossible to discover otherwise. And if this is so, then the second assumption is really a partial analysis or explanation of the first, an account without which the first will lose its significance.

I intend, therefore, to take the question seriously. But perhaps it has an easy answer. In a recent book Bernard Ramm seems to give one reply to it.

He says: "Another very important aspect of the anthropic character of cosmic-mediated revelation is that it takes the form of human language. The Jewish rabbis rightly said that the Lord of heaven speaks with the tongues of men. Whatever revelation has to say, it says it in some specific language of men. If it came to Isaiah, it came in the form of Hebrew, if it came to Daniel, it came in Aramaic; and if it came to Paul, it came in Greek,'2

I find this claim very doubtful. Ramm gives no reason at all for the assignment of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek as the languages in which the divine revelation came to Isaiah, Daniel, and Paul, respectively. And the only reason of which I can think which might incline someone to this view is the fact that the Biblical books attributed to these authors were originally written largely or wholly in these languages. However, if anyone does find that this fact inclines him to Ramm's view he ought perhaps to ask himself whether he has any reason to reject the alternative possibility that the divine revelation came to Daniel in Hebrew, and that he immediately translated it into Aramaic for the sake of his Babylonian neighbors and colleagues.3 Similarly, why may we not suppose that the revelation came to Paul in his native tongue, Aramaic, and that he immediately translated it, as he wrote it, into Greek, the lingua franca of his mission field?

I do not recall any Biblical passage which explicitly states that any revelation came to these men in the languages which Ramm assigns them. But there is at least one such passage which states that a certain revelation came in a different language, one more in harmony with my alternative suggestion. Speaking of his conversion, Paul says, "I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, "4 But the accounts which we have of what this voice said to
Paul are given in the book of Acts in Greek, in translation. The content of the revelation has been passed on
to us, but not in the language in which it came to Paul.

I think that not only do we not have any positive reason for accepting Ramm's view on this point but that assumption three (that the dictation theory of inspiration is to be rejected) counts heavily against that view. And I know of no theologians, least of all evangelicals, who reject assumption three and accept the dictation theory.

To see how assumption three counts against Ramm's view let us suppose that the revelation of God came to a man in a certain natural human language, and that he was supposed to pass it on in that same language. It certainly seems that what he should do in that case is to write it down word for word as he receives it. Why should he alter, paraphrase, or attempt to improve upon God's speech? Of course, certain practical difficulties may prevent his achieving this ideal. He may not have pen and parchment handy, or he may not be able to write fast enough. Thus he may have to rely on memory when it comes to writing down the message. But it still seems that in this circumstance the verbatim transcript is the ideal to which he should approximate as closely as he can. And this is just to take the dictation theory as either an actuality or as an ideal. And if we are correct in rejecting it then we can also be sure that God did not speak to the prophets and apostles in the same language in which they wrote their books.5

But then it seems that if God spoke to them at all He must have spoken to them in some other language, and what we have in the Bible is a translation. Not merely the English and French versions but the original manuscripts in Greek and Hebrew are translations. The alternatives to accepting this conclusion are that we should accept either a dictation (or perhaps an automaton) theory of the writing of the Bible, or that we give up the idea of God's speaking to men.

A translation theory of the writing of the Bible has certain interesting and important differences when compared with a dictation theory. For example, a translator is not a stenographer, and the more widely diverse are the languages involved the less does he resemble a stenographer. The translator's task provides scope for - indeed, it may require - the expression of the translator's individuality, his literary style, etc., in the translation. If the languages involved are very similar, such as Spanish and French, then the translator may attempt a highly "literal" translation, following the word order of the original, using cognate words, etc. But if the languages differ widely in their vocabulary items, syntactic structures, etc., then, the translator cannot be literal even if he wishes. He must paraphrase by recasting the content of the original into the new forms and in his own way.

Closely connected with this point is another. A translation theory, unlike a dictation theory, requires that the man involved bring to his task the full power of his own intellect in wrestling with the content, and not merely the form, of the revelation. Abraham Kuyper ridiculed any theory which implied that "any schoolboy competent to write a dictation might have written the Epistle to the Romans just as well as St. Paul."6 And I suppose that some sense of this as an incongruity, as falling outside of the divine style of working, is as important as any other in our dissatisfaction with dictation and automaton theories. But if the languages involved are widely diverse, and if, as may be the case in much of the actual revelation, this is the first time that the crucial concepts have ever been translated from one of these languages to the other, then such a translation is a task worthy of any man.

One final point with regard to a translation theory. When a book has been well translated there is a sense in which it is still the work of the original author, but there is another sense in which every word in it is the work of the translator. Again the diversity of the languages is a factor in how important this second sense will seem to us. Where the languages are similar the contribution of the translator is minimal, and we may be inclined to mention him only, as it were, in parentheses. But if they are dissimilar, so that not only words and sentences must be changed but perhaps the whole story must be told in a different way to fit the genius of the target language, then we do not hesitate to attribute the resulting work to the translator. But, of course, it is also to be attributed, though in a different way, to the original author.

The first part of our consideration, then, has led us to a triple disjunction. Either the theological content of the Bible was not revealed by God's speech to prophets and apostles, or the dictation or automaton theories of the writing of the Bible are correct, or God's speech to the prophets and apostles was in a language different from that it which they wrote. Considering a translation theory of inspiration we see that it avoids the incongruities which are major elements in our dissatisfaction with dictation theories, it provides full scope for the exercise of the human agent's intellect, his individuality, literary style, etc., and it provides us with a sense for the statement that a single literary work is at once the word of God and also the word of, say, Paul or Isaiah. I therefore suggest that we seriously consider a translation theory as a way of understanding how God has spoken to our fathers, and to us, by the prophets.

We are still left, however, with our original question as to the languages which God may have spoken, for it is implausible to take Paul's Damascus-road experience as the model for the major portion of God's revelation of man. As a clue to what some of these languages may be let us look at another revelatory mode mentioned in the Bible, the dream. It is now several years since I first read Thomas Hobbes' provocative statement that if a man claims that God spoke to him in a dream "this is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him."7 From the first I thought there must be something wrong with the epistemology involved in it. But only recently have I realized that his statement is not even phenomenologically accurate.

At least if we consider the alleged revelatory dreams described in the Bible, we find that they are not commonly dreams about God at all, either speaking or riot speaking. Paul has a night vision at Troas, from which he and his companions concluded that God had called them to Macedonia.8 But God does not appear in the dream, and the only speaking that is done in it is by a Macedonian man. In the same way, Joseph assured Pharaoh that his (Pharaoh's) dream constituted a revelation from God, though the dream was not about God but about such things as seven mangy-looking cows coming up out of the Nile.9 Though God does not appear in these dreams at all, and though some of them have no verbal content whatever, in the usual sense of "verbal", nevertheless the dreams are confidently taken to be revelations from God, and their true meaning is subsequently expressed in Hebrew or Greek.

I therefore suggest that in these cases the dream itself and as a whole, including both its verbal and its non-verbal components, should be taken as a linguistic entity, as a word of God, as a message communicated by God to men and capable of translation into ordinary human language. For Joseph not only said that seven lean years were to come. He also said that this was the meaning of the dream, that this was what God revealed by means of the dream. And if the dream really did have this meaning then why should it be less truly a linguistic entity than are Joseph's own word's, which have the same meaning?

Up to this point we have been thinking of translation in terms of going from one human language to another. But here I am proposing that we go further and think of the possibility of God's speaking to men in languages, e.g., in dreams, which do not fall within our ordinary roster of languages at all. But,.if we take this step then we may as well take others which are similar to it, and then look back at all of them together to see whether they lead us in a promising direction. For example, I think of prophets talking about the significance of the Babylonian invasions, and psalmists singing about what the heavens declare of God's glory. And I reflect that if they are right then the invasions themselves must bear this significance, and the heavens themselves must really declare those things. And if that is so, then perhaps we should say of these invasions and these stars that they too, like the dreams, are linguistic entities, words of God to men.

We were asking about what was the language in which God originally revealed the material which we now have in the Bible. If we are willing to proceed along these lines then some answers to that question are suggested. God has spoken in dreams, in the glory and wonder of the heavens, in the blood and pain of battle. Or, more generally, at least one of the languages in which God speaks to men is the language of objects and events in the created world.10 And one of the things which prophets and apostles do for us is to translate the content of these messages into the different form of the natural human languages, such as Hebrew and Greek.

I will mention several possible difficulties in this view. One is the suspicion that it turns objects and events into something quite different, something like words, sentences, propositions. There would be no longer real battles and real stars, but only talk. But we know that the siege of Jerusalem was a real event and not just a word, and that the moon is stone and not a thought.

This difficulty is, however, more apparent than real. The characterization of an entity as linguistic is not incompatible with it also being a physical object, a genuine event, a cause, an effect, etc. In fact, it is difficult to think of a category with which the category "linguistic entity" is incompatible. For example, every use of the English language involves the production and interpretation of entities which are physical objects and events in the plainest sense of these terms. And the explosion of air from a speaker's lips does not lose its status as a real event in the physical world because he makes use of it in speech. Therefore, if we decide to say of the world (or a part of it) that it is a linguistic entity I do not think that we shall find on that account any necessity to give up any of the other things we may have wanted to say of it.

It be objected that, at best, this is only or metaphorical use of the term that it stretches the concept of an analogical "language," or language so far as to make it unrecognizable. But I do not intend it to be merely metaphorical, or to stretch the concept of a language, though, of course, I am suggesting that the denotation of this term may be wider than generally recognized. And it is not obvious to me how this alleged language differs in essential respects from the usually accepted paradigm cases. That it makes use of physical objects and events is a similarity and not a difference. And these events are not accidental from the standpoint of God. They fall within His providence. Whatever mentalistic events or states must accompany the physical events in order for there to be genuine linguistic activity, such things perhaps as thoughts or intentions, can be construed as present in God. That is, if we construe the Babylonian invasions as being a genuine linguistic event then we should also think that at least one of the purposes involved in God's bringing this enemy against Jerusalem was to say something to Israel about her sins. But performing an action or producing an effect with the intention of communicating something, and succeeding in that communication, seems to be exactly what we mean by engaging in a linguistic activity.

This language, of course, uses different objects and events than does our own. But there is already a wide diversity in the ways in which human languages are expressed and communicated. Think, for example, of ordinary speech, the sign language of the deaf and dumb, the radio-telegraph code, and signal drums.

This language is used within a speech community, i.e., between God and man. And, as we have suggested already, it is translatable. But there is one last apparent difference, whose significance we might wish to weigh. This language seems to be largely unilateral, in the sense that men "hear" it but do not "speak" it, while God speaks it but presumably does not bear it from anyone else. I do not think that this feature is significant enough to cast doubt on the propriety of calling it a language. This feature is not, indeed, entirely absent in human languages, In some of them, though not our own, there are widely different forms of speech to be used by men and women." In these communities each person constantly hears and understands forms of expression which he himself utters rarely. But this unilateral character of a segment of their language does not prevent its efficient use. Further partial parallels are provided by the fact that many people, even in the use of their own mother tongue, understand words and syntactic structures which, because of their complexity, they never use in their own speech. And so I doubt that unilaterality is a bar to construing this as a language.

Our discussion has proceeded through these two major steps. We first argued that certain ways of construing the writing of the Bible, the ways which seem to be the most attractive to Christian thinkers, imply that the theological material which the Bible contains was not revealed by God in the language in which it was first written down, but that the Bible, at its first writing, was already a translation. Then, casting about for the other languages in which God might have spoken, we have suggested and briefly considered the proposal that the objects and events of the natural physical, social, and psychological worlds are themselves elements of that language, that the world is the speech of God with men. Whether this proposal is useful in clarifying and furthering our understanding of revelation must now be left to the judgment of all those who will use it.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented . at the Wheaton College Philosophy Conference in November,:1963.

2. Bernard Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961) p. 39. Italics in the original.

3. In a later passage Ramm seems to cite Daniel as an early example of a Bible translator! This suggestion strikes me as more proniising than the earlier one. Ibid., p. 189.

4. Acts 26:14 ff. The "Hebrew" mentioned here is presumably the Aramaic language of first century Jews.

5. 1 take it that many theologians who reject the dictation theory reject it as a general account of the inspiration of the Bible, without intending to imply that no part of the Bible may have been revealed in this way. On this view our conclusion should be modified to claim that at least in some cases (probably many cases) God did not speak to the prophets in the same language in which they wrote.

6. Abraham Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, tr. by Henri De Vries (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1900) P. 150.

7. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part III, Chap. XXXII.

8. Acts 16:9,10

Genesis 4 1: 1 ff.

10. George Berkeley refers in several places to the world as constituting a language of God. But he seems to think primarily of the content of this language as referring to other natural features of the world rather than to theological material. E.g., the size of objects is a language which tells us about their distance, etc. Cf. Alciphron, LV, 8, The Principles of Human Knowledge, 108, 109 (Here he does propose inferences to the "grandeur, wisdom, and benificence of the Creator"), and New Theory of Vision, 147.

11. See, e.g., Douglas Taylor, "Diachronic Note on the Carib Contribution to Island Carib," International Journal of American

Linguistics, V. 20, No. 1, January 1954, pp. 28-33, and Mary R. Hass, "Men's and Women's Speech in Koasati," Language, V. 20, No. 3, July-September, 1944, pp. 142-149.