Science in Christian Perspective


The Linguist and Axioms Concerning the Language of Scripture
Department of Linguistics
University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Michigan

From: JASA 26 (June 1974): 47-51.
Author's Note: Otis heal and Dr. Frank Andersen read on earlier draft of this paper, and mode numerous very helpful suggestions. If they were writing a similar paper, it seems clear that they would state a number of points differently, and especially would give warnings against abuses of such axioms in different degrees or in a different manner. This paper has also been published by the Graduate Christian Fellowship of Australia, Interchange 12, 228-31 (1972)

Some of my academic colleagues seem to hold to theories which are useful in their offices, but are such that one cannot live by them. Thus a deterministic view may be a tool for scientific research, but if carried consistently forward in all details, does not allow for normal living. I, however, search for a theoretical view which works not only in my office, but on the street, and at home-or in church.

Since I am a linguist, I need, therefore, to look at all those problems of Christian living which appear to me to contain a language component. This may be especially true today, when the relation of language to the message of God is much in the fore. It seems possible, also, that it may be no accident that linguistics has become a prominent vehicle for the work of God, just at the time in the history of the church that these other problems have arisen in great strength. And it may, therefore, be the responsibility of the linguist to search to see if by chance there is some minor place where his technical working assumptions might be helpful.

Here, then, are some general principles which I have been thinking about which might be relevant. They are given deliberately from a linguistic point of view. They claim to be neither the whole truth nor the only truth, but in my opinion they should be studied by theologians especially by those who may be accustomed to attend seminars on the inspiration of the Scriptures-conferences with no one present whose professional training is in the area of theory of the nature of language.

Axiom la: Bible language is human language, normal in pattern, rules, use.

It is observed empirically, by linguistic methods, that the language of the Scriptures is natural language. One cannot differentiate the Greek used in the New Testament from the language of the time. It is not even elevated style, but the language of the man in the street. It is ordinary language, spoken by ordinary linguistic rules such as those studied at the Summer Institute of Linguistics by persons preparing to analyze unwritten languages for the Wycliffe Bible Translators.
This implies that whenever we listen to Bible language, or study it, it is within the framework of the principles which apply to all language. It leads us to ask questions about the nature of language in general, since these principles in turn affect our interpretation of a Biblical language. Hermeneutics is integrated here with linguistics. We wish to know what language is structured like, how it works, and something about its strengths for communicating a point of view, as well as the constraints imposed upon it by the way of structure while doing so.

It may be no accident that linguistics has become a prominent vehicle for the work of God.

Axiom ib: Jesus spoke ordinary human language.

Jesus spoke the contemporary vernacular, which, like any living language, enables people to communicate effectively. It is not fair to the resources of a language to say "words fail me"; it is rather that we fail to exploit the potentialities of a language, or to use it with sufficient creativity.

Jesus' creativity functioned in a matrix of sociological usage and literary tradition which supplied the common ground for himself and his listeners: he spoke in their language. Hence any knowledge we can gain of the linguistic milieu of early first century Palestine will aid in understanding the words of Jesus. His work is firmly embedded both in history and in human language and culture. Jesus in his incarnation accepted the constraints of human language, just as he accepted constraints as to walking in time and place in a body.

Axiom ic: Jesus' message was incarnate in human language, yet "without sin".

Christ was incarnate in the flesh of man, but grew up with no hone broken, and no sin in that flesh. It seems to me worth exploring the suggestion that the discussion of inerrancy of Scriptural writings is similarly an attempt to express our belief that in some sense difficult to define or get agreement as to details-the Scriptures are also preserved without certain of the kinds of twisted meanings which the twisted bodies of our forefathers would have generated had they been left without guiding controls. But the borderline between sin and no nsin is very hard to specify (often impossible to do so) even in ethical matters of the daily walk, since a component of intent enters, and Christian people differ even in their interpretation of ethical detail-for example, as to the point where duty to God overrides duty to government, or as to voting when the choice is restricted to options between greater and lesser evils. Similarly, Christians differ strongly as to which kinds of interpretation of details of Scripture would lead to their being "warped" or wrong. It is not my purpose here to try to discuss any of these areas of disagreement; rather I wish to suggest a few further principles which interest me.

Axiom 2a: In natural language, and hence in Scriptural language, one can make some true statements.

From this axiom, without which human behavior as we know it could not exist, I believe, important consequences flow.
What criterion of truth will work for a natura llanguage statement which is neither complete nor unambiguous in its detail? Here, as Edward J. Carnell said once (in An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, Grand Rapids, 1956, p. 45), "The true is the quality of that judgment or proposition which, when followed out into the total witness of facts in our experience, does not disappoint our expectations." That is, the true statement leads its to act so that we will not be upset by finding out further details of a situation; we will not have been misled by false information.

Axiom 2b: As part of the result of man's being created in the image of God, the communication system of God and that of man are not disjoint.

The implication here is that by creation God has made man's language sufficiently like his own internal communication system, whatever that may he, that man's is a pale reflection of his own and allows talk across the barrier in both directions.

Axiom 2c: Human language is a sufficient vehicle for carrying communication from God in pro positional form.

The assumption that the language of man is continuous with that of God opens the way for us to find propositional content sharable in two-way communication between the two. He can get his cognitive message through to us. I do not asume this, on the contrary, for the relations between God and a snail.

Axiom 3a: The scriptures are translatable in their crucial intent and content.
Various important consequences hang on this as
sumption. We could not hope to translate successfully into another language if Axiom 2c were false, if God's message could not be communicated in human language. If the Greek and Hebrew of Scriptures had to be special languages, due to some inherent defect in Hebrew and Greek as natural languags, then the same defect would carry over into all translations. Similarly, Axioms la and lb are necessary as underlying belief before one can assume that the Scriptures can be translated.

Transcultural communication must be granted as possible, or human society as we experience it would he impossible. But more than a crude approximation must be possible; the communication must be in some sense transculturally effective.

The assumption that the language of man is continuous with that of God opens the way for us to find propositional content sharable in two-way communication between the two.

There are differences of view within this requirement. Effectiveness may be equated with inerrancy (as in my Axiom lc), or with effectiveness only at points assumed to have theological relevance.

It should be observed closely, however, that linguists of both persuasions are likely to agree that there is inevitable category slippage in translation, and that this poses certain problems for the translator. On the one hand he must accept some "losses" (for example, in a language with no plural suffixes it would be unwise at every occurrence to try to find phrasal substitutes for plurality, even when in crucial contexts it is always possible to show plurality); on the other, he is tied to "additions" of categorial distinction (as, for example, in a language which must differentiate between familiar and formal kinds of pronouns for 'you', where one or the other must of necessity be used, but where choice implies a small component of meaning.)

This factor demands that the translator make judgments about the marginality of some of the categorical elements. And this in turn implies some unavoidable subjective judgment by every translator on the intent or cruciality of the context of the Scriptures. We make room for this judgment by this axiom-but at the same time recognize that translator judgments will differ, (hence a translation committee), even when they share the same presuppositions about the nature of language and of theology. If either of these presuppositions differ, the translation judgments may vary more widely. The audience aimed at (learned, semi-literate) may also affect these and related stylistic choices substantially.

In this connection, further, it should be observed that the New Testament in Greek is already a translation, in so far as it is quoting Christ and the apostles. If translation theory cannot allow for truth preserved across translation, in spite of category slippage, then theology is already in difficulty linguistically.

Axiom 3b: God can speak English-or any other language.

But the very strength of Axiom 3a may bring to the linguistically-oriented reader a further problem which might not concern other readers. If, he might argue, there is effective translation possible, but with minor category slippage, is there no slippage, or "error," in the "translation" of the message from Cod's communication system into the language of man? Our axiom here is designed to show that there is a false presupposition underlying the question itself. The question implies that there is a given message in specific detail which must in that detail be translated for man. But my view, through this axiom, is very different. It allows to Cod the capacity which any bilingual has, a capacity to lecture on the same topic with a slightly different but equally true verbalization of the topic at two different times in the same language, or at two different times in different languages. That is, the inspiration of propositional revelation into Creek or Hebrew does not have to be tied first of all to translation axioms, but to more general axioms connecting language with truth, (cf. Axioms 2a, 2c).

Axiom 4a: No statement includes all possible relevant information: truth is not equated with completeness of detail.

There is always something left unsaid in every statement; one could always go into more detail, more background, more presuppositions made explicit. One can always add massive "footnotes" and excessive technical jargon, but this would stop communication rather than helping it. Thus one cannot equate truth in communication with completeness of every detail.' If one tried to do so, any truth in science would eventually be impossible.

Axiom 4b: Every statement in natural language has a range of potential meanings from which the intended one must be selected by use of context and the general thrust (or meaning) of the document as a whole.
There is a range of ambiguity to every statement in all natural language; taken in isolation, every word has a range of meanings. Selection of the special set of meanings for the words within any one sentence must be made in a way appropriate to both (a) the immediate context and (b) the discourse as a whole.

One cannot equate truth in communication with completeness of every detail.

But for natural language to work as it does in behavior, where people assume that friends sometimes tell the truth,' we must assume the possibility of some true statements-and hence for Scripture statements as well. Note that for interpretation of a passage, a subjective judgment of the author's intent is unavoidable, as is a subjective judgment as to the relation of an item to its context. The evangelical may be concerned about possible abuses of such an axiom, but as far as I know, interpretation of any document, including the Scriptures as an integrated whole, cannot escape from it.

Axiom 4e: The interpreter of a document must assume that its author intended to communicate some meaning, and that he probably (i.e., except in special instances of deliberate obfuscation) tried to do so in a coherent manner.

In natural language, therefore, if we do not at first understand, we search for a meaning which we have missed (or we may even ask a speaker what his meaning was). When we don't succeed in finding such a coherent surface meaning, we may start looking for a "hidden" meaning, a joke, a pun, or a metaphor So, too, with the Scriptures. We assume a meaningfulness, an intent, a coherence of doctrine. None of these things are "provable" in certain ways; but all must be assumed for rationality.

Here, again, there are possible abuses of the axioms. Interpreters may distort a document, or a point of view, by attributing to a person a meaning which was far from his thought-by trying to analyze hidden motives, or by bringing some philosophy or interpretation to hear, e.g., psychologizing, which was alien to the author. Yet the necessity of playing fair with a document, with the author's observable statements, does not eliminate the necessity of searching for the coherence of an isolated passage with its larger or remote contexts. And somehow we must leave to the interpreter some possibility of judging coherence in a document; without this capacity, even though it be a subjective one, no theological system could be rationally discussed.

Axiom 5a: Every report is selective.

Even a lengthy report of an event can never give all the detail of the situation during any twominute period; it is vast, with the numbering of the hairs of each man's head being only a small part of the specification of the situation which includes the atomic spin of each element in each hair. Hence, every report is selective; only some parts can be given, those judged by the writer to be relevant to some purpose.

Axiom 5b: An effective true summary may necessarily be verbatim or complete.

If one wishes a short summary of a discourse which lasted an hour, and for which the crucial terms were dispersed over many paragraphs, the most effective summary may not be a 'specific sentence or paragraph, or miscellaneous bits of paragraphs quoted verbatim, but one which concentrates the terms into a more compact form than they were in the original discourse. Such a summary is a true report of the event, provided that one does not affirm that he is giving a complete verbatim report or a selection of "exactly" quoted hits. Even that kind of report would still be incomplete since it leaves out intonation, voice quality and timing, and personal vocal characteristics.

Axiom 5e: Indeterminacy occurs at the borderlines of linguistic taxonomic classes.

This axiom affirms that in linguistic theory we are frequently puzzled about difficult cases; whether an item is to be considered as a noun or a verb may be impossible to decide by non-arbitrary criteria, or by criteria which can meet the approval of linguists working under the same axiomatic sets. Other kinds of ambiguity crop up in many places in linguistic theory and practice.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that in handling problems related to the language of the Scriptures we may be at times in doubt. Is a particular item to be considered a metaphor? If it is a major matter, like the resurrection, a difference of judgment will lead to effectively two different religions; if it is a minor matter, relative to a treatment of Christianity, it may lead to merely individual preference; all shades come between.

There can be no escape from this kind of problem. No extensive legalistic judgment can ever resolve all cases of ambiguity; new ones will continue to arise to require either further judgments or to handle apparent clashes within a particular system. Christian faith must commit itself on the major decision points, as to those which it believes to have been the intent of our Lord and of the Scriptures as a whole; to make secondary judgments about those which may divide us as working 'teams' in denominations or institutions, since they sometimes appear to individuals to be of sufficient importance to change their allegiance to institutions; and to have charity on those matters which do not affect in serious measure the perceived intent of God toward man, nor our behavior toward one another, nor our commitment to following orders towards God's program for his church in the world.

Axiom 6a: Languages change over a period of time.

As far as I can tell, no linguist would question this basic axiom. Nevertheless, this axiom, in connection with Axiom la, that the Biblical language is normal language, has extremely important consequences. The briefest study of Chaucer, let alone of Old English, lets us know that in 500 to 1000 years our language has changed radically, so radically that we do not understand it without aids. This we take to be normal for all language.

When, therefore, we hear discussed-or study for ourselves if we are Hebrew scholars-the language of the Old Testament, and note that if we accept the Mosaic authorship of the Pentatuch, and comparable judgments about other Old Testament writings, then the gap of time between Moses and Malachi can cause us to think of Beowulf (Old English) and the New York Times, and there is no reason to suppose that the change was any less.

Thus we are faced with two quite diferent problems: (1) On the one hand, I gather (from other scholars, since I am not competent in this area) that there is more diversity within the Old Testament documents than is often recognized. (Differences of dialect among the writers, or differences of older forms preserved in some of the songs, for example, may have been insufficiently studied.) (2) On the other hand, the degree of uniformity within the documents is such that they could not reflect in their present form the precise original shapes in which they were written, or the historical changes affirmed by this axiom (in connection with Axiom la, that Bible language is normal language) as inevitable. The conservative scholar must come to closer grips with linguistic problems raised by the relation between (a) an original set of documents written over a time span which must have involved (by this axiom) substantial differences, and (b) our current Scriptures which do nut include that degree of difference. Somewhere this involves the need for theologians to discuss in detail the nature of an original document in reference to such changes in transmission or standardization, or compilation, and thus implications for meaning (and compare Axiom 3a).

Axiom 7a: Language requires a perspective from which the speaker is to talk, if he is to talk at all. The necessity for such a starting point is inherent in all communication, and of itself is- to be equated neither with truth nor with error, but with the innate properties of the communication system.

When for example, we are talking with someone, we speak of ',I and you;" but our companion also takes himself as the starting point when he uses "I and you," even although "I" in the first instance is applied to me, and in the second instance, is applied to him. The change of perspective has nothing to do with truth or error, but with getting a starting point from which people can talk.

The Bible is not to be used as a textbook on physics, since its truth was not written from that perspective.
The significance of this axiom goes far beyond the use of pronouns where it is clear, however. It is this axiom which is related to Axioms 4b,c in terms of intent. If, for example, the starting point in a particular moment of discourse is surveying land to put up a building in the center, the map and coordinates used, and the theory behind the procedure, are specifically those of a mercator projection (in which the north pole is stretched out clear across the map) and a flat world. No one believes the latter two circumstances to be truth-nor is anyone deceived by it in a way relevant to the intent of the local survey and messages communicating between surveyor and architect or law department. When planning a great circle airplane route, or an expedition to the north pole, however, a different map is used, and a different model of the physical world which allows communication about shortest distances through the air, and journeying from eastern to western hemisphere over the pole. When a particular perspective (or "projection") is used in an area inappropriate to it, serious difficulties arise in selecting appropriate behavior for response.

The Bible is not to be used as a textbook on physics, since its truth was not written from that perspective, nor to provide a map which would prescribe appropriate behavior in the physical sciences. Similarly, no one particular parable should be stretched beyond limits, for it also is then being treated as a kind of a map to be followed in behavior in areas for which it was not designed.

Since truth is given in a message which must be related to a starting point of perspective, interpretation can be in error by a wrong identification of this point of perspective. This places error in the interpretation rather than in the original statement.

Axiom 7b: There may be culturally determined habits of reporting events.

A person in that culture, using with integrity the language habits in the way his colleagues do, would neither disappoint them nor be disappointed (in the Carnell sense-see quotation under Axiom 2a) if he were later to see a re-play of the scene; he would not have to say, "I was wrong there, wasn't I?"

Yet it is astonishing how sentences can appear to be wrong if one is not "seeing" the context correctly. Recently I was reading some (unpublished) material by Adam Makkai in which he shows how wrong one can be in such judgments. For example, he gives the sentence: "It was five years before he was horn and seven years after she died that the baby divorced his grandmother". Suppose, he queries, that this is said by folks who believe in reincarnation, with change of sex in the meantime, and the word "divorce" has the meaning of freeing oneself from a certain kind of guardianship-then the sentence makes sense. Tremendous difficulties arise constantly in linguistic discussions these days on such matters. If this is true for current English how much more for the past, where we do not know the culture intimately! (It suggests that we may need to wait until we too can see the "re-play" before assuming that some Scripture sentences are in error, rather than in a surface clash which we find currently unresolvable.)

Axiom 7c: Inspiration is not dictation, but works concurrently with normal human literary activity.

No serious evangelical theologian known to me adopts a dictation theory of inspiration. Nevertheless, my personal feeling is that occasionally evangelicals who affirm the nondictation view do, in fact, adopt, perhaps emotionally rather than intellectually, a view which is difficult to distinguish from dictation. If verbal inspiration is treated so strongly that no single word is under the simultaneous normal control of the author, but is exclusively under the control of the Holy Spirit, then it is easy to move to the belief that the surface individual coloring of different authors' styles is no more than the effect of complete verbal control through a non-active "mold," like a plastic squeezed through a form in which the form has no initiative.

Through natural language we can speak truth, with intent and content interpreted in the light of the cultural and linguistic content of the time and of the moment of utterance.

If, however, we try to affirm the concursive role of the human author, there must be left room for the normal human active struggle to compose a letter, for conscious systematic organization of a discourse, for deliberate attempts to clothe a message in both metaphors and words and structures which would be effective to the chosen audience and pleasing to the authors in terms of style. Each has his own geographical time, and dialect, a dialect which is also placed i colored by his own personal characteristics.

Axiom 7d: Natural language is oriented to the viewpoint of action as lived, not to some abstraction.

So the understanding of language and literature, and of sociology, and history, must be brought to bear upon the understanding of Scripture passages which are in turn in natural language (Axiom la).

Axiom 7e: A message may he carried by metaphor but is not thereby identified with it.

In connection with Axiom 7c, this one specifies that the understanding of the nature of the dawning day, for example, is not to be equated with an understanding of the laws of physics; and the phenomenological reference to the rising sun is not to he equated to physical laws.

To confuse metaphor with message, when message is dependent upon metaphor for its communication, is to assume the presence 0f error where there is none. On the other hand, to assume that no explicit truth can be communicated through metaphor, or to assume that serious statements intended to represent concrete events are to be taken as metaphor, is to deny intended message. At this point differences of belief concerning the specific relation of metaphor to message will lead to different affirmations of faith, as liberalism over against orthodoxy. The study of language, as language, does not by itself resolve such problems or disagreements.

As an orthodox Christian assumption, but not one growing out of the nature of language as such, we choose to believe that the statements about the resurrection of Christ are to he taken as sober fact, not metaphor.
Axiom 7f: There is a hierarchy of commitment to the nonmetaph orical versus metaphorical elements in the Scriptures.
In an ambiguous or clashing situation, a general commitment to a theological perspective-say some denominational pattern, or a particular perspective which integrates the Old Testament with the Newleads to the selection of one interpretation over another. This may show up in relation to the elements considered metaphorical by different individuals.
Here, then, are more important and less important doctrines, from the view of a judgment as to some central core of doctrines. In some denominations, the area of difference of opinion on the borderlines may he greater than in others-but every preacher speaking of a new insight, and every teacher or theologian trying to advance the understanding of his community, witnesses to the presence of such differences on some scale.


The view of language which I hold, tries to come to terms with the observed fact that the language of Scripture is natural language; but that through natural language we can speak truth, with intent and content interpreted in the light of the cultural and linguistic content of the time and of the moment of utterance. Within this language, Christ has spoken to us, in saying to the Father, "Thy Word is truth".


1For discussion of Axioms 4a and 4b, see my "Strange Dimensions of Truth" in Christianity Today, 5. pp. 25-28, May 8, 1961; reprinted in "With Heart and Mind", pp. 46-53, 1962.
2See Axiom 2a. But if one follows William Hordern, there is amhiqnity and hence not infallibility in the statement, 'God is love,' since one could get the wrong impression from it. See my discussion of this point in the reference given in Reference 1.