John Starke of the Counsel of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood recently conducted an interview with Vern Poythress to discuss his new release, In the Beginning was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach.
Starke says, "This book deserves a great deal of attention among seminary students and pastors. Pastors should be encouraged to read this book in order to enrich their own communication in preaching and evangelization. Pastors who are training young men to be faithful, Gospel-centered preachers should place this book in their hands. It will serve them in how they effectively use language to express the ultimate redemptive story. Language, communication, and words are important and Vern Poythress relates them up – all the way up – to God. It is a God-centered approach, indeed."
Read Starke's full review.
What is the major concern or occasion behind a book like this?
My major goal is to build a Bible-based Christian understanding of language. I believe that goal is important because we should be admiring and praising God for the wonders of language, just as we should be for the beauty of a sunset. Unfortunately, many people just take language for granted, or when they do focus on it they treat it just as a collection of facts that are “there,” without recognizing God’s presence and his role.
The issue of the nature of language has become more important because philosophy of language and critical reflections on language have come to play a significant role in analytic philosophy, in materialist philosophy, and in postmodernism. Analytic philosophy has had to some degree a “turn toward language,” in which big questions of philosophy are now addressed through attention to language. But if language is treated as a merely human, cultural phenomenon, rather than a gift from God displaying his character and glory, the products of reflection will contain both helpful insights and corruption of the truth. Materialist philosophy typically wants to see language as a evolutionary product that eventually reduces to human genetic capabilities that have gradually developed through evolution of humanity from apes. The result is again that language is regarded as merely human, and not divine, in origin, and in fact it is in the end subhuman–it is derived from a mindless, purposeless, chance process of atoms in motion.
Some postmodernists view language as a kind of prison from which we cannot escape in order to see the world as it really is. This view generates skepticism about our access to truth. Christians need an answer that does not merely say that skepticism is mistaken, but builds a positive understanding of language as a gift of God through which God himself can speak.
Christians need an answer that does not merely say that skepticism is mistaken, but builds a positive understanding of language as a gift of God through which God himself can speak.
Why is a knowledge of God so important for understanding language?
God displays his character, his goodness, and his glory in the languages that he has given to the human race. If we corrupt the knowledge of God, we corrupt the understanding of language and of truth. The consequences may be subtle, but they are broad. We can see effects in people’s growing skepticism about knowing truth.
What does language stand to lose when its divorced from its relation to God?
Without God, we become victims to counterfeit gods. For many people, the primary counterfeit gods are sources that promise fulfillment–money, sex, and power. But we can also have God-substitutes that come in when we try to think about language. The most prominent God-substitute in Western thinking is materialism, which says that language and everything else about human beings is a product of mindless evolution. This thinking involves a substitute god because it requires faith in regularities, both in science and in language. The regularities are a substitute because they are conceived of as impersonal regularities, rather than being the design of a personal God.
We can also see another kind of counterfeit god when language is treated as having mystical depth. I believe that language does have depth, but it is the depth of its testimony to God, not to an irrational mysticism.
Is this topic important for preaching and evangelism? How?
Language is an important topic as a kind of substructure for preaching and evangelism. We preach and proclaim the gospel using language. When we do this, we are presupposing that language is an adequate vehicle for our communication. God guarantees that this is so, because in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) he indicates that the gospel message concerning Christ and his work and his commandments can and will go out to the nations, with their various languages.
One of the forms of resistance to the gospel is through counterfeit ideas about language. Postmodernists may claim that language is inadequate to talk about God.
What do you hope your readers take away from this work?
I hope that readers will grow in praising God for language. I hope that they will grow in appreciating the highly tuned complexities of language, and avoid simplistic accounts of language origins and the nature of meaning; that they will avoid in particular modernism, which tends to want to make human meaning infinitely precise, and postmodernism, which tends to multiply meanings without having a divine standard for judgment. I hope also that they will come away with a robust view of language capable of withstanding the assaults of postmodernist skepticism. Finally, I hope that readers will take away a robust Christian view of narrative. Narratives (stories) have an immense interest both for common people and for sophisticated intellectualist analysis in our day. I believe that God’s acts in history, in working out redemption through Jesus Christ, are the backbone in relation to narratives in general. There is much potential here, I believe, for a Christian answer to those who reduce theology to stories, as well as to those who enjoy movies but have no inkling of the fact that their interest in the stories told in movies is tied in to the human longing for redemption, which can be satisfied only in Christ.