Tag Archives: Language

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Language has never been a science. It is mysterious, beautiful, and often confusing.

All of us are dependent upon language for communication — whether it be verbal or non-verbal. As language becomes both more diverse (due to globalization) and more unified (due to mass media), we are caught between understanding and misunderstanding.

Historically, Christians have recognized that God primarily speaks to us through His word. He spoke the world into existence, He spoke to the Israelites throughout the centuries, He sent His son into the world to fulfill the Word, and He continues to speak to his people today.

We do need to look far before we realize how “slippery” language can be. When people use language, there is always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to meaning. It is no wonder that there are so many cases of misunderstanding between people. The nature of language itself, because it is not scientific, often leads to such misunderstandings.

Left on our own, we are often misled or confused. We define words differently, speak them differently, use them differently, and so on. In order to truly understand language, of course, we need someone to guide us as we interact with language and interpret it for ourselves. We need to ask questions, seek clarification, and truly interact with the speaker.

Thankfully, we can be assured that God’s Spirit does just that. In speaking of the Spirit of God, Jesus calls Him a “helper” and assures that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is a teacher that can clarify our confusion, unveil what is veiled, and satisfy our need for knowledge.

In our day, many scholars want to deconstruct language, both religious and non-religious, and question whether we can truly determine a meaning from a text. For example, some point to textual criticism and the many variants used in Christian scripture. How can we truly know anything if language is so slippery?

In response, we must first admit that language is mostly effective. Otherwise, we would not use language at all. The argument that language cannot communicate meaning is self-contradictory, so we cannot hold on to that argument for very long.

Secondly, we do not need to deny these difficulties, but we can embrace them. If language were purely scientific and self-evident, we would have no misunderstandings, we would lose some of the beauty of language, and the Spirit would have no role in helping us understand what has been spoken.

As we come to God’s Word, it is essential, then, that we ask for the Spirit’s help. Interpreting the text is not simply an intellectual puzzle to be figured out. It is an exercise of listening to God’s voice as He speaks to us through His word.

As any married couple knows, true listening involves the heart, even more so than the mind. Communication is not simply the deciphering of language, but the heart-felt interaction with what is being said. Only then do we truly listen.

May this be true of us as we listen to God speak to us.

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Several weeks ago I wrote that art does not create truth, but “uncovers truth,” as an artist chisels away stone.  In other words, art discovers truth, but does not create it.  Whatever the form, it is important that art never gets so self-consumed that it loses sight of the original Source of Truth.

On the other hand, maybe even “uncovering” is giving ourselves too much credit. My reason for second guessing myself is this A.W. Tozer quote from “Theology Set to Music”:

Hymns do not create truth, nor even reveal it; they celebrate it. They are the response of the trusting heart to a truth revealed or a fact accomplished. God does it and man sings it. God speaks and a hymn is the musical echo of His voice.

Tozer had a humble view of worship songs. They need to be seen for what they are. Songwriters and songs do not create truth. As Tozer states, “God does it and man sings it.” We are responding to the truth that God has created.

The question that remains is this: Do new arrangements of words reveal truth? Can our minds be edified in a new way through new songs and new lyrics?

On one hand, I want to say yes.  Our minds need words and arrangements of words to help us comprehend ideas.  As human beings, our thoughts are directly connected to our vocabulary.  Conversely, if we are limited in our exposure to language, we are limited cognitively. 

However, I think Tozer is emphasizing something deeper here. While words are crucial to our understanding of truth, God can always transcend language. After all, He is the God of burning bushes, talking donkeys, and babbling tongues. Ultimately, then, Tozer offers a helpful reminder that it is the Holy Spirit who reveals truth to us, not our human creativity.

For this reason, worship songs are responsive. Our task as songwriters is not to create a new message, so that others can “better understand.” Rather, we have the joy of helping others celebrate the truth that already exists.  Our worship should be a musical echo of God’s voice.

God has already done it. Now it’s our job to sing it!