Words for Communion

Pierce Taylor Hibbs
Tuesday, July 5th 2016
Jul/Aug 2016

We live in a web of words. They are inside us and around us, making our world comprehensible and bridging us to one another. In all times and places, we use words to foster relations ”to convey ideas, mitigate conflict, console the grieving, and give shape to feelings. Words do so great a work in sewing our individual and communal experiences together that we cannot help but be curious about some transcendental purpose for them, something that explains why they are so integral to every facet of our existence. What are words ultimately for?

Of course, some find this question hopelessly speculative. Rather than focus on some ultimate purpose for words, should we instead, with Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, be content to say that language is simply an “instinct” ”that words are for the construction of a social fabric mysteriously necessitated by our alleged evolution? We could leave it at that and content ourselves with the pragmatic solution.

I understand the sentiment behind that argument. We certainly have used words since before we can remember, and they serve a wide array of social ends, so we can see why Pinker might call language an instinct. There is something deeply rooted in us as humans, a yearning for fellowship and mutual understanding that cannot be attributed to mere choice on our part. But proponents of an evolutionary explanation of language seem to offer little more than a focus on the immediate, practical purposes for words in human societies. They see no higher purpose for words and no need for a metaphysical account of the origin of language. Why can we not simply be content with a purely practical answer as to what words are for?

Probably because the practical answer isn’t very satisfying. It doesn’t, for example, account for the presence of poetry, narrative, or song ”three linguistic forms that are held dear as grammar and syntax yet serve little practical purpose. The Iliad didn’t help the Greeks find food, and it’s not likely that Beowulf helped the Danes build better weapons. If humans are purely material beings and language is simply an evolutionary by-product, then why do we bother with these things? Not because language was an aberrant gene that drove our species to the top of the food chain, but because it was a gift from our Creator to be used for his glory and for the service of one another. We speak because we were spoken by the Trinity, by the God who speaks. In light of this, words are not just conventional symbols reflecting our impulse for social engagement. They are not the capital of humanity; words are the creaturely currency of deeper divine communion. In that sense, words are ultimately for communion between persons, and this has endless implications for how we use them every day.

Now, I can already hear protests from a gallery of secular linguists: “Heresy!” (They have their own religion, after all.) “Words belong to us! You have no basis for bringing God into this.” That would depend on how we understand human beings. Are we evolving social animals who exist for the simple purpose of procreation, or are we masterfully crafted image-bearers who exist to glorify God and enjoy him forever? Christians, of course, believe the latter; and once we take up this position, we must ask what it means to say that language, of which our words are a part, is ultimately rooted in the Trinity. We might help ourselves answer this question if we broaden our understanding of language to not just something we use but something we do. Language, understood in this broader sense, is a behavior we undertake to commune with other persons. If we understand language as communion behavior, rooted in the self-communing Trinity, then words are ultimately rooted in God, and we have every basis for bringing him into this, for he is the very wellspring of purpose and meaning.

How, then, can we understand language as communion behavior? We communicate with other persons and, in doing so, commune with them ”we “link” our mind or soul to that of another. At the same time, when we commune with others, we are further drawn to communicate with them, to express ourselves for their good. So, communication and communion are intertwined. Wherever you have one, you have the other. In this sense, we can just as well call language “communicative behavior,” but I use the phrase “communion behavior” to help us better focus on the ultimate purpose of language: words are for communion.

Communion behavior finds its origin in the Trinity. The persons of the Godhead have eternally communicated with one another and thus partake in a life of unending communion. Scripture testifies to this in passages such as John 17:5, where Jesus references the eternal glory he shared with the Father before the world began. The Spirit was there as well, as the One who glorifies the Son (John 16:14). This is communion behavior ”language of the highest order ”because for the Trinity, language is rooted in mutual and eternal self-love and glorification. The Father, Son, and Spirit have always “spoken” to one another in a language all their own, a language of love and glory that fosters unfathomably deep communion.

As creatures of this self-communicating, self-communing God, we are marked by the image-bearing gift of language. We speak in order to relate to one another, to God, and to the world he spoke into existence. In light of this, language is far more central to reality than we often imagine. Reflecting on the Trinity, Herman Bavinck wrote that “in the doctrine of the Trinity we feel the heartbeat of God’s entire revelation for the redemption of humanity” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:333). We might add that in language we hear the very heartbeat of the Trinity ”the pulsing life of the Godhead in self-communion. This deep inner life of the Godhead is what we are marked with as his creatures! That is an incomparable, illuminating, and potent gift: incomparable, because it is so deeply rooted in God himself; illuminating, because it reveals the purpose of our lives (communion); potent, because it suggests the power of language.

Of course, there is a chasm between the Trinitarian God and his image-bearing creatures; and in a fallen world, we do not always value the gift God has given us, or see how revelatory language can be, or use its potency in positive ways. Sin has affected all of creation, language included. On the one hand, God’s eternal self-communion is an undying flame of love and glory. The persons of the Godhead are so intimately bound up with one another that their communion does not serve the purpose of drawing them “closer” together per se, for they exhaustively know, love, and glorify one another. Our God is one. For us, in a sin-stained world, language is all about closing gaps and gathering the scattered. Without it, we would be a mass of upside-down puzzle pieces spread across a global table. Words have the power to turn us over and snap us into one another. Our incessant use of them, our constant need to communicate, and our trust that we can, in fact, close the gaps between ourselves, tells us that communion itself is why we are here. We need to keep this in mind as we use language.

In an age of instantaneous engagement ”texts, blog-post comments, responses to online sermons ”we would do well to revisit James 1:19: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak.” We have an unprecedented ability to respond to what we read without really processing it spiritually. We might (I hope) process what we read critically and then fire off responses about the insensitivity, ambiguity, or incoherence of another’s message. But where is the spiritual dimension to our responses? At what point in our processing of another’s language do we remember that we are engaging in communion behavior, and that we should make every attempt to help our words give grace to those who read them (Eph. 4:29)? Sin has bent us so that we are often critical before we are constructive or empathetic. But if language is communion behavior, then positive construction and empathy should be our initial responses.

This is not a mere ethical guideline for our use of social media. The very gospel is at stake. Now, more than ever, the world can watch how we communicate. The Internet has no walls, and how we use words says a lot ”not just about ourselves but about how we understand and follow the God who speaks. As we engage with others via social media, we must remember that language is not a triviality; it’s a testimony. God took us at his own Word. Will the watching world take us at ours?

Considering language as communion behavior calls us to revisit the role of prayer in the Christian life. We often pray for consequences rather than for communion. We sometimes view prayer as our biblically prescribed wish list, restricting our prayers to requests. We ask God to heal our aunt’s cancer and help our brother find a job. There is nothing wrong with asking for these things ”indeed, we’re commanded to pray about them ”but we ought to remember that prayer goes deeper than this. Prayer is a calling to commune with God; to grow closer to him by expressing ourselves in our everyday concrete thoughts, joys, angers, frustrations, and curiosities. Prayer should be less of a practice and more of a lifestyle, for it is built upon who we are as creatures seeking communion. Each day, it is helpful to ask ourselves if we talked to the Trinitarian God because we had to, or because we wanted to; because of how things went that day, or because of who we are. No matter how much we immerse ourselves in our everyday tasks and relationships, we will still be wanting if we do not draw lifeblood from the self-communing God via language, sharing fellowship with the One who gave himself so that we might speak eternally with him.

For Christians, words are the lifeblood of communion and the salt of relationships. Every day, we will have opportunities to exemplify our definition of language as communion behavior: to show that life itself is not rushing toward the cold coals of nonexistence but toward the burning hearth of communion. That is, when it all comes down to it, what words are for.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs currently serves as the associate director for Theological Curriculum and Instruction in the Theological English Department of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has written several articles on the nature of language and the linguistic theory of Kenneth L. Pike. He, his wife, and their two children reside in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, July 5th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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