What does human language mean for God and for man?

A few days ago, Will posted a thought about the shape of the text, quoting Peter Leithart discussing the difference between the Kantian tendency of many evangelicals to view the text of Scripture as a mere vehicle to convey some other abstract meaning which is the real point and the more biblical approach of allowing the text as it is to shape and mold our imaginations and world. His point was well taken, although since all translation involves some level of interpretation, it’s not always clear where to draw the line.

It seems to me that the concern behind this sentiment is in protecting the Scriptures as effectively communicating what God intended to communicate; God did not fail to reveal to us that which he intended to reveal. This is true and good. However, there is a concern with going too far in this direction. This concern is to protect the Creator/creature distinction in the context of the incomprehensibility of God and our understanding of Scripture. John Frame, in his Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, P & R Pub. Co., 1987), discusses this topic while discussing the Van Til-Clark controversy, answering the following pertinent question: “does a piece of human language have the same ‘meaning’ for God that it has for man?”

The answer to this question (Clark’s answer), at some level, at least, must be yes. Otherwise, skepticism is the only logical conclusion; “‘Thou shalt not kill’ might mean to God ‘Thou shalt plant raddishes,’ that is, divine-human communication would be impossible” (DKG, 33). However, Frame goes on to give a clarification about the meaning of meaning.

In Frame’s opinion, “meaning is best employed to designate that use of language that is authorized by God” (DKG, 33). He continues, in a footnote on this sentence, by saying that “of course God does not give us special revelations about the meanings of words (generally speaking), but he expects us to use our language properly, that is, truly, clearly, and lovingly by studying language in the context of His creation.”  One of the theological implications Frame draws from this definition of meaning is that “learning meaning is a matter of degree. Each piece of language has a multitude of uses, and we learn these by degrees—one by one, better and better” (DKG, 33). Since God knows the meanings of all words exhaustively, both actual and potential, He knows and can make use of our language better than we can. Further still, “His is the knowledge of the Creator, the Lord of language” while ours is the knowledge of created servants.

Frame applies these ideas to our understanding of Scripture:

Can we say that we have “fully” understood a passage when we have exegeted it correctly? Van Til says No…. God’s knowledge, even of human language, is of a fundamentally different order from ours. Does that mean that Scripture is unclear or even unintelligible? If so, we would have to say that God failed in His attempt to communicate! No, Scripture is clear enough, so that we have no excuse for disobedience. We know the language well enough (note the emphasis on degree) to use Scripture as God intended. But because human language is so rich and because God’s knowledge of it so so comprehensive, Scripture will always contain depths of meaning beyond our understanding. Are these depths of meaning irrelevant to us because they are beyond our understanding? No. Nothing is more important in Scripture than the sense of mystery that it conveys, the attitude of awe that it evokes from its readers.

DKG, 34.

So, in connecting this conclusion back to Will’s Leithart post, I will say the following: Leithart protests against what he calls the “text as husk” method of interpretation, but Will’s post did not include a thorough alternative. Frame is not advocating the text as husk method, but he is presenting another view of Scripture, one which could be called a “text as iceberg” model; what we can understand is what is above the surface, but there are depths of meaning beyond our understanding.

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